“Progressive Health” (the mail you’re glad you didn’t get)

Here’s a poem that will make you feel better about whatever’s come in your mailbox today. I actually heard Carl Dennis read when I was at UT. He was funny, darkly ironic, and just about the most unassuming-looking person you could imagine. He loves to imagine absurd (and yet nevertheless nagging) ethical dilemmas.

This poem was on my bedroom door for a long time while I was in college. I even bought the book it’s from, Practical Gods, which was no small thing back in the days of box wine and minimum-wage jobs.



Progressive Health

By Carl Dennis


We here at Progressive Health would like to thank you

For being one of the generous few who’ve promised

To bequeath your vital organs to whoever needs them.


Now we’d like to give you the opportunity

To step out far in front of the other donors

By acting a little sooner than you expected,


Tomorrow, to be precise, the day you’re scheduled

To come in for your yearly physical.  Six patients

Are waiting this very minute in intensive care


Who will likely die before another liver

And spleen and pairs of lungs and kidneys

Match theirs as closely as yours do.  Twenty years,


Maybe more, are left you, granted, but the gain

Of these patients might total more than a century.

To you, of course, one year of your life means more


Than six of theirs, but to no one else,

No one as concerned with the general welfare

As you’ve claimed to be.  As for your poems—


The few you may have it in you to finish—

Even if we don’t judge them by those you’ve written,

Even if we assume you finally stage a breakthrough,


It’s doubtful they’ll raise one Lazarus from a grave

Metaphoric or literal.  But your body is guaranteed

To work six wonders.  As for the gaps you’ll leave


As an aging bachelor in the life of friends,

They’ll close far sooner than the open wounds

Soon to be left in the hearts of husbands and wives,


Parents and children, by the death of the six

Who now are failing.  Just imagine how grateful

They’ll all be when they hear of your grand gesture.


Summer and winter they’ll visit your grave, in shifts,

For as long as they live, and stoop to tend it,

And leave it adorned with flowers or holly wreaths,


While your friends, who are just as forgetful

As you are, just as liable to be distracted,

Will do no more than a makeshift job of upkeep.


If the people you’ll see tomorrow pacing the halls

Of our crowded facility don’t move you enough,

They’ll make you at least uneasy.  No happy future


Is likely in store for a man like you whose conscience

Will ask him to certify every hour from now on

Six times as full as it was before, your work


Six times as strenuous, your walks in the woods

Six times as restorative as anyone else’s.

Why be a drudge, staggering to the end of your life


Under this crushing burden when, with a single word,

You could be a god, one of the few gods

Who, when called on, really listens?

The personal and the universal: is Marisa me?

This is a page from my writer’s notebook back before the story for What Can’t Wait even existed, back when I was just doing exploratory writing to find my way into the characters. 

People often ask me, “how much of your life is in What Can’t Wait?” Usually I end up talking about how many of the stories came from my students and why it’s dedicated to them. But stumbling back across this page–what I imagined as Marisa’s longings–makes me realize that there is plenty of me in Marisa.

Of course, there’s probably plenty of you in her, too. Because what she wants is pretty universal, no? I think this is why readers from walks of life quite different from Marisa’s can still relate to her. What she wants–when you peel back all the layers of local experience, family, culture, and circumstance–is what most of us want.

Bad Day Antidotes

This is a page from my writer’s notebook after an especially wrenching day back in 2006.

Possibly I have given the impression that my days teaching in Houston were nothing but hard work and success. This is what happens when you tell about challening experiences through the blessed buffer of years. In fact, though, this page from an old writer’s notebook reminded me how teaching can equal great challenge (and great rewards), but also some pretty big heartbreaks at times, especially when best efforts are met with disregard or outright hostility.

Here’s the next page from my writer’s notebook, full of antidotes for dealing with a doozy of a bad day. (A transcript follows in case you can’t read my scribbles.)


From Brian Andreas’s Traveling Light:

No hurt survives for long without our help.

Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.

Wisdom from A.P. (aka Arnulfo):

Just do your job tomorrow, and that’ll be enough.

Stop worrying about the whole world.

Know what you are going to do when things don’t go how you expect them to.

Don’t expect things to go a certain way.

Know who you are on the inside, and let that be enough.

Wordle your way to writing (and reading) insights

By Pewari Naan: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pewari/4504899937

A random wordle someone else put on flickr because I’m too un-tech-savvy to figure out how to put MY wordle here. How lame is that?

You’ve seen them around, those super cool clouds of most frequent words in a text. Maybe you saw the ones that were floating around after the most recent state of the union speech. See word clouds for a number of Obama speeches here.

What’s the appeal of these word clouds? Well, they can make us see surprising emphases that come across through accumulation over many pages. But after making my own wordle and seeing how the tool works, I realize that–even if you don’t change the actual words included–how you resort the words or lay the word cloud out can draw much more attention to certain words. This is not to say that the wordle is any less cool, just a mild caution against putting too much stock in them when they’re being used to highlight partisan differences (“see what the enemy was talking about!?”).

You can make your own wordles and play around with them at www.wordle.net.

This could be interesting as an opportunity for reflection after a first draft–do the words I use reflect what I think I’m writing about? Are there any surprises? Should I do something to build on the surprises? What new directions can I try based on connections I see between the more frequent words? Are there words I thought I’d see here but don’t? Here’s the wordle for a full draft of What Can’t Wait.

Teachers might use this as a pre-reading activity with classroom texts. Can you tell anything about Romeo and Juliet from its wordle? What do you observe? What questions does it make you want to ask? Similarly, in my infinite dorkiness, I could totally imagine myself using a wordle of a text to launch some of my own prewriting.

Bottom line: wordles give us a chance to shuffle words and think about the connections between them without the (wonderful) distraction of the narrative structure or rhetoric that originally organized them.

My Must Haves and Can’t Stands Revealed: the list that started it all…


Yeah, yeah, you know you wanted to see my list after that tantalizing post about the must haves and the can’t stands. So here it is. BTW, Arnulfo is wonderful in about twenty gazillion more ways than I could ever put on a list. But I’m glad I had something to get me started seeing him as the gem he is.


1. Respect

2. Integrity and a strong work ethic

3. Curiosity (intellectual and emotional)

4. Passion about something deeper (religion, ethics, philosophy, literature …)

5. Concern for relationships and family (not just ours)

6. Sense of humor/warmth

7. Emotional honesty

8. Health (making an effort)


1. Laziness

2. Detachment

3. Holding grudges or shifting blame

4. Treating others badly

5.·Overt bragging

6.·Argumentative nature

After hours brain work: rocking the back burner


By Josh Koonce

Twice in the past two weeks my brain has worked overtime for me outside of normal business hours to cook some ideas for me with very little conscious effort on my part. 

Maybe–like some men I know–the brain will only take on these extra cooking duties in the direst of  circumstances (like in the final countdown to PhD exams), but I have a suspicion that it might go beyond that.

The first time I had a school visit with a younger group of kids than I’d talked to previously, and I needed to reframe my author spiel. The second time, there was a guest blog post that I reallywanted to do but couldn’t figure out when to write. Both times, here’s what happened:

FIRST: I told my brain, “Brain, I need your help. I can’t think about this visit/post until tomorrow morning, and then I’m only going to have about an hour. While I’m sleeping, I really, really need you to help me get things started.” You probably think I’m joking, but I was that explicit with myself.

SECOND: I spent five minutes giving my brain some ingredients, as in a very spare, messy list of ideas I was thinking about for what I needed to write/prepare.

That’s pretty much it. Both times, I woke up (the first time at a normal hour, like six a.m., the second time at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m.) and got the task done in about an hour. It really felt like magic, but I’m wondering if sometimes we don’t accomplish more by micromanaging our creative processes a little less.

Of course, none of this was “real” writing (as in for my next novel), but it was still work that mattered to me and I wanted to do well. I’m itching to see if this is a strategy I can use to work out some kinks in my revision for The Knife and the Butterfly

I have to be careful, though; I don’t want to piss the kitchen staff off. Better keep it at one all-night, back-burner cooking session a week.

Rant: The Road Less Traveled?! Context, people, CONTEXT!

This is a rant. So forgive me for putting aside my usual lovable self to be a horrible cranky pants.  I think I’d be forced to either quit writing or disown “The Road Not Taken” if I were Robert Frost. Not because I don’t like the poem–it’s a grand poem–but because everybody and their grandma keeps shitting on it with a smile by quoting that blasted “road less traveled” bit without bothering to read the rest of the poem.

I wish I had a dollar for every graduation speech, motivational pamphlet, card, or blog post that earnestly reprints this last bit of the poem:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Oh, the homegrown American spirit! Oh, non-conformity! Oh, independence! 

Only… not. Folks, the last part is a jab at how we recast our past decisions after the fact. This is what the speaker imagines himself saying “with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence” even though the paths were actually “about the same.” Read the whole damn poem, and see that what Frost is doing is making fun of how we reframe an arbitrary decision (the implications of which we’ll never fully know) into a grand, pioneering act.

For the love of Frost, read the whole poem and stop quoting the last lines out of context. Please. Please. Please.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Unsolicited relationship advice: must haves and can’t stands


I can’t help it. Nobody asked for advice, but I have to share the strategy that–in addition to divine intervention–helped me realize that my best friend (and husband) Arnulfo was the only man for me.

First we have to go back in a time machine to 2005…

It’s the summer after my first year of teaching high school English, and I’m hashing out my relationship woes with John Trimble, illustrious author of Writing with Style.He’s a former professor of mine and a mentor; his thoughts and opinions are gold to me. So when he told me that the key to a happy relationship was making a good list, I tried to keep an open mind. “What you’ve got to do,” he said, setting down his beer to show me he meant business, “is to figure out what you need. Look back at where you’ve been in your relationships. Decide what worked, what didn’t.Build a list of ‘must haves’ and ‘can’t stands.’ Then stick to it.”

I wanted to believe he was joking. This “solution” seemed kitschy and two-dimensional, and he gave credit to a book dubiously entitled, Date…or Soul Mate?** But because it was John, I listened, and I gave it a try. And the thing is, it really helped. Not that I didn’t know what I wanted until I made the list. But the thing about it is that it’s tangible. I kept mine tucked away in my writer’s notebook, and after a month of dating somebody, I’d pull it out and really think through what I was doing with that person. After all, there comes a time when you don’t want to spend years figuring out you’re not compatible with your boyfriend.

Notice that this isn’t a guarantee that someone’s “right”; it’s more of a screening tool. But it’s a powerful one, especially for folks who (a) have a tendency to take too long to break things off, (b) get lost in the thrill of a new romance, (c) think their partners will change, plus just about anyone else.

So there you have it… my favorite piece of unsolicited relationship advice. 

**Holy smokes, don’t judge a book by its title! Turns out the author of this book also founded eHarmony.com. I guess if you want a more involved framework for this approach you should check out the book.

Ashley gets munched (find me at The Book Muncher)

Hey, today head over to The Book Muncher to check out my guest post on how knowing my audience helps me write. Also, check out my responses to Rachael’s random questions. You’ll learn about my (secret?) obsession, the strangest thing I’ve ever done, and the t-shirt that prompts my evil laughter.

Happy 1st birthday, Liam Miguel Pérez!

It’s my party, and I want to invite that guy on the other side of the mirror!

Today our little boy, Liam Miguel, turns ONE YEAR OLD. He is still just as astonishing and wonderful as when they first laid him on my chest and he looked up at us with this crazy one-eye-open pirate stare.

One thing I never realized about birthdays before being a mother is that–in addition to being a special day for my child–this day will forever be the anniverary of a birth, which is both a triumph and a trauma. I promise not to delve into details so as to protect the innocent. Even if I wanted to, though, I don’t think I could produce a description that would capture the pain.

I remember being terrified and also the disbelief once things actually started happening (“How is this going to work again? Can I back out?”). I remember my shock at the pain. I even remember being in pain. But all this is brain memory, not body memory. You know how when you think about vomiting, you can almost feel the sensation? As though you were remembering with your esophagus? Well, that’s exactly what I can’t do when I think about the birth. I can’t remember it in my body. 

Not that I’m complaining. But I do marvel at how that text of trauma has been written over with a year’s worth of smiles and laughs and poopy diapers and tears and first words (the very first = ma-ma). 

This is, I think, biology’s way of making sure that every woman’s first baby is not also her last.

Happy birthday, Liam Miguel. We are so glad you are here.

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