Friday, March 31, 2006

Rosemary Shortbread & Literature

God I love Mac's Backs. Thursday night, Ellen Klages and I did a reading there to support The second annual James Tiptree Award Anthology. Ellen did all the heavy lifting--explaining the Tiptree and the anthology which has, among other things, Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenisis of Gender Ideation," one of my favorite Tiptree winners.

Mac's Backs is a slightly old-fashioned feeling bookstore, in a really good way. It's a store front bookstore in Coventry--a couple of blocks of Cleveland where there are clubs, restaurants, a fabulous toy store called Big Fun, antique stores and a kind of freewheeling atmosphere. If you need incense or those beaded curtains to hang in your doorway or the complete writings of Che Guavera, go to Coventry. Mac's Backs is over twenty years old, although it hasn't always been at its current location. It's a narrow store front with a loft and a basement. It's new and used books including a vast collection of paperback sf. More importantly, Suzanne, one of the owners, has been a driving force in supporting local writers. She stocks chapbooks of poetry. Mac's Back's has been having open mike poetry nights for something like twenty years. When they started, no one was doing it. It feels the way I expect an independent bookstore to feel.

Reading at Mac's Backs is the opposite of reading at some place like Borders. It's intimate. It's personal. The place smells like books. There's no coffee shop with pastries, although right next door is Tommy's, the vegetarian friendly restaurant. It's menu is from the days of the original Moosewood Cookbook, so there is lots of cheese and alfalfa sprouts and tempeh, but also meat pies and great milkshakes. And all around are unexpected used books. It's the opposite of those paperback places where there are racks and racks of romance novels. Next to the door at Mac's Backs is a list of books that people are looking for. The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break was on the list for awhile. I think I remember Motherless Brooklyn being there, too. This time I picked up (new, not used) a trade copy of Never Let Me Go for my book group.

For the reading, I made cookies. I believe in bribing an audience. I brought a basket of chocolate chip cookies and brownies. I realized at some point that I wanted to have an option for people who don't do chocolate so I decided on shortbread, and found a marvelous recipe. Suzanne said it was the best pastry she'd ever had.

I promised Meg the recipe, so here it is:


While this calls for four herbs, I wasn't sure I liked the idea of sage and parsley in a cookie, so I just used two, rosemary and thyme.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon superfine granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon each finely chopped fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 egg white, lightly beaten
16 small fresh parsley leaves
16 very small fresh sage leaves (1/2 inch)
16 fresh rosemary leaves
16 (1-inch) fresh thyme sprigs

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375 °F.

Stir together flour, 1/4 cup sugar, salt, and chopped herbs in a bowl, then add butter and mash with a fork. Mix with my fingers until mixture forms a dough. Divide dough in half and pat each half into a 6 1/2- to 7-inch round on an ungreased baking sheet. Crimp edges of rounds with the tines of a fork and cut each into 8 wedges with a sharp knife. Lightly brush with egg white and arrange 1 leaf of each herb on each wedge. Brush herbs lightly with egg white and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Prick each wedge once with a fork.

Bake until golden, 15 to 17 minutes. Recut wedges while shortbread is hot, then cool completely on sheet on a rack.

You will not be surprised to know that Bob and I have still not settled on a program of diet and exercise. Although he did take the leftover cookies and brownies to work.

Austin published a really lovely account of the evening, which I mention here because it is so positive and says nice things about Ellen and me.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Being a Writer is Fun

Today I called my mechanic and told him I needed a car to make an annoying sound for a few days or weeks and then die. I explained that this was for a story and I did not intend to actually make a car do this. After a while we decided that the timing belt was making that kind of rubbing, ticking noise it can sometimes make in domestic cars before it snaps. And of course, once it snaps, your car is toast.

Given what people usually call their mechanic for, this was quite nice. (My mechanic is a person of immense patience and good humor.)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Running a Production Test

Trying out one of the new names for the blog.

Still thinking Baked Goods might work, too. Also thinking Half Baked might be good.

Friday, March 24, 2006

ANTM and Thinspiration

I have a number of secret vices. One of which is America's Next Top Model. Another of which is Project Runway. I am ashamed to admit I like these shows which are those horrible reality things where people are put in difficult situations and then caught on camera behaving badly.

I happened to miss America's Next Top Model on Wednesday. I was out having a cup of tea with my friend Kate and actually having a life. But tonight I happened to catch a reference to the show on Darby's blog so I went to see what I had missed. And since I would rather waste time than do anything constructive, I did some surfing about one of the previous contestants...and found a pro-ana site that used her image as a trigger.

If you don't know what Pro-Ana is, it's an underground movement by mostly adolescent girls promoting anorexia as a lifestyle. If you put Pro-Ana into a search engine, you'll get no hits, because the search engines block the sites the way they block, say, child porn sites. But if you put 'thinspiration' into a search engine, it's a kind of back door into some of these sites.

One of the things the girls do is they compile picture galleries of what they call 'trigger' or 'thinspiration' photos, usually of models (a lot of Kate Moss out there and a lot of Mary Kate as well.) There's a picture that shows up again and again. Rather horrifying.

Is it real?

Is she still alive?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Getting with the Program

Bob and I are considering beginning a program of diet and exercise designed to make us healthier, happier people. We haven't exactly come up with a program yet. In the past, I have always taken command when we wanted to eat better. I opted out this time because the we that decided wasn't me for once, but him. I felt if he wanted to eat better, I'd cook it, but he'd have to make all the decisions.

The problem with a program of diet and exercise is that as readers of this blog, you can expect to be bored out of your mind. I'm fond of explaining to people that life-threatening illnesses make reading a blog really compelling. They give life, and the blog, a plot. Plot is usually sorely lacking in blogs.

I suppose if I set a weight loss goal, that would create a plot also, but unlike the arcane nature of a medical emergency, I will have no high tech medical experiences involving strange acronyms or charismatic doctors. Everybody knows about weight loss. If by chance you don't, then you have a marvelous metabolism and no television. I would like to find a weight loss program that was exotic. (Chris Barzak did. He moved to Japan and lost weight. He also had lots of other incredible experiences.) Unfortunately, moving to Japan doesn't look like a viable option for a weight loss program right now.

So any day now I will make a decision about a new name for the blog and start writing snappy blog entries about diet and exercise.

I am not willing to post my weight or my measurements. I'm not even sure that we'll ever actually start a program. We are thinking about it. We really are.

Monday, March 20, 2006


I'm unable to stop collecting. I've been collecting stuff for the hospital, for being sick. Last week I finally made myself contact places where I was originally scheduled to teach or something and say, 'Hey! I'm all right!' But it was hard to do. Risky.

When I was first diagnosed with Hodgkins, I felt weird telling people I was sick. And I couldn't use the word cancer because it seemed wrong, like claiming a distinction I didn't deserve. Sure, sure, Hodgkins Lymphoma is a malignancy, but compared to breast cancer, or colon cancer, or worse, lung cancer or pancreatic cancer, it wasn't really a big deal. I mean, I'd spend six to eight months having an interesting and sometimes uncomfortable experience and then I'd be done. There were times during treatment where I would find myself thinking, 'this chemo stuff is so unhealthy, I shouldn't be doing this.' And then I'd catch myself and think, 'you idiot, if you didn't do this, you'd die.'

When Dr. Schnur called and said something had shown up on my CT Scan, I knew that it was Hodgkins, and I knew this time, I was sick. Well, I was half right. It wasn't Hodgkins. Technically, I was sick, although I didn't feel sick. But mentally I went places I hadn't really gone when I was diagnosed the first time. Now I can't shake the feeling. I walk on eggshells. I can't convince myself I'm not sick.

Part of it is that I have a persistent sore throat and fatigue. Or is that hypervigilence? (The politically correct term for hypochondria.) Maybe it's symptoms. Maybe it's anxiousness.

The four weeks I thought I was relapsing were hard. At first we were careful not to make too much of the news--the tests were preliminary after all. But I knew what the test meant. And I was pregnant with the secret I was carrying, just as I was carrying silent and secret disease. Then after the PET Scan I had to start arranging my life to a new reality. Emailing people and telling them. Changing the blog. Meeting with doctors and getting more tests and meeting with still more doctors. It simplified life down to one thing, a very important thing. I clamped a lid on my feelings. At week two, I'd go to a doctor's office and they'd take my blood pressure and it would be high (at least for me.) By week four, my blood pressure was back to it's usual low. I learned a lot about being a patient during the first bout and there was a familiarity.

And, of course, I was important. The center of a life or death drama. I wish I could tell you that didn't matter, but it does. An enormous medical establishment was moving to do tremendous things to and for me. Everybody wanted to talk about me. About my illness, my sedimentation rates, my pulmonary function, my plans.

Leaving this behind was both a tremendous relief and very disorienting. How do I explain to any sane person that I am celebrating and mourning?

It was a little like a bomb went off in the middle of my life. It's amazing how well things have been repaired. But I keep flinching at loud noises. The best thing so far has been work. I'm working on a freelance project and like all these projects, it is a drama of its own.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

What I'm Doing in Wisconsin

The Futuristic and the Fantastical—From Genre to Mainstream

Maureen McHugh

Recommended Reading:The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill. The opening sentence of this novel set in the trailer parks of the sun drenched south: “The Minotaur sits on an empty pickle bucket blowing smoke through bullish nostrils.”

Class meets each day from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm. Each class will begin with a writing exercise and a discussion of writing technique, and then we will critique stories and novel excerpts. Fiction for critique can either be short fiction in progress or something developed out of class writing exercises, although the second is marginally more preferable. Standard manuscript format will be used in class (a sample of which is at the end of this syllabus. It’s old fashioned, but there it is.)

The biggest emphasis in this class will be on the workshop of student fiction.That’s what we’re here for.

There may be light reading assignments for evenings based on issues raised in class—examples of things discussed or something that comes out of a discussion of student writing. These materials will be provided.

Writing futuristic or fantastical fiction requires a lot of the same skills as writing any other kind of fiction but it can raise issues that other writers don’t have to deal with. A contemporary writer can describe a guy as having a mullet and loving Dale Earnhardt and some of the characterization is already done. A story set in 2257 is going to be set in a culture where mullets, if they exist, may mean something entirely different. And nobody has to explain what a refrigerator is, but in a fantastical story, knowing the difference between a dubuk and ibur might be like knowing the difference between a car and motorcycle. Everybody does, nobody thinks about it.

I don’t teach world building as separate from other aspects of writing technique, but it’s just one of the particularities that will inform everything we talk about. All of our sessions are flexible, and will change to encompass the issues that the students bring with your own fiction.

Monday June 19 Plot as character in situation. Okay, there’s really no good definition of plot, but one way to look at it is character in situation. Exercises in class will generate the opening of a story and we’ll talk about how openings work for short fiction and for novels. How is plot different in a story that introduces fantastical or science fictional elements? Situations can put interesting strains on characterization. A three hundred year old sorceress probably sees the world in a different way than you or I. What can that do in a story?

Tuesday June 20 Narrative Voice: The Secret Character.In a first person story, the narrator is a character. So in a third person story, who is telling the story? The narrator is the voice of the story, a secret character who requires just as much characterization skills as any other character in a story. Exercises in class will develop an understanding of this voice.

Wednesday June 21 Revision or If I Knew What To Do I’d Have Done It the First Time. Writers revise and revise, but if I knew what to do when time came to revise, I’d have done it when I wrote the first draft. How to revise? We’ll discuss obvious ploys and subtle tricks to help re-invision a written draft.

Thursday June 22 A Day of Long Fiction: Running the Marathon The journey of writing a novel. The hundred page trap. The excitement of the initial idea, followed by the creeping suspicion that things are not going as well as one hoped, through the Slough of Despair to the completion of a first draft. Even if you only write short fiction, someday you may want to write a novella, which is a loooooong short story.

Friday June 23 Endings. The writer James Patrick Kelly once observed that seventy-five percent of the impact of a story comes from its ending. This is, for me, a scary thought because endings are really, really difficult. Sometimes endings are clear—the boy gets the girl. Sometimes I get to the end of a short story and I scratch my head and wonder if I’m stupid. We’ll devise strategies for endings and discuss how stories and and how novels end.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Summer Plans

I was scheduled to teach in Madison Wisconsin this summer at the University's Write By the Lake writing retreat. I, of course, cancelled when I thought I wouldn't be go and they closed my section. Well, now they are graciously re-opening it. So I get to go to Madison (assuming enough people sign up for my section.) I love Madison. I love the farmer's market at the capitol building, I love the funky shops by the university. It's a great place to just walk. And I understand I can rent a bike there and bike around the lake.

I'll be flying there from the workshop of Rio Hondo, so I ought to be all geared up to talk about fiction. If you were thinking that you might want to take a week and do some writing...

I cancelled my whole summer--Rio Hondo, Madison, Clarion West--and then much to my amazement, got it all back. I was almost afraid to contact people and tell them I'm okay. What if I jinx it? But the thing to do is be aggressive. Lucky and aggressive.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Winnowing Down

I got some great suggestions in email and even in person, as well as the suggestions here.

The favorites seem to be:

Baked Goods
Free Cookies
Better Lucky Than Smart

So Karen, Darby, David Moles and Walter Jon (DubJay) are all finalists for a free shipment of cookies. Although David lives in Switzerland and might have to wait until June to get them. And Karen and Darby live in the same town so they might have to go to lunch with me if they win the cookies. Walter, you'll just get cookies.

My doctor is going to send me to the Sarcoid Clinic downtown to see if I have Sarcoidosis. Through this whole Hodgkins thing, I have been the person who is Not-So-Sick. For my oncologist, until we thought I'd relapsed, I was the patient with the most treatable illness and the least problems in treatment. When I went to the Bone Marrow Transplant Center, I was a Hodgkins patient, who unlike the leukemia patients upstairs, has a very small risk of dying from the transplant. Now, when I go to the Sarcoid Center, assuming I even have sarcoidosis (no one is sure yet what I have) I will be the person who is asymptomatic and therefore easy to deal with.

I like being the easy patient. But I'd still prefer the cause to be bat guano.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Title Change

Looks like I'm going to have to change the name of the blog again.

I'm taking suggestions for names. So far the only one I can come up with is 'I'd Rather Be Lucky Than Good' which seems a little long.

I thnk I should offer a prize for the winning suggestion. What I need is to be as creative as Leslie What. She would come up with something cool to give.

Maybe baked goods? The winner could get a box of homemade chocolate chip cookies in the mail.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A Chill Wind

I got this in the mail today--a scary thing to get.

It's a reminder of how close I came. There are a lot of people who get SCTs and it feels a bit weird to talk about how frightening it was. But it was frightening.

The surgeon said that he thought what I have was either sarcoidosis or histoplasmosis. Histoplasmosis is a fungal infection. People usually get it from bird or bat droppings. Last December Bob and I visited my sister in New Mexico and drove over to Karchner Cavern in Arizona. So of course, we have decided that bat guano is way cooler than bird droppings or even mouse droppings.

This has led us to our own scenario for the show House. House, the brilliant diagnostician always manages to make two wrong diagnosis before finally figuring out the obscure culprit. So we figure he assumes that there's drugs or something and sends Dr. Foreman to break into our house and check. (He always sends Foreman because Foreman is black and House likes to give him a hard time about his life of juvenile crime.) Foreman finds no drugs, just a brochure from our vacation. House sits in his office, thinking deep thoughts, twirling his cane, and then says, "Karchner Caverns!" He orders a serum antibody test for histoplasmosis and when it comes back positive, smugly tells the crew that it was bat guano.

Actually, something like 80-90% of people who live East of the Mississippi have been exposed to fungus. It's called Ohio River Valley. And people who often eat in fast food restaurants show higher levels of antibodies specific to the kinds of fungal infections transferred by mouse droppings. But fast food is way less cool than bats.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tagged for Songs

Erin tagged me with this one.

"List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they are any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now. Post these instructions in your blog along with your seven songs. Then tag seven other people to see what they’re listening to."

I won't tag people, but I'd really like to know what Darby is listening to. I figure Darby might be listening to some stuff I don't even know about. Greg Van Eekhout, David Moles and Christopher Barzak would be great, too.

My seven songs will be lame because I've been listening to my iPod, so it's been Maureen McHugh's personal greatest hits. And like a lot of people, much of my musical taste was fossilized in high school and college. I mean, I try to flex a little, but...

1. "In France They Kiss on Main Street" Joni Mitchell, from The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

2. "Gloria's Step II" Bill Evans, from Live at the Village Vanguard.

3. "Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel, from So.

4. "Come on! Feel the Illinois!" by Sufjan Stevens, from Come Feel the Illinoise. "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." too.*

5. "Gabriel's Mother's Highway Ballad #16" by Arlo Guthrie, from Washington County.

6. "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)" by Steeley Dan, from Katy Lied.

7. "Rock in this Pocket (Song of David)" by Suzanne Vega, from 99.9 Degrees.

I was surprised to see how few women were on this list. For years, when people asked me what kind of music I listened to, I said 'Neurotic White Women.' Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, a little Sheryl Crow.

Adam sat down with me and played me some music he thought I might like, starting with Sufjan Stevens. He was right, I liked a lot of it. But I noticed most of the music he played for me was made entirely by guys. Although he did play me a group that consists of a divorced husband and wife. The wife plays percussion. That warms the cockles of my heart in so many ways.

*This is a bit unusual, since Sufjan Stevens wasn't even born when I was in college. Thanks Adam for introducing me to this one.

Packing to Leave Planet Cancer Again

Sarah of Journey to Babeland sent me to a Hodgkin's bb. I was on a list serve when I was in treatment but I had difficulty with the way my mail works, so I was glad to join this one, and suspect I will stay awhile, even if I'm healthy.

Yesterday we learned that one of the members had died. Her mother posted a note saying what had happened and thanking the board. I've only been there a week, but she was posting until the day she died and it knocked the emotional wind out of me. I feel like porcelain.

On the other hand (who knew there was another hand) Small Beer Press is going to be publishing the paperback of Mothers & Other Monsters Real Soon Now and Gavin and Kelly are in the final stages of getting it ready. When I was in New York for The Story Prize I learned that book clubs all over Greenwich Village were reading it. So of course it seemed like a good idea to have one of those reader's guides in the back. I did a few questions and sent them to Gavin, but on the Small Beer semi-regular email and sales brochure (get yer red hot deals on Carol Emshwiller!) he asked for people to submit questions.

I love the idea. So if you've read some of my stories, or even read the collection and you can think of a question for the reader's guide, please post it in the comments or send it to me and I'll forward any on to Gavin.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Happiness Hangover

Now Bob and I are second guessing. Just because the surgeon said it isn't Hodgkins, does that really mean it's not? I mean, the pathology report for Hodgkins takes three to five days because of the elaborate staining procedures. So maybe he's wrong?

I'm calling the oncologist this morning to say, 'Dr. Schnur, do you think it's really true?'

I know this is just nerves, but it seems too good to be true...

Monday, March 06, 2006

We Win the Lottery

Biopsy today. Hodgkins biopsy takes five days, but it is clear that the lymph nodes do not show Hodgkins. It's either a fungal infection or Sarcoidosis.

Bob got teary. The nurse said I looked as beautiful as I will ever look in my whole life.

Got to sleep off the anesthetic. I have a hellacious sore throat and I'm waiting for the Vicodin to kick in.

But I'm dancing.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Eventually I won't be able to eat sushi for awhile. (Compromised immune system and all that.) Even though that is months from now, the very prospect has me craving sushi. Last night we went to our local sushi restaurant. About three years ago, they started having fugu in season. Fugu is a fish that contains lethal amounts of tetradoxin in some of its organs. If it is improperly prepared, it can kill you. More people die each year from food poisoning from hot dogs, but there isn't a lot of poetry in the consumption of hot dogs.

I tried fugu three years ago--two pieces of nigiri sushi. If you eat the liver, apparently your lips and tongue tingle, but that's also where most of the risk is. Restaurants can't sell the liver. The fugu I had was firm, white, and rather bland. It cost $9.00 for bragging rights. Bob watched and offered to call 911 if I fell over paralyzed.

Fall and winter is fugu season, since the fish fatten up, so our restaurant is serving it again. We were sitting at the sushi bar last night and next to us was a guy having sushi with his daughter and her fiance. A discussion arose about fugu, with the woman next to him declaring she had no interest. I was happy to volunteer that I had tried it and survived. Over the course of our dinner we learned a lot about the guy having sushi. He explained to his future son-in-law that his house was Southwestern in style. He has a Hummer golf cart. He had initially said that he didn't think he was going to have fugu.

The owner of the restaurant is a Japanese woman that Bob and I privately refer to as 'How-war-ya' for her greeting. She asked him if he was going to try it and when he asked if it could really kill you, she said yes, they required that anyone who tried it had life insurance. She confided that this was the last year she would have it, because most of her restaurant clients who wanted to try it had. "It's $180 a pound," she explained. "And it's a small fish. Once you cut away the bones and everything, there isn't much there."

That did it. $180 a pound wholesale was too much for the guy having sushi. He had to try it.

He didn't die.


Monday I have my biopsy and get a port implanted in my chest. The port is a little chamber that is just under the skin with a line into a blood vessel. The point is that they will no longer have to search for a vein to give me chemo. The surgeon who will implant the port wasn't sure we should do it before the biopsy, since there is a very small chance that the biopsy will show that I don't have Hodgkins. But then he realized that even if I don't have Hodgkins, they're going to want to deal with whatever is going on. I'm glad because I have to go under general anesthesia for the biopsy, and this way it's only one procedure instead of two. It's outpatient. I go in the morning and should be home by mid day.

Unfortunately both procedures are so minimal I won't need much in the way of painkillers afterwards. So I'll be stuck with Tylenol. Maybe I should send Bob out for fugu afterwards.

Friday, March 03, 2006

How Much Is Your Blog Worth?

SquidgePa sent me this. How much is your blog worth? Mine is worth

My blog is worth $14,113.50.
How much is your blog worth?

The next question, of course, is to who? And do they understand this is a cash only deal? No checks, no payment over time. Green stuff, right here.

Check out the worth of your blog here.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


I feel incredibly guilty about relapsing.

Okay, first off, I know this is absurd. Not only do I know it is absurd, people I love have explained to me that it is absurd. That’s important. If Bob said to me, How could you do this? I would be devastated. Bob is doing just the opposite. He thinks of this as something happening to us. Primarily to me, but to us. Affecting us.

Before I thought I would just get through. That was in the days when the prognosis was We'll cure you. It won't be fun, but it won’t be horrible.

Now the prognosis is We'll probably cure you. It will be difficult, but we will do our best to make you as comfortable as possible. We'll take good care of you.

I find myself thinking again and again, I hate this.

I hate this.

I hate this.

Yesterday, Adam’s friend Jason came over. Jason is home on leave before being deployed in Iraq. I told him I had relapsed and he said it sucked and I agreed. He said, "Maureen, I don't know what to say," and I said yeah, what is there to say? I explained that it was why I hated telling people.

Suddenly it occurred to me that Jason also goes through this. I said to him, "It's like when you tell civilians that you're going to Iraq."

He understood instantly. "You've got to be honest," he said.

"Right," I said.

It was great. We talked about the ways it was the same, and the ways it was different. But it was nice to talk to someone who has the same sort of experience. Then he stayed for dinner. It was a nice night.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Fractal images from biology

Spring Break

Adam's home!