31 October 2007

Bottom Shelf Booked!

I haven't written anything new for a couple weeks now, but I've had a good excuse.

So, my girlfriend Aimee and I have been together for over 4 1/2 years now and have been talking about getting engaged for a while... but I've been waiting for just the right moment to pop the question.

A couple weeks ago, Aimee booked a flight for a trip home to San Diego for her grandfather's 80th birthday. Almost her whole family was going to be there (including an aunt from Switzerland and an uncle from Seattle)... unfortunately, I wasn't going to be able to make it because it was kind of last minute and it was a busy time for me at work. So it wasn't really feasible for me to go... which created the perfect conditions for the ultimate surprise (cue diabolical laughter).

I had been waiting for a chance to really surprise her (which is relatively hard to do when you live together. Unless you count that tupperware container lurking in the back of the fridge), so last week I bought a ticket to San Diego.

Almost immediately after, Southern California burst into flames.

I could have seen this as a bad sign... but I was determined. We had love on our side (if not Mother Nature).

Fortunately, we had been up in CT the weekend before so I got a chance to talk to my parents about proposing. They have been so supportive of the two of us and have been amazing parents (as you will see as you read a little further... if you can make it that far), so I wanted to talk to them in person before I really set the plan in motion.

That done, I immediately began scheming with Aimee's little sister. The plan was for her to get Aimee to the Botanical Garden at Balboa Park (a really pretty spot in San Diego and one of Aimee's favorite places) at 2:30pm on Saturday. I told the sister that it was a surprise, but didn't tell her that I was going to propose (this is the first of many exhausting layers of secrecy and deception).

I did, however, tell Aimee's parents about my intentions, and we planned a second surprise for Aimee. Her parents and other family members would gather at a Japanese Tea Garden at another part of the park, so after the proposal we would wander over there and (Surprise!) we would all get to celebrate together. (Though this would have been exceedingly awkward if Aimee had said "no"...)

Above: A schematic of the plan that I sent to Aimee's parents. Luckily for me, they did not veto the proposal after discovering the full extent of my dorkiness. Phewf. The plan reads like this:

Surprise 1: Botanical Garden
(#17 on Map)

2ish: Minh arrives and hides in the Botanical Garden building.
2-2:30: Minh tries not to throw up.
2:30ish: Aimee and sister arrive. Sister pretends to take a call and wanders off.
2:31ish: Propose.
2:32ish: Minh resumes breathing.

Surprise 2: Japanese Tea Garden
(#28 on Map)

2:15-2:30ish: Family/Friends arrive (preferrably from south side of park).
2:45/3ish: Minh, Aimee and sister arrive for Surprise Part Deux. (unless Aimee says no, in which case, Minh arrives alone to order a very large beer... and buffalo wings, if they have them.)
3:00-on: Commence with Operation Happily Ever After.

So, Saturday morning, I hop on a plane at 6am and fly cross country, arriving in San Diego at noon. I'm heading out of the airport and am about to jump on the shuttle to go pick up my rental car... when who do I see standing there on the curb?

My mom!

My mom and dad bought tickets the day before to come out lend their support and to surprise me (it's in the genes, I guess).

But that's not all...

My mom and I walk back into the airport to find my dad, who's still on the lookout for me inside... and who pops out from around the corner?

My little sister! Holy Crap! This family is crazy!

She had taken a last minute flight down from Oakland for the occasion. This is made all the more astounding by the fact that I had just gotten my ticket about a week ago... this family acts freakin' fast!

(Unfortunately, my older sister wasn't there because she was in NJ visiting family. But that did spare me a third surprise, which might have given me a heart attack... which would have made it slightly harder to propose.)

So we all hopped into the rental car and drove to the park. The four of us had an impromptu Vietnamese picnic in a remote part of the park (my mom wouldn't let her only son propose on an empty stomach!) and hoped that we wouldn't accidentally bump into Aimee or her family.

Around 1 o'clock, I head over to the botanical garden to set the trap and begin my wait. On the way there, Aimee calls. I had anticipated this. I tell her that it's crappy weather in DC (which it was) and that I was being lazy and watching tv on the couch (which I often do). I am apparently a spectacular liar and everything was going well until we were wrapping up and saying goodbye... and the clock tower in Balboa Park starts chiming. LOUDLY. Crap! I quickly say goodbye and try to cover up the sound of the bells. After I hang up, the paranoia starts creeping in.

"If Aimee heard the bell, then she would know that I'm not at home... and since she loves Balboa Park, maybe she'll recognize the bell and be able to figure out where I am! The plan is falling apart!"

(In retrospect, I realize now how unrealistic this was. My fears can be traced directly to that scene in The Fugitive, where Harrison Ford makes a phone call and Tommy Lee Jones recognizes the sound of an above-ground train in the background and is able to figure out that Ford is in Chicago. Luckily for me (on so many levels), Aimee is not Tommy Lee Jones, nor does she have a team of FBI agents with sophisticated surveillence equipment at her disposal).

So despite this (imaginary) setback, I proceed with the plan and go into the botanical garden. And wait. I'm there a good hour before they're supposed to arrive, so I have plenty of time. During this time, I have a stroke of genius and send Aimee a text message with a picture of our cat, Matisse. The picture was actually taken months ago and is one of the dozens of pictures of our cat that I have on my phone. (Yes, I am one of those people. I'm not proud of it.)

So I send her the picture of Matisse sleeping on the couch with the caption: "That kind of day..." to make sure she thinks that I'm still spending a lazy day in DC. Brilliant? I think so.

At 2:30, Aimee's sister sends me a text saying that they are in the park. The great thing about the Botanical Garden Building is that, because of the lighting, I could see outside but they couldn't see inside. So I watch as Aimee, her sister and dad come walking up to the building. They stop in front of the building, and Aimee's dad walks off to take their picture. I call the sister on her phone. She takes the call, pretending that it's her boyfriend. Aimee is suddenly alone. She turns around to take pictures of little kids and fish. I seize the moment, come out of the building, sneak up behind her, touch her arm, get down on one knee and ask her to marry me.

Her reaction went something like this:

"AHHHHHHH! [Shaking] Yes! [Still Shaking] What are you doing here?! [Shaking] Yes! AHHHHHH!!!!" [Shaking/Trembling/Tears continue for the next 10-15 minutes].

So she said yes! We are engaged!

We walk around the park a little bit, but don't see Ashley or her dad. I tell Aimee that we would rendezvous with Ashley at the Tea Garden afterwards. So we slowly make our way over there, and as we round the corner, Aimee sees her parents, her grandfather, sister, uncle, my parents, and my little sister all sitting at a cute little table in the shade. Now the real tears start flowing.

We spent the rest of the weekend in San Diego with our families, celebrating with family and friends. Aimee's family gets a TON of credit for 1) helping me scheme, 2) keeping a secret better than the CIA, and 3) for being such good sports and rolling with a weekend of Crazy Le Family Style Surprises.

And to top it all off? Sunday night we go out to dinner and the restaurant has "Lobster Truffle Mac 'N Cheese."

Life is good.

22 October 2007

BSB Flashback: Where Do People Go When They Die?

4 June 2007

Author: Mindy Avra Portnoy
Illustrator: Shelly Haas

Portnoy is a rabbi who presents this book as a tool to help parents cope with the awkward situation of discussing the concept of death and the afterlife with their kids. (Apparently, the popular "Grandpa went on vacation" approach is no longer recommended.)

Indeed, death is a tricky question. Just ask Dr. Kevorkian who, just last week, was released after 8 years in prison because of his controversial interpretation of death. Upon his release, he has sworn that he will not break any more laws, but will work to change the law in order to legalize the practice of physician assisted suicide.

What he needs is a good P.R. person. It's hard to win people over when you are known as "Dr. Death." (and it is even harder to shake the name "Dr. Death" when you naturally resemble the Grim Reaper.) If I were to manage his campaign, my first act would be to spread his message by utilizing popular medical television shows. Yes, in this case, the revolution will be televised.

Grey's Anatomy:
McDreamy, McSteamy? Meet the newest surgical resident, Dr. McDeathy. Death is much easier to cope with when you have a sensitive doctor with wavy hair and bedroom eyes pulling your plug.

He puts the Ass in Assisted Suicide.

ER: Is this show even still on?

Scrubs: Actually, I would make this show a recipient of an assisted suicide... anything to put Zack Braff and the rest of the cast out of their misery. Don't get me wrong, I love the show (and spent a large portion of my unemployment watching every syndicated episode 5 times over). But I can't watch it anymore. It's too painful. You could tell that by Season 4, the actors started to get tired of the show and began going through the motions. Now they just push along, trying to hold onto the magic that made them successful, but quickly turning into grotesque caricatures of themselves. For their own good, it's time to let them go. But there's no need to cry. Even if the show does come to a merciful end, it will never truly leave us. Where Do Sitcoms Go When They Die? They are reborn in syndication and reincarnated as DVD Box Sets.

If only life were that simple. I would love to be reincarnated as the DVD version of myself, complete with Special Bonus Features.

Deleted Scenes: Including the scene where, at 10 years old, I easily defeat Turbo and Nitro to become the youngest person to ever win American Gladiators.

Alternate Endings: Such as the ending where I die saving a shipload of kittens from Antonin Scalia and his bloodthirsty gang of constructionist thugs.

Director's Commentary: "In this post-party scene from The College Years, I really thought it would be effective to have Minh wake up wearing nothing but a full-length floral skirt. I briefly toyed with the idea of him waking up in a haze wearing a purple zoot suit, but decided that the skirt had a more nuanced comedic value."

Of course, I would make sure to destroy all copies of Minh Le Seasons 11-17: The Awkward Years. No one needs to see that again. Once was more than enough.

19 October 2007

Finding Wonderland Contest

Finding Wonderland had a fun contest to collect snappy answers to the question: "Where do you get your ideas?" As luck would have it, they chose one of my suggestions (the one meant to sound the most pretentious) to immortalize in cartoon form. Score!

Here's the cartoon:

If only it were that easy. The last time I sat in a cafe and the lightbulbs started talking to me was in college... but instead of giving me ideas, they gave me a strange headache for the next two days. Also, I could never rock a beret like that... and only in my dreams would I be able to grow that kind of beard. Thank you, Sarah, for drawing me as the man I could never be.

16 October 2007

Robert's Snow

"Robert's Snow is a children's story about a mouse not allowed in the snow. Children's book illustrator Grace Lin wrote the book, which was inspired by her husband Robert's battle with Ewing's sarcoma. After the book was published, Grace gathered artists from all over the children's book illustrating community to create special snowflakes to be auctioned off, with the proceeds benefiting sarcoma research at Dana-Farber. These snowflake auctions became known as the event Robert's Snow."

It's all pretty amazing. You can check out the snowflakes here. And some more here. And even more here! Wow, so many snowflakes! So much love! Bidding starts in November. So you have a chance to own (or give, if you're feeling generous) an original piece of art from one of your favorite artists and contribute to a worthy cause. Everyone wins!

As someone new to the kid's lit world, it's also pretty awesome to see all these people come together for a good cause. Through the coordinated effort of the kidslitosphere, you can find interviews with the illustrators participating in Robert's Snow sprinkled all over the web. Behold the power of the internet. This would definitely not work in the days of the carrier pigeon. For a consolidated list of interviews, go here. Now. Go!

12 October 2007

BSB Flashback: Everywhere Babies

1 May 2007

Author: Susan Meyers
Illustrator: Marla Frazee

Meyers' playful prose coupled with Frazee's awesome baby portraiture combine to remind us that babies are cute. Not exactly mind-blowing stuff. But what could have been just another baby book separates itself from the pack because of the talented Frazee... there's just something about the way she draws babies that just makes them seem not only adorable, but epic.

Unfortunately for Meyers and Frazee, as with all art, once a work is released into the public sphere, you cannot control what people do with it. In this case, Everywhere Babies has become a political prop as groups on both sides of the abortion debate have grabbed a hold of the book to advance their political interests. Pro-life groups use it to drive home the obvious point: babies are awesome. Pro-choice groups use the book to tell a cautionary tale about a world without Roe v. Wade. (There would be babies everywhere... Everywhere Babies!!!)

With the Supreme Court recently upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, expect to see more of Everywhere Babies as both sides gear up for a potential Supreme Court reconsideration of Roe v. Wade.... a bizarre showdown where 5 dudes in robes have the power to determine what women are (or are not) allowed to do with their bodies.

Everywhere Babies has also found its way into federally-funded abstinence-only education. Last week, the Washington Post reported that abstinence education programs are destributing material with misleading information, that makes condom-use seem less effective than it actually is. (For example, while studies show that the chances of unintended pregnancies while using condoms is 2%, government funded programs incorrectly say that it is 1 in 6 or 17%... Everywhere! Babies!!!)

This should not come as a surprise. At this point, misleading people is standard operating procedure. Though, maybe... if you combined the administration's misleading Sex Ed policy with its failing Foreign Policy, you might come up with something a little more productive. Can two wrongs makes a right? Let's give it a shot:

Current Foreign Policy: Use misleading information to get us into war.
Current Sex Ed Policy: Use misleading information to keep us from getting into bed.
New Foreign Policy: Use misleading information to keep us from getting into war and getting screwed.

Current Sex Ed Policy: Condoms and other forms of contraception are not effective forms of birth control. Abstinence only.
Current Foreign Policy: Talk is cheap. Diplomacy is for the weak.
New Sex Ed Policy: Abstain from talking to anyone. If you isolate yourself from the rest of the world, no one will want to have sex with you anyways.

Current Foreign Policy: Pulling out is not a strategy for victory.
Current Sex Ed Policy: The Rhythm Method is a form of natural birth control.
New Foreign Policy: Set a timetable for pulling out of Iraq before things get even more heated and explosive.

It's not perfect, but policy never is. Next, we combine No Child Left Behind with Environmental Policy and see what comes out. (Though it's risky... you might get something like: We'll try to reverse the negative trends of climate change, but if the climate doesn't start showing adequate yearly progress, we will start imposing sanctions by cutting down trees and shutting down forests.)

10 October 2007


Author/Illustrator: Don Freeman

This is the classic tale of a department store bear who goes out in search of his missing button. In the process, he finds more than a button... he finds friendship and discovers the power of love.

Re-reading this heartwarming book tickles the little nostalgia bone in even the most hardened souls out there. Not only because of Corduroy's triumph, but because the story hearkens back to a simpler time, a Golden Age for Toys... long before things started to go horribly and profoundly wrong.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the downward spiral began, but there is no denying that the Age of Innocence is now no more than a distant memory.

Key Moments in the Descending Decency of Toys

Chucky: Not only did this bloodthirsty doll strike fear in children everywhere with its campy gore, but it somehow managed to spawn a lengthy Child's Play series, extending Chucky's reign of terror into the present day.

Seed of Chucky. The low point of pop culture? The low point of all culture? The low point, period?

Tickle Me Elmo: Tyco somehow convinces the world that toys possessed by the devil would be perfect for Christmas.

Left: Comes with free exorcism kit, complete with vial of (faux) holy water. The power of Big Bird compels you!

Toy-tal Recall: Mattel recalls millions of toys because a manufacturer in China used dangerous lead paint... proving that dolls don't have to come alive and wield sharp knives to be deadly.

Left: Barbie. Apparently, her looks can kill.

Threat Level Tonka: The Transportation Security Administration announces that they will start paying extra attention to all radio-controlled toys in airports because they can be used to detonate bombs.

Left: Weapons of Fast Destruction: Batteries Not Included

And then, just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, last week came this latest sordid bit of news:

MR. POTATO HEAD IN ECSTASY BUST: "Customs officers discovered nearly 10.5 ounces of ecstasy tablets hidden inside a Mr. Potato Head toy sent to Australia from Ireland, the agency said Thursday."

Oh dear.

Yes this is tragic... but deep down, didn't we all see this coming? After his surprising success in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, it was only a matter of time before Potato Head was swept up by the wave of his newfound celebrity.

First came the funky hipster glasses, then the pretentious moustache, and then smuggling a body cavity filled with MDMA across international borders. According to an unconfirmed source, police searched Potato Head's luggage and found a box of glowsticks, 5 cartons of lollipops, and 26 extra smile accessories. Though this is the first time he was caught by the police, Potato Head has been seen living it up with Hollywood's party elite for months now. Next month's US Weekly will have the exclusive exposé, Mr. Potato Head: Lovable Spud or "Raving" Lunatic?

Left: Paparazzi capture a shot of Mr. Potato Head at a rave in downtown L.A.

So as you can see, between the War on Terror and the Bowels of Hollywood, toys have long abandoned the idyllic shelves of the Rockwell-era department stores. Since then, they have traveled down a dark and twisted path to a point where they can no longer be trusted, let alone loved.

So what now? Is there any hope?

Well, let me tell you a story. Long ago, a brave little bear named Corduroy set off into the unknown in search of his lost button. Now it's our turn to follow in his footsteps. Are we brave enough to march into the void to search for our lost innocence, not knowing what we might find?

Heck NO! No, we are NOT brave enough for that! Retreat! RETREAT!!!

05 October 2007

BSB Flashback (Updated): Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

Author: Judi Barrett
Illustrator: Ron Barrett

A grandfather tells his grandchildren a bedtime story about a land called Chewandswallow where the weather rains soup and sunsets are made of jello. Life is grand until the wrath of mother nature is unleashed and the citizens of Chewandswallow are forced to flee their homeland. What began as the crazy musings of an old man quickly evolves into a harrowing tale of man vs. nature and of immigration and cultural assimilation (for a more detailed account, see the book below).

Reader Beware:
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs has some truly disturbing illustrations. Mixed in with the sometimes awe-inspiring artwork (I particularly liked the hamburger storm clouds), the details of the illustration reveal an artist with a mischievously warped mind. For example, there is the picture of a terrified bird returning to the nest only to find that it has been smothered by a fried egg. Think about the implications of that for a second. In another particularly disturbing illustration, a sanitation truck has, what can only be described as baby heads mounted on the front bumper. Once you start noticing these things, the illustrations (which are rich with quirky little details) becomes a Where's Waldo of the surreal and macabre.

Exhibit A: It's hard to see it here, but if you look closely at the front of the truck, you'll see...

not one...

but TWO babies heads stuck to the front of the truck! What the?!

In the name of all that is good and greasy, what the heck is going on here?! Do we simply write this off as strange off-beat humor.... or could there be more to this than just illustrative hijinks?

Perhaps all was not well beneath the surface of this mythical Foodtopia. Is it possible that the fantastical story of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is merely state-sanctioned revisionist propaganda and the illustrator is trying to send us a hidden message, cleverly embedding it in his illustrations? Could it be that the citizens of Chewandswallow were fleeing more than just bizarre weather patterns? Maybe the Sanitation Department was just one arm of a sadistic government beast and these brave souls were escaping from the confines of a brutal totalitarian regime?

We may never be able to answer this for sure. But to be safe, I think we should all assume that...

04 October 2007

Why Write For Children: The Expanded List

Here are the early returns on our updated list of reasons to write for children, building off of Isaac Bashevis Singer's definitive Top Ten. I think it's a pretty good (awesome) list. Maybe not Nobel Prize material, but darn good nonetheless. We even got two reasons from Maxwell Eaton III, who has actually written and published books for children... which means there's a good chance that he might know what he's talking about!

And this is a standing challenge, so keep 'em comin! Once I throw my gauntlet, there's no going back. (To see who wrote which comment, check out the comments section here.)

Why [We] Write [Or Would Write, As The Case May Be] For Children

Number 11: They don't equate good writing with super sophisticated words and obscure references. The simpler, the more beautiful.

Number 12: When children drool all over a book, it’s because they like the way it tastes... not because there is a picture of Fabio on the cover.

Number 13: Because judging a children's book by its cover is more acceptable.

Number 14: A children's book with the title Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus might actually be fun to read.

Number 15: A made up word is as good as, if not better than, a real one.

Number 16: Because kids tend to hate spelling, so you don't have to double check for typos.

Number 17: Because you don't have to sit for a ridiculous black and white sexy-nerd author photo. Just draw a picture of a chipmunk in a top hat, and that's good enough.

Number 18: Because Reading Rainbow reviews are only rarely scathing, and they always end with a thumbs-up and an upbeat note. Da-dute-dute!

Number 19: When you write for children, you don't have to use swear words to sound impressive. Words like "underpants," "poop" and "stinky" will simultaneously elicit laughter from children and shock from grownups.

Number 20: After reading a story that they enjoy, children will write their own.

Number 21: Adults don't spend enough time throwing their books. Nothing is more satisfying than taking a book that you don't want to read and chucking it at the far wall.

Number 22: Even if your book isn't particularly funny, there's still a good chance that your reader will pee their pants.

To be continued...?

01 October 2007

Why Write For Children? and a Reader Challenge!

Here's some food for thought for any aspiring authors lurking about town. As I always say, there's nothing like a strong dose of Nobel-Prize winner to give you a much-needed kick in the pants.

This statement, originally prepared by Mr. Singer for the occasion of his acceptance of the National Book Award in 1970 for A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw, was read to the assembled guests at the Nobel Prize banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1978.

Why I Write For Children

by Isaac Bashevis Singer

There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them.

Number 1: Children read books, not reviews. They don't give a hoot about the critics.

Number 2: Children don't read to find their identity.

Number 3: They don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.

Number 4: They have no use for psychology.

Number 5: They detest sociology.

Number 6: They don't try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake.

Number 7: They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.

Number 8: They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes.

Number 9: When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.

Number 10: They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.

Reader Challenge: Since Mr. Singer only gave us 10 of his 500 reasons, let's see if we can flesh out the list a bit. Vi got the ball rolling with number 11. I don't imagine we'll make it anywhere near 500, but let's see how far we can get. The gauntlet has been thrown down... who will pick it up and use it to slap me in the face?

(Note: This list was brought to my attention by a worldly and wise girlfriend and a rockin' used bookstore. Two of my favorite things in the world!)