Fish Magic

Yesterday, after a long hiatus from fishing due to a broken collar bone, Felipe our caretaker, caught three fish. My dad and I were duly impressed that he hadn’t lost his touch with the fishing line. A friend of mine, who has a reputation for being a successful fisherman, says that it’s all about numbers. “You catch one fish for every thousand casts.” Felipe’s odds are more like three to ten. He’s a ringer. And unlike the guys who drive down here from Colorado, California and Portland, he uses nothing but a hand line.

Most of the local Mexicans use hand lines to fish. It is literally just fishing line, a weight and a hook with some bait, and in Felipe’s case he keeps the line organized and under control by wrapping it around a 4”x3” piece of wood. The weight is often makeshift, a stainless steel nut or other piece of heavy metal. Casting is a technique that takes some skill. He swings the line in a circle over his head as if it were a lariat and then throws it into the surf. The casting is critically timed with the surf action, so that the out-flowing water takes the line into deeper water rather than pushing it back to shore.

The fish Felipe caught yesterday were all what he calls pescado blanco (white fish). These are what other Mexican’s call “lisa” or white mullet. When I asked him what he did with them, he said he cooked one for the dogs that morning and that he’d eat one later that day. I asked him if he thought he might be able to catch a guatchinango (red snapper, my favorite fish) for me to share with my father. He looked at me confidently and said he would catch one the following day. He said he’d seen some in the waves that morning. I was a bit surprised by his confident declaration and didn’t put much faith in it.

The next morning upon rising I looked down the beach to see Felipe fishing with three of our dogs lying in the sand nearby. It was comforting to see him back in his usual position casting out into the surf. I went about my morning routine, but a couple hours later a knock came at the door.

“I have your guatchinango,” he said, nonplussed. “If you come to my house to get it in a few minutes, I will have it gutted and scaled for you.”

I thanked him, closed the door, and still not really believing it myself went out to the patio to my dad the news.

“No!” he said in utter disbelief.

Later when Felipe handed the fish to me, I noticed it was the perfect size for three people to share. My dad and I had a dinner date that evening with my friend the artist.

If you know anything about fishing, you know that this was a virtual miracle. I felt a bit like Captain Picard of the Star Ship Enterprise – it was as though I’d issued my command to Felipe, “Make it so.” My artist friend said it speaks to my ability to dictate my desires to the Universe, but I think it says more about Felipe’s ability as a fisherman.

The local ranchers have often commented to me about his ability to catch fish as though he has some kind of gift.

When the subject comes up more than once one of them has said, “Felipe is a good fisherman. He always catches fish even when others come home still hungry.”

I never put much stock in what they said and figured it had more to do with how often he fished than the results. They are ranchers after all and I guessed would be prone to making assumptions about his abilities. How could they know how good a fisher he was? I also imagined Felipe would, in his manner, smile shyly and not correct them when they said, “So Felipe you must be quite the fisherman?” But what I didn’t realize was that their knowledge was, in fact, first hand.

Yesterday, Felipe came to the house to tell me he was leaving to walk three miles to his friend Lloyd’s ranch.

“What for?” I asked, always wary of the potential for him to get fall-down drunk when he leaves the property.

He looked at me like I he was always beyond reproach and said, “I want to take the extra fish I caught to Lloyd.”

“Do you want a ride?” I offered.

“If you’re going to drive,” he said matter-of-factly, “why don’t you take it to them yourself?”

Lloyd’s ranch is a modest place, a concrete block home painted white with no stucco on the blocks. The ground around the house is bare sand with a few sprigs of dry grass, most of chewed short by the goats. I was greeted noisily by a couple of very skinny dogs, followed by Lloyd’s wife, Luisa.

When I pulled the fish out and handed it to her, she told me he often gives them his catch. I inquired further and discovered Felipe gives a great deal of the fish he catches away. To families who live in ramshackle houses with dirt floors, no electricity, no plumbing and often not much in the way of food. Families who are truly “dirt poor.”  They are right – he does have a gift.

Working Out

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There’s been a transformation and it’s got everything to do with my writing. For the first time in a long time, I’m excited about my writing. First and foremost I have the Stanford Online Creative Nonfiction Writing class to thank for this. It has kicked me in the butt and made me write write write! While it may be a tad trite, it is true that, “Writers write.” Yes, well, this writer hasn’t been doing enough of that, and this course has done wonders to turn that around.
Firstly, we had to commit to writing for five minutes first thing every morning.  I’ve said it here before and I’ll say it again, I’m not much into the discipline scene. But I decided to commit. It doesn’t matter that my decision to commit was probably born of some deep seated need for approval, the need I’ve always had to kiss the teacher’s ass. What matters is the results, right?
The course structure and content have also given me the direction I needed to get over the huge speed bump that had grown up in front of me because I felt lost, not knowing how to get to the next step, how to keep moving forward, get more words on the page. The instruction I’ve received on how to conduct research (What’s that? You say? Research? It’s a memoir isn’t it?) has been instrumental in getting me moving, making progress, driving me on to find the next detail that I’d all but forgotten about.
And like all good little Type A, codependent personalities, the encouragement I’ve received from our instructor and fellow students hasn’t hurt either.
Low and behold, I’ve discovered that if I make myself sit down and write for five minutes first thing in the morning that I am still there several hours and many hundreds of words later.  I know, what did I expect? But seriously I’m sitting here in wonder as I realize that I’ve written over 15,000 words in the past 13 days. [In the name of honesty, technically it’s not first, first thing. Writing happens after I pee, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on the obligatory facial sunscreen, get dressed, let the dogs out, give them pats and a get my huge mug of tea. I don’t think I’m splitting hairs here, am I?]
Some days I really do only write for five to ten minutes and then I get up and go do something that I would normally fill my morning with, like yoga or more often than not surfing. Strangely enough, I think that while following this regimen, I’ve actually surfed more in the past two weeks than I have over similar periods for the past two years. And yet, I’ve managed to write so much! The only thing that is probably suffering is my yoga (and by extension, my lower back).
Before I started the course, I wrote here about following Andrea Mauer’s advice and kept a time journal for about ten days. As soon as I started it, I saw how much time I wasted messing about on the internet, reading emails, checking Facebook updates, randomly conducting searches on anything that popped into my mind. I spent a ridiculous amount of time recording my caloric intake on the website (it’s still a great web site, I just don’t have time to be going on there three or more times a day to try to find the ingredients to everything I eat). She helped me recognize how much time I was wasting and the writing course has made me prioritize. I guess I needed the combination punch to wake the #$@% up!
So, finally I feel like I’m over the hump. I’m 118 pages and 56216 words into my goal of having a first draft of my memoir written and it no longer feels like a weight attached to my backside and dragging along in the sand behind me. I’m excited about it, can’t wait to read the next journal entry or email that will prompt my memory so I can write the next section. I’m planning interviews to get others perspectives, reading the research and articles that first grabbed my attention and made me want to do the work. I’m finding where my outline is confused and confusing and have started to repair it. And I even think I feel the right side of my brain growing, blossoming, generating more neurons and synapses as I sit here plugging away at my computer. Someone once said, “The brain is a muscle. You’ve got to exercise it.”  It might not be the cerebral equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but my brain’s been bench-pressing 1000 words daily.

Book Review: Table for Six

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I hate to start a book review with a caveat, but here goes.

Caveat: I know Katrina Anne Willis, the author of this book. I met her a year ago at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference when I was pulled in by her unguarded smile and then blown away by her quick wit and the graphic booklet she carried with her that contained a synopsis of the book she was promoting. That book, Table for Six, is the subject of this review. Less than a year after the conference ended and we went our separate ways, Katrina and I remain internet writing pals and she is now a published author.  What an inspiration she continues to be!

To the best of my ability and with all sincerity, this review is not colored by the fact that I know the author. I believe it to be objective. The only thing altered by that fact is that I read the book at all. As many of you know, I am not a parent, nor a grandparent. I may have nieces, nephews and most recently a grandnephew, but I see them rarely and they always cried and squirmed in my arms when I held them when they were babies, like they sensed that I lack any parenting genes and might just let them drop to the floor if something more interesting grabbed my attention (which could be pretty much anything). The closest thing I have to kids are six dogs and one Mexican caretaker, who come to think of it often behaves like a spoiled 10 year old. So when Katrina told me about her book, I thought it probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea. I became anxious at the thought of having to give her honest feedback and possibly a public review. I thought, “What if I really don’t like it? Oh God, I probably won’t like it because it’s about kids and traditional family life. When have I given a shit about that?” I thought this book would only appeal to those who could nod their heads in agreement arrived at from direct common experience. Well I was wrong. And that is because…

Katrina Willis is one hell of a writer, (just occurred to me her kids might read this)…er, I mean, one heck of a writer. Anyone who can make me laugh out loud at the end of a long day when I am half asleep deserves the kudos and every five star review she’s been given on I laughed or guffawed at least a dozen times while reading it. She is not only funny, but irreverent (parents, this deserves at least a PG rating for language and a smattering of sexual content along with a dash of innuendo) and a keen observer of the human condition. She knows how to weave an engaging story from the strands that are the day to day experiences of an OCD-conquering mother of four quirky and unique little people. By the end of the book, I’d fallen in love with her entire brood and her witty, patient, loud-talking husband. Her writing was so clear and emotive that I feel like I know them all, intimately, maybe a little too intimately (the words vomit, diarrhea, and, my personal favorite, dick tick appear more than once among the pages, you decide).  She made me want to invite her over for coffee or a glass of her favorite Cabernet.

I am reticent to say anything negative about this book, but in all fairness, if it has any failings at all, it is that at first, I was a bit jarred by the manner in which the stories were pulled together, blog-like, and their not-quite-chronological order. In her defense however, Ms. Willis does warn us about this in her Prologue. A few sections into the book, I quickly got into the rhythm, relaxed and let her take me along on a ride that rivals Mr. Toad’s.

So read it. The world needs more laughter (and irreverence).


Wandering stranger


Wandering stranger
than fiction
thru this small
Canadian town



Wavering fiction
poised on my tongue
waiting for the next line
that never comes.