Outside the Outside of the Comfort Zone

The other day I dropped off a vastly underused wooden play firehouse at our kids’ former daycare, Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA). The teachers not only remembered me, but were appreciative that I stopped by and happy to see me. It was amazing to see them again–caring, wise and patient all. Truth be told, I got a little choked up. Memories of watching my tiny, diapered kids toddle off into those rooms before I then headed off to teach flooded back. Great teachers. Great people.


Most of them hail from–or have strong ties with–different parts of the world: Vietnam, Ethiopia, Somali and Eritrea. These women cared for our kids. And in turn I learned details about their cultures and their families. I’m a little ashamed to admit we hadn’t realized the benefits of that blessing when we signed our children up to attend. At the least, the site was a convenient location and the teachers and staff seemed caring and organized. The daycare experience turned out to be so much more.

Last year, when I realized this gift of a writing hiatus might actually happen (could rephrase as “quitting my secure job to leap into the void”), I told myself I would not only set a writing routine so as to prevent me from pinging off walls, but I’d break from some of my normal routines, as well. In that vein, I’m going to try to head south once a week to explore businesses I don’t tend to frequent. There’s an Ethiopian coffee shop I’m waiting to open as one example. I took part in a coffee ceremony once at a culture feast at ReWA. Loved it. So why not explore further? I’m sure there will be some uncomfortable experiences, but I’ll bet I’ll be pleasantly surprised to find some gem human interactions out there. Not to mention some great coffee, or Vietmanese sandwiches or injera bread. I can only imagine these new experiences in our fair city will give me fodder for my storytelling as well.

Messy Ugly Rewarding Process – M.U.R.P.

I’m going to coin a new, though many times conceptualized, term – MURP, which stands for messy ugly rewarding process. After a few fun conversations the other night at a social event, I realized everyone has their own MURP they’re in the middle of. The problem can involve how a parent handle’s their kid’s latest annoying behavior–be it annoying to society in general or just to you–a problem at work or some epic work of art. We all have something we struggle with on our plate at any given time.

Brad, the nephew (see previous post), made another pen. Three actually (he’s getting better). And I’m honored to say one was for me. He presented it to me the day before he left for his junior year of undergrad. “Mark, I know you’re all about the *insert snarky tone here* process so I made this crit sheet to go along with it.”

Brad's to scale schematic drawing with completed pen.

Brad’s to scale schematic drawing with completed pen.

I realized I do love the process. I don’t love being in the middle of my own—no one rejoices in the feeling of struggle really—or if you do you’re more highly evolved than I, but the outcome is so often rewarding. I have always loved watching my students struggle, not because I loved seeing them squirm (liar) – but I enjoyed sharing with their parents at conferences with how they handled the struggle. Can they persevere or do they crumble in on themselves like a torched marshmallow? Which serves us better? That’s why the term “grit” has been all over the place in recent years.

Right now I’m stuck on a crucial concept in my novel. This will be the skeleton on which I hang all the rest of the guts – i.e. the narrative. I had an outline going but the original backbone wasn’t feeling right. Came up with another idea, but that felt like it was complicating things two steps too many. Then I had a brainstorm, then a conversation with my wife and there it was – the idea that felt right. I’ll give it a night or two and see if it falls apart, or if I continue to get more excited. Other things have been falling into place since. The world building feels more believable–or at least I feel I can make it more so. Now I can outline with that in mind and adjust character motivation and chapters. As always, it’s how I execute that will count, but I’m excited to get started again. Let the MURP begin.

A Ticket to the Pennant – A few photos behind the story.

Below are a few photos that inspired some of the art and words of A Ticket to the Pennant, our picture book which comes out April, 2016. I’ll include more stories and links eventually, but each image inspired something in the book. For those who want to dig deeper into the local history, they will provide a kind of scavenger hunt once you have the book in hand. It might be fun to see if you can find how the below photos match with objects and characters in A Ticket to the Pennant. Feel free to send any comments. I’d love to collect stories and images from Seattle Rainiers and 1950’s Seattle and post them for others to enjoy.

Linked here and here are a couple of blog posts from illustrator John Skewes regarding his own inspiration for the book. He seemed to have as much fun with research as I did. Enjoy.

Most images from the David Eskenazi Collection

The Owls softball team from the 30’s. They remain a mystery and no one seems to know much about them. But I thought it an interesting enough mystery to ask John Skewes to refer to it visually somewhere in the illustrations.

Sea Royal Giants
These two images are from the book by Lyle Kenai Wilson, “Sunday Afternoons at Garfield Park,” published in 1997. It’s available to read in the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Here is a historylink essay with more information on why I chose the name “Barnett” for Huey’s neighbors. This article by David Eskenazi also shows the rich legacy of the local African American teams of the region. http://sportspressnw.com/2203231/2015/wayback-machine-a-legacy-of-black-baseball

The Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) also provided amazing information in their Pitch Black exhibit displayed in 2015. (They’re a great resource and still have tote bags available for checkouts to schools if you’re interested in teaching diversity through baseball.)


Bobby Balcena – a “favorite of kids”

Borracchini’s Bakery on Rainier Ave.

Mark Holtzen & Remo Borracchini

Leo Lassen
Radio announcer for many years, Leo Lassen. To hear his voice watch my book trailer here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQECmQNMU9k)

Or this documentary has some excellent Lassen sound bites as well as an overall feel for the Seattle Rainiers and what they meant to Seattle.


Rainiers, 1955 002

These are some of the ’55 Rainiers players aiming their bats at the knothole in the outfield fence. You’d win big money if you hit the ball through the hole. Pat Patrick, the bat boy for the Rainiers for the 1955-56 seasons, said the hole was so small they couldn’t even get the baseball through while standing in the outfield and tossing it (they tried).

Sicks Stadium sign, Rainier Ave, 1958
The actual sign illustrator John Skewes used as inspiration for the endpapers of the book.

Stewart Lumber still in business along Rainier Avenue.

55 Rainier Ave Signage
It took me forever (no really, forever) to find a photo of an actual street sign from 50’s Rainier Ave. I finally did in the municipal archives available online.

Harry Yoshimura of Mutual Fish. His father started the business in the 30’s. He was not a fan of having his photo taken, but posed with me anyway.

I could not find a photo of Pre’s Garden Patch until I attended the Rainier Valley Historical Society (please support them if you can – they do good things for the community) fundraiser dinner. There it was on display near the front door.

“Cheapskate Hill.” “Tightwad Hill.” Either way you get the idea.

The Vacca’s family farm outside the left field fence.

Frank Protrera’s barber shop was near where the Chevron now stands on MLK and McClellan. He cut hair (for Remo Borracchini, too) there for over fifty years.

Bobby Balcena again. First Filipino player to play pro ball.


Old Woody, 1949
Above is a photo from the “Old Woody” contests that the Seattle Times held for many years. Here’s another historylink.org essay about what one such competition meant to a kid from those days.

The original program from the 1955 season. John uses this image in the actual book illustrations. It’s a nice touch.

Most images from The David Eskenazi Collection.

Off I Stay to Not-Work

imagesLast Wednesday I missed the first day of school for the first time in many years. No nervous faces at my classroom door. The smell of newly sharpened pencils didn’t fill my nostrils.  (Now I’m picturing pencil shavings up my nose). Upcoming meetings, conferences and events oddly absent from my brain. My first week after the life change has felt uncomfortable and weird. My own kids went off to school without me and as soon as the door closed, a stone of dread settled into my belly. What have I done? Let’s review, Mark: You’ve walked away from an elementary teaching career where you’ve had success, were valued and found reward and enrichment. What a fabulous idea.

There is the feeling of freedom, sure, but that felt off, too. I know the value of a good day of work. The biggest difference is that for most of my adult life my days have been dictated by a set schedule I had little control over. Either a bell ringing or kids’ feet thundering into the room required immediate attention. For sixteen years. Last week, no one stepped through the front door to tell me to stop looking at youtube trailers. No one tapped me on the shoulder to ask how to spell “would.” I spread out some pages of my current project on the dining room table, edited a little then heard and watched the mail flop to the floor. The mail didn’t do anything after that. It just sat there.

I’ve quickly learned I’ll need to get out of the house. It’s too easy to pad around in circles. Thursday I walked to two coffee shops and sat and wrote at both. Some staring happened, but I learned long ago that staring is a vital part of writing. I’m at a point on my current book where I’m questioning the entire premise. “Really? This is what you’re going to try to sell as “real?” But I have to trust all the preparation and thought that went into the outline. It’s now my job to make it work. It’s a long, slow road and there are no guarantees on the other side.

It’s also my job to figure out ways to make my life change rewarding and successful. I spent three years talking, worrying, wondering if we could do this. And as scary and weird as the decision feels, this is what I signed up for. I went in eyes wide open. I knew it would be uncomfortable. Of course saying the words, “this going to feel uncomfortable” and actually feeling uncomfortable are very different things. It’s like the difference between middle schooler me saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I swallowed some of this spoiled milk?” and actually swallowing the spoiled milk.

The positives: my children were excited to see me at the end of the day (gotta enjoy that while I can). They both missed seeing me at school. I did some things around the house that made my wife happy and our lives less frantic. When I drove the carpool home from pick up, I didn’t feel completely exhausted yearning for the carful of kids to just. be. quiet. These are good things and all part of The Plan.

Yesterday, I returned to the house from a writing session  and wandered a bit. I watched the end of an HBO show I had started the night before – Treme, Season 3. Then I settled in to make even more pencil edits. I made a couple scenes stronger; developed a couple characters a little more in my mind. Step. By step. By step.

“Vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.” David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Uncertainty is a virtue. Gonna have to keep repeating that one.

Wilco and ‘What Light’

There is a Wilco song that pops up every once in a while on my early morning soundtrack. I have a select few bands that I can listen to when writing. Wilco is one of them. Not sure why. But this particular song is a great beacon when I’m feeling unsure about anything or everything. I don’t know what Tweedy’s inspiration was, but it’s my song now. Maybe it’s yours too for those doubting moments we all have.

Thanks, Jeff.


“What Light”

If you feel like singing a song
And you want other people to sing along
Just sing what you feel
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

And if you’re trying to paint a picture
But you’re not sure which colors belong
Just paint what you see
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

And if you’re strung out like a kite
Or stung awake in the night
It’s alright to be frightened

When there’s a light (what light)
There’s a light (one light)
There’s a light (white light)
Inside of you

If you think you might need somebody
To pick you up when you drag
Don’t lose sight of yourself
Don’t let anyone change your bag

And if the whole world’s singing your songs
And all of your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on

And that’s not wrong or right
But you can struggle with it all you like
You’ll only get uptight

Announcing, A Ticket to the Pennant

My new book cover! This will be released April 12, 2016.


Below is a link to a book trailer I had done for my new upcoming picture book with Sasquatch Books, Little Bigfoot imprint along with illustrator John Skewes (of Larry Gets Lost series). This trailer is more for the nostalgic baseball crowd, and I’m happy with how it turned out.


My cousin’s daughter sang the classic soundtrack and a local animator, Devin Ensz of Exploding Tuba Animation, did the animation for me. Thanks all for some fine work. Feel free to pass it on.

I’m proud of this book. It’s been a labor of love.