Friday, February 24, 2017

A Trip to India




My latest mini-odyssey started with a novel that I picked up purely for some escapist reading. The story, set in Ceylon, was not particularly well written, but what it lacked in literary merit, it made up for in setting and cultural details. Within the first few pages, I ran into an unfamiliar term: jaggery. The dictionary defines jaggery as a course, brown sugar made from palm tree sap.
A few days later, perhaps with subconscious influence from my reading, I spent the evening watching The 100-Foot Journey (Helen Mirren and Manish Dayal), a delightful movie in which culinary scenes are so beautifully photographed one can almost smell the spices, curries, and haute cuisine of a Michelin-quality restaurant.
I've always been partial to a good curry and had been experimenting with adding extra turmeric and fresh ginger to my weeknight stir-fry (read: mix up of various leftovers). The movie, along with a colorful Williams-Sonoma catalogue chock full of exotic Indian-inspired table settings and their new line of masala and curry seasonings, put me right over the edge. I needed an excursion to the Indian subcontinent.
Lack of time and money precluded actually going to India, so I did the next best thing: I found my way to an Indian restaurant not too far from home where I was able to indulge in a marvelous buffet. Samosas, patek paneer, channa masala, vindaloo, and tandoori. Fresh, aromatic, spicy but not so hot the flavors got lost in the burn, the dishes in this restaurant and its quiet ambience carried me along on my little travel fantasy. At the end of the meal, there was a table by the door on which sat four bowls (pictured above). Instead of the usual starlight mints or plastic-wrapped toothpicks, these bowls contained more interesting breath-freshening agents: cardamom seeds, fennel seeds, cloves, and sugar-coated anise seeds.
To keep the fantasy going after I left the restaurant, I found my way to a nearby Indian grocery store. The small strip-mall space was stuffed to the rafters (literally) with exotic merchandise, most of which I had never seen before. I'm no stranger to ethnic groceries, but with the exception of a place in San Francisco's Chinatown, I've never been so transfixed by shelf after shelf of the unfamiliar. (MCH, if you're reading this, call me to schedule a field trip.) I made my purchases, coming away with mango powder, sandalwood soap, cardamom seeds, a jar of ghee, and, of course, jaggery.
How fortunate I feel to be able to make an excursion like this. Within an hour's radius of my home, I can cross thresholds into many other cultures. I can purchase items I might not be entirely certain how to use and discover treasures I didn't know existed.
In my humble opinion, that is what makes this country great.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Deadlines



This post is featuring a guest artist because this is the last day of January and the very last hours of my self-imposed deadline for my also self-imposed rule of writing a new post once a month.
I haven't been good with deadlines lately, something I'm not proud of. Actually, I can't remember a time since sixth grade when I've failed to complete work by its due date. Setting goals and completing them when I say I will helps me pretend I can keep the general chaos of life at bay. Right now, however, we are living in unusual times. There have been a lot of distractions lately.
Last week, I spent an inordinate amount of time writing emails and making phone calls to senators. I did this. Anyone who knows me will realize how weird that is. But like I said, these are unusual times. They are getting more unusual (and scarier) every day, too.
Instead of working on my novel, I've spent far too much time letting my imagination run rampant over the dismal prospects that could be our future if this country continues to allow the current administration to systematically dismantle seventy-plus years of progress in human rights, environmental protection, public education, regulation of mega-corporations, and funding for the arts.
Speaking of the arts, my guest artist, whose work is featured above, is Benjamin Williams, age two. I chose to use his creation today because it's clear evidence that humans need art, even very young humans. While it's wonderful to experience the art of the talented and widely acclaimed, many of us also need to create our own art. By painting or writing or playing music or whatever means is used to express oneself, troubles recede and the world becomes a better place, at least temporarily.
Sounds like I should get back to that novel, eh?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Marley's Ghost






Christmas time. For many of us, the season would lose much of its atmosphere and charm without what is perhaps the second most famous Christmas story: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Reading it is as much a part of my family's tradition as baking cookies, trimming the tree, and eating the chocolate in our Christmas stockings before having breakfast.
As a writer, an English literature tutor, and a huge fan of Dickens, I've read and analyzed several of his works, most notably A Christmas CarolGreat Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Indeed, I have notebooks filled with vocabulary, plot and character information, quiz questions, essay prompts, and all manner of things Dickensian. While I pride myself on knowing these works fairly well, I readily admit there is still much I can learn about and from one of my favorite masters of the English language.
That point was brought home to me just a few days ago by my brother. Now, my brother hasn't read any Dickens except A Christmas Carol, but he managed to point out a simile that occurs early in the story (page 15 in my copy) which I had managed to blow right past. Scrooge has just returned home after begrudgingly giving his clerk Christmas Day off.
"And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Marley's face. Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar."
Huh??? A bad lobster in a dark cellar?
What kind of a simile is that?
So, here's what I learned from my brother, who may not be an English lit scholar, but he knows his way around the sciences better than anyone I've ever met. He'd been reading a book called A Field Guide to Bacteria by Betsy Dexter Dyer when he ran across a passage explaining Dickens' seemingly bizarre reference to cellar-dwelling lobsters. Ms. Dyer explained that in Dickens' era, it was common to store lobsters in the cellar. Lobster exoskeletons are apparently covered in a bacteria that thrives in salty conditions (sea water) and phosphoresces in low temperatures such as those found in an ice chest or the cellar of a 19th century house. Indeed, a quick search of the internet will reveal that this trait is common to other seafood, especially crabmeat, shrimp, and prawns.
Just for kicks, if you happen to be at a holiday party where a platter of shrimp is on the buffet, turn out the lights and see if it glows in the dark. Guaranteed to be a conversation starter.

Merry Christmas!!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

This Was Supposed To Be About No Vacations


                                                  😡😡😡😡😡😡😡

This post was supposed to have a lovely picture from our October trip to Door County, Wisconsin, but apparently my limit has been reached with the amount of photos my computer will accept, so nothing is hitting up from my phone/camera.
This post was supposed to be about writers never being able to take a vacation because our writing means taking a computer (or at least a fat notebook) with us on all trips. We juggle story ideas, characters, and plots in our heads during driving trips, in airports, walking along beaches, and hiking in the woods.
I was going to mention the friend who recently posted on FaceBook a photo of the room that will be her home for a writing retreat, undoubtedly her idea of the perfect vacation. Another writer friend blogs about her habit of writing every day, no matter what.
Clearly, I'm not that focused, dedicated, or free from distractibility. For instance, I've just spent 15 minutes looking up how to spell distractibility, which isn't actually a word according to spell check but shows up just fine on all the ADHD sites. It's even got a medical definition, so the damn word does exist.
And this glitch with the photos probably means a trip to the Apple store, which measures only marginally higher on the Driver Scale of Blood Boiling Aggravation than dealing with Comcast. But, hey, computers make our lives so much easier, right? Here's where having Trumpian tons of money would be useful: I could just buy a new computer. Or four.

However, in an effort to prove to myself (because no one else seems to give a rat's ass about this blog) that I am a serious writer and can discipline myself to produce one post a month, no matter what, I am forging ahead, past the technical glitch, past the frustration, past the spelling issues, past my own insecurities and bad temper to get this frickin' post out there.

And once this is done, I will get back to my novel and the slew of short stories I'm working on because they are important to me. If we write to discover things about ourselves and the world, then I guess my take-away from this fiasco of a day's work is that I have rediscovered that Fictionland is my favorite vacation venue. In Fictionland, I can mine every boring, scary, uncertain, infuriating situation from real life into fictional (sort of) story material. And that is an awesome threshold to cross.   😎

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Go Cubs!





Full disclosure #1 --I stole the above image off someone's FB post. Disclosure #2 --only extreme circumstances would have me posting something about sports, let alone steal an image. And who would argue that the Cubs poised to beat 108-year curse is anything less than extreme?
I didn't grow up in a sports-oriented house; it just wasn't important. My father "skated a little." His way of saying he played ice hockey for Harvard. My parents' only encounter with professional sports was most likely the night at Ravinia when my 4'11" mother turned to the talkative man seated next to her and told him to shut up. Turns out the guy was Mike Ditka. (Ditka was football, right?)
But back to baseball, which along with ice hockey, are the only two games that make any sense to me. Of the two, baseball proved harder to grasp. My Dad taught me to skate and explained the basic rules of ice hockey when I was little, but no such lessons were offered for any other sport. Here's how I learned about baseball:
Second grade, a sunny spring day. We raced out to the playground for gym class, where we were divided into two teams, weighting girls and boys equally because everyone knew girls couldn't throw the ball. Or hit it. I'd never played baseball before, but being me, and being a know-it-all second-grader, I figured I could just watch, do what everyone else was doing, and that would be that. Easy-peasy. Our team was at bat first. Clearly, you were supposed to stand, knees bent, with the bat resting on your shoulders and, when the ball came, you hit it. No big deal. In those days, I was a tough little monkey, strong for my size and fast. My turn came. The ball barreled at me. I swung and hit that sucker high and far across the playground. According to my observations, I was then supposed to run to first base. No problem. Everyone was yelling, cheering, I thought. But while I was trying to figure out what they were saying, a couple of the boys retrieved the ball and threw it to the kid standing next to me on first base. He caught it easily and touched it to my shoulder.
"YOU'RE OUT!!"
Huh?
Turns out, I had missed a couple of critical components of play: I was supposed to keep running if I could and, most importantly, I was supposed to have literally stepped on the canvas base. The learning curve was a little steeper than I had thought. In fact, if memory serves, by the time I was in high school, we actually had written exams in gym class testing our knowledge of the intricacies of line-ups, fair and foul flies, and the short hand used to fill out score cards. (Like when would I ever need to know that again?)
That day in second grade, I learned enough humility to still blush with shame at my ignorance and chutzpah, lo, these many decades later. And from the Cubs, I am seeing 108 years of perseverance. (Some days that feels like a great deal less than the length of time it will take me to get good at this writing stuff.) But the main take-away for me is that sticking with something despite disappointments and perceived failures is a pretty good lesson to learn from a game.
So here's to the Cubs! Go get that World Series.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Multi-tasking

The start of the school year has been typical in its craziness. Monday through Friday presents as a blur of racing from one thing to the next, always with an eye on the clock, always feeling like there are never enough hours on that clock. We all know the story. In our culture, most responsible adults are forced to multi-task just to get through the day, get dinner on the table, and attempt to sleep long enough to do it all again the following day.
When my kids were little, I honed my multi-tasking skills getting a family of five dressed, fed, and out the door every morning. Most days, there were no major disasters, and somehow I lulled myself into the belief that not only was I able to multi-task, I was quite good at it. I could watch my children's soccer games and grade my students' homework. I could pay the bills and fold the laundry in the course of one television show, never losing the plot line. Weekly menus were planned and grocery lists written during staff meetings. Cookies for the bake sale scented the house as I prepped for the next day's classes. You get the idea. I flatter myself that I can still accomplish more in one day than some people will in an entire week, and I have two published novels and a slew of short stories to prove it. Ah, but therein lies the rub.
This writing stuff can play havoc with multi-tasking. I now work from home and, perhaps because of that, doing more than one thing at a time poses an unexpected hazard. Yes, I'm fine developing characters and story arcs while scrubbing the floor, weeding the garden, or walking the dog. But I have learned I should never, ever, under any circumstances attempt to cook while I'm at my computer writing. The thing is, when I am into a story the way I need to be to understand my characters and what is happening to them, I cross a threshold. That threshold into Fictionland doesn't allow casual backward glances at reality to check what's happening in the kitchen. You're either in the story, or you're not, and crossing that threshold exacts a toll. It requires suspension of all else, including time. Equally tough is crossing back over the threshold to the real world. Deep in a story, sometimes only extreme external forces can pull me back. Like the smell of a dozen eggs boiled so hard the water in the pan evaporated. Anyone up for Green Eggs and Ham?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jiffy Mix






It's late August. My self-imposed deadline for the first draft of the next novel is Sept. 30. I'm about 3/4 of the way there and stuck like some pre-Cambrian creature in a tar pit. Hoping to tease the Muse back, I've been wandering around in the literary toy store, playing with flash fiction and poetry. Just for kicks; no great expectations. (Yes, those last two words were deliberate.)
So here is one of the poems on which I have spent very little time, refusing to get all serious and angsty over it. I'll save that torture for the "real" writing.



Jiffy Mix

Still. they stand on grocery shelves,
This Jiffy blue and white boxes
Redolent of strawberry-filled sunshine,
Summer Sundays.

Thirty-three cents, then, for biscuit mix.
One egg and one cup of water
Rendered it to viscous batter,
Summer Sundays.

Batter baked to golden shortcake,
A hundred sweet, sliced berries within,
Released its buttered fragrance,
Summer Sundays.

A cavalcade of childhood days
Remains within those Jiffy boxes,
Now relegated to the lowest shelf, and ahlf-forgotten
Summer Sundays.