Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year (& a spillage of unexpected black thoughts -- sorry!)

It's New Year's Eve -- Happy New Year everybody! It's funny, I really LOVE the idea of a new year laying ahead of us (like a board game path of all blank spaces we get to fill in ourselves) but I'm not so into celebrating the Eve. We used to give in to the pressure and make reservations somewhere "cool" where the prices were mysteriously tripled for the night and it was crowded and the service bad and you'd kiss at midnight and drink your tiny champagne and that was that. I'm so not a party girl!

For the much-vaunted Millennial eve, Jim and I and our friends Richard and Nadine decided to be far from any potential Y2K disasters (not that we really believed in it) and booked really great hotel rooms in Yosemite with hot tubs and fire places, with the intention of cross-country skiing and ignoring all the hoopla. The problem was there was NO SNOW that year. So we actually hiked the Mist Trail on New Year's Eve! That's unheard of in January! It glittered with icicles and was so, so lovely. All good so far. The problem came with our decision to take advantage of the pass being open to Mammoth Lakes -- again, unheard of in January! So we went and saw Mono Lake and did wintery things and then. . . a flake of snow fell. And they closed the pass. With us on the wrong side. That is, on the opposite side from our hot tubs. I can't even tell you what a misery it was -- we had to drive north almost all the way to Tahoe to the next pass!!!!! I think it turned what should have been a 45-minute drive into a 9-hour one. Something like that. We almost hit a deer, night fell, the road got icy. We told our life stories in turn to pass the time.

Things like that make your realize how easy our lives are -- those passes weren't always there! Could I have been a pioneer wife? I don't know. I like the thought of the adventure of it, but without the risk and the numbing endless work. Can you imagine moving your family someplace where you know there will be no doctor, no police, no fire department. Nowadays we check ambulance response times before moving to a new zip code. Seriously, could you move your children someplace with no doctor? Imagine how powerful the dream of a new life must have been, of owning land, of owning horizon that drove people to take such risks.

And all over the world, every day, people go to refugee camps with their children, or flee into the unknown with nothing. I didn't mean this post to lead here, for god's sake. Who knew? I have terrible fears for the world, for the rising tide of fundamentalism and the extreme and horrifying conflagration of hatred that our idiot leader has fanned like a gleeful freaking pyromaniac. I feel like such a baby having my simplistic thoughts, my selfish thoughts, wanting a safe place to live, a planet that is not being choked by pollution, people not being slaughtered, and no impending doom creeping my way. Or anyone's way. I just want to be cozy most of the time, and explore our beautiful world some of the time, and have it be safe and prosperous, with family planning and clean water and no war. We have this amazing thing, this planet spinning in space, full of mountains and tigers and ice floes and volcanoes, weird fruit and weird bats, people of every color speaking hundreds of languages and tattooing themselves with magical runes and braiding their hair and wearing silk and leather and nothing; we have cities, art, bridges, the flowering of our magnificent minds, we have medicine, water filtration, sewage treatment, agriculture. We have mangoes for god sake! Why do we have to kill each other? Why can't we just eat each other's food and buy each other's art and learn each other's languages so we can hear each other's epics, fireside, with moonshine, with cocoa, with drumming, with dancing, with foot rubs? Why why why why why????

I don't have high hopes for this year on that score. Hatred will mount. Body counts will rise. Most of us, with a few exceptions won't see much of it except on TV, if even that. I don't have a positive way to wrap up this post except to say that I hope this year can be good in small ways. I hope our new Democratic congress can begin to unpick the terrible snarl the Republicans have made, though that is a job I wouldn't wish on anyone. I hope that I and you and others can have moments of beauty and success, and that the good people in the world working for positive change make some headway against the ignorance and nastiness.

I hope. Hopeful New Year.

Saturday, December 30, 2006


The prompt for Sunday Scribblings this week is "Destinations." I love this word, and spent lunch poring over the new issue of National Geographic Explorer magazine dreaming of kayaking trips in Belize and stilt bungalows in Bora Bora. However, this year we will not be going anywhere exotic that I know of. There are some short trips planned to Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, for writery things like conferences, but no vacations. If I could go anywhere it would be India, perhaps on the first leg of my dream mango-tasting-tour of the tropics! (I will do that some day, I swear to you. Future memoir title: Mangoes & Me: One Woman's Attempt to Hog Every Mango on the Planet to Herself).

But seriously. There are two destinations I will be visiting VERY regularly, one with pleasure, the other not so much. The pleasure one is my writing room, pictured above and below. I am in it now, and I love it so much. When I'm actually using it rather than photographing it, the desk gets pulled over in front of the green bench. I like writing on a bench, so I can spread out reference books and notebooks beside me. I'm a dictionary junkie -- I love me a new weird word like "scutage" (tax paid in lieu of military service in feudal times) and "sideromancy" (divination by heated iron) and "helminthology" (the study of worms). I've been using the same dictionary since I was a travel book editor: the American Heritage, and it amazes me that I am still finding new words in it. And I love that "callipygian" is one of the guide words up in the corner. It's a good word to know, and when I was a bartender I actually won $20 because some dipstick bet me he could stump my vocabulary! (Okay, if you're too lazy to look it up, it means: having perfectly proportioned buttocks. hee hee!!)

We had the writing room remodeled this summer by our awesome contractor, Dave (whose wife is a Sunday Scribbler and has a blog here). Dave also built an adorable patio out the French doors, and a big patio out the main back door, and most recently, a new stair railing so that we wouldn't plunge to our deaths through the gaping hole in the floor. At least, that's what our mothers thought would happen, although we had been living with it for 6 years and gotten quite used to our gaping hole. It's amazing what you can get used to. We just found out Dave and his family are moving away. Dang! Our last contractor moved away too. Is it something we did?

And here are some writing room friends:

Now, the not so wonderful destination I must take myself off to more frequently this year is. . . the gym. Bluh. Went today and it was a ZOO. I deeply resent the gym, and I resent that I am not willowy, and that I am not someone who has to remember to feed themselves so they don't waste away to a size 0. Wah!

I wrote this the other day about a character, but it could as well be about me: "With a deep, visceral ache, she wished her true form might prove to be a sleek and shining one, like a stiletto blade slicing free of an ungainly sheath. Like a bird of prey losing its hatchling fluff to hunt, dagger-taloned and swift in cold, magnificent skies. That she might become something glittering, something startling, something dangerous."

Incidentally, I also resent that someone gave chocolate my phone number. It keeps calling me. And it shows up at the door in new and innovative and irresistable forms, like Lindt dark chocolate with intense pear? Um. . . Yum. Chocolate, please, forget about me. I know our love affair has been the stuff of legends, but I must go on and live my life without you. Or at least, with much less of you. We can't see each other every day. It isn't SANE! It isn't DECENT!

Whew. Sorry. Getting close to Big Monday. You know what that means? I have to eat all the chocolate in the house before then so I can start 2007 with a clean slate. Ah-ha-ha-ha-HA! Have a great weekend, folks!

P.S. I need to add, these photos would not have been possible without my awesome new camera. Yippee!

Thursday, December 28, 2006


I love that 2007 is starting on a monday. I always like new things like diets and carefully schemed plans for world domination to begin on mondays -- it's kind of like starting a fresh notebook for a new idea. It's like an empty hallway to dance down, with nothing in your way. So: 2007. Hello! A monday. Perfect! I have a few more days to gather my wits before Big Monday. What will I scheme this year? My resolutions were the same for so long, and unfulfilled for so long I stopped making them out of shame. They were still there of course, like tiny little letters written on the ceiling you needed to climb a ladder and read with a magnifying glass** but I stopped announcing them, even to myself. And then, one year, I did the impossible. I accomplished them. A year ago today, I was riding the tail end of a year that had seen both of my resolutions accomplished. One was to write a novel. The other was. . . (you'll never have heard this one before) to lose weight.

I felt GREAT. Powerful. The year that followed, 2006, was a good year too. Exciting and full. I saw my book as an actual book for the first time. I got cracking on the next book. I had a little more money than I was accustomed to having. All good things, but nothing so resounding as finishing and selling my first novel AND losing weight! In fact, I gained some of the weight BACK. And here I am again, another New Year's, with my same old goals hanging over my head: finish a [different] novel, and lose [different] weight.

Why can't goals stay accomplished? Sigh. This time at least I know I can do it. And thank you, universe, for aligning to start the year out cleanly on a monday. I have many more thoughts and hopes about the coming year, and I will write more about them before Big Monday. I'm just easing myself into these thoughts about change, about habits and hopes for new accomplishments. A new year lying ahead is a beautiful thing. In my mind it is an oval, kind of like a racetrack, with summer and winter as the roundabouts, and fall and spring as the straightaways. I don't know why I see it that way, but I always have.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. I did! And I have high hopes that the quality of photography on my blog is going to increase drastically, since Jim gave me a new camera for Christmas. Yaaayyy! Thanks, sweetie! I am deeply in love with it, oohing and aahing and wanting to take pictures of everything. And yes, I know Christmas isn't all about the gift giving. But still, what fun! The giving part and the receiving part. I am unashamed to say I love it all, and that for me Christmas isn't a religious occasion, but a reason to gather together and cook with my loved ones and laugh and eat cookies and give presents and yes, get presents! I love stuff and I won't pretend otherwise! Cake stands and felt purses, black dresses and Moroccan leather foot stools, dolls and silver pomegranates, wine and sharp knives and chandeliers that dangle blue beach glass. And books, lots of books! Beautiful, wonderful things!!! Now, of course, comes the part of figuring out where to put new things, which inevitably leads to craving a bigger house. Ha ha! Not this year!

**What's all that about tiny letters on a ceiling? It's nothing to do with anything, but I read somewhere how John Lennon and Yoko Ono met: he attended a gallery opening of hers which included an installation of a ladder you had to climb to use a magnifying glass to read a tiny word printed on the ceiling. The word was "yes." John Lennon later said that if the word had been, say, "no," he would not have made an effort to meet the artist. And how differently things would have gone! So: "yes!"

(Birthday roses, pic taken with my new camera!)

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!!!

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! And merry ordinary day to all who don't! May your holidays be filled with candy cane stockings and lace slips and polka dotted shoes. Oh wait, that's MY holiday. It's possible you don't want those things. How about: may your day be filled with love and mistletoe and mimosas, the smiling faces of loved ones, maybe a long walk, perhaps a nap, great food, and once again, LOVE.

Happy happy!

Friday, December 22, 2006


I turned 35 five minutes ago -- 11 am, apparently. Woo hoo! Another year. This year has been fantastic, and I have every hope that being 35 will be smashing, too. My wonderful best friend threw a pre-35 party for me last night at her new place. It was Jim and I, Jim's mom and my parents, and we were all given party hats and annointed with Miso Pretty glitter face roll-on upon arrival, so we literally sparkled all night long. Alexandra served "wave after wave" of appetizers, followed by these unbelievably scrumptious treats from Saint Cupcake:

Here is an example of Alexandra's marvelous gift-wrapping skills (& take note of the huge yellow "diamond" on my finger -- this is a "matching friendship ring" from Alexandra so we can be just like Oprah & Gayle and Courtney Cox & Jennifer Aniston - BFF!! hahaha!):

It was all superbly thoughtful and sweet and delicious, and we even gave Alexandra's dolls the leftover cupcakes.

And just because Jim took all the pictures and wasn't in any of them:

On a completely different, more grave note, I am so relieved to read that Darlene's son Mark has come through his second surgery well and looks to be on the road to recovery. Blessings to their family, and all best wishes.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy almost birthday, me!

I bought myself a little birthday present yesterday at the Saturday Market's "Festival of the Last Minute": this skirt. It's a wrap-around made of all recycled clothing, and I love it! You can get a glimpse of my silly shoes here, too. You may already know I'm a platform-shoe-junkie and regularly transform myself from my own humble 5'4" to more like 5'9" or even, in these, 5'10". And then when I take them off, I feel teeny tiny. Anyway, the skirt: so cozy! I love handmade clothes, and the Portland Saturday Market is a great place to find them, and to buy them in such a way that the artist gets almost all the profit, rather than a store.

I was a Saturday Market vendor for 3-4 years, and I stood out there under a measly bit of canvas awning in the rain and snow, too. It changed my life and I will be forever grateful to it. There were always more customers who didn't understand about "handmade prices" than did. People who would say, "God, at Target this would only be $10!" or "Huh! I could make this." But you just try to ignore those people. It's increasingly rare in this country to be able to buy handmade local goods from the people who made them, and it's COOL. So, if you have craft fairs in your area, support them. Put bread (and cake!) in artists' bellies. That's why I didn't feel guilty about buying myself a present -- because I was supporting the arts. See how that works? Tee hee. No guilt! Just doing my part!

Oh, and the artist who made this is named Lizzy and her company is Shabby Knapsack, but she doesn't have a website. Drat!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cocoon Weekend

While Jim was away in San Francisco this past weekend at the gothic art circus, I sort of cocooned for 72 hours to write. I left the house once, to go to the grocery store, and I did do some nesting-type things, like put up some little stockings and fold some paper stars from a kit from this company (who I love-love-love) -- those are the 8-pointed stars in the pictures. But mostly, it was a real pleasure to have nothing to do but write! I wore a scarf and leg warmers around the house and looked like a hobo clown in my polka-dot fleece pants. When the pizza delivery girl came to the door I took off my knit cap and brushed my hair a little, because when you're home alone for a few days you can let yourself look a little weird, and I didn't want to scare her!

But Jim is home now, with interesting tales of artist models flying overhead on trapezes, and metrosexual pirates philosophizing at microphones -- sounds like a very interesting event!

Now, for lack of anything fascinating to say for myself, I'm swiping a quote from [a}ma {m]iz, who in turn swiped it from Ted Kooser, about revising:

You can learn to love tinkering with drafts of poems till a warm hand from somewhere above you reaches down, unscrews the top of your head, and drops in a solution that blows your ears off. Sure, there are plenty of days when nothing good happens, days when every word you write seems silly and shallow, when your revisions seem to be dragging your poems in the wrong direction. But you need to be there writing and waiting, as a hunter might say, for that hour when at last the ducks come flying in. To say it more simply, in the words of a painter friend, you just need to "show up for work."

Oh, and if you read my last post about the world's tallest man saving the dolphins and wanted to see what the world's tallest man looks like, here you go. He's a herdsman from inner Mongolia. I love the thought of that, I don't know why. I love the image, the words "inner Mongolia," the vision of windswept plains and windswept horsemen.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful week of last-minute shopping, maybe baking, seeing movies, sipping cider, making snow angels, and all good things!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Long Arms & the Crazy Dolphins

(I went with a very simple kind of "Christmas tree" in my writing room: white branches in a white vase, with only these 2 ornaments on it. I love the way it looks.)

I was inspired to put up a quicky post by this weird and cool piece of "news" I just saw on in China, the world's tallest man was asked to put his super-long arms to good use by reaching down the throats of a pair of sick bottlenose dolphins, to remove pieces of plastic they had ingested that were making them sick. How cool is that??!!?? Freaky cool. It showed pictures of him up to his shoulder in dolphin mouth. Huh. Good old long-arms! (My mom has a cat that eats plastic too. We'll have to search for the world's smallest person to reach into his little cat stomach.)

Speaking of dolphins, if you haven't seen the animation Crazy Dolphins vs the Mad Cows, click here.

And I am pleased to say, the baking has come to an end. The tally (between my mom and me) was 21 kinds. Here's a picture of some cookie tins in progress:

They went in the mail today and I can safely say I won't be baking again until next November, with one exception to make Jim's birthday cake in April! Or rather, his birthday pie.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What do alligators write about?

These guys look over my left shoulder as I'm writing. Sometimes they offer suggestions, which are not very helpful because they speak alligator and bird, respectively. You'd think, given the language barrier, that they would refrain from making comments on my stories, but that's how it is. I tell them they should write their own damn books and I'm not sure but I think they reply that if I would buy them tiny computers they would be happy to oblige. I wonder what they would write about. Rain and acorns, apparently. Love, loneliness, alienation. The taste of river water, and how bossy snapping turtles are, and what it's like to fly for the first time. And life in the bird orphanage, maybe. Eggshells, the crack of a hunting rifle, lightning striking a mangrove tree, death, the underworld, the dentist, trying to master the freaking yo-yo, braiding a lover's hair, cutting a child's fingernails for the first time. Loss. Sharing an umbrella. Forgetting the words to a song your mother sang you when you were a wee reptile baby in a river the color of moss. Migration. Being overtaken by terrifying huge pelicans in the sky. Acorns. Sandwiches. Snow. The same things we write about. Or would they? Maybe they would just write about the polka dots on the ceiling and then take a nap.

Today I had a wonderfully long phone conversation with a kindred spirit about writing. I also found out from the vet that Shiloh's bloodwork was normal, which is a relief. I glazed tiny cupcakes with orange-scented icing, then sprinkled the tiniest amount of cardamom on them and finished with a sliver of candied orange peel. Had vegetarian corndogs for dinner, read a murder mystery, listened to a Joss Whedon interview on the computer (love love love), and dipped different tiny cupcakes in white chocolate then topped with toasted coconut. Dithered around wondering what to do next. Made edamame. Didn't write. Why didn't I write? I want to be one of those writers who says in interviews that they write every single day of their lives, even Christmas. Maybe I should start giving myself little pieces of number jewelry celebrating how many days in a row I've written, like the day and month tokens in an AA meeting. And then when I ruin it and skip a day I have to start over from scratch. Ah, wouldn't work. I'd just lose count. I think I'll just keep on as usual.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The best TV show EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER (really)

There are so many things I want to be doing right now I feel like I could ricochet around the house like a pinball. There are the star ornaments above to be finished -- just some quickie painty/collagey thingies that are really the only ornaments I am making this year. And I want to be writing, of course, and also reading the big fat book that came from Amazon today, my latest nonfiction book feeding my British Raj obsession, and needed to fill in some last minute factual gaps in Spicy Little Curses. And then there's the great baking marathon which simply must come to a close, as my mother and I, between the two of us, have made TWENTY kinds of cookies!!! And I want to gift wrap, and smother the dogs with affection (Shiloh's face is starting to go bald from the radiation, by the way. Boo hoo. I was kind of thinking she was somehow impervious to radiation, it's been quite a few weeks, but now her fur is falling out on her snout, especially right around her nose and lips. My poor old baby.)

It's pretty much all fun stuff, and most of it is holiday stuff. I didn't get any writing done today, unfortunately. Slept in until 8!!!! We never do that. Our bed is far too comfortable right now, with the flannel sheets, and a few months ago we got new curtains that are dark, which seems to be a bad thing. 6 am feels like 3 am, and we keep hitting snooze. In our defense, though, it was a late night due to it being the season finale of the best show on television ever ever EVER: The Wire. We don't get HBO so we went to my parents house to catch up the past 3 episodes that they tivo'ed for us, plus the new one. OH MY LORD. If you haven't seen this show, you MUST. Really, no show has ever come anywhere close to the quality of The Wire. Each season is structured like a novel, a single ongoing storyline with fantastic writing and amazing characters. Now, by the end of season 4, we love some of these characters so much that the show really has the potential for total emotional devastation. No show has ever had that power, for me.

If you haven't heard of it, it's "about" cops & drug dealers in Baltimore, but that's really NOT what it's about. It's more about the myriad ills of urban America. It's about the ways the system is failing the kids, about the politics of governing a city with massive financial and racial issues, about whole chunks of a city that have just rotted away because of drugs. The best thing about it is the characters: never have there been such real, multi-dimensional characters on a TV show. I read a quote from the show's creator (a former Baltimore cop and public school teacher) who said something to the effect of "Good and evil bore the shit out of me." The drug dealers are just as much real fully fleshed characters as the cops. Neither are good or evil. I can't even begin to do it justice. If you are already a fan of the show: Bubbles! Omar! Bunny! Carver! Stringer Bell (ooh la la, Stringer Bell)! Bodie! Jimmy and Bunk and Kima and Daniels and Carcetti. . . and of course: Randy, Michael, Namond, and Duquan, the best young actors I have seen in a long, long time. Frick. It's so damn good. You have to start with the first season; Netflix it. I kid you not. Go. Now. It's actually the reason we got Netflix to begin with, because our video store only had one copy of each disc and we could. not. wait. And if you don't think you're into "cop shows" don't let that stop you. This makes all other cop shows look like little urban fairy tales written by half wits for half wits. It will ruin you for other cop shows. Okay, I've said enough. (Okay, not quite, if you watched it last night, how broken is your heart? How much do you want to adopt those kids?)

(Oh, and one more thing -- watching this show, seeing all these AMAZING African American actors that you've never seen before, you want to see them all more, in movies, in other shows, and it really makes you realize how few great roles there are for African American actors, and how seldom they get cast in roles that are "race blind". Ptthhhwwwwt!)

Also, while at my parents' house last night I took a few pictures of my mom's Christmas decor, including some of the contents of the "toy cupboard" which is an antique pie safe complete with punched tin doors, that becomes a toy display for the holidays. So fun!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Run -- the Santas are coming!!!

As luck would have it, when I happened across a migration of Santas I didn't have my camera. Frick! In bygone days, those hundreds of slightly drunk santas lumbering across the Burnside bridge would have been just a glimmering dream I tried to describe to people ("No, really: hundreds!"), but today, in the age of technology, of course, I found their blog. Santarchy, Santacon, it is a phenomenon that goes by various names. All across the country, the santas are gathering. There are pirate santas and superman santas, two-headed santas and stilt-walking santas, and I'm sure many other freakish varieties of santas. What do they do? I don't know. I think maybe they just meet somewhere and walk across town together, like performance art.

Alexandra and I were coming back from a girly day at the mall (saw a chic flick, bought matchling leg warmers -- really), driving through downtown Portland on the way back to her cool new apartment, and we saw a few straggling posses of santas here and there. Nothing too dramatic, just enough to make you say, "Hm. Santas." But after I dropped her off ("accidentally" keeping her pair of legwarmers, by the way, heh heh) I started seeing more. And more. It was jaw-dropping. So many fricking santas! And me without my camera! (My kingdom for a camera!!) I couldn't be bothered to go home and get it and go back out on santa safari, though the thought sort of flickered through my mind. But maybe next year I will know about it in advance, and Jim and I can become santas too. What kind, I wonder. Maybe devil santas. Or monkey santas.

In cookie news -- help! -- I can't stop baking! Latest: pecan mandelbrot (like biscotti) and chocolate crinkles. Plus the dough for chocolate mint sandwiches, filled with ganache and dipped in chocolate. Oy. And I keep thinking of more cookies I want to make! I simply must stop this madness.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Keep reading for insults:

Cookie update: snickerdoodles and almond macaroons: check. My friend Chary came over yesterday evening to keep me company while I baked, and Jim poured us dainty cordial glasses of port which we refilled with un-dainty regularity. Chary is actually the baking queen, and next week we make take on pistachio macaroons from Nigella, which is a bit of a complicated cookie, involving grinding pistachios and piping dough into cute little merenguey poufs. Ooh la la. Fancy!

Chary is also a crafting queen (we met when we both sold our wares at Portland Saturday Market), and my mom commissioned her to make these mini stockings which will be for -- get this -- tucking the silverware into on the holiday table. Picture these cuties with a knife and fork peeking out! They're made out of cut-up sweaters, by the way. Cute!

Now, in the spirit of the holidays, a selection of "insult greatest hits" that my sister emailed me today:

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
-- Winston Churchill

"A modest little person, with much to be modest about."
-- Winston Churchill

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great
-- Clarence Darrow

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the
-- William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
-- Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

"Thank you for sendi ng me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time
reading it."
-- Moses Hadas

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I
-- Abraham Lincoln

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."
-- Groucho Marx

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved
of it."
-- Mark Twain

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends."
-- Oscar Wilde

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play, bring a
friend... if you have one."
-- George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is
-- Winston Churchill, in response

"I feel so miserable without you, it's almost like having you here."
-- Stephen Bishop

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator."
-- John Bright

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."
-- Irvin S. Cobb

"He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others."
-- Samuel Johnson

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up."
-- Paul Keating

"He had delusions of adequacy."
-- Walter Kerr

"There's nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won't cure."
-- Jack E. Leonard

"He has the attention span of a lightning bolt."
-- Robert Redford

"They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human
-- Thomas Brackett Reed

"He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by
diligent hard work, he overcame them."
-- James Reston (about Richard Nixon)

"In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily."
-- Charles, Count Talleyrand

"He loves nature in spite of what it did to him."
-- Forrest Tucker

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on
-- Mark Twain

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."
-- Mae West

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."
-- Oscar Wilde

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts...for support
rather than illumination."
-- Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

"He has Van Gogh's ear for music."
-- Billy Wilder

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Guilt & Cupcakes

Apparently my Christmas posts have made my parents feel a little guilty -- my dad for cursing putting up tree lights, and my mom for "Millenium Falconing" her sneaky son. I guess she really didn't give him the toy, and now she feels bad about it! As a joke we thought we would ebay it and see if we could get him one now to make up for that biggest disappointment of his childhood, but alas, they're a bit too pricey for a gag gift.

I didn't mean to make them feel guilty, though. I have the most wonderful memories of Christmas for as far back as I can remember. There's one story that I can't tell without Jim mocking me for sounding like I had some heiress-type childhood, and I so didn't. I get what he means though, because that story starts, "The year I was twelve we went to the Alps for Christmas. . ." Sure, it conjures Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous a little, but you have to visualize a battered green VW bus chugging its way up into the mountains! Still, VW or not, it was awesome. I can also say of that trip, "We went on a one-horse open sleigh ride for my birthday." That was as good as it sounds! That was our first [of not many] family ski trip. And when we got home to southern Italy, Santa had been there ahead of us!

And there was the year I got my dollhouse. I think I was eleven. My dad built it by hand and it is huge and amazing and is in the garage now awaiting a day when it can come live in the house - a house within a house - and get a new coat of paint and maybe a family to live in it. It's too big for our current house, though, and shall have to bide its time for its new life to begin.

There are many, many wonderful Christmas memories, and my parents shouldn't feel guilty about anything. (Well, mom, except maybe for exiling all our lovely hand-made elementary school ornaments! For shame. Don't you love us anymore?) (ha ha ha -- just kidding! Please, leave them in exile!)

As requested, here is that cupcake recipe. I didn't do any baking last night, as Alexandra and I went to my parents' house to arrange my mom's holiday "toy cupboard" which is like getting to do an old-fashioned toy store window display. But I forgot to bring the camera, so I'll take pictures of it later.

Cardamom-orange cupcakes:
for the cupcakes:
1 c sweet butter, softened
1 c superfine flour
2 c self rising flour (or 2 c reg flour + 1 tbsp baking powder)
4 eggs
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp orange extract
1 tsp orange zest

1. Preheat to 350. Combine all ingredients and mix until smooth.
2. Pour into paper baking cups in a muffin pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until toothpick yadda yadda. (I used mini muffin cups and baked them for 12 minutes.)
3. Make frosting:

2 c powdered sugar
1/2 c sweet butter, softened
1/4 c sour cream
1-1/2 tbsp orange zest
1 tsp orange extract
Beat together until smooth and put on cooled cupcakes. If you're feeling spendy you can buy whole cardamom pods to put on top. That's that. Enjoy!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Butter, sugar, coffee, beer, snails, eggnog & first & second kisses

From mid-November to mid-January, Jim and I stop putting milk in our coffee and put eggnog instead. If eggnog was available year around, we would do it year around, but I’m glad it isn’t because I like the specialness of seasonal things.

I set out about acquiring a taste for coffee when I was 17 and living in Paris. I thought it de rigueur. I worked my way up to it with cafes au lait, standing at the counters of bars in Spain and Portugal and Italy and eating a pastry for breakfast along with a big milky bowl of coffee. But by fall I deemed it time to graduate to pure, gnarly espresso. I wonder now how well I controlled the blanche of bitterness that must have been written all over my face as I forced it down! But I did it. And when I would go each afternoon to pick up fierce Antoine from school, I would wait at the cafe opposite with my little cup of bitterness. Antoine was six and a tyrant. He cheated horribly at marbles and liked escargot so much he always wanted it for a snack after school.

I had earlier made myself acquire a taste for alcohol with the same sort of conscientiousness as coffee. When I was 14 my family moved from Italy to Belgium. My older brother had gone ahead of us so he could start the football season, so he already knew everyone at the tiny American school by the time the rest of us arrived. In fact, I think he had already been kicked off the football team for falling through the ceiling while hiding out in it to smoke. Anyway, shortly after our arrival, he took me “downtown” with him. The Americans in Brussels lived in farflung outlying neighborhoods with names like Kraainem and Sterrebeek and Terveuren, and the older kids would meet up downtown most weekend nights in one of two or three bars, to drink beer and dance to songs like “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds, which was then, ulp, new! (Did I mention I am turning 35 in a few weeks? EGAD!)

The first time Alex brought me down there I was cajoled into buying a bottle of some kind of booze, I don’t remember what, only that it was for highschool seniors. I’m sure I didn’t drink more than a sip. We younger girls drank beer with grenadine in it to make it sweet and pink! Isn’t that cute (or not!) The other thing we did was buy bottles of cheap wine and take them up to the 7th floor of a particular parking structure. The way we referred to it as “The Seventh Floor” made it sound like a bar or something, but it was just a parking structure. There, the night before we moved back to the States I had my second-ever kiss, after a disgusted hiatus of 2+ years from kissing after the first one from the Italian-orphan-drummer with the rat’s tail in the back of his hair (ah, 1984!). This kiss was much more agreeable. I’d had a crush on the boy for a year -- I just remembered he was a drummer too! My first two kisses were drummers. Huh. -- and it was a kind of torture to finally kiss him and then get on a plane the next day for California.

Ah, my dissolute youth! Actually, not. I was a good kid. I started 10th grade in Orange County in 1987, and though I’m sure drugs must have been swirling like a tornado all around me, I never even got so much as a glimpse of them. My good-girl aura prevented me ever being offered anything. Ever. Weird now that I think of it. Drugs were not, however, so invisible to my brother, who got kicked off the new football team too, got a mohawk, and dropped out of school. (He is now very successful, I feel compelled to add.) So that’s the history of my forced taste-acquisition of coffee and beer!

In summation: put eggnog in your coffee; do not feed snails to six-year-olds; some drummers are gross kissers but not all; and do NOT put grenadine in your beer (unless you’re a 14-year-old girl and it’s 1986).

And the holiday baking spree continues. Yesterday several more sticks of butter were rendered into deliciousness. Those are cardamom-orange mini cupcakes pictured above (they'll be cuter when they're frosted, but wow, they taste good) and these are coconut-cream filled macaroons, from Martha.

Coconut-cream-filled Macaroons

for the cookie:
3 c unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 c gran. sugar
1 tbsp flour
2 lrg egg whites
1 tsp coconut extract
1 tsp melted butter
1/8 tsp coarse salt

for filling:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
2 tbsp cream of coconut (this can sometimes be found at the supermarket with the dacquiri mixers and such)
1/4 c veg shortening
3/4 c powdered sugar
1 tsp coconut extract

1. Make cookie mixture: Stir together coconut, sugar, flour, egg whites, butter, extract, and salt. Refrigerate, covered, at least one hour, or overnight.
2. Preheat over to 325. For heaping tsps of dough into balls and gently flatten onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake about 10 minutes, until edges start to turn golden. Cool completely.
3. Make filling: Cream butter, coco cream, shortening together. Add powdered sugar and extract and beat until fluffy and pale, 2-3 minutes.
4. Assemble. Use a heaping tsp of filling per sandwich. Eat them all immediately and swoon in a sugar stupor for the rest of the day. Or, share.

I'm a coconut fan. I often used to choose coconut cakes or pies for my birthday, and that worked out well for my mother because it's easy to make a coconut cake look Christmasy, and I'm a Christmas baby (almost). My sweet husband has made my last couple of birthday cakes. He usually wants pie or cheesecake for his birthday. I realize I seem fixated on sweets these days, but it's December. December is for sugar and butter. And coconut. And let us not forget. . . chocolate.

(If someone wants the cupcake recipe, let me know.)

Faeries and devils and imps -- Oh my! (oh, and cookies, too!)

Since the flap copy is in its final version, I decided it was okay to put it up here. This is what my book is about! And here's the first line:

The wolf tasted the babe's face with the tip of his tongue and pronounced her sweet.

I love first lines. I love beginnings of stories in general. I love it when characters haven't yet met and the reader witnesses their paths beginning to converge. I love meetings. And you know what else I love? Gingersnap-raspberry sandwich cookies! (How's that for a transition?)
This is the third year I've made them and they are becoming one of my favorites. Here's the recipe, originally from Martha:

1/4 lb (1 stick) butter
1/4 c veg shortening
2 c sugar
2 c all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1/4 c pure maple syrup
1 large egg, beaten
raspberry jam

1. Preheat over to 375; line baking sheets with parchment
2. Cream butter, shortening and one cup of sugar.
3. In another bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon & ginger
4. Add maple syrup to butter mixture; combine.
5. Beat in egg.
6. Reduce speed to low and slowly add flour mixture until well blended.
7. Place remaining cup of sugar in a bowl. Measure roughly 2 tsp of dough and form into a ball and roll in sugar until coated.Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheet, flattening a little into a disc with the palm of your hand. Space balls of dough 3 inches apart.
8. Bake until golden, about 12 minutes, turning baking sheet halfway through.
9. When cool, spoon about 2 tsp of raspberry jam onto one cookie and spread; then sandwich another cookie on top, making sandwiches.

These are very easy, and the texture is perfect for a sandwich. Just a little chewy so it doesn't crumble all over when you bite it. And one thing I love about ball cookies like this is they bake into perfectly round cookies of uniform size, like they're from a bakery or something. For some reason, I love that. Try these. They're awesome.

And you know what else is awesome? (See, I used that transition again.) This:

The lovely and talented and thoughtful Judy Wise sent me this print as a surprise because I loved the original so much when she posted it on her blog. She sneakily got my address from Alexandra so it was an out-of-the-blue treat and it really made my day! I LOVE it!!! My mom and Alexandra and I have loved Judy's work since long before we connected here on the blogs, and that is just one more reason to love this world of words and pictures that has widened my circle of kindred spirits SO dramatically. Thank you, Judy! Can't wait to meet you in person, either at Artfest, or sooner. Oh, and if anyone hasn't seen them, Judy is making dolls now, and they are so great it makes me hope that there is not a finite amount of talent and creativity in the universe, because if there is -- she is using more than her fair share!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Christmas Trees & Curses

Not that kind of curse. (About that, though, one thing Jim & I were both astonished by when we started decorating our Christmas trees together 8 years ago was this: it is not necessary to curse when putting up tree lights. Growing up we both got the impression that it was the most complex operation in the world, the way our dads both cursed -- and my dad is pretty mild-mannered and not a big curser, so I thought it must be a horrible job; all I can guess is that lights are much better than they used to be and are now curse-optional.) So, not that kind of cursing, this kind: (drumroll) I finally finished the revision of my story "Spicy Little Curses Such As These." Yay halleluja! It turned out to be half revision and half rewrite, with an expensive detour into research, and took more time than it should have. And while it was taking more time than it should have, I hit a patch of writer's paralysis that many of you will be familiar with, the kind where you know you were sitting at your computer for hours, but at the end of the day all you have to show for it is a few rearranged sentences and a lot of anxiety? Well, I have now come to recognize the value of those days: they make me desperate. Desperate to move past whatever part of the story is causing me such anguish. Desperate. (Having just now learned how to italicize in the blogs, I am making up for lost time.) And I finally DO move on; I pull myself together, grit my teeth, roll up my sleeves, and write through it. But it really takes getting to one's wit's end. Wit's middle just doesn't create sufficient desperation.

This was a good little side-track for me and I'm glad I took the time to work on "Spicy" because it reminded me on a small scale of things I learned on a large scale over the 2+ years I worked on Blackbringer. One thing is this: it might take a few drafts to "find the story." You might think you know what it's "about" when you start out, and you might be right, but in my case: probably not. Magical things happen inside the story, a little world grows like a garden, and you just don't know starting out what will get eaten by gophers and what will flourish. In the case of Spicy, the story stayed the same, but the center shifted so it revolved around a new focal point that didn't exist in the floundering of the first few drafts. In the case of Blackbringer, there were BIG pieces of the story that I didn't "find" until I'd been working on it for over a year. And they were revelations. I think of those moments as making a sound like a "snick" -- the sound of a puzzle piece settling into place. And why that is such a perfect word for it is it's not just a sound. You can feel it. You know what I mean? When the puzzle piece snicks into place?

At the SCBWI conferences they kick things off by having the whole faculty of writers, illustrators, editors, art directors, etc, file across the stage and say a single identifying word into the microphone; it's great fun. I think, if I were ever up there, my word might be "snick" -- but no one would get it and they wouldn't laugh or nod approval. They'd look sort of puzzled and polite and I wouldn't want that. But it really is such an important piece of my writing: searching for the snick. It makes everything else worth it and gives me a high that counterbalances any amount of writer's paralysis. So, the reason I'm so glad to have had this little reminder is because it renews my faith in my current novel project. It helps me remember to keep going, to not expect to know everything yet; to know I won't know anything unless I do keep going. Phew!

And now, onto Christmas preparations! We decorated the tree last night. Love doing that. We make mulled wine and build a fire; it's just the two of us and Leroy underfoot because the snapping of the wood scares him and makes him restless. (Shiloh, meanwhile, snoozed unconcerned in another room.) Here are some favorite ornaments:

We got this green glass angel in Venice the day Jim asked me to marry him! And the little red horse I've had since I was a kid.

Cute old-fashioned Santa! I got this for Jim's stocking a few years ago because I really wanted it for the tree!

A Laini's Ladies holiday ornament, and one of the silly clay guys I made in a fever of creation last Christmas. I had so much fun with them! Here's another:

And another folk arty guy:

And here's the living room, looking like Christmas just threw up on it:

After we cleaned up that mess, we wrapped some presents so there would be some to put under the tree. Five or six years ago we couldn't have done that: Leroy was then extremely perplexed by the idea of an outdoor tree indoors and he thought outdoor rules applied. So yes, there was random leg lifting, and hence, no presents under the tree. But he has learned at last.

What's on the Christmas agenda for today? Probably gingersnap-raspberry-jam sandwich cookies, and/or maybe mini cupcakes. Hm.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Christmas minus 23 days

December is here! The Christmas countdown is on. I'm still a kid about Christmas. I love it. My family has always made a big deal about it, we "kids" leaving cookies out for "Santa" long after we stopped believing (though one year when we were teenagers we left him "space cabbage" which was really cauliflower dyed with food coloring. Santa did not eat it.). I think that when we did figure out the hoax we kept quiet about it, seeing no possible good that could come from not believing in Santa. Now we are all in our 30s and we still spend every Christmas day at my parents' house (last year was my first one away, spent with Jim's family); we still hang our stockings, though now we are the "elves" who help stuff them for each other, and my sister, the "baby" of the family, still wakes up at the crack of dawn and yells "Santa came!" to wake the house.

Stockings are my favorite. My mom has several times broached the subject of turning the stocking responsibility over to our spouses, but my sister and I have retaliated by saying if she does, we will leave hers to our father's shopping devices, and that ends that discussion! We have agreed that all other gift-giving would go away sooner than stockings would.

Since I love December so much, and all the preparations for Christmas, I thought I would post a little bit about it every day. Pictured above is the most spectacular white pointsettia ever. You can't really tell, but it's about waist-high and just magnificent. We also got our tree yesterday, a noble fir which is gorgeous but turns out to have NO fragrance. Bummer. We're going to decorate it tonight. I've also begun baking -- I made shortbread in the adorable new shortbread pan my mother gave me, which imprints delicate snowflakes on the top of each piece. More cookies are soon to follow. Between us we made 18 kinds last year. Totally over the top, but we give most of them away. (Though the time before that happens, when the freezer is crammed with tupperware, is a very dangerous time.)

Happy December!