Sunday, November 29, 2009

Small Blessings Warm Economic Winter

This past year has been one of the strangest periods I've ever lived through. Last October the world seemed to freeze when the recession hit. Everyone hunkered down, afraid to move, make decisions or spend money.

How bizarre is it when selling a house or finding even a part-time job becomes the stuff of miracles? All the normal course of life we took for granted vanished.

For too many people, it's like starting over. They've lost homes and jobs and feel like they are at a dead end. It's not simply a matter of going out and finding another job at this point. Let's pray the economy thaws soon.

I'm reminded of when I was young and poor and working my way through college. Many hopes for a bright future but the present reality was a slim budget and a non-material lifestyle. I lived by faith and found pleasure in people, nature, my own creativity and growth. The simple little things, like walking through the woods and cooking a meal with a friend. And I had the pleasure of seeing my modest needs met through what seemed to be miraculous circumstances--often through the spontaneous kindness of friends and strangers.

Now, while I wait for spring, I'm experiencing again the joy and peace of living by faith and celebrating the small blessings that come our way.

My daughter Nikki is expecting a baby in two weeks. A couple of months ago I asked my friend Candace if there was a good consignment shop locally to buy baby clothes. She said that she had just sorted through her daughters' clothes and pulled out six months to 18 months and did I want them? And I could have her high-tech gorgeous baby swing, too. Candace is a real Georgia peach.

This isn't the only generosity that has come Nikki's way. Her friends and co-workers both threw showers and her in-laws bought almost all the baby furniture she needs. How wonderful is that? Nikki and Chris are a typical young couple just getting started on their career tracks. Nikki will be attending graduate school starting January. Her financial aid came through and it will pay full tuition and extra to live on, another blessing.

My brother in Maine is starting over, too, with rueful good humor about the turn his life has taken. He was laid off from a very good job with the railroad and ended up separating from his wife and moving in with my mother, a widow. Not exactly where he wanted to be at age 40 plus. He has a part-time chroming business that will likely be very lucrative once he can get his shop up and running again, but it wouldn't work in my mother's house. So she suggested he build a shop/apartment on her land. He put the word out and the appliances and fixtures for the apartment were free or practically given to him! All the building materials have been bargains, too--he is building a 24 x 24 shop for less than $3,000.

I still own a house in New Hampshire (waiting for my miracle!) and the friends living there burn a lot of wood. I just had to get the chimneys cleaned this year. The price for that has almost doubled, to $250 for two chimneys. When I mentioned it, they told me that one of their fathers had the tools and did it for free. Another small blessing.

When we're prosperous and busy, we often don't even see or need the small blessings. We can buy whatever we want. But right now we are in economic winter and every ray of sunshine, every promise of spring, is welcome. And when we're back in full summer, I hope never to forget the miracle of small blessings.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Waiting Room

Right now we are waiting for responses from six agents reviewing our work. One for screenplays, the other five for partials or full manuscripts of my books. I wrote the first installment in a historical mystery series and a young adult historical novel a while ago and decided recently to re-enter the "getting published" marathon.

Not too long ago, you could directly approach most publishers. But now, many require an agent as a pre-screening mechanism. Agents are firmly in the power seat as gatekeepers.

Fortunately many allow email queries and many have been surprisingly prompt about replying, either with a no or a request for more. Right now, about half are responding positively to the mystery series. The YA is a bit of a harder sell, as it is very different from what is out there.

Finding the right agent can seem like a quest for the Holy Grail. First, they have to be open to new clients. Then they have to "love" your work and "be enthusiastic" about it. Some have websites so intimidating with their talk of representing "only the best" writers that you want to fold the cover of your laptop and slink away. Others--like the ones I hope to work with--seem genuinely nice, approachable and helpful to writers.

It takes weeks to get a decision. And that waiting time is fraught with the usual pitfalls of self-doubt, impatience and perhaps, most dangerously, a tendency to put your writing on hold. Probably because getting an agent seems like the next logical, necessary step. Why should I work on book two of my series if it ain't going to fly? I'm at the point in my writing career where I have many many ideas. I don't want to slave for years anymore on spec. And yet, I know that unless I heed the stories and characters that live in my head, demanding to be released, writing will be no more than just another job. And, with due respect to industry professionals, it isn't wise to assign them too much power over what I write, or how, or to put myself on hold for their decisions.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Unusual Uses for Peaches

We're living in the peach belt. Yay, ten miles up the road is a huge orchard with a dozens of types of peaches ripening in waves all summer long.

So besides biting into a ripe one and letting the juice run down your face, what can you do with peaches? Not content to make pies and cobbler, although they are luscious, I did a little research and experimentation.

First up: Peach Salsa. A lovely condiment to use as garnish, in Mexican food, with chips or with scrambled eggs.

My adaption of a recipe on line (a small batch):
2 peaches, peeled and diced
1 Georgia tomato, diced
1/2 Vidalia onion, diced
1/2 green pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, pressed
red pepper
black pepper
juice from 1/2 lime
no cilantro, don't like it

Dan added (much better):
1/2 tbl. molasses
1/2 tbl. balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt
dash of basil

Stir and let ripen in the fridge. Yummy.

Next, the Italian way to eat peaches, from

Slice peaches into glass
Fill with wine
Eat peaches with tip of a knife

If you want, you can let the peaches soak in the wine for a while, with a couple of teaspoons of sugar and dash of nutmeg or cloves.

Leave it to the Italians to figure out how to add wine into a peach recipe. (I am one, you know)
My great-grandparents came from Barga, Italy, a gorgeous Tuscan town on top of a mountain.

Next, I'll be trying another Italian recipe, Marmellata di Pesche, also made with wine. Natch.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Good Recipe for Zucchini

Or, what to do with those giant green things in your garden.

At the farmer's market the other day, I was buttonholed by Bob Bradbury, an older gentleman who sells honey. "Do you want a taste?" he asked, brandishing a paper cup and a squeeze bottle. No, I replied. We already bought some. And we had, in an attempt to cure Dan's allergies with local honey. We're testing the theory that the local pollen in the honey will make him more resistant.

He switched gears and asked if I wanted a zucchini. He had a few giant ones that resembled a caveman's club. I prefer the very small tender ones. Sensing my imminent refusal, he waved a recipe sheet under my nose. Zucchini Seafood Casserole. "It's good," he said. "It's just me and my wife and we ate it for several days. It improved with age."

How could I resist? I had hoped to buy greens for a crustless quiche but there weren't any. Maybe we could do zucchini instead. Complimenting him on his salesmanship, I bought a 3-pounder and lugged it home.

I made up the recipe and it is much better than it sounds by the ingredients. I did make a couple of changes, to suit my tastes and I've noted those.

Bob Bradbury's Zucchini Seafood Casserole

4 cups peeled, sliced zucchini (remove seeds)
1 1/2 cups Bisquick
1 1/2 cups shredded American cheese (I used Velvetta)
1 cup chopped onion (I used about 1/2 onion)
3 eggs
1 6.5 oz. can tuna, crab meat, or salmon (I used a 4 oz. can of small shrimp)
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup milk)
1 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Spread into a greased baking dish. Bake at 375 degrees about 25-30 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The First Slow Cooker, circa 1920

Although I've heard a lot of comparisons of this recession to the Great Depression, I have seen very little advice about real belt-tightening or a return to older ways of living. Suggestions are as frivolous as giving up your lattes or downgrading (or even turning off) your cable. Heck, cable is so bad they should pay us to watch it.

In the interests of seeking out real advice that reflects true austerity, I turned to The Settlement Cook Book, picked up years ago in an antique store. Mine is so battered it doesn't have a cover. Originally published in 1901 to advise women on thrifty ways to feed two to forty, an inside advertisement depicting a flapper in a knee-length skirt indicates that this is an older version.

On page 19, I came across a truly revolutionary piece of advice: how to make a homemade fireless cooker. This would be essential in times when fuel is limited or perhaps when we are subject to rolling blackouts. The fireless cooker can cook anything from cereal to soup to a roast. You can even bake a cake in it.

Materials required:
A wooden butter tub, pail or any box with a cover
Newspapers (perhaps the rarest and most expensive item)
A seamless cooking kettle with a tight-fitting lid
An old kettle big enough to hold the cooking kettle
A flour sack or other cloth to make a pillow
For roasting, a "radiator" (looking for for info on this)

The outside box must be big enough to allow 2 or 3 inches of space around the old kettle.

To use:
Heat your food in the cooking kettle, either boiling cereal or soup for five minutes or braising your roast. Heat the rack piping hot if roasting or baking.

Pack 3 inches of tightly balled newspapers in the bottom of the tub or pail. Place the old kettle exactly in the middle and pack more balls around it. Place the sizzling hot radiator in the old kettle first, if needed, or if not, just the cooking kettle with the meal.

Cover the pots with the paper-stuffed pillow.

Let sit for 4 or 5 hours for soup or cereal; three or four for a roast. Cakes "take longer" than in conventional oven.

This could be a good method to use on these steamy hot summer nights or when camping.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pickets in Our Fence

Knocked out
Ripped down





for all our fallen peers...every week we lose someone...

Friday, May 1, 2009

Begins with J, ends with S...

A warning to beginning writers and artists of all types.

I finally read "The Artist's Way," by Julia Cameron, a mini-course in increasing creativity. My reluctance was due to my creativity being in the zone of "how can I shut it off?" The usual waking up at 4 a.m. full of ideas that flood out, the ten-year backlog of projects, the relentless drive to work every single day. 

But a friend highly recommended the book so I gave it a spin. One of Cameron's points really hit home. She talks about the impact of negative criticism on fledgling artists. This isn't creative criticism that instructs an artist how to improve; no, it is a wholesale slam.  She encouraged me to remember those callous and cruel words and counteract them with the opposite. The aim is to neutralize doubts that block you.

Somehow they came to mind, one by one. The "best friend" who responded to my first short story at 20, with "I wish I'd had my red pencil." (to edit) The boss who pigeonholed me by saying another employee "was the writer." The ex who refused to read my work, convinced that he would need to criticize it and I wouldn't be able to handle that. And, the quiet but damning disdain and refusal to read by certain folks regarding 2 Penney's work. (the same work called "witty and well-written" and "a good story" by industry professionals)

Dan, a musician since pre-teen years, is hardened to such things. He was told many times that he would never make it, he wasn't good,  etc. He and his brother wrote and recorded songs that made radio airplay in NY and LA. They performed hundreds of venues, including sharing the stage with Aerosmith and the Cars.  They played at the Rat in Boston and CBGB's in NY. A little more output than the critics.  The ones who tried to discourage me have never had anything published. 

It's really strange. Being a musician, artist, writer, even as a hobby, arouses a lot of envy and jealousy. "I always wanted to ---" alternates with the negative slams. Think about it. Your friend takes up tennis, for example. Do you say, "Oh, you'll never be John McInroe so why bother?" Hell no. Or, "have you gone pro yet?" (the equivalent of have you been published or do you have a recording contract) In their minds, any output less than a best-seller or song on the charts says that your work is meaningless and not a threat to their own egos.  The need to judge and label it actually says volumes about that, however!

Quite a difference from "That's cool. Hope you make it." Or, "Can I read it/listen to it/see it?"
I love to see other people's work. Besides often being enjoyable on its own merits, it is an insight into that person. And I find people interesting. 

Artists in general want to be recognized and appreciated. Read, viewed or listened to. Of course. But it's not just about that. We don't do it for acclaim and dollars, though they would be nice. Creating for purely commercial reasons is no more fun than working a job. It's the welling up of the creative impulse, the journey from idea to reality, that is the driver and the reward. 

So, my advice? Turn a deaf ear to advice or comments that try to discourage or discount you. Seek out the best work in your field and learn from it. If you're lucky to find fellow artists you trust, enjoy their company. Keep going as long as the creative spring is flowing. Rest when it isn't. And, remember what begins with J and ends with S. 

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Chicken and the Egg

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Actually, here in Gainesville, GA, it's Bob, our elderly neighbor and owner of one million laying hens.  Yes, I said, ONE MILLION. 

Bob is just one of many bird barons who populate Georgia. Poultry and eggs are the number one agricultural product, with a annual value of over $4 billion. The industry as a whole, including processing and supporting industries, has an economic impact of $18 billion. 

Gainesville owes so much to poultry power they erected a statue of a rooster in the middle of downtown. The founding father as it were, since roosters are neither eaten nor lay eggs. 

And in Georgia, chicken's not just for lunch or dinner anymore. Chick-fil-A, a fast food chain based in Atlanta, serves chicken on a biscuit for breakfast.  I guess at Chick-fil-A, it's chicken instead of an egg. But people love it.  Ex-residents speak of it fondly. Colleagues of mine made a stop before a morning meeting, talking about it as though it were a special treat. "You've never been?" they asked me in amazement. 

We took a trip over one lunchtime to see what all the "clucking" was about. We weren't quite ready to try breakfast. Sadly, we were both under-whelmed by our grilled chicken on a bun with limp lettuce and failed to see what inspired such devotion. 

But the eggs Bob gave us? Those were egg-stra-special. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Climate Change

Talking about the weather is a small-talk staple, handy in almost any situation. But although mocked as a trite topic, weather is so much more than that. Rain, snow, sun, ice: weather forms an ever changing backdrop to our daily lives. The drama of a crippling blizzard or ice storm. The sensuous pleasure of  long, sunny days. The downright dreariness of a wet week. Our moods, outlook and health are affected by the weather. 

In New Hampshire's North Country, weather's impact goes even deeper. The tourism and wood industry based economies depend on the right weather to operate, whether concerning snowfall, leaf color or frozen ground to hold heavy equipment. We have such great dependence and so little control. 

Ah, a North Country winter. They start with spitting snow in October and end in April with frigid winds and a last snowfall or two. Spring is hard-earned, a sweet reward after an endurance test of below zero temps and towering snowbanks. Slippery roads and high heating bills. Inky, icy dark at four p.m. 

I spent twenty-four years in New Hampshire. I used to laugh at "snow-birds" and consider them wimps. I cross-country skied, snow-shoed, hiked and even camped (once!) in winter. The sight of pink alpine glow across the snow-topped mountains was one of my favorite sights. 

So what happened? I got tired. Tired of being cold for eight months each year. Tired of seeing fall come earlier and earlier. (like August 15th) Remember the dog days of summer--so hot the road tar was soft under your sneakers as you plodded to the lake? Despite reports of global warming, it seems like we're still getting long, cold winters but summers just aren't what they used to be. 

The weather was a big factor in our decision to move to Georgia. I'm a self-diagnosed sufferer of seasonal affective disorder. Endless gray days make me feel blah. Until you're out of it, you don't realize how stressful winter is, mentally and physically. And lately, economically. $4 a gallon heating oil drove me out. 

As I write this, on February 9, it is 72 degrees and sunny. There is a soft southerly breeze. I feel energized and optimistic. To me, a hot sunny day is like a Christmas present. And Christmas lasts nine months in the South.  

Friday, January 16, 2009

Drops of Encouragement

There are many big questions in life and one of them is, how do you know you are on the right path? 

Sometimes it's easy. Doors fly open, you get the job on the first interview, you hit a home run on the first swing. Right place, right time. So sweet. You hear a lot about flow, what it means when the Universe and your desires line up. No striving, no straining, no uncertainty or doubt. Riding the current right into an ocean of fulfillment. With a white sand beach and drinks under the umbrella. 

But even a river has rocks and side pools that trap branches and leaves. A writing career is like that.  The first and biggest boulder is doubt about whether you are any good at all.  It's not as objective as getting the math formulas right. 

My writing life blossomed late. Writing was always a desire, and I did well on school papers, but I never really sat down to do it as a young adult. Too busy figuring out life and then I got busy with raising a family and building a career. I wrote in a journal now and then but instead of a perfect and descriptive stream of consciousness, my output was more working out thoughts and feelings. Not anything you want published. (did I burn those, by the way?)

My first major writing project was writing case study tutorials for a small business program. A little fiction to illustrate a key learning point, like how to prepare a cash flow or marketing plan. When it first came up, I thought as always, I can't do that! But I did. About 10 of them. Was paid, too--$500 each. Not bad for 1992. 

That started my business writing output. For three years, I was chief writer and editor for a quarterly small business newspaper. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of words: business advice, resources, interviews, industry news, study results, etc. I published newspaper articles, too, wrote business and strategic plans, proposals, reports, web text--you name it.

For me, business writing was a textbook example of flow. It came easily and I was paid. Plenty of good feedback and opportunities. Now I do freelance business journalism, mainly for the NH Business Review. Yes, even from Georgia. Great gig.

Then I decided to write fiction. For several years I toiled on mystery novels and a young adult book. My forte was historical novels. I had good feedback from readers but an unsupportive spouse (not Dan!). Boy, when you send stuff out to agents and publishers, do you come up hard against that first big rock: is my work any good? You tend to vacillate between, hey not bad and boy do I suck. Then I'd read another poorly written, badly edited novel and realize, I'm better than this and it got published. 

The next big rock: fitting your now self-deemed OK work with the right agent or publisher at the right time. Ha. I started doing this just as publishers dumped most of their mid-list, i.e. they decided to focus on blockbusters instead of a nice range of something for everyone. Kind of like how Hollywood is now putting out cartoon action figure movies, sequels or remakes. Check it out. At least 80% falls into those categories. 

Trying to get published is like throwing a ball blindfolded through a basket that keeps changing size and moving. And sometimes you don't know if you miss for months. Then that envelope comes. Da da DA! The rejection letter. You rip it open and carefully parse the generic and poorly photocopied text for any tidbit of valid feedback.  I've had some good ones, personal correspondence that says, basically, "well-written but not quite right for us at this time." Well-written! Yay! "Your writing is engaging." Engaging! Wow, even better. I like a good engaging novel. 

A drop of encouragement. And like blue food coloring in a bowl of water, that encouragement spreads, tinging everything with hope. 

I guess I will keep writing.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Georgia New Year's Day Feast

Goodbye to 2008, which was a very tough year for almost everyone.  Dan says, "Good riddance!"
With great optimism, we say hello to 2009!

A Southern tradition for prosperity and good luck is a feast of black eyed-peas, collards and corn bread. Naturally I decided to try it. We can use all the prosperity and good luck available.

My new friend, Rosann, a Georgia native, gave me some great tips. "Flavor those black-eyed peas. They're pretty bland." So, after soaking them all day, I put them in the crock pot with onion, garlic, a chili pepper, ham hocks and lots of salt and pepper. Boy, did they smell good this morning when we got up!

The collards came in great green leafy bunches from the grocery store, freshly harvested locally. Georgia's growing season extends into winter for cold weather crops. So different from the frozen snow covered fields of New England at this time of year! Rosann said to trim the tough white stem off the greens and cut them up. Using a Martha Stewart recipe, I simmered them in broth and red pepper flakes for an hour. 

Rosann, a self-proclaimed Corn Bread Queen, told me to bake the corn bread in an iron skillet in the oven. "It's the only way," she said, to get a delicious crispy crust. She told me you can add anything to corn bread: onion, cheese, chilis, even pork cracklings. I decided to stick with classic Jiffy mix today. It always comes out good.

Once the corn bread had browned in a 400 degree oven, we served up big bowls. The dish was really good, far better than it sounds. The slightly sweet corn bread complements the rich and tasty peas and greens. Crumbled in the juice is my favorite way to eat it.

Whatever you decide to do, eat and drink today, we wish you the best of fortune and good luck in 2009!