May 30, 2015

Unofficially Summer

    

     Memorial Day 2015 has come and gone and without very much fanfare at my house. The weather was lovely, warm but not humid and a long holiday weekend was the perfect time to get in some final writing on my upcoming trilogy, Whetstone. It was a working holiday, but even though much of it was spent on my computer, I definitely cannot complain about spending some time indoors doing some editing. Embroiling myself in my novels rarely gets tedious. Once the idea has been clearly formed in my mind, as well as many of the phrases and conversations between the characters, the writing begins. At that point all of the people and situations are three dimensional in my mind and the writing is simply letting the descriptions of it pour out onto the paper. Then I write and write and read and write and read some more. By the time I have read my story over a dozen times I feel like I have been at Stavewood or Whetstone long enough and it is then that the book is ready. That's when I feel the book has said all it needs to say and it is time to finish it up, sit down with my editor, get it formatted and uploaded, approved by the publisher and off to the printer. And then I start to form my next novel and the excitement begins all over again.

 Spring roses in my garden

     I love to write and I am always thankful that I love every aspect of it and after all the hours and work it's time to order a proof. A proof is the first copy of the new novel. My book is finally printed on paper and beautifully bound with a cover and now I can hold it in my hand. It still gives me the most incredible thrill. This is my last chance to be sure the book is as perfect as I can make it, the final check for any mistakes. There are always things that can only be seen when the book is that close to its final form. With my first novel, Stavewood, I had to do five proofs before I was happy and now, after several more novels, I could even polish it up more, but as with any kind of art there is a time to set it aside and move on. Now one proof usually does it, shows me anything I might like to tweak and with a word from my wonderfully patient editor it goes to print and up for sale. Then I can get excited again. As I get close, like I am now with the Whetstone trilogy, I think about a quote from Edmond Mbiaka, “Wishing for something without tirelessly working for it, is like trying to drive a car that has no fuel in it.” I am always thankful that I have the natural motivation to devote my full efforts to my dreams and that as result many of them have come true.

      But alas, now and again I do put off things I could and should do every day, and so it was again with my funny little kitchen. It has taken me a couple of years and a rather general plan but I have finally finished everything I set out to do. My original dream involved contractors and knocking down walls and adding long expanses of counters. Now my life is different than when we bought this house and one day I decided to accept the challenge of making it the best itty-bitty-city kitchen I could. I took everything out of the cabinets and thought about making it work no matter the size. I pulled out the spices (I have lots) and got back that space by lining them up on shelves beneath the cabinets, as I showed in an earlier post. I made many other changes as well but the one thing that remained that made me completely crazy was the wall behind the stove. It is painted with flat paint like the rest of the room and it is impossible to keep clean. I scrubbed it and repainted it several times and was never happy. It looked terrible and was far too much work to keep up. I needed a back splash.
      Now I didn’t want the same thing that is on my counters and sink surround. It would have been a lot of work and wouldn't have been the right solution. I considered tile, then tin and finally a sledge hammer. All of these ideas seemed like an awful lot of work for just a little thing. Then I found this stuff:

 A bundle of wainscoting

     When I did my spice shelves I bought a bundle of wainscoting to use for thin shelves. It worked great, but the bundle had many more pieces than I needed. I put them away in the basement. A few weeks ago I pulled out all of my holiday decorations for a good sorting and found the bundle. I decided to wainscot behind the stove. (Is wainscot a verb? This is why I love my editor).
      I should have done this years ago! It took about two lousy hours and I love it! I got industrial glue sticks for my industrial glue gun, pulled the stove out from the wall, scrubbed the floor underneath because… well you can imagine… and went to it. I only used the glue gun, glue sticks, a level, a pencil and a small hacksaw.

      The pieces have a nice groove along them so that they fit right into one another and it is not much harder than building with Legos. I drew a level line along the wall, right above a crack that had been annoying me anyway, and put glue on each strip, fit it into the piece before it, and held it against the wall for several seconds.

 The wall before:

      I had to make a few cuts, not many, to go around an outlet and light switch and then I painted it with four coats of very high gloss white paint. That’s when I kicked myself for not getting moving and doing it a long time ago. It is so glossy it practically says no to spatters, wipes right off and brightens up my cooking area. I’m happy. Now back to getting Whetstone on the shelves out there for summer reading!


The installed strips with a piece of molding along the top edge:

Finished:






Please come again!


May 23, 2015

The One That Got Away

 

 The Little Mermaid 
a bronze statue by Edvard Eriksen in Copenhagen, Denmark based on the fairy tale of the same name by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson.


      I changed my calendars this morning. Yes, it is the middle of May and I am very late doing that. This month really did get away from me. I can’t even say that I thought about doing it several times, like other things that I might not get to right away. I thought of it once, didn't do it and then it was two weeks later. I don’t even mind the job. It’s not that big a job, but it does take a bit of time when I do the one that hangs on my kitchen wall. Other than the fact that time is always slipping away, I enjoy changing out that wooden calendar. It’s a clever design and it brings pleasant memories to mind.

My perpetual calendar


      What a great idea, a perpetual calendar. True, you can't write on it, but I have a date book that I carry with me and I write in it plenty. In fact, it’s kind of nice that my wooden calendar has nothing except the month and the dates and highlights the major holidays with an array of little bits of wood bearing tiny illustrations. There’s a Christmas tree and an American flag, a pumpkin and a birthday cake. It also has a turkey, an Easter egg and a bunch of balloons. There is a snowman on one tile and sunshine on another. I suspect they are used to mark the beginning of summer and winter, but there are none for spring and fall. They are painted on the front and the back of the pieces and interestingly I have never run into an instance where I needed both sides of a piece in any given month. That’s quite clever that someone took the time to figure that out, but interestingly the calendar has the months on both sides of larger pieces, and this one came with June on both sides of one month piece. Someone messed up somewhere. When I discovered the duplicate month I sanded off one of the Junes with a sanding block and painted it to say May. All was right with the world.


 The pieces of the calendar

      I think I have had that little calendar for thirty years and wherever I have lived it is always one of the most important pieces to hang on my kitchen wall. The day I saw it, in a smashed little cheap box on a shelf in Woolworth’s five and dime, I simply had to have it. I wanted it so badly that I dug around in the bottom of my handbag, and then my car for the change I needed to get it. It was long before I had a convenient, and occasionally dangerous, debit card and could only shop with what I had in my pocket. I had to pay in sticky nickels and green pennies, but I have never regretted the purchase.

     Now I see plenty of things in the store and online I would like to have. Even some I might love, but once in a while the oddest thing becomes a "must have". Thankfully it doesn't happen too very often. While changing the calendar, and patting myself on the back for buying what I really, really wanted, I thought of other things I have that made my heart skip a beat when I first saw them.
     One is the piece of art that hangs by my front door. My husband and I were at an art show and in a hall, between many cubicles of stunning paintings, were the most beautiful works done in iron. Some of them were elaborate and some were simple. One of them definitely spoke to me. My darling husband pulled out the cash in his pocket, he’s much better at hanging onto money than I am, and he bought it for me. I see it every time I leave my house and it always makes me feel peaceful.


 Forged iron by Camille Leavitt

     And then I thought of the one that got away, the one I fell in love with and did not buy. It was only a few summers ago, and we had taken a trip together to Cape Cod. We went early, before the July rush, and we stayed in a little bed and breakfast on the north side of the cape. It was unusually hot then and our room was stuffy with one tiny air conditioner in a window that made a huge racket and did not keep the room cool. We spent little of our vacation time there. Instead we drove all over, from one end of the cape to the other. We saw sand and swans and beaches and hydrangeas everywhere. We had a crepe breakfast that still makes my mouth water and watched the sunset over the water, something I have not seen since I left my birthplace, California. It is probably the biggest thing I miss about living on the West coast.
      We visited many gift shops and found one particularly interesting with handmade pieces along with the usual collection of magnets and key chains. There was a mermaid there. She was cast in some kind of metal and she was large. She was leaning back onto her arms as if she were basking in the sun, painted pure white and from her seated backside to the top of her head I would guess she was three feet tall. I could barely lift her and I suspect she would have set off the seat belt sensor in the car.
      My husband joked that we’d have to sit her in between us in the front seat, since we had little room in the back and she was not in our vacation budget. I left her there. She really would have been a pain to get home since we did not have room for a great big mermaid in our car. And it would have been irresponsible to have spent money I didn't have when we were spending enough on our lovely vacation. I should just have been thankful. But, instead I imagine her riding between us the hundreds of miles over the highways from lovely Cape Cod to my home in Pennsylvania. She would have been a wonderful witness to our beautiful trip, right there on the console between us. I bet by the time we hit New York State she would have had a very exotic name and in my mind I would have imagined a hundred places she might belong in my home. She could have joined us listening to the music of the 60’s on Pandora radio and heard us getting tired as we finished the last leg of our journey across the Delaware River and hitting the turnpike towards home. In my imagination she would not have been in the way at all, and never have slid from the seat or have been a hazard while we were driving. In my mind it would all have been magical. And so there she will remain. There in my imagination as that one that got away and would have been so perfect… if only. Oh well. Unless of course I get back to Cape Cod, and find that shop and she’s still there waiting for me. That might still happen, and if it does then she will not have gotten away at all!


May 16, 2015

The Thief Procrastination


      As a modern day novelist I keep several accounts on social media. From these sources I get email and colorful words of inspiration. Sometimes they are encouraging and other times they are designed to amuse and delight. Recently I came across a list of excuses for authors. It was titled, “A ten week course for creative writers”. I can appreciate the humor that is intended in the list. I particularly enjoyed, “Finding the perfect font”. Once I had a good chuckle, I thought seriously about what the joke was saying.



      For anyone, especially a writer, procrastination can be a terrible thief. It’s a clever bandit because it seems so harmless. It sneaks up on a person with innocent excuses, stealing away one minute here and another there. Before you know it, it has taken away a day, a week, a month and then years. It’s gotten me. That old procrastination disguises itself in a harmless way but the place it lurks in a writer's mind is dark and dangerous. Whenever I find myself falling victim to this bandit I know it’s time to take a good look at where he resides. I have learned that the little demon that likes to help me procrastinate has a favorite hiding place comfortably seated is upon my self doubt.
      I think every writer, every artist, harbors doubt. They ask themselves if their work is good enough, if it’s profound, purposeful, meaningful and important. Since we are our own worst critics it can be easy to answer that question with a doubt filled “no”. I've been there. After I first wrote Stavewood I put it on the shelf for a very long time. I worked hard at it, and finished the first draft of it in only a few months and then I hid it away. Eventually I ran across it while cleaning and reread it. I had written what I like to read for the way I enjoy reading. I am not the person who has books stacked around me at all times and jumps from one novel to the next always seeking a constant stream of literary adventures. I applaud those who do, but I read differently. I pick up a book and read three chapters, five if they are short. If the book hasn't gotten to me I move on until I find one that captures my imagination. Once that happens I live that book. I read it constantly, enjoy the trip, and don’t put it down until it is finished. I immerse myself in the world of the author completely and then I return to reality. It is unusual for me to pick up another book immediately unless it is the next in a series or a continuance of the same story. And so, I write with that in mind. I put together a story to be swept into and that takes my readers to another place and another time, to briefly live out a moment in my characters’ lives. When I wrote Stavewood, even when writing the sequels, my intention was to carry you away for a little while from the now. Because of that I found that Stavewood was my kind of book. When I reread it I liked it.




      It was not until then that I really got active seeking out a publisher. Since I don’t market myself well, it took nerve and determination so when I got nice letters saying thanks, but no thanks, I kept at it. When I got discouraged I read it again. In those days I had to believe in myself. By the time I was finally published I had learned a huge lesson. Although I did not see it at the time, the thief procrastination had taken years of success from me. I often wish I had taken steps to get published long before I did. 

      Once I got serious and recognized procrastination for the thief he really is, my life changed. I realized that the little bugger was eating away at other things in my life too, and I started recognizing more and more how he works. He even tries to distract me with other responsibilities so that I can tell myself that I’m doing something else important. He’ll suggest that I clean the bathroom first, before I write, or that I check my email in case there’s something important in there. Now I know how he works and I still might let myself be pulled away but I see him and he’s not such a successful thief any longer. I confront him in myself and I  no longer linger over which font to use or rearranging my work space. Because I shine a light on where he is lurking and know how he gets to me I’m much less fooled by him. Now know him, he is me. He is the fear of failure and the question of my own ability. I remind myself that he might seem harmless but what he really is is the guarantee of failure. Because the thief procrastination will take my love of writing and my great story and put it on a shelf. When he does that he wins and I lose. Now I stand up to him and know that my writing is too important to leave out for such a thief. 


Thank you for visiting. The seaside photographs are from a trip to beautiful New England. Please come again!




May 9, 2015

Spring 2015

    

    Spring has definitely sprung, as they say, here in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania. It is one of my favorite times of the year. The neighborhood is filled with lovely mauve magnolias, pretty red buds and one of my most beloved trees, the dogwood. I have two of them on my front lawn and at this time of year the view from the screened porch captures the fresh feeling of the season.

One of my dogwood trees.
  

      My garden has come awake again, better this year than last. It’s always exciting to see what each year will bring. We have plenty of ever-changing weather here and my garden is always a good barometer of that. All of that weather brings joys and challenges. Plenty of rain means a thick, green lawn, but can also mean little spots on the roses and hydrangea. Too dry and some things thrive while others wilt pitifully. I keep my rain barrel as full as possible for good soakings when needed and try to rake the leaves away to avoid mildew beneath the plants when it has been damp.

The emerging azalea by my gate.


      A few years back I planted a lovely sapling, a six foot river birch. Experience has taught me that for success in the garden there is one rule I cannot ignore: location, location, location. If a plant is not lodged in the right habitation no amount of love and attention will make it happy. Following this rule has given me great success with my river birch. I needed a tree in the yard, something tall but not terribly imposing. I did not want or need the work or mess that comes from a fruit or nut tree and I wanted something more tall than wide. My lovely deck has a full southern exposure and a hot sunny day can be very oppressive. What I wanted most of all, was shade.

The beautiful and graceful river birch.


      I started my hunt with my garden books. One has lovely pictures of full grown trees, and I thumbed through the photographs. I marked those that looked good and then read all of the descriptions. When I found the river birch the notes said that it liked “wet feet and a dry head”. That was exactly what I needed. It grows tall, and quickly, needs little pruning and has lovely, light leaves. The bark is stunning all year round, with its distinctive papery bark. It is proving to be the perfect choice. I am surprised how quickly it has grown. It's clear it is very happy.

The birch beside the pond.


      I had a trio of knockout roses that was part of my plan when we finished the terraced garden walls. I love the layout since I never have to get down in the dirt to weed. But with the roses I learned another lesson: it's difficult to keep up multiple plantings designed to match one another. Two of the knockouts have done wonderfully. The third never thrived and alas succumbed in the fall. I left the location open, just in case there was a big ugly bug beneath it eating away at the tender roots and I turned the soil there several times through the fall. Now I face the dilemma of whether or not I should try to replace the bush with another like it, prune back the two originals and hope the new one catches up, or try something different altogether. My fussy nature says to try for that original vision again. Maybe once more.

The view from my deck.


      This year we plan to finish the last section of fencing, the stretch across the back of the property, along the drive where my bird garden resides. I am very excited about this project. We needed to work our way down there, although I have wanted it done for years, but logically it had to be the last in many summers of fencing. I look forward to taking pictures, getting to the end of what I know will be hard and hot work, in the buggiest section of the yard, and enjoying freshly stained fence where I can feed and enjoy the birds who visit my yard.

A goldfinch at the feeder


      I am also trying to make peace with the few carpenter bees who are still frequenting my yard. Last summer I built several traps and caught a few, thankfully not too many. I do not enjoy killing anything. As soon as I saw one return this year I put my homemade trap out promptly. When I checked it a couple of hours later I found that I did not trap the boring bee I was after, but instead caught two of the darling orchard bees I have tried so hard to attract. They were freed and the trap was removed immediately. This is such a dilemma for me. I don’t want any carpenter bees eating away the foundations of my home, but at the same time I’m inviting another kind of pollinator to help my garden thrive. I thought about hanging up a few blocks of wood like carpenter bee feeders. On second thought, that is likely a very bad idea. I know someone who catches theirs in a butterfly net and then kills them. That method might be amusing for my neighbors to watch but I would have a terrible time doing that. That would be far too “hands on” for me. I don’t think that is the solution I will use. I’m still pondering my bee question.


     Thank you for joining me for a little tour amid the emerging flowers and the tinkle of wind chimes and gurgling fountains.

The lower section of my yard.

  

Have a wonderful day! See you next time!

May 2, 2015

To Cook or Not to Cook

  
      
     Recently I ran across a suggestion that to be a successful blogger you need to write about cooking. Wanna bet? I can cook, but I don't much any more. I've done the big Thanksgiving spread, dinner parties and elaborate Halloweens, BBQ picnics and pot-lucks, but gatherings of that kind have largely fallen out of fashion. Entertaining takes lots of energy, work and money and not only an ambitious entertainer but great guests too. Many of us are too busy to be either. Occasionally I will take on a cooking endeavor like the artisan bread I posted here a while back. I still make that bread with some regularity, but it's dangerously delicious and I can't stop eating it. Wide, full hips may be a measure of success but I’ll pass on that look if I can. It isn't easy to be too rich and too thin at the same time. I don't eat much outside of the house though I do enjoy being pampered occasionally, especially after having cooked for children so many years. Eating an entire meal without being interrupted and knowing someone else will be washing the dishes does make me warm and fuzzy all over. When I do go out though, I prefer simple food and nothing too heavy. I usually order soup or a salad. I will try almost anything, at least once, and the list of foods I don’t care for is very short.

      This however is not true for my husband. The love of my life is a red meat and potato man almost exclusively. These are the things mothers never mentioned about those knights in that shining armor. Heavy suits of armor are rarely worn by men who live on lettuce and cottage cheese. This has always had a huge impact on the menus in my house. When I cook, I cook for my audience, which is usually my man.

      Over the years I learned to prepare meals on a very tight budget, for children that hate everything, and then, once the children left, for just the two of us. Now the big dining table is used mostly for sewing projects and company and laying out the tax forms in April. Most everyday meals are served on smaller surfaces and with much less noise and fanfare.
      My mother was not a great cook, with few exceptions. I suspect in fact she loathed cooking. She was famous for her under-baked potatoes and a tuna casserole the memory of which still makes me cringe to this day. Salty potato chips were never meant to be covered in cream-of-mushroom soup and baked until soggy. Nope. When I met my husband I asked if his parents could cook. When he described that same tuna casserole at his family’s table I knew we would have to stop and eat before we got there.

      I have the utmost respect for a great cook. It requires a passion, a natural talent and trial-and-error experience to turn out a perfect meal. I could practically name every good cook I have met on one hand. My longtime friend, Marianne can make anything taste delicious. She and her talent with food are the inspiration for darling Colleen in my book, Home to Stavewood. Another friend always talked about her cooking mishaps, like the lid falling off the pepper shaker over the chicken she had prepared. She’d apologize and then somehow serve the best damn peppered chicken I had ever eaten. She was another food artist. There was the stepmother of a friend I visited in southern Illinois, many years ago, who made several bowls of shrimp that still make my mouth water. My youngest sister, Gabby, who looks very much like my mother, makes a great salsa. And my neighbor, Fay, never fails to make the best baked goodies anywhere. I will remember all of them all my life.
      I can also say the same for the worst foods I have ever eaten. There was a cheesecake served by a lonely neighbor woman once that I had to force down kindly. In Texas there was a potato salad that was as bright yellow as any rubber ducky. Food, like an old song, can take you back in time.

      But when it comes to meals in my house these days, it is mostly ordinary and day-to-day. For example, we like a hearty bean soup. Not only is it a good meal, but in the crock pot it practically cooks itself. It is simply a bag of dry navy beans, or a sixteen bean mix, soaked in water overnight in the crock pot. I rinse the beans, add a diced onion, some sliced carrots, a minced clove of garlic, dice up a fresh slice of ham and add a spoonful of chicken Better-Than-Bullion in water to cover all the ingredients. It makes a delicious dinner for two or more, especially with some of that five-minute fresh baked bread.
      I make fish, like salmon or tilapia, baked or fried, with a bit of lemon pepper, usually once a week. I invested in a rice maker a while back and it was worth every penny. I am not a big fan of a myriad of kitchen gadgets but that rice maker gets taken out and worked several nights a week. It doesn't need watching, never boils over and steams vegetables while it makes the rice.
     Chicken is a big favorite for me. I buy it in individually wrapped packages by the bagful. I can make myself a chicken breast and still make that red meat burger for the knight. I rarely buy anything pre-cooked, and we eat lots of vegetables and rice and beans and are better off for it.

      So, if you love to cook, I applaud you. If you follow all the recipe sites and cooking shows, then I envy your guests. I’m sure you are very much appreciated. If you aren't, find me.
    I do have a few favorite recipes, and those I will share. They’re easy, in case you hadn't guessed, and maybe you’ll enjoy them. Most of them can be found online and the links are below. The one recipe that you would not have found until now is my long-time recipe for New England Zucchini Bread. I have kept it a secret for years. I came upon it when my mother-in-law passed away. Our youngest daughter was an infant at the time and I stayed at the family home, with other young nieces and nephews, while the family made arrangements. Several platters of food were dropped off by neighbors, cold cuts and salads, and this bread. It was a long day and at about lunch time I decided not to dig into the lunch meat platters to feed children, but open just one loaf of the bread. This bread was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. I carried on so much that when the family returned they found the source of the bread and the recipe for me. I have modified it a few times over the years and I still make it often, thirty years later. It has become my signature recipe. It freezes wonderfully, if there is any left over, and is always well received.
      One summer some years ago, my husband bought us an anniversary gift of season tickets to the ball park in Philadelphia. Every Thursday that the Phillies played at home we had a date. We brought a big "hoagie", as they call their sub sandwiches here, a jug of lemonade, and took the local elevated train to the ball park for a night out together. I happened to hear the team's announcers mention someone had brought them food one night and so I baked two loaves of my zucchini bread and sent them up to them at the next game. The following season, while watching a game at home, we were thrilled to hear them talk about the "great zucchini bread" someone had sent up to the booth. It is a fond memory of two great Phillies legends who have left us, Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. I think of them any time I make the bread now.


 Harry Kalas and Rich Ashburn



     Lately I have decided that I shouldn't keep the recipe a secret. My mother did that with her amazing carrot cake, the one thing she made that I truly loved. I know it had a burnt butter, cream cheese icing and I remember helping her shred the carrots. She divulged the secret to no one and to this day I have never found a recipe that comes close to that delicious dessert. And so I will share my recipe with you so that it doesn't get tucked away and one day be lost forever. It’s delicious and I hope you enjoy it. Double the recipe, or you'll wish you had.


 A double batch of zucchini bread, hot out of the oven


New England Zucchini Bread

3 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups raw, grated zucchini
2 cups flour
¼ tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts

Mix eggs, sugar and oil. Add grated zucchini and mix. Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then stir into zucchini mixture.
Stir in vanilla and walnuts.
Bake in two greased and floured loaf pans at 350 degrees for one hour. Great served warm with butter or cooled and chilled.

Other recipes:

For those Sunday football games try this:





These ribs are delicious and crock-pot easy. Great over rice and a favorite with my guests!


These easy and yummy meatballs freeze really well for those smaller meals. Defrost and heat in a sauce for a quick dinner with pasta or on a roll:




For dessert this is great, easy and yummy. Serve hot, topped with vanilla ice cream. 


For easy holiday goodies:

These candy/cookies need no baking and they taste like fresh made peanut butter cups. Pack them in canning jars and freeze for gifts.




These are great for gifts in a jar as well: 


Thanks for checking out my cooking post. I hope it, and you, are successful! See you next week!