Friday, September 30, 2011

You Can't Upload Love -- And You Know the Rest

The grapevines are turning on a beautiful autumn day in Maikammer, Germany
“You can’t upload love, you can’t download time, you can’t Google all of life’s answers.  You must actually live some of your life.”

As a life-long academic writer and researcher, normally I wouldn’t use a quotation unless I had the source.  The place I found it didn’t have adequate source information and by googling I found it’s been passed around, but I’ve yet to find it’s origins.  If anyone knows, please share with me.

Trying to locate the source didn’t educate me on anything and took away valuable time that I could have been creating something.  Once again, I let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good.  I’m sure none of my wonderful readers will turn me into the “Works Cited” police or doubt every word I write hereafter, or believe I’m trying to appropriate someone else’s idea as my own (see, I did use quotation marks so you know I didn’t dream up this pithy prose on my own) because I didn’t trace it back to the original source.

And that’s the point for me.  Yes, I waste a lot of time online.  And while I’m looking for more words of wisdom about writing I’m not writing.  While I’m searching online catalogues for the perfect period piece doorknob for my early 20th century home, I’m not beginning my own renovation.  And the list goes on.  And so following endless links yesterday is why my blog is late posting today.

I know one of my sisters gets continuously ticked off with me that I’m not doing the things I say I need to get done (finish my garden landscaping, buy new furniture, lose weight, have surgery to solve my neck problem).  That’s ok.  She sees something that needs to be done and SNAP she does it.  She doesn’t dither.  I try to learn from her because, well, that’s not a bad way to live life.

So today I will try to do something that I will remember tomorrow and next week and the week after (oh, and by the way, I finally put in a call to the electrician for the broken light switch, so let there be light on our upstairs landing after three months).

As for my readers, what keeps you from living your own life?  Get it off your chest in the comments box.  Then on this beautiful fall weekend get out and touch some earth.  Laugh at something somebody sitting in the same room with you said.  Get a status update by calling someone and asking, “How are you?”  Then listen.  Take a picture of a sunset with your mind instead of your mobile phone.  Tell someone something you like about them; don’t just click a button.  Cook a meal and share it with friends and family.  Tell stories.  Enjoy silence.

Now I’m off to follow my own advice.  I’ll be back later to connect with you in the comments box.

The fall harvest, Oberwolfach, Germany
To help cut the umbilical cord that ties me and Google together, I’m starting to use this wonderful little desktop app I found at The Voice of Stobby, a blog I read for more pithy prose and great little tidbits of information about things like the Focus Booster.  Give it a try.  Then get to work.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Get Radical -- Celebrate Banned Books Week

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was seen as trashy and obscene
(portrait from the wall of Shakespeare and Company, Paris)
It’s Banned Book Week.  Do you know where your children are?

Yes, seriously.  Well into the 21st century we still have to stand up for books.  Of course, there’s the grand irony that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book about how far autocrats will go to prevent the free exchange of ideas will go, was itself a banned book.

I remember reading in my bedroom with the door closed age-inappropriate books like the novelized version of the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie or historical romances I found laying around the house.  After each reading session I would slide it back onto the bedside table where I had found it.  That fact that they were in the house at all, however, sent a message that there were no “bad” books.  I left the children's library at a young age and moved upstairs to find gruesome stories of Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden.  But I never knew anything would ever be off limits to me.

With so many real dangers in this world, I’m stymied by parents who will make it a mission to remove Harry Potter and his friends from schools.  Do they really think their precious young children will convert to Wiccadom after finishing the life of the boy wizard?  If we vigorously fight to take books off the shelves, how does that make us so different from the individuals who declared a fatwah on Salman Rushdie?  No, we don’t put a price on Alice Walker’s head for writing The Color Purple, but when a community puts books off limits and removes them from a library shelf they are saying that these contain ideas that will contaminate a mind.

It seems, though, that all the controversial elements in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn need to be brought out into the open to discuss the world in which they were written.  When you remove the disputed language in the recently expurgated edition of Twain’s masterpiece to make it “acceptable” for the classroom, you miss so many opportunities to talk about our own history and how we got to where we are today.

Twain, himself responded to one of the first attempts to ban his books when in 1905 he wrote a letter to the Brooklyn Library regarding their concern about his writing.  In a very true-to-Twain understatement he said:
“I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave.”

Why should we care about books banned at libraries and schools?  After all, if you want to read one you can just go buy it.  Right?  But what if you don’t have the money, or you live in a part of the country without bookstores?  When books written with care and all seriousness, addressing the most important issues of an age, are forbidden for reasons of sexual themes, or violence, or language, or simply being contrary to some particular religious or political interpretation then where can our discussions about these issues begin?

Some books that you might be surprised to learn were banned are Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (was Jo too radical a feminist for the age?), and Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries (yes, the book that was made into that delightful little movie starring Julie Andrews and a young Anne Hathaway – flaming radicals both).

So in recognition of Banned Book Week, I’m going to pull out a couple of oldies but goodies to read.  Maybe a little Thoreau On Civil Disobedience and a real bit of extremism with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  If you want to find some forbidden literature to read, look here and here.  You might be surprised to find more of your childhood favorites on the list of dangerous books.

Come back and tell me about your favorite banned book or what experience you’ve had with censorship in your reading life.
Art is what one thinks

Monday, September 26, 2011

Imago Populi, Imago Dei

I love French graffiti.  This chat was found in Dijon.

I watched too much of the Sunday morning news shows this weekend.  So when I sat down to create a response to the Second Platform Campaign Challenge all of those words passed back and forth across all those anchor desks of the news pundits still had a choking grip on my brain.

I guess if it didn’t have directions like these, they wouldn’t call it a “challenge”:

Write a blog post in 200 words or less, excluding the title. It can be in any format, whether flash fiction, non-fiction, humorous blog musings, poem, etc. The blog post should:
•    include the word "imago" in the title
•    include the following 4 random words: "miasma," "lacuna," "oscitate," "synchronicity,"
If you want to give yourself an added challenge (optional and included in the word count), make reference to a mirror in your post.
For those who want an even greater challenge (optional), make your post 200 words EXACTLY!

So, here for your entertainment is a bit of political poesy.

Imago Populi, Imago Dei

Mud slings, barbs fly, hatred, venom, lies
Prop up the ambitions rising from the miasma
     of proverbial smoke-filled back rooms.
A lacuna of leadership;
They oscitate and equivocate,
Playing with semantics and our lives.
Mirrors are held up, not to reflect but to deflect
Awareness of the synchronicity of their posturing.
Would He really want to claim us?
Or does He say, hands on hips, head shaking,
“I just can’t wait until you have children of your own.”


If this bit of creativity caught your imagination, head over to the Challenge and give a "like" to #109.
If you're not part of the Challenge, I'd still like to know what's on your mind in the comments.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Let Me Serve You Up Some Blog Awards

9/23/11-serve award1
A cornucopia of other blogs to feed your imagination today

You know, the one problem with giving up a job with a paycheck and an office and a title of some sort (head dogwalker and assistant jammed copier fixer, for me) is that once you settle into your non-office life no one walks around handing you awards or raises or meritorious annual reviews or whatever for just being you in the general family life-manager role you’ve taken on.  Well, yes, your husband does tell you sometimes that you made a bang-up dinner, and the dog leaps in circles, tail rotating at tornado speeds when you get back from having the oil in your car changed.  But don’t expect much from your kids until, oh, I guess they reach 30.  No more of that colleague coming up to you after a presentation you gave, saying, “That blew me away.  Let’s talk about it more over lunch.”

So as I take these wobbly, toddler-like steps into a literary life, it’s always great to know that someone has read my words and liked them.  It’s even better when they want to give you an award of some sort, complete with a colorful little medallion that you can post on your blog like the Nobel Peace Prize around your neck.

While I was busy doing other things (this was dog bathing week and cleaning up dog vomit week) some wonderful people in the blogosphere showered me with recognition.  I clicked on links and found I had been planted in the garden of Versatile Blogger award winners and Stylish Blogger award winners (so take THAT, daughter of mine who thinks I have little style because I wear “Mom” glasses, and not the cool dark rims she wants me to buy).

9/23/11-serve award2
9/23/11-serve award3
They have steps to follow in order to accept the award, but forgive me for fudging and combining a bit.

First, I need to thank those who gave me the awards.  Go spend some time with

Sandwiched Writer at Having Acquired the Words
Ruth Schiffman at Out On a Limb: Shy Writer Goes Social
Mary Catherine Lunsford at Hide a Heart

Second, I’m supposed to share 7 things about myself.  So in no particular order:
1.  I played viola from grade school until my kids arrived in my late thirties.  I miss it, but now that I have the time to get back to it, I have a bum shoulder.

2.  In a former life I was a university professor with classes and students and committee meetings and all that jazz.

3.  I have no desire to travel to places where toilets are an issue.  Yes, the Amazon jungle must be amazing, but I really enjoy the modern niceties of a toilet seat.

4.  If I could not have taught, or if this writing thing ever runs dry, I think I would like to be a gardener, like Gertrude Jekyll

5.  That said, I grow tomatoes all the time but rarely eat them (that’s ok, husband and son make short work of them).

6.  I’m lousy at clearing out my e-mail box

7.  The first thing I want to eat when I get back from France each year is Mexican food.  I really miss spicy food while there.

Finally, I’m supposed to throw my own blog bouquets to 15 other bloggers you must read and then send them an effusive letter telling them all the prizes that will be coming their way, just because they’re great.  That fifteen thing won’t happen today because 1) I’m on a marshmellow creme pumpkin sugar high that is about to come crashing down before this post is finished, 2) the marching band of the local university seems to be practicing in the park a hundred yards from my house, and 3) I have to race off to write a post this weekend for my platform campaign using words like “miasma” and “lacuna.”  Easy-peasy stuff.

So here is the list of people with whom you should spend time.  Some may actually be surprised to get the award from me because I lurk and laugh more than join the conversation.  But I have them in my reader feed fer sher.

The Blooming Late Journal – over at SheWrites Samantha Stacia has gathered a wonderful group of  women who decided at the age of halfway-to-dead that they wanted to be published writers – yeah, right.

Simply June Bug – love, love her recording of conversations, real or imagined, between her and her husband

The Voice of Stobby – N. Scott writes just how you think somebody named “Stobby” would sound.  I love her breezy voice.

Gobsmacked: Confessions of a Working Writer – Valerie Brooks, well, I love her title.  And I love her love of Paris and the Pacific Northwest.  And I love her pirate talk.

The Big Green Bowl – Michael Ann Riley has such a lovely picture of a big green bowl, which you can see I’m partial to. And other lovely pictures of food.  And recipes.

East Bay Writer – It’s an anonymous blog, with language and stories I envy to no end.

One Sister’s Rant – Bella has a wonderful dog named Roxy.  But I also like her writing style.

Come back later and tell me what you're up to as autumn officially begins.

Autumn in the Black Forest of Germany

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Indulge To Your Art's Content With the Google Art Project

A close-up view from Monet's Water Lilies at l'Orangerie Museum in Paris
If, like me, you spend your “only for a minute” computer breaks watching too many videos of sneezing baby pandas or adorable French children spinning incredible tales of a poor popotamus then I’m here to offer you an alternative that makes you feel good about not doing your work today.

One of my favorite travel activities is wandering through museums.  Yes, I’ve been to The Louvre in Paris and The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.  If you want advice on tackling the latter, I tell you now that the most I can report is the location of the only restroom since my newly adopted son had a bladder the size of a spring pea that week.  I’ve spent a memorable afternoon in envy of the talent found at the Quilt Museum in Paduch, KY.   I’ve popped into the John Deere museum in Moline, IL (but draw the line at a photograph standing in front of giant, green farm equipment).  This past summer I loved looking at the pornographic wine corks and church weathervanes at the Ecomusée de la Bresse bourguignonne located within the Chateau-de-Bresse in Pierre-de-Bresse, FR (I admit, though, that I just didn’t have it in me to visit the nearby museum of wheat and bread; however, I have been to the salt museum in the same region).

The art in my own St. Louis Art Museum is so familiar that I recognize when they’ve changed out the display in a room.  Each year that I’m in Dijon I spend more than a few afternoons wandering the halls of the former dukes’ palace, now the Musée des Beaux Arts, or sitting on a bench in my favorite space, surrounded by my friends on the walls and writing away the afternoon with the sun warming my back through the 15-ft. windows that were thrown open wide centuries ago to cool the dancers who once crowded the area during the lavish balls hosted there.
  Rodin's "The Cry" from his Paris museum
There is so much art left to see, though.  That’s why I’m jumping for joy at this absolutely fabulous website I stumbled upon.  Bookmark this blog page you’re reading right now and then run over to see the Google Art Project.  (And then as soon as you’ve looked, hurry back here.)  While I might let loose several explicatives late at night when Google changes something in my mail program without asking or “simplifies” my blog functions that only make things more confusing for me, all is forgiven when I immerse myself in the beauty this art offers.

You can go here to get the story behind the project and its hopes for the future.  When on the website itself check out the visitor guide to see all you can do to make your art experience unique to you.  What you get is the chance to see up close – really, mega-zoom, HD up close – a tour of some of the best art on the planet.

A trip to Amsterdam may be beyond your imagining, but now there’s no reason you can’t take a little trip to the Van Gogh Museum on your lunch break.  Or you can devote your evening to studying the faces in Rembrandt’s The Night Watchmen at the Rijkmuseum without being trampled by tourists plugged into their audio tours rather than the humans standing behind them.  Ouch, my toes!

Go.  Indulge yourself.  Travel a little and still be home in time for dinner.
What's your favorite work of art or museum?  Tell us, here, what we're missing.
A pair from "The Mourners" alabaster tomb sculpture, Dijon's Musée des Beaux Arts

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dear Fast Food . . .

Yes indeed, a new day is dawning for me (this one is off Sanibel Is., FL)

Kismet is cool.  As well as unforgiving.  If you recall, on my last post I made huge declarations about getting healthy.  Yep, easy pronouncements to make.  Readers left me fabulous words of encouragement and advice.  I did actually go to the gym and yoga class this weekend.  Perhaps, with a little time, this HUGE DECLARATION could have just faded into cyberspace.  I could have quietly gotten back to my dinner of Ding Dongs in front of the NCIS marathon on TV.

However, when flailing around for a Monday blog topic, I clicked over to one of my new favorite writing blogs, Mama’s Losin’ It, where you can find the most marvelous writing prompt generator.  Here is what popped up when I clicked in the box:
  Write a letter to whatever is stopping you from losing the extra weight you'd like to lose. 
Ok, so this is where the kismet comes in because as I made dinner plans for stuffing my face with pizza and breadsticks and copious amounts of non-diet soft drink I realized that the universe and my blog readers were telling me different.

Well, I’m still going to worship at the altar of takeout pizza Sunday night since there is little in the house to cook, but here’s my letter to my food demon and on Monday I begin in earnest.

Dear Fast Food,
I loved you dearly and you have meant so much to me over the years.  You never were too busy for me or had plans with anyone else.  I could drop by unannounced and you’d instantly greet me with that cheerful hello, eager to serve me in anyway you could, no questions asked except “Do you want sauce with that?”  You always made me feel good, even if just until the final bite.  You never once mentioned my weight or suggested a light jog.

You gave me everything I wanted – grease, fat, sugar, salt.  You let me crunch and slurp and chomp to my heart’s content.  You demanded no effort of me, unlike at home where I would have to make decisions about what to buy and then what to cook.  You were easy.  No cooking and no cleanup.  Every other thing in my life was hard.  Life required planning and preparation or sacrifice or compromise.  You gave me immediate pleasure when so much else demanded delayed gratification or gave no promises at all.

The late night call of kebabs in France
9/19/11-fast food2
9/19/11- fast food3

But I often felt dirty when leaving you.  My fingers smelled like cheese sauce and ketchup speckled my shirt while chocolate milkshake stained my pants leg.

I tried to leave you behind in France, but in my lowest moments when I was tired or alone and bereft of willpower, I sought you out.  A kebab and frîtes, or in my very lowest moments enticed by that dangerous American friend with chicken nuggets accompanied by all the usual suspects.

I know that you’ve tried to change and improve yourself.  Salads.  Carrot sticks.  Yogurt.  But it’s not you, it’s me.  You are who you are.  I have to accept that.  I tell myself that we can take our relationship to a new, less destructive level.  I know better, though.  One hot apple pie and it’s instantaneous relapse for me.   One whiff of your breaded and fried scent and I surrender, seduced by my basest food instincts.  
There's a lesson in this, I'm sure
Oh, maybe one day we can have a chance encounter on a street, in a strange town, and I will be able to control my urges.  That time is not now.

It will be hard to leave you behind.  I can’t drive down a street, open a newspaper, watch a show on television without you beckoning to me.  Asparagus vs. 3-cheese nachos?  I’m afraid I’ve danced with the devil for too long.  Eventually, though, I’ll be able to walk up to you and exchange pleasantries.

Oh sure, you’ll try to tempt me by asking “Want fries with that?”  But I know that the day will come when I’ll be able to say “No” and mean it.

No great mystery why the French aren't fat
What's your own demon that you need to write a "Dear John" letter to?  Food or otherwise, share a slice of your own brush-off in the comments box. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Picture This: Getting Healthy

This is what my Skyler does all day now unless I bring out the leash for a walk.  I'm too tempted to join her.

I’m in horrible shape and it’s all my dog’s fault.  You see, she’s getting old.  She doesn’t get off the couch much and chase that ball or run down rabbits in the yard.  If we try to walk farther than around the block, her back leg (the one that had ACL surgery when she was at her athletic peak) starts to quiver and buckle.  And that is why I’m in horrible shape.

For over twenty-five years I counted on my dogs for getting up and moving.  I had dogs that were smarter than me and needed the stimulation of seeing something new every day.  They were not happy just sitting in the backyard waiting for something to happen.  They wanted to explore the world.  So we walked.  And I made primary criteria for any house we bought whether or not the sidewalks actually went someplace and whether sidewalks went in enough directions so we could have different sights and smells every day of the week.

We’d jump in the car and visit all the different parks to walk.  We’d hike trails amid fields of bluebells and late summer crops of butterfly weed.  We’d walk in the rain and slip along winter’s icy walks while everyone else was snug in front of a blazing fire.  I’d get up at 5 a.m. to walk before the summer sun baked their long, dark hair and tote a water bottle and portable water bowl to prevent heatstroke.  We’d walk unencumbered by cell phones or music players, each enjoying our quiet thoughts or often talking to each other.

And so, shall we say, I’ve gotten a bit out of shape now that I’m down to one arthritic dog.  And put on a bit of weight.  But plenty of women my age say “Hey, what can you expect?  I happens when you get older.”  But a friend I hadn’t seen all summer told me I looked like I had put on some weight.  Ouch.  Thanks for your honesty.  And I just found out my 80-something father-in-law is preparing for a trip hiking in the Himilayas or somesuch place.  Double ouch.

I took my dog, Skyler, to the doctor this week to see what to do to help her weakening leg.  In all of the years I’ve had her, her weight – and the weight of any of my dogs – never varied by more than three pounds.  Why was it so much easier to keep my dogs healthy than myself?  I would never feed them the junk I put in my body.  I would exercise them every single morning, no matter what else was on my agenda.

So today I pulled out my membership card to my gym and went.  And I pulled out Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual to get my focus off of drive-thrus and back onto food.  It can’t be that hard.  Right?  The secret to a long life, as Pollan tells us, are these seven little words:  Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.

So I’m going to get healthy again.  And to do it I’m not looking to a celebrity diet in a magazine.  And I’m not buying one more late night infomercial exercise video.  And I’m not going to eat low-fat anything (no one got too fat from eating real yogurt).  Instead, I’m looking back at places I had hiked when I had all the energy in the world.  I think I’ll paste them all over my office while I think about where I’m going to hike next.  Enjoy the little picture show of what I could do before my dog let me get old and out of shape.

Getting high in Sedona, AZ (can you see that little blue dot in the middle?  That's me)
One of countless unnamed high points on the Isle of Skye, Scotland
(The fellow who took the picture had climbed with a baby in a carrier on his back)
The view is always spectacular from on high -- looking across to the Outer Hebrides
Paris at night from the belltower of Notre Dame Cathedral (387 steps up)
    From the top of the Roman theater in Lyon, France
Share with us in the comments box what you want to stay healthy enough to do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Can You Please Speak Up? I Can't Hear You Over the Restaurant Music

I don't think these three Dijon fellows need this week's Top 20 to make
their dining experience more enjoyable

Brad and I walked into a restaurant Sunday night for a little dinner and we were assaulted.  Yes, assaulted.  I don’t know if it was Queen, or if it was Toby Keith, or if it was a mash-up of Toby Keith doing Queen with a little Chuck Berry thrown in for good measure.  All we knew was it was TOO DAMN LOUD.  We asked to be seated as far away from the music as possible so we could, oh I don’t know, talk.  So we were led to the darkest corner of the restaurant where we were in sore need of a flashlight phone app to read the menu.

This wasn’t a bar.  There were tablecloths, low lights, inventive fish items on the menu, and art on the walls.  But the music was cranked up like it was Disco Night and Glow Bowling at the local lanes.

Who was the first American restaurateur to decide that simple conversation with friends and family was not enough stimulation during a meal?

Research out there has focused on the connection between food and sound.  Scientist Charles Spence and chef Heston Blumenthal performed an experiment in which identical ice cream servings evoked one reaction with the sound of bacon sizzling and another with farmyard sounds.  Blumenthal jumped on the sound/food bandwagon so completely that he created a seafood entrée that arrived at your table complete with a mini-iPod tucked into a decorative seashell on the plate.

Dinner with surround sound?  You’re kidding me, right?

Of course, when you’re plugged into a personal music player listening to sounds of the sea while eating, it makes it a bit hard to converse with anyone else at the table.

I don't think there is a single soundtrack that could have made
this strawberry pie any more delicious than it already was

I understand the concept of mood music.  We enjoy a little classical music in the background when we sit down at home.  But why do American restaurants have to make it SO DAMN LOUD? (Excuse me for shouting again).  This isn’t about eating while listening to the band at a jazz club.  It’s not about live mariachi music on Fridays at my local Mexican joint.  It’s not about some quiet classical playing under the conversation at a white tablecloth restaurant.

It’s about Music.  Playing.  Too.  Loud.  Unnecessarily.  Everywhere.

When I return from France each year, the longing that never leaves me is to have the French dining experience when I go out.  The average restaurant is there to provide delicious food.  You bring the entertainment with your conversation.  No music bombards you.  No pesky waiter tries to be your BFF by saying “Bonjour, my name is Phillipe.”  He doesn’t return every five minutes to see if you need anything (we’ll signal you if we need you).  And he doesn’t try to hustle you out in under an hour to turn the table over four times before his shift ends to earn more tips.  (But I digress.  Those are all peeves to address in another post.)

French restaurants are traditionally small because they’re built into the already existing medieval spaces.  Perhaps ten to twenty tables, tops.  These tables are also less than a foot apart from each other.  But still, they are blissfully quiet.  You converse in low tones with the others at your table.  The sounds of clinking silverware, occasional laughter, and the pop of a wine cork are all that you hear, even if a family with three children sits two tables away.

An unexpected chance to share dinner in Beaune, France with my favorite blogger, Kristin Espinasse (left).
Great wine and chocolate for dessert.  No music could make it better.  Read her blog here

More than what I eat, the people with whom I share a meal and the stories we tell stick with me.  I don’t need a multi-sensory experience to enjoy my dinner.  It’s enough just to have time to make the human connection – or even to be alone with my own thoughts.  Yes, I know that’s a radical idea in this über-connected age, but sometimes my own company is enough.

So if you want to see me walking through your restaurant doors more often, Mr. Restaurant Owner, try offering a little taste, an amuse-bouche, of “The Sounds of Silence.”

Music or no music?  What's your take on the situation?  Have a quiet conversation about it here.

After dinner on the streets of Beaune with vinter Jean-Marc Espinasse, my Brad, and Kristin Espinasse.
That's what a dining experience is about.
See what else I've said about the sounds of France here.  And don't forget to check out Kristin's fantastic stories and beautiful pictures of France here

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11/2001-9/11/2011: We Remember


On this anniversary we remember those who are gone and we give thanks to those across the globe who make it possible for us to travel safely and freely every day.  Because of them I am able to create and share my little pictures and stories.




Your thoughts can be shared in the comments box.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Flash Fiction -- What a Challenge

flash fiction1_9/8/11
I (heart) French courtyards hidden behind thick doors

As you can see by the large purple button on the right I’m part of Rachael Harrie's Platform Campaign for writers.  In addition to connecting with other bloggers in a multitude of genres, we Campaigners are also issued challenges to exercise our writing muscles.  Here’s the first:

Write a short story/flash fiction story in 200 words or less, excluding the title. It can be in any format, including a poem. Begin the story with the words, “The door swung open” These four words will be included in the word count.

If you want to give yourself an added challenge (optional), use the same beginning words and end with the words: "the door swung shut" (also included in the word count).

For those who want an even greater challenge, make your story 200 words EXACTLY!

In no way, shape, or form would I ever consider writing fiction – even a paltry 200 words of it.  I decided that once and for all back in a creative writing class taught by the oh-so-talented-and-humorous Jim Thomas.  I just can’t make stuff up.

I was about to bail on the first challenge, but I remembered that part of my intentions in this midlife transition was to push myself in new directions.  Hey, I learned to communicate enough in French that I won’t ever starve when over there.  Right?  So I stared down that blank screen until I had bled out exactly 200 words of fiction.

And, please, if you’re a fellow Campaigner please “like” me.  Let me know where I can find your story and I’ll do the same.
flash fiction2_9/8/11


The door swung open.  Wide and towering, the ancient, arched oak framed a wrought iron inlay of rambling grapevines.  Beyond she saw the garden.  Red rose topiaries stood above the fray while knot gardens of boxwood and lavender filled the center.  The cool limestone blocks of the 17th century walls stood guard.

Only ten seconds to cross the ancient cobblestone courtyard to the waiting French doors and I’d be home, she thought.

She already saw herself sitting at the long trestle table in her kitchen, its wooden top marred by a century of knives slicing leeks and gutting rabbits.  She knew by this time tomorrow she’d have an apple tart cooling on the iron rack by the window lined with pots of red geraniums.

“May I help you?” a stylishly patrician woman asked in French, startling her by coming quietly up behind.

“No, no. Je regarde,” she answered with a flush of embarrassment at getting caught looking.

With one last wistful look back, she walked on down the street for an afternoon of writing at a nearby café as the owner of the Renaissance mansion built with the wealth of French dukes deadheaded a rose before the door swung shut.

The courtyards of Renaissance hôtel particuliers in Dijon are an architectural treasure
flash fiction3_9/8/11

Where would you have a home if you could pick anywhere?  Describe it for us in the comments box.  Then go here to see what a great piece of flash fiction looks like.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Cooking Lesson -- Who Wants Pie?

cooking 9/7/11
For the younger generation, this is what real food looks like before it's been processed.  It's called an "apple."

Perhaps I should call this post “Beans and Rice Redux” as a sequel to my last post.  Or perhaps “What the Heck is ‘Girl Scout Stew’?” based on questions in the comments box.  My original post topic for today had been about going apple picking.  But all of those food-focused ideas were trumped by Helen Zoe Veit’s rally call for an old-fashioned home economics class.

Last week my ancient microwave blew, exploding a spaghetti squash in the process.  Until I replaced it a few days later, the younger generation in my house didn’t eat anything unless I cooked it.  You know, it just takes too much effort to put an egg in a pot of boiling water and wait for two minutes, or wash blueberries and add them to a bowl of yogurt and oat flakes.  And, whoa, do you have any idea how long it takes to make a grilled cheese sandwich?  You could probably watch two out of the three Lord of the Rings movies before the cheese began to melt.  And where’s the butter anyway?

For me, my home ec class was Mrs. Cox – she of the very large size and very small face.  I figured that she was forced to learn to sew because she couldn’t find anything to fit her after eating everything these 7th grade girls cooked (hey, sorry, I was an uncharitable 13 year old).  The only thing I remember cooking was pancakes.  Maybe we did more, but my mind was more on the epic sewing battle that raged that semester.

At this age, my Grandma would have been on her way to supporting herself as a professional seamstress (or, as they would have called it back then, “just a seamstress”).  She began to teach me to sew as soon as my legs were long enough to work the knee pedal on the machine.  From her I learned shortcuts for fitting, marking patterns, and so on.  When I applied all of that knowledge on my blue A-line dress I was making for home ec, Mrs. Cox graded me down for not using the more basic techniques she was teaching.  She didn’t care what I had learned from a lifelong expert; she wanted it done her way.

The most important lesson I learned in that class came from my mother.  She told me to do it Mrs. Cox’s way just this one time.  Some battles weren’t worth fighting.

I didn’t need a home economics class because I began cooking in my mom’s and grandma’s kitchens, standing on a stepstool with an apron tied up under my armpits.  As Veit points out, in this era of obesity the younger generation doesn’t know what real food is.  It’s all processed food and drive-thrus.  Many children have never eaten chicken that isn’t breaded and shaped into bite-sized nuggets.  And what’s a turnip?  What’s paprika?

Brad hauling our apple-picking bounty (an hour to drive to the orchard 
and ten minutes to pick)
cooking 9/7/11

After all, what’s more fundamental to a lifelong education than knowing how to feed yourself?

Learning to cook is about more than food.  It’s about savoring the pleasures of something you created.  It’s about sharing.  It’s about family history.  It’s about conversations and memories.  No home ec class I know could ever teach you that.  But still, they could teach you that what’s worthwhile sometimes requires more than 90 seconds of preparation time.

So all that said, I’m leaving you with two recipes that you never would get in a home economics class:  Girl Scout Stew and Bertha Farrar’s 1-2-3 Pie Crust. Bon appétit!

Girl Scout Stew
There are no measurements to this.  It was all about how much we could pack for the camping trip and how big our pot was.  All ingredients can be altered to suit your taste and needs.

-1 lb. ground beef
-2 cans Campbell’s vegetable soup (I’ve never dared try any other brand; the texture of their soup and simplicity of their ingredients suits me for this recipe)
-chopped onions (I always use frozen chopped onions)
-minced garlic, to taste
-salt and pepper, to taste
-basil and oregano, optional

Brown the ground beef in a skillet.  Drain grease.  Add the onions and garlic and cook a bit.  Add the soup.  You might decide you want to add ½-1 can of water.  Or you might want to add more soup.  You also might like to add some spices.

You can make it basic, like this, or you can fancy it up.  But whatever you do, don’t make it like work.  And it’s a simple recipe for teaching your own children to cook.

The original pie crust recipe.  Click thumbnail to enlarge
 cooking 9/7/11
Bertha Farrar’s 1-2-3 Pie Crust
It wasn’t until I was a young bride that I finally asked Grandma the secret to her perfect pie crust.  She reached into her recipe box and pulled out an old magazine page from the 1940’s promoting a new product called “Mazola Corn Oil.”  They created this recipe to entice the old Crisco crowd.  For deep dish pies I increase the measurements by 50%.  The recipe makes a single pie crust.

I made my first apple pie of autumn over the Labor Day weekend and it was fabulous.

1 c. plus 2 T flour
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 c. Mazola corn oil
2 T cold water

Mix flour and salt.  Blend oil in thoroughly with fork.  Sprinkle all of the water over the mixture; mix well with fork.  Press dough firmly into ball with hands.  If too dry, add 1-2 teaspoons more oil.

Roll bottom curst and fit into pan.  Fill with fruit filling of choice, then trim even with pan edge.  Mix and roll top pastry.  Cut slits and place over filling. Trim ½ inch beyond pan edge, fold under.  seal and flute.  Bake 35-45 minutes at 425º (50-60 for fresh apple).

Note: I sometimes turn it down to 375º and cook a little longer because my stove runs hot.

Any cooking stories to share yourself?  Tell us in the comments box.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beans and Rice, With Love -- A Labor Day Tale

You see the enthusiasm in my daughter’s face as her dad instructs her in the essential life skill of washing and cooking turnip greens – to go with the beans and rice.

Dad:  What are you going to cut back on to stay within the monthly budget we set so you don’t go over again?
Daughter at college:  Food and taxis.
Dad (thinking to self):  And possibly cut out the monthly membership at the local tanning salon?

Priorities, priorities.

Yep, it’s that time of year.  Back to school battles over budgets between parents and their college-aged children.  The above is an unretouched conversation with our daughter this weekend.  My genetically fiscally responsible husband’s first reaction is to relate stories to her about all the years in college and graduate school when he ate beans and rice.  “That’s a healthy diet – and it’s cheap.  A person can live on beans and rice!”  It’s his update on the old dragging-myself-to-school-in-a-snowstorm story.

I bite my tongue and try to hold back on the stories about paying all my bills – rent, food, gas, school – on $300 a month or how I saved money in graduate school by rooming with mice and cockroaches while earning a hefty $5600 each year teaching.  I do try to nudge her toward frugality by passing on recipes for the cheap, hot, healthy dishes I cooked, e.g., Girl Scout stew.  Much better than beans and rice if you’re going to be eating it every night.  However, I’ve not yet seen evidence that she’s actually visited a supermarket to try it out.

To earn a down payment for our first house I worked as a checker at a small grocery store while writing my Ph.D dissertation and clipped coupons for everything.  We paid off our first car in a little over three years and now don’t trade in any of our cars until you see the road through the floor boards so that we can spend a month of our summer in France and have college funds for our kids.  But I refuse to clip a single coupon anymore, although I do love a good sale when I need to shop for the house.

Yet try as we might we seem to be in a protracted battle over budgeting lessons with our kids.  It’s not from lack of trying.  We are not like many parents in our community who (and I’m not making this up) would hand their high school students $500 each month for “expenses.”  This didn’t include the cars, computers, condos in Florida, and so forth they also had.

Somehow the wisdom of our frugality has not impressed our kids too much.  We have read every article on teaching them financial planning.  We have tried to institute budgets and make them stick to them.  We have refused to give them any money for anything, hoping they’d be motivated to earn more.  We have tried to be brilliant role models through our own purchases or absence thereof.

The one thing we can’t do, however, is show them the struggle we had to get to where we are now.  Just by sitting in the living room of the house we own on the street where we live our children have developed a set of priorities light years away from the ones we had in order to make it to this point.  It’s impossible for them to fathom how many nights of eating Girl Scout stew this house cost.

I do hope my daughter takes another look at last month’s expenses and considers moving food up in her list of budget priorities to somewhere just north of “keeping Urban Outfitters solvent.”  If not, I just may set her dad loose on her to tell all the stories he’s got about beans and rice, spraying the cockroaches around his bed each night before going to sleep, riding his bike everywhere in all kinds of weather as his only transportation, working two jobs outside in the heat of an Atlanta summer, eating beans and rice, and more beans and rice.

After all, everything has a price.

See that skinny space behind you?  The one with the refrigerator?  It also has something called a stove.  Both are great money-saving devices.

On this Labor Day holiday, what was the worst job you’ve had? What tricks did you learn to make income and outgo balance each month? We await them in the comments box.

Friday, September 2, 2011

End of Summer Blog Mash-Up

Summer slowly sinks on the horizon at Sanibel Island, FL
Farewell to Summer!  Today begins the Labor Day weekend and the official end of summer – although the temperature gauge hasn’t gotten the memo yet.  I guess it’s probably too late to make this the summer I learned to surf.  However, I can at least cram in a few summer blog posts I never got posted.  So buckle up and prepare for the ride.  I hope you don’t get whiplash as I pick up speed.

Tech Tips
I’m not a techie person.  I still mash potatoes by hand and make applesauce with an over 50-year old Foley mill instead of a food processor.  The only apps on my smartphone besides e-mail are the social media ones that came with it.  But I stumbled upon three websites that make my online life manageable:
TeuxDeux – I’m a constant listmaker.  My desk, the kitchen, my purse, my bedside table were overrun with my list of things to do.  If I didn’t finish them all I had to find the list and add to it, or make a new one and add to the piles of paper on my desk.  Online calendars and task bars just did not meet my needs.  But TeuxDeux is a wonderful, online, no-frills kind of list-making machine.  You can do it by days and then it moves forward whatever you didn’t cross off.  It also has an area to list tasks you like to complete in the future, like organize my internet bookmarks better.  And I can’t lose it!

Instapaper – Hello, my name is Julie and I’m an information junkie.  I spend way too much time reading newspapers and magazines and news websites online.  Instapaper lets me break away from that all-important article on how to stream Netflix movies better and get back to the less riveting work of writing.  If you install it on your computer (or smartphone, if you must), then with just a click it can create a list of articles to read later so they don’t get lost amid all your other thousands of bookmarks (or is that just me?).  No more wondering if you had seen that recipe in the New York Times or what was that article on the ten best places to get fried chicken.  It’s sitting there, waiting for you.

Evernote – Just about anything you find online – picture, words, website, audio – you can save here.  See a recipe you like?  Select the text and with a click it’s pasted into Evernote.  Want to save a website address but also make some pertinent notes about it for research purposes?  There’s space for that.  Scan a bunch of Post-its cluttering up your desk and store them there.  I’ve barely begun to tap the well of what it can do.  But it’s great.
Colors of a summer evening in Dijon

Read With Me

This was the summer I got back to serious reading.  So I’m giving you very short list of what I’ve just finished reading, what I’m reading now, and what I hope to read.

The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) – “Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”  So begins the memoir about the year in which her husband died at the dinner table of massive coronary at the same time that they had been dealing with their daughter in the hospital with a life-threatening illness.  With humor, poignancy, and a lot of “what ifs” she looks at the year in which she had to reach a new normal in which her “memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John.”  I bought it at Shakespeare and Company in Paris this summer, started it on the train back to Dijon, and devoured it that weekend.

The Paris Wife (Paula McLain) – About a year ago I finally read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.  It was the only Hemingway book that did not move like slow torture for me.  His memoir was a lovely, human piece about a young marriage in an exciting place, with only hints of what would come.  So when McLain published this novel about that life told from the perspective of our own St. Louis girl, Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson, I had to read it.  I’m still working on it, but it’s lively writing about a woman restrained first by the era in which she lived, then eventually overwhelmed by the character that would become “Ernest Hemingway, writer.”  I’ll get back to it this afternoon.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, Chinaberry Sidewalks by songwriter Rodney Crowell, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, An American Childhood by Annie Dillard are just some of the memoirs on my “to read” list.  And then I hope I remember to post them over on Goodreads.

Blogging Challenge
I joined my first Platform-Building Campaign, which is kind of like summer boot camp for bloggers.  I should have noted this earlier so I could invite people to join before the date to sign up closes, blah blah blah.  I’m supposed to put a campaign button thingy on my website, which hasn’t happened yet (maybe this afternoon).  And Yahoo won’t let me into the group discussions (did I miss the “Secret Handshake” post for the campaign somewhere?)

However, I’ve visited other blogs involved and have had those writers visit me and I hope that when it ends in October that I’ve upped my writing game by a small degree.  Yes, it’s too late to learn to surf this summer.  And improving my French will be a lifelong slog.  And I don’t think I’m cut out for Zumba classes.  So if I want to learn something new in order to prevent a rapid slide into senility, I think it will have to work on mastering the blog world.  I hope that you are the beneficiaries of that challenge.

Have a good weekend.  See you on the flip side of summer.

What summer goals did you or didn’t you accomplish this year?  Tell us about it in the comments section.

My husband's Uncle Hal has the right idea for how to light that grill in a jiffy
blog mash2_9/2/11

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Make New Friends . . .

It's always great to find new friends during the dog days of summer

Will they like me?  Will anyone talk to me?  I feel like a kid on her first day in a new school.

When I stopped teaching about ten years ago my biggest fear, though hard to articulate, was that I’d never be able to make any new friends.  With college, graduate school and career I had been on a single track with a lot of other people who shared a similar passion.  Life was beautiful.  Conversations were lively.  I knew all the ropes.

Leaving the academic world, however, left me hanging.  First, I fretted, how would I ever find a new passion?  Second, would I ever be able to find a community as invigorating as the one I left behind?  Such is the plight of those of us redefining our lives more than halfway through our adulthood.  Who would welcome me at their lunch table?

After ramping up my writing ambitions and lurching along with my blog, I’d now like to recognize some people who are more than happy to share their fruit cups and Ding Dongs with me.

What a surprise this week when I opened up my computer one morning to find a message from my new blogging friend, Annette Gendler, telling me I had won a Leibster blog award.  Moi?  I had only recently gotten serious at the endeavor.  As she explained it, the award is to connect bloggers, especially those whose readers consist mainly of family and two best friends from high school (i.e., those with fewer than 200 followers).
If I accept the award, she told me, I must:

* Show my thanks to the blogger who gave me the award by linking back

* Make my own top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.

* Post the award on my blog.

* Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the internet—other writers.

* And best of all – have fun and spread the karma.

I am going to bend the rules a little and not verify the 200 limit because . . . well, because.  So here are my five people you need to give love to:

Memoir, Writing, and Life (Annette Gendler) – I'm sending the love back to Annette.  Without fail three times a week she offers up the best information about the business side of writing and invaluable writing tips.  It’s like a free graduate program in writing.  Plus, she’s an Iron Woman because she continued to post without fail while on a road trip across the American West with her kids (go look at the pictures).  She doesn’t live that far away.  I really need to drive north one day.

A Woman’s Nest (Nadine Feldman) – She’s off hiking in the Swiss Alps right now, but there’s plenty to read on her blog.  She always writes with enthusiasm, making the rest of us feel like writing or other challenges we definitely can conquer, even if we started so late.  She’s all about the world leading a creative and joyful life.

Leah’s Thoughts (Leah Singer) – essayist, recipe-sharer, motivator for those in midlife transitions, and Tweeter.  Following her gives me so many ideas of how to get this writing thing done and keep it fresh.  She recently earned recognition for the food writing part of her blog, but the rest is worth it as well.  I’m thankful for her kind comments about my own writings.

Monica’s Tangled Web (Monica Medina) – She welcomed me into the serious blogging community on She Writes from day one and is always there to answer any stupid question I have about blogging, tweeting, mastering the whole social media thing. She is a serious Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover.  You can now also find her on Huffington Post.  Variety, thy name is Monica.  One day we’ll actually meet at a BlogHer conference.

Catharsis (Laura Miriam) – I’ve only recently started following Laura, and ya’ll should, too.  She’s Erma Bombeck for the 21st century with posts on parenting, her teaching gig, life absurdities in general. “Not the Average Mommy Blog” is right.  Her writing is laugh-out-loud funny and reminds me that I should lighten up in my writing style – and in my life.  So I give this award not because of any memorable writing advice she’s given me, personally (hey, we’ve only been dating a couple of weeks), but because of what I think I can learn if I keep watching.  Somebody should give this woman a book deal.

So when you finish reading this post, click on over and read some of the masters.  Thanks to all they give me.  Thanks for welcoming the new kid on the block.

And certainly in the comments section, feel free to nominate your own favorites we need to be reading.

A little something to cool you off on this steamy Labor Day Weekend
new friends2_9/1/11
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