The Unfinished Novel

2/24/21

You may have heard someone – maybe an English teacher or a writing coach- say that everyone has one good novel inside them. I would alter that a bit and say everyone has one unfinished novel inside them. Because finishing a novel is hard. I’ve tried. I have bits and pieces of one in a drawer and every so often I open the drawer and look at it – three thumb drives and a stack of papers – and wonder what I’ll do about it.

I started it years ago when I was in a writing group. I really enjoyed the group and met some wonderfully creative people but after a few years I stopped going. I had several reasons at the time. Joe had retired and we needed to tighten the financial belt. Paying a writing coach felt like a hobby I could no longer afford. Also, changes at my work had resulted in more duties and demands at a time when I had hoped to cruise into retirement myself. I found I had little energy for anything extracurricular. But the main reason was the writing got hard. I couldn’t bring the bits and pieces together and make them fit into any kind of plotline. It seemed the characters kept wandering off into other stories. I couldn’t see an end. So I quit.

I opened the drawer again a few days ago and asked myself the same question. Now that I’m retired and stuck at home for the un-foreseeable future, am I going to go back to the task? Because it is a task. So why do it? There are so many good and not-so-good novels out there. The world isn’t waiting for mine.

I think to succeed as a writer of novels, you not only have to have talent, you have to have ambition and drive as well. You have to believe what you are doing is serious and important. And that is at odds with my constant effort to let things go. Letting go is what meditation and yoga have been teaching me for years.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice to actually finish it? To accomplish a task I found difficult? If, for no other reason than to know I did it. And I still sometimes think about the people I created and their stories. I apologize; all this navel gazing sounds so lame but that is the purpose of this blog, I guess. I enjoy writing when it’s not hard.

Letting go of that drawer full of words seems almost as hard as trying to put them all together and finish the story.

Tree Love

2/8/21

It started with the documentary Intelligent Trees. I found that compelling enough to watch a second doc – The Secret Life of Trees. Then, as synchronicity often operates (or a google algorithm), a review of the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers popped up on my screen. It seems Powers was so fascinated by the subject of trees that “writing The Overstory quite literally changed my life,” he told The Atlantic in a review of the book that won a Pulitzer in 2019.

I enjoy a well-written fiction that teaches me something just like I enjoy a nonfiction that tells a good story so I added The Overstory to my infinite reading list. Then a few days later The Overstory popped up in the Bookbub newsletter. Synchronicity was hitting me over the head. I’m 3/4 into the book now. I’m not going to review the book here – there are plenty reviews online- but with recommendations by Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver you can’t go wrong. The writing is beautiful.

Like most of the characters in the book, I’ve always been a tree lover and can make a list of important and memorable trees in my life. I’ll share a few here:

  1. The large magnolia in the backyard of my childhood home in NC. It was the perfect climbing tree with sturdy limbs that seemed to go up forever. It was my fort, my lookout, my hiding place. Once I climbed so high that I could feel the top of the tree sway in the breeze and I became alarmed enough to call out for help. When my mother saw how high I was, she threatened to call the fire department. “She can get down the same way she got up,” reasoned my father. He was right, but I never went that high again.
Similar to my childhood magnolia

2. The Ficus tree in front of the public library in Stuart, FL. It was huge with roots that dripped down from limbs high above. Having newly arrived in Florida, I was amazed by these giant jungle trees. This particular tree was a kid magnet and often served as a babysitter while moms dropped off or picked up library books. My girls loved it. We left Stuart, the library moved, and I can only hope the tree has been preserved.

Not the same tree, but similar

3. The giant live oak in my neighborhood. When I first saw this tree while house hunting, I knew we were in the right neighborhood. So many of the houses we had seen had no trees at all so when we saw all the old oaks in this older neighborhood, I hardly needed to see inside the house to know it was home. The giant oak down the street hovers over two houses and the road, and is covered with resurrection fern that turns green in the rain. If anything happens to that tree I may just have to move.

Not MY tree, but you get the picture (pun intended)

Do you have an important tree in you life? If so, give it a hug. Science says tree hugging is actually good for you. Who knows, the tree might like it too.

Sorry, Julia

So, last night I tried cooking something new – Duck a l’Orange. Sounds fancy, right? I signed up for one of those meal delivery services that sends you everything you need to make a complete meal plus instructions. Hello Fresh offers a discount and since Joe and I haven’t been to a restaurant since last March, not even for take-out, I thought a meal kit would be a good alternative. Besides, I’ve run through my entire repertoire of dishes several times over and wanted to try something new.

The first box arrived yesterday and I was excited. Inside were three big, glossy photos of what the meals should look like once prepared and on the other side of the photos were the step-by-step instructions. What could go wrong?

I laid out the 3 photos for Joe and asked him to pick one. He chose the duck. The kit included two plump duck breasts with skin on one side, small potatoes, arugula, an orange, a shallot, fresh thyme, a packet of sliced almonds, a packet of apricot jam, and a cute little bottle of red wine vinegar. The instructions noted that this was a recipe made popular by Julia Child.

I had never cooked duck before so I followed the instructions carefully. The trick is to cook the duck skin side down until it’s crispy while skimming off the fat as it cooks, then flipping it over to cook on the other side for “3 to 5 minutes”. You then remove the breasts to “rest” as you make the sauce in the same pan. Duck fat and thyme were added to the potatoes (yum), and orange zest to the sauce and the salad. I literally could not remember the last time I had zested an orange.

It was all going swell until I sliced into the pieces of duck. They were pink inside and the juice ran pink as well. Although I had never cooked duck before, I was pretty sure, like chicken or turkey, it should not be served rare. No matter, I thought. A quick stint in the microwave will finish it off. In two minutes the juice was clear and the slices were no longer pink. I arranged everything on the plates, drizzled the duck with the sauce, and everything looked perfect. Almost as perfect as the photo.

Their photo, not mine.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked Joe after a couple of bites.

“Very flavorful.” he said

Was that a compliment? I wasn’t sure. The potatoes were delish, the salad with the homemade dressing was remarkably good, and the orange sauce on the duck was indeed flavorful, but the duck…was chewy and the skin was practically inedible. I was, of course, disappointed. Joe was kind about it (he’s not stupid), but we agreed I should never have put it in the microwave.

As I took our plates back to the kitchen and put them into the sink that was already full of bowls and utensils that had been used to make this not-so-perfect meal, I heard him humming. He was humming the Sesame Street Rubber Ducky song!

I looked for something soft to throw at him, but I was laughing too hard to follow through.

I learned a few things making this first Hello Fresh meal:

  1. Pickling the shallots in wine vinegar and sugar before putting them in a salad is brilliant and I will definitely do that again.
  2. Mashed potatoes are always delicious no matter what you add to them.
  3. Never microwave the duck.

I vow to try this meal again and get it right next time. No rubber ducky; I want to make Julia proud.

Saturday Notes

01/16/21

I admit that I was worried about what Trump may do between the election and Biden’s inauguration but sending goons to storm the Capitol with intent to execute lawmakers was not on my bingo card. It’s taken this long for details to emerge and for the seriousness of the act to sink in – and we’re still learning. I’m not going to rehash the event or offer any insight as to why, how, or even a WTH, as I’m sure anyone who has been tuned into the news has already asked those questions and heard scores of pundits offer their own two cents. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to stay away from the news for at least a few hours today.

It’s a beautiful day here in central FL – cool, sunny, and breezy. Neighbors are walking, biking, and out working in yards. Joe is at an outdoor chili cook-off and Ralphie and I are cuddled on the sofa. I’m looking forward to a bowl of award-winning chili later if things go his way. In any case, a good bowl of chili.

I’ve grown used to my slow, uneventful pandemic life and sometimes I wonder if “getting back to normal” will be any different. I haven’t missed work, people, or social events as much as I had anticipated. (Missing my far-away daughters doesn’t count.) I guess I’m more of an introvert than I realized. Other things I’ve pondered since being in virtual lockdown since last March:

  1. Looking forward to the weekend is no longer a thing.
  2. Zooming has lost it’s charm.
  3. Where does all this dust come from?
  4. When will someone invent a self-cleaning toilet?
  5. Buying shoes on-line has not been a great success.
  6. Blogging is a challenge when you have nothing to report.

Enjoy this pic of Ralphie and Louise, my pandemic companions.

Saturday sleep in

A Christmas Memory

12/29/2020

A few nights before Christmas this year, Joe suggested we ride around town and look at the lights. This was not something we had ever done. Usually, with family home, cookies to bake, presents to wrap, and parties to host or attend, looking at lights was not on the to-do list. But 2020 was not a usual Christmas and the offer of a joy ride sounded like a good diversion from our Christmas solitude.

We had fun commenting on the displays and judging them to be successful or epic fails. Mockery can be good for the soul. (Some of those inflatables are truly awful, aren’t they?) So, when we pulled back into our driveway and I observed our meager porch and window display, from somewhere deep in my neocortex a Christmas memory emerged. I will try to flesh it out here.

In the small North Carolina town where I grew up, spectacular yard displays were not common. There was one house in our neighborhood, however, that did go all out and, at the age of 7 or 8, I thought it was fantastic.

“Why don’t we do that?” I asked my parents.

“A waste of electricity,” was my fathers reply. ( ‘a waste of money’ was generally the explanation for all my perceived childhood depravations.)

The only indication that we, indeed, celebrated Christmas was a small white plastic candelabra with red bulbs that sat in our living room window. I had seen an article about Hanukkah in one of my mother’s magazines, and, wanting to show off my new worldly knowledge, commented that people seeing only a candelabra in our window would think we were Jewish.

“What? Of course not,” she exclaimed. “It’s not the same shape,” she said, uncertainly. “And it’s red,” she added.

I moved on. “I like theirs better.” I said, pointing to the house catty-cornered from ours. The Wilson’s had, in their large picture window, three tall red candles of irregular height with white bulbs and plastic halos. “It’s more elegant,” I pronounced. (At age 8, already a critic.)

A day or two later, the stubby candelabra had been removed and a single tall white candle with a white bulb appeared in every window across the front of our house – two in the dining room, two in the living room and one in my parents’ bedroom. In order to accomplish this, my mother had rounded up every extension cord she could find, as electrical outlets in homes built in the late 40’s were not plentiful. The cords stretched under the buffet, behind the sofa, and, in my parents’ bedroom, they draped over the built-in vanity and across the floor in front of my father’s closet. (I distinctly remember this because it was my job to plug them in every early evening and unplug them before I was sent to bed.) My father’s only comment on what I thought was a great improvement to our outward showing Christmas presentation was ‘too many cords.’

One sleepy night when it was time for me to unplug them, I suggested we leave them on all night. The newspaper my father was reading snapped closed and I knew immediately what he was going to say – ‘a waste of electricity.’ He did not disappoint.

A few nights later something close to a miracle occurred in North Carolina. It snowed on Christmas Eve. All the neighborhood kids were out that night, giddy, and doing what kids do in the snow and I was among them. This was the memory that came to me as I sat in our driveway last week: I was playing in the snow in the front yard and had turned my attention to the front of the house. The snow was falling, the yard and bushes were covered in snow and above them shone a single candle in each window. I was briefly transfixed by what I can now only describe as a moment of transcendent beauty. I ran inside and urged my family to come out and look. My father and older sister ignored the request, but my mother put on her galoshes and came outside. Together we stood looking at our house and at the snowflakes swirling in front of the streetlight. After a few moments she asked,

“Is it as nice as the Wilson’s?”

“Better,” I proclaimed.

They say that as we age, our long-term memories become clearer and more accessible. I say, bring them on.

Unfettered Thinking

12/17/2020

Me: (On the sofa imparting some tidbit of information found on Twitter that I considered mildly interesting)

Joe: (in nearby chair looking upward toward ceiling)

Me: “Did you hear me?”

Joe: (looking at ceiling)

Me: “Joe, are you even listening to me?”

Joe: (still seemingly focused on ceiling) “No”

Me:

Me: “Should I repeat it?”

Joe: “No”

Me: (considering)

Me: “You seem distracted. What’s on your mind?”

Joe: (deigning to look at me) “You’re distracting. I’m just thinking.”

Me: (now curious) “about what?”

Joe: “Why are you peppering me with questions? You’re like a machine gun with questions.”

Me: (!) Wow, are you OK?

Joe: “Yes, I’m OK. Can’t a guy do some unfettered thinking without getting a million questions?”

Me: “Unfettered thinking?”

Joe: “Yes, unfettered thinking” (leaves chair and goes upstairs to, presumably, do some unfettered thinking)

Me: (resumes scrolling)

A Hard December

12/09/2020

The tree is up and presents are wrapped. The next step is to box them and get them in the mail. Why does this all seem so hard? I know why, of course – it’s a hard December. Those presents I’m mailing should be under the tree and the tree should be fuller, taller, and loaded with the treasured ornaments that I carefully pack away each year and that my daughters always help me to hang. It’s hard to be merry this year. I’m sure I speak for many.

Joe and I debated whether to even put up a tree this year. I have other decorations to dot around the house to make it look festive, so why bother? (A couple of years ago I went a little crazy with the “flameless candles” so I can easily light up the living room without a tree.) We don’t have an artificial one so “getting the tree” is not as easy as going into the attic. Surprisingly, it was Joe who decided we needed one and took it upon himself to get it. When he brought it home, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It’s a live Norfolk Island Pine in a pot. Norfolk Pines grow well in Florida and even though it’s considered an evergreen, it’s not a true pine. Norfolk Island is somewhere in the Pacific between Australia and New Zealand. No wintery, piney smell, and the soft leaves and feathery branches make it hard to decorate. I did my best. I hung only the lightest ornaments – the crocheted snowflakes, red foam balls, and the red ribbon chain I made in the 8th grade while home sick for a month with mono. (The fact that it still exists is a testament to Elmer’s glue.) It’s somewhere on the scale between a Charlie Brown and a Dr. Seuss tree. Kind of cute, though.

Like most of us, we’re making the best of a hard year. And when the COVID coast is clear, I’m going to party like it’s 1999.

Wanted by the FEPPC

12/1/2020

Fall has finally arrived to central Florida. It’s a chilly 48 degrees at midday and expected to be 38 degrees tonight. These temps will only last a few days; by Friday it will be back up to the high 70’s. So, even though it’s nice and sunny out, I’m content to snug up here on the sofa with my pup, Ralphie, and a cup of coffee mixed with coquito. If you’re unfamiliar with the aforementioned concoction, I will explain. Coquito is often referred to as Puerto Rican eggnog. It’s easy to make – no eggs involved – just canned sweetened condensed milk, coconut milk, evaporated milk, and cinnamon. And rum. There are several variations, but those are the main ingredients and it’s so tasty! Along with the chilly weather, I’m feeling somewhat festive. It may be the rum.

As the temperature started to drop yesterday afternoon, I donned a sweatshirt and took Ralphie for a walk. (donned – a fun word, right?) Just north of my neighborhood, if you bear right, the road becomes dirt and leads into the woods. Parts of the woods are swampy but there are a few houses scattered around, so the road is maintained and makes for a pleasant walk.

Florida in November is not much different to the untrained eye than, say, Florida in March or July. The few ragged wildflowers that were colorful in September are now brown but the fern, palmetto, and the oaks remain green all year. I passed a large patch of coralberry that was turning red just in time for the holidays. With it’s red berries and shiny dark green leaves, it makes a good substitute for holly. I have a bush in my backyard that I use for Christmas greenery.

I looked it up in Wikipedia just now so I could sound more knowledgeable here.

QUOTE: “Ardisia Crenata, sometimes called Christmas berry, is an invasive species in the southeastern US, escaping captivity in wooded areas in Florida in 1982. The invasive cultivar in this region is originally from Japan. It is classified as a Category 1 pest by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (FEPPC).”

Ha! This made me almost spit out my rum laden coffee. How do they know it “escaped” in 1982 exactly? Are agents from the FEPPC looking for it? Is it armed and dangerous? Who knew there was a FEPPC anyway? I also have two poinsettia bushes in the back that are starting to sprout their famous red leaves. I was thinking of moving them to the front. Are they wanted by the FEPPC as well? Should I keep them in hiding? I just checked and it appears not. Although they are not native and hail from Central America, they are not a Category 1 pest. Whew!

I don’t mean to disrespect the work of the FEPPC. I understand how some non-native plants get out of control. Large swaths of south Florida are overrun with Brazilian Pepper that was once touted and sold as Florida Holly in the 1920’s and 30’s. It’s just that the more I research the plants in my yard, the more I find that I’m really good at growing invasive species. A real green thumb!

Coralberry, a.k.a Christmas berry

Smiley Face

11/19/2020

Well, I did it. Something I’ve been wanting to do for quite sometime but had never looked into it. I signed up for clear teeth aligners, i.e. clear braces. I’m in the middle of the process and it’s quite the process! I chose Smile Direct after a bit of research and speaking to a friend who had gone through the Invisalign process and had a few issues. So far, I’m impressed. These people have the “communication with the customer” thing down. I’m getting emails and texts and every question I’ve had has been answered without my asking. (This is not a commercial for Smile Direct, just my experience.)

I didn’t have braces as a kid but it wasn’t because I didn’t need them. It was because I lied to my mother after a dental appointment when I was 13.

I grew up in a small North Carolina town. Dr. Graham may not have been the only dentist in town but he was the one that everyone we knew went to. We had no local orthodontist, so, if you needed braces, it meant driving to a bigger town 30 miles away. Both my older sisters had had braces and I had heard my parents at times complain about the expense and the drive. I remember examining my teeth one day and deciding they looked just fine, so when my mother sent me off on my bike for my regular check-up and told me to ask Dr. Graham about braces, I thought I had nothing to worry about – for me or my hard working parents.

I asked him. “Mom wants to know if I need braces.” As he poked around in my mouth he said, “Well, this tooth and this tooth will have to come out to make room. We can do that here before I send you to Dr. Walker.” What I heard was, “I’m going to pull out two perfectly good teeth.”

When I got home I told mom that Dr. Graham said my teeth looked fine and I wouldn’t need braces, “Well, that’s a relief, ” she said. I was sure I had done the right thing.

Years later, while I was away at college, Dr. Graham spoke to my mom after church one Sunday and asked her why she had never sent me to Dr. Walker. Busted! She wasn’t very happy with me that day and called to tell me about it. I said I was sorry for lying but that I still didn’t think I needed them. So what if my eye teeth were somewhat prominent?

Over the years my teeth have moved around a bit and my eye teeth are more prominent then ever. In a recent photo, I really noticed it and so did Joe. He rarely notices things like that, or if he does he doesn’t comment, so when he did I paid attention.

I’m committing to wearing the aligners for 22 hours a day for 6 months. It’s a good time to do this since I have nothing on my schedule, no big Thanksgiving, no Christmas plans, no parties, no luncheons, no fun ahead at all. Damn the pandemic. Hopefully, after 6 months we will all be out and about again and I’ll be all smiles!

World Weary

11/11/20

How are you holding up? I feel exhausted by the election and this post-election week. It’s emotional exhaustion. The relief I felt after the election was finally called lasted only a few hours, barely enough time to pop a bottle of Champaign before the drama resumed. That was predictable, of course. Trump made his intention not to accept defeat very vocal. Still, it’s so tiring.

I used to think being a journalist would be an ideal job. Exciting, smart people, always in the know, but 2020 has just been too much. I wonder how many of my favorite reporters and magazine writers just want to bury their heads under the covers and sleep for the next two months. I do. Even the good news of a Biden/Harris win comes with so many caveats that I’m still doomscrolling every morning to find out “now what the fuck.” (The one bright spot was Rudy Giuliani and the Four Seasons Total Landscaping SNAFU. I’m still laughing.)

And COVID! Our governor has taken the herd immunity strategy to heart and has offered up Florida as the nation’s guinea pig for the “let’s just ignore it and see what happens” experiment. People are getting sick and dying at an alarming rate, that’s what. My teacher friends are frustrated and scared by the lack of transparency in reporting from the state and the school district. Because of privacy issues, schools must rely on parents to self-report when a child gets sick and this results in little or no effort to contact trace or in preventative quarantining. It’s often too late for those measures to be effective.

I spoke with my niece who is an ESL teacher (English as a Second Language) in Georgia. A new student from Iran was told by letter he needed to quarantine for 10 days before returning to school. He came to her in a panic because he thought he had COVID. No one from the school had explained to him or his parents it was because the girl he sat next to in class had tested positive. Unsurprisingly, no one from the school in her small town spoke Farsi. “Miss, Miss, am I going to die?” he asked her. She assured him as well as she could that he wouldn’t die but said he didn’t seem convinced. How sad. As ill equipped as states are to deal with this worsening pandemic, schools are even less so.

Although I’m frustrated at having to stay home, exhausted by the happenings in the outside world and furious at people who seem to think mask wearing is not imperative, I thank my lucky stars that I retired this year and can stay at home. A retired friend of mine said to me the other day, “I’m going to be really pissed if, after 8 months of being really careful, I die because some asshole refuses to wear a mask.” I had to agree.

Experts wonder and warn: Is Florida the nation’s test case for COVID-19 herd immunity? – Miami Herald

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