Friday, December 19, 2014

In Defense of Elf on the Shelf

                Something has been bothering me this holiday season, and while I can’t right all the injustices in the world, I can take a stand on at least one. Quit picking on Elf on the Shelf. 
            I haven’t always felt this way. In fact, I used to find Elf-boy annoying. He seemed a bit Eddie Haskell-ish to me. (If you don’t know who Eddie Haskell is, this blog is probably not age-appropriate for you, but here's a link to help.) When I first saw Elf-boy on a Facebook post a couple of years ago, I breathed a huge sigh of relief—not for the first time—that there were no longer youngsters in my household. I looked on the elf as just one more self-inflicted pressure for mothers to add to their already over-taxed lives. As if the holidays aren’t hectic enough, now—along with shopping, baking, decorating, party-hosting...—mothers must think of original locations to place Elf-boy, clever ways to pose him, and entertaining stories of how he got in said place and position. For proof, go here. If that doesn't convince you, try here.
            Don’t think for a minute I’m judging today’s moms. My sympathy is real. We had our own version of Mommy Olympics back in the ‘80s, and I threw myself headlong into the competition. I still shudder to think of the guilt participants faced if we failed to acquire the must-have Christmas toy of the year (think waaay over-priced Cabbage Patch doll), to throw the most unique birthday party (think backyard beach “ball” in the middle of Oklahoma), or to “assist” with the best Thanksgiving project (think 6,000 assorted beans glued on a giant turkey poster). The saving grace for mothers of my generation, however, was we didn’t have the added responsibility of sharing our accomplishments—or failures—with half the world on Facebook or Pinterest. And we didn’t have Elf-boy.
            This year I’ve noticed Elf-boy’s fame turning to infamy. All of a sudden, it is popular to tag him with labels such as “creepy” and “tattle-tale” and to insist you’re glad you never bought into the whole elf frenzy in the first place. (Like I’d believe that.)  Some so-called experts have even accused him of traumatizing innocent little darlings and turning them into compliant victims of a “panoptic surveillance” society. Huh?
            Frankly, I think these mean-spirited accusations are a bit over the top and this name-calling borders on bullying. Furthermore, the piling-on is unwarranted. Sure, Elf-boy is annoying, but really, what has he done that’s so terrible? Unlike certain celebrities whose defrockings are the result of their own bad behavior, Elf-boy is simply a victim of his own popularity and, I suspect, frazzled mothers pushed to their limit. His intentions are honorable. All he wants to do is remind children to be on their best behavior and to make a few million bucks in the process. But as often happens with climbs to fame that are meteoric, they fizzle just as fast. Elf-boy's decline will be quick, and soon he will be as obsolete as a Rubik’s Cube Christmas tree ornament. For that reason, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. I hope he’s taking consolation in laughing all the way to the bank.
From the expression on his face, I don't think Elf-boy is taking 
recent criticism too hard.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Scones

            About the only recipes I ever post on this blog are ones from my fellow book club members. There’s a good reason for that. I’m not a cook. Not really. I mean, I can follow a recipe pretty well, and occasionally I whip up a decent meal. But as far as my getting fancy or adventurous with food, it’s just not a passion of mine. I’d much rather be writing or reading.
Christmas is the perfect season
to indulge in melt-in-your-mouth
scones, accompanied by your
favorite tea.
            A few years ago, however, I found a delicious—and almost fail proof—recipe for scones. I call them Christmas Scones because that’s the only time of year I make them. They’re hard to resist  and, let’s be honest, not exactly health food. But for the holidays, we can splurge, right?
Holiday Scones – Basic Recipe
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1Tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½  cup cold butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup whipping cream, divided
wax paper
1. Preheat oven to 450°. Stir together first 4 ingredients in a large bowl. Cut butter into flour mixture with a pastry blender until mixture is crumbly. Freeze 5 minutes. Add ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. cream, stirring just until ingredients are crumbly. (If mixture seems too dry, add more cream a tsp. at a time. Mixture should not be too wet or sticky.)
2. Turn dough out onto wax paper; gently press it into a flat, round shape about an inch thick. (A hint from my high school home ec days: Handle the dough as little as possible for lighter, flakier scones.) Depending on how big you want your scones, you can make one round and cut it into 8 wedges, or you can make smaller ones by forming two smaller rounds (about 5 inches) and cutting those into 8 wedges. Place wedges about an inch apart on lightly greased baking sheet. (I use PAM.) Brush tops of wedges with remaining cream, just until moistened.
3. Bake at 450° for 13 to 15 minutes or until golden.
            Wait! Before you rush out to buy the ingredients, let me make a suggestion. While the basic scones are delicious spread with butter and/or jelly, they are also easy to play around and get creative with. So let me share some of my variations. 
            For all variations below, add the extra ingredients to the flour mixture before adding the cream. Then add the flavoring to the cream before stirring it in. The amount of flavoring should be according to your taste, usually ¼ to 1 tsp.
            Cranberry-Orange Scones: Orange extract, chopped dried cranberries and small bits of candy orange slices. (A trick for cutting up the orange slices is to do it with kitchen scissors sprayed with PAM.)
            Cinnamon-Pecan Scones: Toasted pecan pieces and mini cinnamon chips.
            Cherry-Chocolate-Almond Scones: Almond flavoring, chopped dried cherries, and mini, semi-sweet chocolate chips.
            Lemon-Poppy Seed Scones: Lemon flavoring and poppy seeds. Serve with lemon curd.
            The possibilities are endless. If you like, add a glaze by whisking together powdered sugar, cream or milk, and whatever flavoring you want to a desired consistency. Drizzle it over scones. You can even go savory, adding ingredients such as grated cheese, bacon, ham, or herbs.
            One final hint. I always divide one batch in half when I remove it from the freezer and before I add the cream. (Be sure you add only half the cream to half the mixture.) Then I make half of it as one variation, and another variation with the other half. That way I get two kinds of scones from one batch.
            Give this recipe a try. You won’t be disappointed. These scones are heavenly right out of the oven, but they’re also very tasty warmed up in the microwave. If you come up with an especially yummy variation, please share!
I got these four variations from two batches of the recipe.
Starting at top and going clockwise: Cinnamon-Pecan,
Cranberry-Orange, Cherry-Chocolate-Almond, Lemon-Poppy Seed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Role-Model Barbie

            As a recipient of one of the first Barbies to strut off the Matel assembly line, I take personally any criticism directed toward the diva of dolls. I never quite understood all the feminist hoopla about the unrealistic expectations her body communicated to young girls. As far as I’m concerned, the takeaway from Barbie isn’t her shapely physique but her composure. We could all learn lessons about ladylike conduct from this icon of elegance.
When I first saw my
Barbie, I wasn't quite sure
what I had. I would soon
find out.
            I received my Barbie as a Christmas gift from cousins back East, who obviously were more in the loop than we Texans. I didn’t even know who or what Barbie was when I opened the box. In fact, I thought she was a little strange in her black and white zebra-striped swimsuit and her severe ponytail and frizzy bangs. But when I showed her to a friend—who was more in the loop than I, so maybe this was less Texan than Dee Dee cluelessness—I was quickly informed of Barbie’s royalty status in the doll kingdom. And I was also informed that there were certain expectations to be met when it came to Barbie’s upkeep.

Barbie and I had our hearts
set on this Evening Splendor
            My poor Barbie must have thought she’d been banished to fashion hell when she took up residence at our house. No matter how much I requested, argued, begged, whined, my Barbie never possessed more than three outfits—and that was counting the swimsuit. When I pleaded Barbie’s case to Mama, she unreasonably insisted she wasn’t about to spend more on a doll’s dress than she did on one of her own. So, for the time being, Barbie and I had to give up on the little gold and white brocade ensemble with the mink cuffs and matching mink hat. At the time, I think it retailed for around $15, which translates to roughly $15,000 in today’s economy. But my eleventh birthday was coming up, so I told Barbie not to disparage. 
We had to settle for
Satin Flame.
        I discreetly hinted to all my friends that being it was late January, Barbie was getting cold in her swimsuit and not having anything warm to wear (like a jacket with mink cuffs and matching hat) was endangering her health. My friends’ mothers were apparently as selfish as mine. They were no more willing than my mom to shell out big bucks for a killer outfit so that Barbie could have a fun night on the town. Only one friend’s mother came through. Thanks to her, my Barbie could add a red velvet and white satin strapless cocktail dress to her attire. Through research, I happened to know that was the chea least expensive of the Barbie ensembles, but Barbie and I weren’t in a position to quibble. I thanked my friend profusely, and we quickly adorned Barbie in her new “appropriate-for-any-occasion” outfit. While accessorizing her, we discovered that when we tucked the gold vinyl clutch under her arm, the gold finish rubbed off in her armpit. We labeled that residue “purse”peration, and laughed uncontrollably. Never one to take herself too seriously, Barbie didn’t resent our little joke at her expense. And her demure smile told us she appreciated our razor-sharp wit.
            Barbie never complained, but in my heart I knew she was growing weary of her sparse wardrobe. I mean, there’s a limit to how many swimming and cocktail parties a doll can attend. Once again I encouraged Barbie to take heart. My grandmother was coming for a visit. I was sure she’d be happy to whip up a few items for her.
            I had no doubt my grandmother would come to Barbie's and my aid. And I must say, she was willing. But she, like me just a few months before, had no earthly idea who or what a Barbie was. I think when she agreed to help me make some “doll clothes,” she envisioned stitching up a couple of baby doll gowns out of my old flannel pajamas. When she saw the curvaceous Barbie and the scrap of green taffeta I produced for the first outfit, she was at a loss for both words and ideas. But being the loving woman she was, she doggedly tackled the task. With her stubby, arthritic fingers, she took needle and thread in hand and, with teeny-tiny stitches, fashioned yet another lovely strapless cocktail dress for Barbie. When she finished, Barbie truly had a bespoke garment. The problem was it was not only sewn specifically for her, it was also sewn on her and could be removed only with scissors. The frock would be worn either one time or permanently.
            At that point, Barbie and I had a heart-to-heart.
            “Babs, ol’ girl,” I said. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to spend some time in this dress. Either that or go back to the red-and-white number until next Christmas when I can make another pitch for you a decent wardrobe.” 
            This is where I want those of you who think Barbie an unfit role model to read carefully. She never flinched. Her plump, ruby-red lips never quivered. Her eyes glistened, but not so much as one tear smudged her blue eye shadow and heavy mascara. She simply raised her right hand in that elegant beauty-pageant wave and without a scene slipped into her special shoe box still wearing that green taffeta dress. She wasn’t giving up, but she knew how to accept defeat gracefully and return to fight another day. What a doll. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Miss Lillie's Bed and Breakfast - Heavy on Charm, Light on "Fustiness"

           To her parents, older relatives, and friends, my mother’s oldest sibling was known as Lillie. Her younger brothers and sisters and, later, nieces and nephews simply called her “Sister.” Then she became “MeeMaw” to grandchildren, great grandchildren, and a horde of great nephews and nieces. But whatever name they called her, folks knew Sister’s door was always open and they were always welcomed at her table. So it is only fitting that some fifty years after she built her little ranch-style cottage, her granddaughter Janet and husband Ray would open it as Miss Lillie’s Bed and Breakfast, reviving the warmth and hospitality for which Sister’s home was so well known.
            Every time I visit Miss Lillie’s, the writer in me sees the perfect spot for a writing retreat. Nestled among stately oak and pecan trees, the delightful bed and breakfast provides many restful spots for reflection and inspiration. Miss Lillie’s is also popular with guests who enjoy getting away for a few days of scrapbooking. Antiquers find Miss Lillie’s to be the perfect home base for their shopping expeditions. Located in the heart of East Texas, it is only forty miles from Canton with its famous First Monday Trades Day. But Canton doesn’t hold a monopoly on the antiques/collectibles market. The countryside surrounding Miss Lillie’s teems with all things vintage (and, yes, a fair amount of junk). The near-by Lindy Antique Mall, Janet and Ray’s other thriving enterprise, offers over 10,000 square feet of beautifully displayed reminders of days gone by.   
            This past weekend, as she often does, Janet offered Miss Lillie’s as a gathering place for a family mini-reunion. I’m always impressed by my cousin’s flair for decorating and her ability to evoke pleasant memories of or quiet longings for the past. After this last visit, I just had to share examples of her creativity. With her permission, I’m using twenty-first century technology to take readers on a virtual tour of “kinder, gentler” times. I hope you enjoy it. If you feel inspired, you might consider a retreat of your own at Miss Lillie’s          
          While some bed and breakfasts can be a bit overpowering with their nod to nostalgia, Miss Lillie's keeps things light and uncluttered. For scrapbookers, the furniture in this "parlor" is replaced with functional tables, allowing scrappers to pursue their craft, unencumbered and uninterrupted.

At Miss Lillie's you don't get just a "bed" and a "breakfast." You get an entire house with a well-equipped, spotless kitchen.
Both inside and out, comfy spots for reading, writing, and reflecting abound. 
Vintage vignettes call out (unobtrusively) to be photographed. I wish my photography did justice to the details and the mint condition of this clothing.
And for a bit of potty humor ... These lacy bloomers hang in the bathroom. Obviously the woman who wore these wasn't worried about adding "bulk" to her hips and thighs!
The serene charm continues outside. The brick in this pathway was salvaged from a demolished building and is over one hundred years old. 
Sister loved to sit on her back porch and visit with family and friends while she shelled peas or pecans. Today, guests still gather there to talk and laugh. (If you want to shell peas or pecans, you'll have to bring your own.)
Like her MeeMaw, Janet Lindamood, proprietor of Miss Lillie's Bed and Breakfast, spares no effort in making sure her guests feel welcomed.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part IV - Finding the "Write" Reason

            In the olden days—those days before the internet and e-readers—publication was the holy grail of writers. With today’s revolutionary changes in the publishing industry, the good news is that with a little self-discipline any writer can achieve that goal. The bad news? For the majority of writers, even if we self- or e-publish, we’ll be lucky to get anyone beyond a few loyal friends and family members to read our work. And yet we persevere.
            Why do we do this? Why—in the face of frustration, failure, futility—do we slave away on our articles, manuscripts ... blogs and pray that a few folks will read what we have to say? The “bird-brains” offer some insight on this seemingly masochistic endeavor.
            In bird by bird ... Anne Lamott shares information about the ultimate reason writers do what they do. Early in her writing journey, she received scathing criticism from an editor and experienced the mortification with which many of us are familiar. But rather than ditch her story, she took his advice and “with great trepidation” sat down to revise. As she wrote, she had an epiphany: the realization that this time “I wasn’t writing the book with my thumb stuck out, trying to hitchhike into history; I just wanted to write a book for my father that might also help someone going through a similar situation.” She also discovered “There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.”
            In Gooney Bird is Absurd, author Lois Lowry poignantly demonstrates the same message. Throughout the school year, Gooney Bird and her teacher Mrs. Pigeon work tirelessly to share the techniques and joys of storytelling with Gooney’s classmates. Through various programs and activities, the second-graders learn to appreciate the satisfaction and fun that can come from creating their own stories and poems. But not until the class experiences the death of someone dear to them do they learn the true worth of their writing. When they compose "A Goodbye Poem,” they are able to express their sympathy to the family of the departed and alleviate their own sense of loss.
            The common thread of these two stories is that they both get to the root of why we write. We write out of the desire to give and to connect. Whether we write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or a letter to the editor, we write to share our thoughts, observances, successes, and even our failures. We hope that in baring our souls, we can somehow shed a sliver of light on others experiences. We might not be able to solve readers’ problems. But we can offer encouragement and let them know they’re not alone. For confirmation of this, check out Jennifer Cazzola's comments here.
            You might be questioning whether your writing motives are this pure. I mean, what writer among us has never dreamed of making the bestseller list, winning the Pulitzer, or landing a movie deal? Who doesn’t send out each manuscript with the secret expectation that this is the next Harry Potter phenomenon? Who doesn't blog with visions of becoming the next Pioneer Woman or the online answer to Erma Bombeck? But if you're doubting the altruistic reasons behind your writing, ask yourself this: If I had no chance of ever being published, of ever making a dime, of ever having an audience of more than one, would I still write? If your answer is “yes,” then I think you’ve found the “write” reason.            

In this my final post of "bird-brained" writing advice,
I want to introduce you to Brianna. She is my great-niece and
 the instigator behind my introduction to the Gooney Bird series.
Much like the protagonist of this series, Brianna loves stories
and imaginative outfits. And clothing that matches
too closely gives her a feeling of "ennui."


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part III - Finding the "Write" Word

            To introduce this post, I’m venturing away from the “bird-brains” for a second and sharing information from another successful writer. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King says that every writer must equip and carry with him at all times a “toolbox.” In this metaphorical toolbox are the skills he should have on hand in order to approach his craft with confidence. The tool King insists goes on the very top shelf of the toolbox? Vocabulary.
            I know Gooney Bird Greene would concur. From the day she enters Mrs. Pigeon’s second-grade classroom, Gooney Bird’s speech reveals she has a passion for words. And her resourcefulness in acquiring a dictionary for each of her classmates helps her spread that passion. By the time the second graders present their Thanksgiving program, words such as cajole, indefatigable, incognito, admonition, and my personal favorite ennui are as natural to them as gobble, gobble is to a turkey.  
            Although Anne Lamott, doesn’t overtly state it, I infer from a passage in bird by bird ... that she also places a high priority on vocabulary. While creating a scene in a novel, she discovered she didn’t know the name of that little “wire thing” placed over the cork of a champagne bottle. Her quest for the exact word resulted in her calling a winery and conversing with a two-thousand-year-old monk (her description). (And now that you’re burning with curiosity, I’m going to let you smolder. You’ll have to read her book to find out the name. Or call a monk yourself.)
            I’m willing to bet that every person who has ever set pen to paper—with the possible exception of author Charles Portis—has struggled at one time or another to come up with the exact right word. That is why, if you are a writer, vocabulary building should become second nature to you. I’m also willing to bet, however, that it already is. How can you be a writer and not love words?
            Understand I’m not talking pretentious, stilted verbiage here. Everything I’ve read about contemporary writing cautions against using an obscure, polysyllabic word when a familiar, shorter form will work just as well. Why say somnambulating when sleepwalking gets the same point across and doesn’t send your reader scrambling mid-sentence to the dictionary?  Enriched vocabulary is about knowing many words so that you’ll have the precise word at your disposal when you need it. So that once you’ve written trinket twice in the same paragraph, you’ll know that gimcrack can serve as a good alternative. So that if you want a character to sound pompous, you can have him say imbroglio instead of spat. An enriched vocabulary enables us to clearly express sights, feelings, or experiences that otherwise might be indescribable.
            So what is the best way to build vocabulary? In Gooney Bird’s classroom, every time the second-graders hear a new word, they look it up in their dictionaries. Mrs. Pigeon tells them that once they use a word three times, they own it. For the eager second-graders, that method works well. Surprisingly, King instructs us to not make any “conscious effort to improve [our vocabulary].” He says start with the vocabulary you have and then naturally acquire words by reading . My favorite method is to read and “pay attention.” One of the reasons I enjoy my kindle is that  definitions to unfamiliar words are just a screen tap away. Upon finding a word I especially like, I highlight it. That way I can revisit it later and "own" it. When not using my kindle, I have my phone with the dictionary app nearby. Whether you work crossword puzzles, make flashcards, play word games, or simply read, the best way to increase your vocabulary is whatever method works for you.
Choose your favorite tool(s).

           It is difficult to describe the pleasure I derive from vocabulary building. But give me time. I’ll find the right words for it!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part II - Paying Attention

            When my cousin Jerry found out I’d written a book, he said, “I was going write a book one time. But I got to page ten and couldn’t think of anything else to say.”
            I’ve been there. But now I can solve this dilemma in two words: Pay attention.
            Many of my author friends have lamented that they’d rather write a three hundred-page novel than a one-page synopsis. Ditto for me. That’s because without the story’s juicy details, a synopsis can be as dry as the white meat on an overcooked turkey. So where do we get all those wonderful details? By paying attention.
            As far as I’m concerned, one of the perks of being a writer—and you can claim that title regardless of where you are in the journey—is sharpening the skill of observation. Writing increases the ability to look for and recognize the details that make people or events or surroundings unique and interesting. As Anne Lamott puts it in bird by bird..., “If you start to look around, you will start to see.” Maybe you’ll start to see that it’s that slightly crooked front tooth that makes a smile so engaging. Or maybe you'll notice that the nandina bush you'd given up for dead is sprouting a few green leaves at its base. 
            Paying attention isn’t limited to what we see. Quite frequently I catch myself in a restaurant or in a line with my ear slightly leaning toward a nearby conversation. This isn’t eavesdropping. It’s research. Listening closely to conversations, wherever they occur, can alert you to the distinctions of voices, accents, speech patterns, and even mannerisms people use while talking (not to mention some interesting subject matter). Lois Lowry incorporates details such as these so skillfully in her Gooney Bird Greene series that soon the reader knows which character is speaking even before he is identified in the speaker tag. Listening extends beyond conversations. Pay attention to the sounds of nature, of music, of machinery, of windchimes.... Pay attention to the lovely and the harsh, the symphonies as well as the cacophonies.  
            Details can be gleaned from paying attention with all the senses. And they can be gleaned when paying attention when we’re reading. Some folks might consider me a snob for saying this, but I honestly do enjoy some books as much as for the way they’re written as for the plot or theme. I agree that description shouldn’t take a reader out of the story. But when skillfully done, descriptive details can plunge us more deeply into it, even when we pause and re-read a passage because it resonates with us. Of course, I’m not saying copy what another author has written and claim it as your own. But learn her technique. When you’re enjoying a particular line or passage, stop and ask yourself what makes it so enjoyable. What makes it stand out--the writer’s precise word choice, his candor, his ability to mix the ridiculous with the sublime and elicit a laugh?     
            A final, very practical word of advice about paying attention: As soon as you gather a great detail, write it down. I’m currently trying to train myself to carry pen and pad with me at all times because I’ve lost more good material to bad memory than I have to computer failure. Lamott says she never goes anywhere—even to walk her dog—without a pen and an index card. These days, those more technically savvy probably rely on phones or tablets, but I’m not to that point. Whatever works for you, use it. Just remember: Write. It. Down.
            Remember what I said about a line or passage that strongly resonates with us? This one from bird by bird...did it for me: “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” Amen.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part I - Generating Content

It’s almost spookier than the Hitchcock movie the way birds have lately invaded my writing space. In my last post, I reported on Anne Lamott’s book bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Shortly after purchasing that book, I listened to some audio books from Lois Lowry’s children’s series, Gooney Bird Greene. And it turns out Gooney Bird also has insightful information to offer on the art of storytelling. So like I said. Spooky.
            To be honest, I was less than enthusiastic when my sister Elaine announced we would be listening to the Gooney Bird CDs on a car trip. "I listened to these when we were on a trip with Brianna [her seven-year-old granddaughter and my great niece],” she said. “They’re really funny.”

            Yeah, I thought. Really funny to a seven-year-old. But what could I say? It was her car.

           So, as our journey commenced, I got comfy and—being in the seat behind her—prepared to sleep for the next few hours. But my eyelids had barely begun to droop when Lowry hooked me with her description of the eccentric and precocious Gooney Bird. By the end of the trip, we had to drive a few extra miles so I could find out the identity of the mysterious second-grade room mother. And in between our departure and arrival, Gooney Bird gave excellent tips on storytelling. I was surprised to find that much of Gooney Bird’s advice matched Lamott’s. After all, a wide age gap exists between the target audiences for each of these books. But when I thought about it, the similarities make perfect sense. After all, a good story is a good story, right? So the basic elements should be the same.
            For generating content, both Gooney Bird and Lamott essentially offer the age-old advice to write what you know. This doesn’t mean a writer has to be a technical expert on the subject she writes about. I guess it helps, but in this information age, a lot of technical knowledge is just an internet search away. I think what it does mean, though, is to take your own experiences and use them as a starting place. One of Gooney Bird’s stories explains how she got her name. She goes on to point out that everyone has a name; therefore, everyone has a story. Lamott’s advice is the same, only she drives home the point with a story about an aunt making lemonade. Surprisingly (or not), a subject common to both “bird” books concerns school lunches. Lamott describes how she uses them as an exercise for her writing classes. An entire passage in one of the Gooney Bird books “shows” Gooney Bird’s classmates describing and bartering with their varied and interesting mid-day meals.
            If there is an inkling of writer/storyteller in you (and I believe there is in everyone), the topic of school lunches has to evoke at least one good story. I immediately remembered the time I forgot to bring my lunchbox home from school. My mother was out of brown bags, and the next day I had to suffer the extreme humiliation of toting my lunch to school in a plastic bread bag. And speaking of lunchboxes, what memories do those bring to mind? And bread? Did your mother ever try to disguise the bread heels by spreading the peanut butter and jelly on the crusty sides and pressing them together? Ha! Nice try, Mama.
            By now you get the point. Our own experiences can generate a lot of stories. A seed of truth pokes through our consciousness and with proper cultivating grows into a full-fledged story. In my next installment of Bird-brained Writing Advice, I’ll discuss the proper care and feeding of those seeds.   
            I’m always happy to receive comments of any kind. But this time, I’d especially like to hear any of your own interesting school lunch experiences. I know you had at least one!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Reading About Writing

            Just because I’m waaay behind on my self-inflicted goal of creating a post at least every two weeks, that doesn’t mean I’ve been totally neglecting my writerly duties. Sometimes writing pursuits include activities other than putting pen to pad—or fingers to keyboard. Sometimes the best thing a writer can do to improve her craft and jumpstart her creative juices is read. And more specifically, read about writing.  
The Book Nest - Not Your Ordinary Bookstore
            About a year ago, I picked up a used copy of Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott at my niece’s little book nook. I’d heard of Lamott for years but never got around to reading her. Since I qualified for the good relative discount at The Book Nest, I grabbed the copy with a what-the-heck attitude. If I didn’t like it, at least I wasn’t out a wad of money.
            As it turned out, I got a lot for my $4.95 investment. (And no tax! Oregon has no sales tax!) Let me say up front, I don’t see eye to eye with all of Lamott’s religious and political views. But I found Traveling Mercies full of funny, witty, honest, and passionate observations on her life and her writing journey. I enjoyed the book so much that when I saw her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life at another used bookstore (you’re learning where I do a lot of hanging out), I snapped it up. Once again, it was a shrewd purchase.
            What I like about Bird by Bird is the “instructions” on writing don’t really seem like instructions at all. They aren’t technical “to do’s,” promising a New York Times bestseller. But while her advice isn’t a paint-by-numbers guide to constructing plot or developing scenes, it is  tremendously helpful. She gives practical guidance on generating content, overcoming writer’s block, and finding one’s voice. There’s even a chapter on dealing with professional jealousy (not that I or anyone I know ever deals with that).
            My favorite take-away from this book, though, is the author’s thoughts on publication. If you read this book with dreams of discovering the sure road to Big Five publication, those dreams are most likely going to be dashed. Or at least broken and bruised a bit. In fact, Lamott cautions you—very nicely and with lol humor—you’ll be lucky to receive anything other than a form rejection from an agent. But once you’ve massaged your injured hopes and resisted the urge to shred your three-hundred-page manuscript, you’ll find inspiration in her words. And you’ll discover the real reason to write.  



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Parable of the Verbena Seeds

            A woman desired a beautiful flower garden, so in early spring she planted verbena seeds in starter containers and carefully tended them. She watered the seeds faithfully, protected them from cold snaps and storms, and looked forward to the day she could transplant them into her garden and enjoy their beautiful blooms.

            But in the night an enemy—or a bird or a strong wind—visited her makeshift greenhouse and sowed seeds of a different kind. And it came to pass that in late spring a careful inspection of her seedlings revealed fuzzy little stalks and leaves, which mightily resembled those of tomato plants. As the stalks grew in stature, delicate yellow blossoms appeared on them. Verily, they were tomato plants!            
            This woman had always held fast to the belief that actions carry consequences. Confident that her actions in nurturing these seeds had been good and well intentioned, she was certain her efforts would be rewarded. 
            “How can this be?” she lamented to a friend. “I have always adhered to the belief that actions carry consequences. I sowed verbena seeds and diligently cared for them. I have been a good and faithful gardener and should have beautiful blossoms to show for my efforts. Instead, all I have are a few pitiful tomatoes.”
            The friend gave her a sympathetic smile. “It is true that actions carry consequences, and in the grand scheme of things, remembering that will ensure a life well lived. But sometimes our actions—even the best and most sincere of them—don’t always bring the results we expected. That is when we accept what we are given and make something good of it. That is called fortitude.”
            As the woman pondered these words, the friend continued. “Other times our actions are not admirable, and we suffer because of them. That is justice.”
            The woman nodded, understanding the fairness of this situation.
            “But there are also times,” the friend said, “when our actions are shameful, and yet we escape the consequences altogether. That, my dear one, is called grace.”
            The woman thanked her friend for her wise counsel. Then, with a grateful heart, she gathered the tomatoes and took them inside her house to make a salad.




Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Word Nerd

           The other day a friend posted her results of one of those Facebook quizzes. You know, one of those that tells you what kind of animal, car, state, cookie you most resemble? I generally scroll right past them, but this particular quiz caught my interest. It claimed to identify the kind of “thinker” one is, and it classified my friend as a Linguistic Thinker. Such a thinker, along with other traits, “ intrigued not only by the meaning of words but also by the sounds of them and their rhythm.” 
            I was positive I was a Linguistic Thinker as well. More and more these days, I find myself in awe of words, either spoken or written. They don’t necessarily have to be complicated, polysyllabic words, although it’s okay if they are. As long as they communicate ideas with sincerity and clarity, I’m impressed. Add a touch of local color or creative flare or—as stated above—arrange them in a particularly mellifluous combination, and I’m downright gobsmacked. (How do you like that last word?)
Martha Bryant, on the left, claimed the
title of current reigning Word Wizard
with the word gunsel. Look it up.
Rest assured, the competition to unseat
her at our next gathering will be fierce.
            I don’t claim to be a philologist (another great word!) by any stretch  of the imagination. I’m not an expert who applies “a critical attitude toward words, their roots and their meanings.” (WSJ, 4/5/14). Rather I’m a dilettante—a dabbler in diction, an amateur tripping through a garden of wordly delights. A word nerd, if you will. I often enjoy a book as much for the way it’s written as for the story. As a rule, card and board games don’t interest me, but give me one involving words and I’m all over it. I’m a faithful solver of the Daily Cryptoquote in the newspaper. (I used to be obsessed with crossword puzzles but gave them up when I realized what a timesuck they were becoming.) Only a word nerd would have for her homepage, right? And who else but a word nerd would spend an entire evening with other “nerders” (aka the Inklings) in a cut-throat, high-stakes word tournament, vying for the title of Word Wizard?
            So with all this evidence of my linguistic leanings, I saw no need to take the quiz. But I did. I breezed through it, scoffing as I clicked off the too obvious answers that would identify me as a...Philosophical Thinker??? What? Surely not! Philosophical Thinker couldn’t possibly apply to the person who gave up reading Sophie’s World because she couldn’t follow the geared-to-middle-schoolers explanation of existentialism. The same person who, full of ambitious optimism, bought a book entitled Half Hours with the Best Thinkers and fell asleep fifteen minutes into the very first half hour. The person who pored over the two-paragraph explanation of secular humanism in the The Bathroom Book Edition III and still remains clueless on the subject.  
            Needless to say, I’m crushed. My entire thinking paradigm now must shift from “What is the meaning of this word?” to “What is the meaning of life?” and let me tell you that is a major shift. Quite frankly, I’m not sure at my age I’m up to the challenge. One thing I am sure of, however, is that I’m through with Facebook quizzes. A few more life-altering discoveries like this one, and I’ll be lucky if I can think at all.   

            Want to know what kind of thinker you are? Here’s the link. But be forewarned. You might not like the results.




Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Makes Scents to Me (Part II)

            I’m not sure of the exact date my preference in scents switched from those that came in a bottle to those that came from plants. But while I don’t recall the exact date, I do recall the incident that brought me to my current “scentses.”

The sweetheart roses which
began my outside
"scent"imental journey.
             One spring evening a few years ago, I was sitting in my little outside alcove—can’t really call it a porch—and caught a whiff of the sweetheart roses on a bush near my front door. Nothing heavy, just a light aroma wafting on the evening breeze. Up to that point, my plant choices had been mainly based on sight—what had showy blossoms, what provided the most color, what filled out space the best. But that evening, as I breathed in that airy sweetness, I made the conscious decision to consider my sense of smell in future planting. And I also began making the effort to appreciate the fragrant gifts of plants already established. So these days, I no longer linger at the Dillard’s or Macy’s perfume counter, inhaling the floral or musky scents provided there. Instead, I do my lingering outside—more specifically, in my own yard—and enjoy the offerings from the most creative perfumer of all, Mother Nature.

The smell from this lilac bush is especially sweet since it was a rescue plant and cost me next to nothing!


Does anything beat the heady scent of honeysuckle in full bloom...

unless it's jasmine?

And don't forget the mouthwatering aromas of fresh herbs. My all-time favorite...fresh basil. Even if I'm not going to cook with it, I'll crush a leaf in my fingers and inhale.

Knockout roses are appreciated more for their blooms than their scent, but I've found if you get up close and personal and inhale deeply, they'll reward you with a subtle rosy aroma.


This beauty doesn't actually belong to me. It's in my neighbors' yard. But since it's on the edge of their property, I sneak over and "borrow" a whiff  from time to time. Even this bee can't resist its citrusy reminder of southern summers.

         A disclaimer: Lest, I give the impression I live in the middle of a sprawling garden like those featured in Southern Living, I don’t. I don’t even live in a charming, nostalgic neighborhood with lush cottage gardens and picket fences. I live in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, on an ordinary-sized lot, most of which is covered with ordinary green grass. But “blooming where I’m planted,” I try to make the most of my limited space and my limited horticultural abilities. And these days, I'm happy with that! 
          Do you have a favorite perfume offered up by Mother Nature? Please share!