Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Photo of the Week--12/28/09

Ah, Scotland ... lovely and green and cool even in the spring sunshine. No pigeons to be found at Jedburgh Abbey, the very picturesque ruin you see here. The coolest thing about this place? There's actually a scale replica built of Lego at Legoland Windsor, a place we visited frequently during our English sojourn.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Quilt Files, Episode 17

After all that writing I did in November, I wasn't sure I was going to finish my latest quilt project in time for Christmas, but I checked out a few DVDs from the library and spent a couple TV episodes a day to finish piecing and quilting this twin-size for my little nephew. He's just turned three and almost ready for a big boy bed, and I thought this pattern with lots of different shapes would help make the move more appealing. You can't see from the overall pattern, but there are twelve different fabrics in this pattern, and I chose differing shades of green, turquoise, and teal—all in batiks, of course. When I was done I thought it was so striking it was a shame I would have to give it up. (There are only so many beds in my house. Sigh.) However, you'll see that there are sashings between the rows of patchwork squares, and those sashings are unbroken pieces that are almost two yards wide. So the pattern called for at least two yards of all of those fabrics, even if they were only used for the 4.5-inch-wide piece of sashing ... which means I had scraps of two yards by almost 40 inches for those fabrics. I used a lot of the scrap for the backing of the quilt, but the rest is now in my stash ... lovely, lovely stash.

This quilt also marked a first for me: the first time I tried old-fashioned, finished applique, the kind with hemmed sides. I've done plenty of appliqued patterns with unfinished sides; you leave the edges rough, and use a satin stitch to cover the edges and keep them from fraying. It's a little easier, and creates a nice stained-glass-window effect, but wasn't really suited for this pattern. So I cut out all those circles and half-circles with an extra quarter inch to be turned underneath, and finally broke out the little miniature iron I bought several years ago just for this purpose. You can't just turn under the edges, however; you need to baste them so that they lie flat and don't move when you stitch them to the underlying fabric. It's a bit labor intensive, but easy enough to do while you're sitting and watching TV. I really like the way they turned out.

I also got to have a lot of fun with the quilting of this piece. Since it was a twin size, it was very manageable to do by machine (it took me less than a week), and the instructions were kind enough to suggest various patterns to quilt on different squares. Big circles, little circles, zig zags, crosses ... it was fun trying different patterns on each row. I was almost sorry when I was finished, but maybe I'll try it again sometime ... maybe in pinks? The good thing is, I've finished a whole quilt so I'm officially allowed to go buy more fabric. I know some babies are on the way, so it's time for a new pattern and some new fabrics. Viking Sewing, here I come!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Photo of the Week--12/21/09

You know what? There aren't any pigeons in Tunisia, either. At least not out near the Sahara Desert. What you can sometimes find, or what we found in 2000, was an abandoned set from Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. Tunisia has stood in for Tatooine since the original Star Wars (no numeral or subtitle, remember those days?) back in 1977. George Lucas left this set here after filming TPM; it wasn't because he planned on reusing it (at least I don't think so, from the state it was in), but because he knew it would provide extra tourist revenue for the locals. We were certainly excited to visit Anakin's neighborhood, climb inside the buildings and see their hollow, undecorated interiors, and take pictures. Here Boy is with a fellow Star Wars fanatic outside Watto's shop, walking around and trying to identify the buildings.

Yes, we know we're nerds.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I must be forgetting something...

... like, didn't I already write a blog entry this week? I didn't? Why does it feel like I have? Could it be I was thinking about what to write (Word Nerd Q, my favorite apocalyptic fiction, my oppressed left hand) and actually forgot to do the writing part?

I can't imagine how I overlooked it. Over the past week I've baked three cakes and one batch of cookies, quilted a twin-size quilt, played in a concert and practiced for another gig, wrapped presents, written the annual holiday letter (and addressed and stuffed 60 copies into envelopes), attended three parties, and hosted one of my own—all in addition to my usual duties teaching class, working at the shelter, and writing reference book entries. I'm sure I managed to fit a blog entry in there somewhere. Didn't I?

I didn't? I guess this craziness will have to do, then.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Photo of the Week--12/14/09

You can't see the pigeons here on the Charles Bridge in Prague, but believe me, they were there, even on a cold day in January. This was one of those last-minute trips; Boy had a long weekend off from school, so we looked for some place with a lot of indoor attractions that would suit a brief trip. Prague fit the bill, and we had a wonderful visit. Because we were there in low season, the tourist sites were uncrowded, and we were astonished how far the city had become a tourist haven in just over a decade since the Velvet Revolution overthrew Communist rule. (It seemed like every third building was now a money exchange or tourist shop.) Of course, the city's attractions were fascinating, and when we spotted some pigeons on this very famous bridge, Boy took off in pursuit, gargoyles and bystanders notwithstanding.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I've been Grinched!

And the Grinch didn't steal Christmas, he stole my heat! Now, I know it's supposed to be cold in Michigan in December. Even though this recent cold spell of temps in the teens (and wind chills in single digits) came on suddenly, I'm a native Michigander! I laugh at Southerners when they freak out at half an inch of snow! I snicker at Floridians shivering in 40-degree temps! Single digits is nothing!

I saw a lot of pissing and moaning on Facebook yesterday about all the cold and was getting ready to say, "Hey people! Don't be wimps! I dare you to think of the positive things about the cold weather!" I could think of plenty of positive things, of course: my cats become snugglier when it's cold; the garbage with old cat litter doesn't smell; I don't have to do any gardening, or hear neighbors mow their lawn at 8 am on a weekend morning.

That was just off the top of my head, and I'm sure I could think of more ... if my brain hadn't suddenly started freezing. Last night, although I had two quilts and two cats on top of me, I woke up in the middle of the night and noticed my feet were cold. Lately our furnace has been acting up a little, switching off unexpectedly, but we've always been able to restart it. Today? Not so much. I went to type "think positive," but my house is only 55 degrees, so my fingers wouldn't work. Instead, I say, Bah humbug! Go away, cold, and let me get some work done!

Luckily the heating guy is here and will hopefully uncover the problem and fix it soon ... if not, I'll be reduced to a shivering pile of blankets in front of the gas fireplace.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Janespotting: Sense and Sensibility and Silliness

Now that I've left my Remedial Lit project behind with summer, and managed to survive a busy busy fall filled with football games and marching band and NaNoWriMo and multiple assignments, it's time to get back to exploring Jane Austen and her myriad imitators. After all, how better to curl up and block out the cold, dark winter than with Jane and a cup of tea?

I was going to move onto Northanger Abbey, which is a favorite Austen novel and her funniest, imho, but when this book came into my library, I felt obligated to read it. After all, I found Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a quite entertaining mashup, as strange as it sounds. Zombies have always been a great metaphor for social stagnation, which would make them appropriate to mix with a novel about women who are often forced to choose between love and security. So could Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters) provide a similarly scintillating scenario?

As you might deduce from my excruciatingly excellent example of alliteration, the answer is: not particularly. Now, I could see mashing up Persuasion with sea monsters, as the leading hero is a naval captain and the main characters make a visit to the seaside resort of Lyme, but although Sense and Sensibility takes place in Devonshire, it's not really situated on the coast. So it felt to me like the only reason to add "Sea Monsters" was for the alliteration. Turning Colonel Brandon into a fellow cursed not only by a broken heart but by a sea witch (hence the facial tentacles) is weird, not revealing. Changing the sisters' trip to London to a visit to "Sub Station Beta," an undersea colony headed for disaster? Distracting, not enhancing. Putting Barton Cottage on an island that's really located atop a Lovecraftian leviathan? Just plain strange. The whole thing was quite silly, really, and I finished it just to finish it.

I suppose the publisher thought that after the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (not only was it a bestseller, it's been optioned for a movie), they could cobble together any Austen novel and any monster, but in this case they ignored what made P&P&Z so much fun: it was still mainly Austen's words, around 85%. The story was just tweaked here and there, enough to amuse but not confuse. S&S&SM goes way over the top, adding too many new things and changing the characters from their essential natures. You change things too much and it's no longer a parody, just a weird pastiche that's neither familiar nor amusing. I would have preferred mixing S&S with vampires—the novel's themes of letting emotions run away with you would seem to be perfect for it—but it turns out there are already a couple of Darcy as vampire novels out there. [rolls eyes] (I'm really going to have to run out of "sequels" before I get to those...) So enough with the weirdness! Next week I'm heading back to original Austen and Northanger Abbey.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Photo of the Week--12/7/09

No pigeons in this photo ... because they are definitely not native to Finnish Lapland. However, there were plenty of reindeer on this trip, which we took a couple weeks before Christmas 1999. It was actually only a couple days before the winter solstice, and at a latitude above 68°N (and yes, that is above the Arctic Cirlce) it was dark for most of the day. This photo was taken not long after lunch, when it was very dusky out. It was a very atmospheric trip—lots of snow hanging on evergreen branches, in addition to the crepuscular light—topped off with a visit to Santa's cabin in the snow. I can't imagine why Boy was so hesitant to say hello to this reindeer; it looks so friendly, doesn't it? More awesome, in his mind, was the ambulance that took his mom away after a tobogganing accident, and the cart with the flashing light we got to ride through the airport. Ten years later, and I'm still terrified to go near a sled.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Final Lessons from NaNoWriMo

As you can see from the little icon at the top left of my blog, I am a winner! By writing over 50,000 words during the month of November, I officially "won" the National Novel Writing Month challenge. What was my prize, besides a feeling of accomplishment and a nifty certificate I have to print out myself? A feeling of accomplishment, a nifty certificate, and a load of chores and errands to catch up with. Oh, and some interesting lessons I've learned about writing. Here are some of them:
  1. Any writing is better than nothing. I came back from chaperoning marching band nationals a little bit behind my target average of 1667 words a day, and the following week got really behind while I was catching up on work, craft fair signs, and other chores. Some days I only got in about 400 words, hastily typed at night while I was watching the local news, but that was better than nothing. It kept my mind in the story and my fingers in practice. Even though it was discouraging seeing my progress bar fall behind the target bar, it was still a little bit of progress.
  2. You have to snatch your writing moments when you can. Sometimes it's while the rest of the family is watching TV. Sometimes it's early in the morning, after Boy is off to school but before I have class. Sometimes it's while everyone else in the family is lined up for Thanksgiving dinner (and the line is so long, you might as well keep writing). Steal those moments when you can, because any writing is better than nothing.
  3. It is possible to write 5000 words (or more) in a day. By the time I got to the last four days of NaNoWriMo, I still had one-fifth of the novel to go. For you math-challenged folks, that's 10,000 words, meaning I needed 2500 words each of the last four days. And actually, since I wasn't quite 80% through the story, I actually ended up writing about 12000 words those last four days, including about 5000 on Sunday the 29th. I will admit that I might not have done it without brainstorming or outlining beforehand, but I still did it.
  4. Writing is fun! It seems silly to have to say this, because if I didn't think it was fun (even the business articles) I wouldn't be doing it. But even with the pressure to find time and produce word count, I was having a lot of fun. Even though there were many places I was wincing at all the crutch words (which still count, by the way!) I was using, there were a few times I was really pleased by a certain turn of phrase I had used. And by the time I got to the end of the novel, when my button-downed protagonist finally expressed her feelings to her controlling mom and had a possibility of rekindling a romance, I was genuinely excited. I got the same emotional reaction and feeling of discovery I get when I'm reading a book and I get to those big moments—and yet I was writing it. It doesn't get much more fun than that.
  5. You can find inspiration in all sorts of weird places. I had a lot of fun with my encyclopedia format, and made several trips to the dictionary and Google every day to find fun facts to include in the text. Some of them I couldn't have made up if I'd tried. I was brainstorming entries for "R" and thought I needed to get back to the animal shelter portion of the story, so I put in "Rabbit." I googled "rabbit weird facts" and discovered that you can hypnotize rabbits by putting them on their back and stroking them. (Again, couldn't have made it up if I'd tried.) More interesting, though, is how I've felt inspired by my main character. I made her take a lot of chances and change her life, in ways I hadn't planned when I started writing. And she has inspired me, in turn, to try something new. I don't want to get into a lot of detail, in case I crash and burn and give up the first week, but it involves a certain exercise I hate to do. If the inspiration sticks, I'll definitely write more about it.
So overall, I'd say NaNoWriMo was a valuable experience and I got a lot out of it. Will I do it again next year? It's going to depend on what my schedule looks like, but right now I would say no. I got the kick-start I needed to get back into writing fiction, and hopefully I won't need it again 11 months from now. Instead, I may have to join NaNoRevisMo (National Novel Revising Month) to work on structure and crutch words and all those other things I ignored while churning out the words. I'm sure I'll find just as many lessons in that!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Photo of the Week--11/30/09

... aaaand the latest in our series, "Boy chases the pigeons of Europe," features a really BIG pigeon. Actually, it's a chicken. We took a short weekend trip (made shorter by the cancellation of our flight on Friday night, making the prop-plane flight the next morning a little nerve-inducing) to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France. It's a very interesting place, as it has a lot of French influences (it's closer physically to the mainland) but a very British culture and history. It was actually occupied by the Germans during WWII, and it was interesting to see the traces left by that part of history.

Jersey is a pretty small island, though, so we had plenty of time to explore more pastoral places. This working farm attraction had plenty to observe in the fall harvest season (including a really big horse-drawn cider press), and Boy was fascinated with the chickens. Because they were big enough to fight back, we didn't let him chase them, so we had a peaceful scene to photograph this time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Quilt Files, Episode 16

Grandma edition!

It's almost Thanksgiving, which of course makes me think of family and family gatherings and PIE! (Sorry, no pie with these quilts, but I'm already salivating at the thought of pie right now and I get distracted easily.) In addition to getting ready for Thanksgiving, I'm trying to collect photos from all my cousins of the quilts my grandmother has made for her 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. We were talking about quilting a while back, and I mentioned I had finished a quilt and this time I remembered to take a photo of it before mailing it off. She sighed and said she'd wished to do that with all her quilts, but it was too late to bother with it now. I thought, ooo! Christmas idea, and have been steadily collecting photos from my cousins ... not all of them, I'll have some arm-twisting to do this weekend, but maybe I'll have the album ready for Christmas if not Thanksgiving. With all the thoughts of family and Grandma and quilting, I thought that this month I would feature the two quilts Grandma made for me and Boy.

This quilt, the Star Spin design, wasn't actually made for me. When TSU and I got married in the summer of 1987, Grandma hadn't taken up quilting yet. She spent a lot of her years after retiring practicing oil painting (I have some nice ones hanging up in my workroom), and when she got tired of that she decided to try quilting. Grandma started quilting around 1988 or 1989, and soon afterward my cousins started getting married (3 in 1990 alone) and Grandma started making quilts for wedding gifts. (We did get a quilt from Grandma and Grandpa for our wedding, but it was made by a church guild and has not lasted as long as our marriage; it's seriously frayed. And it's pink.) She eventually realized that all her grandchildren except me had a quilt from Grandma, so she told me I could have this one when she was done with it. After my grandfather passed in 2001, Grandma moved out of her house into assisted living, and this quilt moved into my house, where it keeps us warm all winter long.

After she finished making quilts for all her 11 grandchildren, Grandma could have taken a well-deserved rest. But the next generation started making an appearance, beginning with Boy in early 1994, so Grandma went back to the fabric store and started over. She's now got 11 great-grandchildren, and a grand total of 22 quilts. This is Boy's Twin Star Quilt, which for now just hangs on a quilt display rack, since it's a queen-size and too big for his bed. You can probably tell that by now Grandma had discovered the fun of using cotton batiks for the fabrics, and she found some really lovely ones for this quilt. I'm sure when he finally gets to the age where he has his own house, he'll really appreciate this lovely remembrance of his Great-Grandma. She's still quilting at age 93; after all, you never know when another great-grandchild might arrive!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Photo of the Week--11/23/09

No fair! How come I have no trouble posting embarrassing pictures of Boy, but I never make myself the target of my photo posts? Well, the main reason is that I'm the family photographer. I'm the one who drags the camera and batteries and film (now flash cards) to all our destinations. I'm the one who says, "let's climb a little higher" so I can get a really great photo. I only end up in the picture when TSU says, "Hey, why don't I take one with you in it." At which point I hand over the camera, bemoan the state of my hair, and smile like a fool.

So here's a photo from a trip we took to Lucerne, Switzerland in fall 1999. This particular shot was taken atop Mt. Pilatus, and those are the Alps you see in the background. Luckily we didn't have to climb the mountain to get the shot; we took a steam train across the lake, a funicular railway to the top (worth the trip in itself for Boy, who was mad about trains at the time), and a cable car back to the city. Although it was cloudy, it was still extremely beautiful. Unlike my hair. (Sigh.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm with the band ... um, where'd they go?

I'm pretty much recovered now from my long weekend chaperoning the marching band at Nationals Competition. It was exhausting, but amazing to see how hard the kids worked. They had a great run in prelims, getting one of their best scores of the season and one of the top ten of 91 bands at prelims. They were pretty tired for their semi-final run Saturday morning, though, and barely missed out on making Finals. Still, 13th in the country is pretty damn good, especially when some of the competition has half again as many musicians in their band. And no one had as cool a show as PCMB this year: watch the video below, and the last 60 seconds will have you shaking your head and wondering, how in the world did they do that? (Click the square box in the lower right to see it full screen.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More lessons from NaNoWriMo

As you can see by the progress bar at the top of the page, I've officially reached the halfway point in my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) goal of writing a 50,000 word novel. I've learned a few more things about writing during these first couple of weeks:
  1. It really helps to have some quite "thinking" time before you get started writing. I've tried starting each day by taking my pretty journal book and making notes before I get started. It gets me set up for what I want to write, and gets me in the mood as well. It also invariably attracts the cat, since I sit in the front room which rarely gets used otherwise.
  2. It is possible to write 2000 words a day and also work on assignments. It's a lot easier when the assignments are copyediting (ie fact-checking and review) instead of original writing, because it's two different types of thinking and it's a relief when I give up on the business articles and get back to my novel.
  3. I'm loving my whole "encyclopedia article" structure, because I just make my list of words and write. Not having to think about plot (except during early morning thinking time) sure makes the writing a lot easier.
  4. One can fit in writing while one is sitting outside watching kids practice the marching band show, or inside waiting for them to finally get ready for bed to turn lights out. It's not easy, but it is possible. One must avoid skipping ahead, though; although this is usually a great technique to avoid writer's block, if one is extremely busy one tends to forget to go back and fill in the holes.
  5. One cannot fit in writing when one is sleep deprived. Actually, you might manage to fit it in, but you'll just end up staring at the screen as the cursor blinks hypnotically and your nose ends up typing "hjkjhkjhjkhjkhjkghjkhjkjhkh" when your head hits the keyboard.
I've gotten a bit behind my target of 2K a Day, but I'm close to the average of 1667 words a day, and hope to get further ahead as we get to the end of the month. I'm almost done with the "M" section (letter 13 of 26), but I figure "O" and "Q" will only be half-sections, so I'm still making progress. We'll see if I last with Thanksgiving coming up; I hear there are already pies to be eaten.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Photo of the Week--11/16/09

You know this look, don't you? The one that says, "I don't care how cool the ocean looks in the background, I'm tired of climbing stairs and just want to get it over with. No, I won't smile for the camera, because I know in ten years you'll post this photo on the internet, and everyone will think I was a Harry Potter wannabe, even though it the first book was barely out and I hadn't read it yet. I don't care about King Arthur and whether he really lived at this castle, just get on with it!"

Oh well. Maybe you guys will appreciate the Cornish scenery and the poetic ruins of Tintagel despite the grumpy looks.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Confessions of a Marching Band Mom

Marching Band has taken over my life! At least, it will for the next few days:
  • Tuesday: make sure I have all the supplies I need for our Nationals trip. This means trips to the bank (Boy needs cash!), the store (Boy needs socks!), and the vet (cats need daycare!), although since the weather's nice I can make the trip by bicycle and get my daily exercise, killing two birds with one stone. Then I have to do laundry and collect all the things I need to pack, in case I missed something and have to go back to the store. This evening, I have to drop off the boys' bedrolls for the truck, and deliver craft fair signs to people who've agreed to help put them out this weekend. Somewhere in there I have to fit in balancing the checkbook, getting some copyediting done, and not getting behind on NaNoWriMo, before I head to flute choir practice.
  • Wednesday: deliver Boy and his luggage to school by 6:30 am. Do my own packing, get in one last TKD training session, maybe some writing work, gas up and wash the car, and meet the boys at school before driving down to Indianapolis in the evening. Arrive by 11 pm and get the cabin ready for 22 girls to arrive around midnight.
  • Thursday: Get the girls up before 7 am. (Gack, but at least I'm not on breakfast duty today.) Ride with the kids to the practice field, hang out, maybe get some writing done?, hang out some more, help cook dinner, go back to camp and supervise cabin full of teenage girls.
  • Friday: Oh God, why did I volunteer to do this? Up before 5:30 to help cook breakfast, then accompany kids to rehearsal, back to camp, and then out to Lucas Oil Stadium for preliminary competition. Watch most excellent show, maybe a couple others, then accompany kids to mall for the evening. A break! At a mall! Where 98 high school bands will probably be! (Imagine my exclamation points wilting here.) Back to camp and lights out.
  • Saturday: More chaperoning, plus more competitionhopefully both semi-finals and Finals. Accompany band back to camp at 11 pm for pizza celebration. Lights out by 1 am if I'm lucky.
  • Sunday: Leave camp early (7:30 or 8) to get back home in time to prepare for flute choir concert in the afternoon. Get home and crash. Hopefully, I'll have enough volunteers to put out signs so I won't have to place any myself today.
If you don't hear much from me on the blog this week, you'll understand why. I'm not sure I'll have internet access, let alone time to post. I'm with the band! At least, whatever part of my brain still working is.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Photo of the Week--11/9/09

Ah, summer in Portugal: warm weather, blue skies, and lots and lots of pigeons to chase. We found these in Lisbon's Praça do Comércio (Commerce Plaza), a large plaza near the Tagus River waterfront that housed the Royal Palace until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. Talking about that earthquake was a highlight for Boy, who at the time loved anything to do with disasters. We also visited the ruins of a church destroyed that day. It must have put him in such a good mood that he was ready and eager to chase those fat Praça pigeons.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Lessons from NaNoWriMo

I don't have a lot of time to post, as I need to get cracking on my NaNoWriMo novel, but I'd thought I'd list some interesting strategies I've learned while trying to write 2000 words a day:
  1. It is perfectly acceptable to plagiarize yourself. If you character wants to talk about something you've already written about in your blog, copy and paste it into the novel, rearrange the words a little bit, and voilà! 66 words!
  2. It is perfectly acceptable to plagiarize quote someone else. Hey, maybe your character likes poetry, so quote the last stanza of a poem and lookee! Another 65 words!
  3. It is perfectly acceptable to use horrible crutch words that you would otherwise search for with an eagle-eye and prune ruthlessly, like an overzealous topiary gardener. If you use words like "so" "just" or "little" ten times in one paragraph, who cares! That's ten extra words! (Besides, since my novel is told in first person, those words are my characters' crutches, not mine.)
  4. It is perfectly acceptable to play with structural quirks to build word count. As I mentioned before, my character is telling her story in encyclopedia format. She gives a kind-of real definition, then writes a couple paragraphs explaining what the subject means to her. I'm prefacing each of these explanations with the phrase: "Editor's note." I may delete those if I decide to revise, as they may be unnecessary; but for now, I start each day by listing 6 to 8 words to define, each followed by the phrase "Editor's note." That's an extra 12 to 16 words, even before I've started engaging my brain.
After four days, I have over 8000 words, which is the kind of progress I'd hoped for. Even better, I'm having a lot of fun writing those 8000 words, which means I'm getting something out of the whole NaNoWriMo experience. We'll see if I feel the same way at the end of the month, after I've probably fallen behind and feel horribly pressured to reach 50,000 words by the 30th, but for now, the experiment is going well.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

This is only a test...

... had this been an actual blog post, you would have been notified by your emergency broadcast system. Or something like that. I know my posts have been few and far between over the last month, but I've been very busy. This year I've invoiced ten times more assignments than last year, and there was another deadline last week, so I was busy focusing on that rather than the blog.

I'm currently between assignments (November's hasn't arrived yet, although I'm already booked for December, January, and half of February), but there's something else taking up my writing time: NaNoWriMo! For those of you unfamiliar with this weird acronym, it stands for "National Novel Writing Month." The idea is that for everyone who ever thought, "Gee, I should write a novel," to take the month of November and scribble down a 50,000 word novel. (Which is very short for novel, but not so much for the kids/YA genre, which is what I'm working in.)

Now, I'm not one of those who has never finished a novel—I have two finished (and revised at least once or twice), and a third that is three-quarters written and all the way plotted. But I have found it difficult to find time for writing fiction, among all the extra assignments I've taken this year, so I see NaNoWriMo as a chance to get back in the fiction habit, as it were. If I were to write every day in November, I would need to write around 1733 words a day; since I know I'll have days when I can't write (chaperoning band nationals next week, and during Thanksgiving), I'm aiming for at least 2000 on the days I do write. So far I've got 3750 for the first two days, which isn't on target but is better than I thought I'd do since I played a concert on the 1st and I spent half of yesterday working on sign lists for the marching band craft fair.

So you can see I may not have as much time this month to write in the blog; NaNoWriMo is blatant permission for me to write meaningless blather, which mitigates the need for the blog. But I'll pop in with some posts here and there; keep posting weeking travel photos; and maybe occasionally write an actual blog post, even when I'm writing about not blogging, as I've done today. I will be reviving Janespotting soon, having checked out Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (!) from the library, so look for that when I have a few spare minutes. But for now, I'm off to write a crappy novel! Wish me luck!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Photo of the Week--11/2/09

Ah, Ireland. For good reason it's called the "Emerald Isle," what with all the grass and moss and lovely natural things. Out in the countryside there weren't any pigeons for Boy to chase; instead he took this opportunity during our visit to Achill Island, off the west coast, to goof off for the camera. More likely he was just glad for a chance to get out of the little lime green car we drove all around the country ... for some reason, that car is one of the few things he remembers from our early travels. Maybe because it was a very, very ugly green ... unlike the beautiful green landscape here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Photo of the Week--10/26/09

And here's the next in the continuing series, "Boy Terrorizes the Pigeons of Europe," taken during a 1999 weekend trip to Paris. It was spring, the weather was nice, and there were plenty of flowers at the Tuileries Gardens. It was there we found more fat, sassy pigeons in need of exercise. If you look closely at the far left of the photo, you'll see one forced to move by the prospect of Boy approaching.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Quilt Files, Episode 15

...or, I finally finished! I've talked before about planning ahead for a wedding quilt; when you have a lot of lead time, you can try a complicated pattern and take advantage of the birthday discount at my favorite fabric shop, Viking Sewing Center. This time it was my niece who got married, but she and her future husband didn't set a date for the wedding right away. Never mind; it would eventually happen, so I trundled out to Viking with a pattern and an idea that she liked pinks and purples. I found nine different batiks in various patterns of pink, purple, and navy, and transposed them into the "Stars in the Meadow" pattern I'd bought with the thought of trying one day. This was the result:

As you can see, this pattern is a bit more complicated than anything I had tried before: the half-triangle squares weren't new, but the blocks made up of one kite-shaped piece and two large right triangles were another matter, especially since you had to cut them from a not-quite-kite- or -triangle-shaped templates before sewing them together. The other unique aspect of this quilt, I discovered as I pieced the first couple rows, was that those large right triangles, grouped around the posts with squares and half-triangles of the same fabric, seemed to create a large, almost-round medallion. If you pick out those medallions in the picture, you can see that some are pink, some are lavender, and some are a light maroon. These all came from the same batik fabric; it took lots of targeted cutting and piecing to keep the medallions the same color. So I didn't cut out all the fabric before I started piecing; I did a row at a time and cut extra pieces as I went along.

It made for slow going, and by the time the wedding date was finally announced I didn't have a lot of time to finish the quilt. I didn't do any quilting in the ditch, but instead did a series of diagonal lines through the triangles, along with straight lines in one of the borders. It took longer than I thought it would, but I managed to deliver the quilt within three months of the wedding, which meets most etiquette guidelines I've seen. And I did deliver it, although I was very tempted to keep it ... but I still have many of the lovely fabrics left, so I'm sure I'll make something for myself with some of the wonderful scraps I have in my stash.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Photo of the Week--10/19/09

In April 1999 we took a trip to Barcelona, Spain; it was only a few years after the city hosted the Summer Olympics, so the facilities were superb in this already beautiful city. We spent a long weekend wandering around, enjoying the unique architecture and the wondrous food. Here we were at the Palau Real Major, where Ferdinand and Isabella received Columbus in 1493, after his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere. This shot has a lovely view of the palace, the tower (called the Mirador dei Rei Martí), and the Plaça del Rei (the courtyard below). And here you can see a genuine smile from Boy, even if we did have to tickle it out of him.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wordless definitions: Standoff

I took this picture because I heard a low growling coming from the dining room and saw this little tableau: Clio (big fat orange cat) treed by Callie (skinny brown cat) and growling because she felt intimidated. This is the funniest cat dynamic; 11-pound Clio routinely wins fights with Gigi, who is close in size, but let barely-7-pound Callie stake her ground and Clio will back down, growling all the way.

Of course, because I entered the room Callie nonchalantly looked away, as if to say, "What, me cause trouble?" Clio stopped growling, but she didn't look away from Callie ... she knows that cat is psycho.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Photo of the Week--10/12/09

In February 1999 we took our first annual "get us out of gloomy dark England" trip to the Mediterranean. We went to Malta, an island that's midway between Sicily and Tunisia, so there are all sorts of interesting influences there. A bonus was that everyone spoke English, because it was a Commonwealth nation until 1964. We rented a car and drove around, checking out prehistoric sites, natural beauties, and more "recent" history, such as this cathedral built by the Knights of St. John. Although the outside of the church is very plain, the inside is incredibly ornate, and the floor is covered with sepulchral slabs like the ones in this picture, all made of many shades of marble carefully pieced to make incredible pictures. This one was relatively simple, but I thought very effective. Boy thought it was pretty cool, too ... but we still need to work on the fake smile.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Leaves (and luck) turning...

Ah, it's fall. I think I've mentioned before how I love fall; I like cool days and darker mornings—although I don't think we need quite as much rain as we've been having lately. In any case, the latest reason for me to love fall is sitting in front of my house: our beautiful new Brandywine maple tree that we planted a couple of months ago.

We have not had a history of good luck with trees at our house. One of the benefits of living in an older subdivision is plenty of mature trees, and when we bought our house in summer 1997 we had plenty of them: ashes as tall as the (two-story) house centered in both the front and back yards; a corkscrew willow for some extra shade in the back, and a cherry by the front sidewalk for a little variety.

When we returned from the UK in summer 2002, however, it was at the same time as the emerald ash borer, an exotic beetle that has since killed more than 30 million ash trees in Southeast Michigan. (No kidding, when we saw a documentary that showed the supposed "ground zero" for the ash borer, it was about two miles from our house.) It wasn't long before our beautiful, tall, shade-giving ash trees were naked and riddled with holes. There wasn't much to be done, so we had them both removed. I planted a garden with a juniper and a dogwood in the back—the corkscrew willow still looms over half the yard—and selected a river birch to replace the ash in front. It won't be as large, but I wanted something different than the rest of the neighborhood, to make it less likely to be susceptible to another epidemic of scale or bugs or whatever. River birches are native to the area, anyway, and it's very nice although it doesn't give much in the way of shade. It didn't need to; it wasn't far from the cherry, which sheltered the front room very well.

Then last summer we had a really big storm; the cherry tree fell, and we were lucky it didn't take anything else with it. We now had tons of sun coming in the front window, which wasn't exactly what we wanted in the summer. We couldn't plant something big, because the birch was already there. We decided to take advantage of a township program that reimbursed for homeowner planting in easements ... but what to plant? Going on the same theory of "not what everyone else has," we selected a London plane tree, which has interesting bark and is supposed to be a hardy tree. We planted it last fall, and waited this spring to see it leaf out....

... and waited and waited and waited. Eventually we contacted the nursery, and they gave the verdict: it was more than 50% dead. "We don't see many of these fail," they told us, but ours managed to do it. Luckily we had purchased one-year insurance (a requirement for the reimbursement), and decided to go with something nearly indestructible. Sure, everyone else has maples, but there's a good reason: they're stubborn and they stick around. And ours is prettier than everyone else's, I think. So here's hoping our arboreal luck has turned, along with the leaves. I really don't want to imagine what could go wrong with the corkscrew willow....

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Word Nerd Wonders: What am I eating?

It's no secret that I'm a lazy cook. It's not that I don't like to cook, but the fewer steps involved in preparing a meal, the happier I am. This doesn't mean a dish has to cook quickly; I don't mind keeping an eye on the stove while something simmers or visiting the oven regularly to baste chicken, but those are things I can do while multitasking. Chopping and peeling and fileting require time and focus (it's not good to multitask when a knife is involved), plus extra dishes, and thus I do my best to avoid them.

My favorite way to cut down on cooking effort is to get meat that is pre-trimmed and pre-sliced (or cubed). Handling meat is slimy and messy and maybe-bacteria-laden, so I'd rather just take a package of pre-cubed meat and dump it in the pot. I'm not being lazy, I'm just being hygienic! This is especially crucial when I make a favorite recipe I have for pork-and-squash stew. It's really best to use fresh vegetables, so I already spend close to an hour chopping up onions and carrots and peeling and dicing potatoes and butternut squash when I make this. I really don't want to spend extra time trimming and cubing pork as well.

So on the rare occasions I make this tasty-but-time-consuming dish, I look for pre-diced pork. And one day I was at the grocery store and couldn't find it, so I asked guy working the meat department, "do you have any of that lazy-person's, er, diced pork for stew?" And the guy looked at me and said, "You mean Pork City Chicken? I think we have some over there."

I froze. PORK CITY CHICKEN? I forgot that I needed to find it for dinner; why the hell was it called PORK CITY CHICKEN? I asked the guy, and he said "that's just what we call it." (Sigh. I was hoping the butcher was a closet etymologist, but you can't find everything at Kroger.) So I picked it up and added it to my cart. PORK CITY CHICKEN, the package actually said. I took it home and began preparing stew. PORK CITY CHICKEN, the package taunted. It made no sense. It was pork, but if that was the case, why did it appear as a modifier to "City Chicken"? What was the "city" doing there at all? Did it mean something like "chicken-style pork," and if so, why not just say so? Since I didn't have to spend a lot of time with the pork, I soon stopped obsessing, looking at the mound of potatoes and squash I still had to peel.

Still, every time I bought meat for the stew it preyed upon my mind: PORK CITY CHICKEN. I made it just last week, so now, for your edification and mind, I have finally looked into the possible meaning of PORK CITY CHICKEN. While the origin hasn't been confirmed, the term "city chicken" became prominent around the time of the Depression, when chicken was more expensive than lesser cuts of pork or beef. Thrifty cooks would purchase these cheaper cuts and prepare them in a way that imitated chicken: cubed and breaded, or ground and made into the shape of a drumstick. According to the food timeline site I visited, recipes for "city chicken" seemed to be most prevalent in the Midwest, especially Pennsylvania, with appearances in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois.

So there's my answer: "city chicken" means cubed mock chicken, so PORK CITY CHICKEN is "city-chicken-style pork," only with fewer letters on the package. Since Kroger is mainly local to the Midwest, someone there decided to use the old term, even though it's been nearly 80 years since the Depression. (Maybe they knew this latest downturn was coming, although chicken is now cheaper than pork, so I'm not sure that makes sense.) In any case, I have solved this "fowl" mystery, am ready to start "bacon," and hope you enjoyed coming a-loin for the ride.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Photo of the Week--10/5/09

Here's the next in my series of "people and places" photos. We took a trip to Italy in January 1999, so it rained a bit, but it was still a pleasant place to visit. We spent some time in the Roman Forum, ruins of the ancient city of Rome. We wandered around and noticed there were quite a few cats who seemed to live there; then we saw a "cat lady," someone who comes to visit and feed the cats. So although these cats are not pets, neither are they feral; they're friendly enough, and this one sat quietly as Boy posed for a picture. (You can tell by his fake smile that even then he hated posing for me ... it's as almost as if he knew they would end up here, heh heh heh.) If there was a cat on our trips, I usually managed to take a photo, so expect more in my "people and places" series, because cats are people too.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Third quarter book report (2009)

Summertime, and the reading is easy, right? Well, let's see if I managed to squeeze in any reading among all the sunshine and camping and writing about incredibly boring companies.

Key: C: Children's; F: Fantasy; H: Historical; Hr: Horror; M: Mystery; MG: Middle Grade (ages 8-12); NF: Nonfiction; P: Poetry; SF: Science Fiction; SS: Short Stories; YA: Young Adult (age 13+); *not in the last ten years at least; ^for work.

07/04/09: Dante Aligheri, The Inferno (P, 1)
07/06/09: Scott Westerfeld, The Secret Hour (YA, SF, 1)
07/09/09: Lois McMaster Bujold, Shards of Honor (SF, 10? 15?)
07/11/09: Bujold, Barrayar (SF, 10+)
07/12/09: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (C, F, 1)
07/14/09: Westerfeld, Touching Darkness (YA, SF, 1)
07/18/09: Westerfeld, Blue Noon (YA, SF, 1)
07/26/09: Goethe, Faust, Part One (classic, 1)
07/29/09: Max Brooks, World War Z (Hr, 3)
08/01/09: John Green, Paper Towns (YA, 1)
08/02/09: Bujold, The Warrior's Apprentice (SF, 10+)
08/03/09: Bujold, The Vor Game (SF, 10+)
08/04/09: Bujold, Brothers in Arms (SF, 10+)
08/06/09: Neil Gaiman, Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists (F, graphic novel, 1)
08/07/09: Richard Preston, The Demon in the Freezer (NF, 2)
08/08/09: Bujold, Mirror Dance (SF, 10+)
08/09/09: Bujold, Memory (SF, 10+)
08/09/09: Bujold, Komarr (SF, 10+)
08/11/09: Bujold, A Civil Campaign (SF, 10)
08/13/09: Bujold, Cetaganda (SF, 10+)
08/14/09: Goethe, Faust, Part Two (classic, 1)
08/15/09: Bujold, Diplomatic Immunity (SF, 8)
09/04/09: ^Hillary Rodham Clinton, Living History (NF, 1)
09/11/09: ^Carl Bernstein, A Woman in Charge (NF, 1)
09/21/09: Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (classic, 1)
09/24/09: John Green, An Abundance of Katherines (YA, 1)

I didn't include the medical thriller by a nameless best-selling author that I quit halfway through because the characters kept getting more and more cardboard, the dialogue kept getting more and more didactic, and the plot had been given away by the prologue, so why keep on? In any case, you probably notice the major speed bump I hit in late August, called Anna Karenina. While normally I could plow through a novel of 800+ pages in ten days, I got swamped by assignments and didn't have as much free time for reading. It took me four weeks to finish Anna, which I read in bits between scanning biographies for work.

So I only read 26 books this quarter, and the number would have been really really small if I hadn't had my annual indulgence into Lois McMcMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, my favorite books in the whole wide world. (And a new volume to come in 2010!) Now that school (and rehearsals and chauffeuring and rehearsals and teaching) has started up again, I fear my reading time will decrease again. But since I'm done with "remedial reading," for the year, maybe I'll get more out of my reading time. Check back in three months to see.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Quilt Files, Episode 14

... or, Theme and Variations in Maize and Blue. Last time I showed you two variations of a baby quilt pattern, "Busy Baby," that I had made in primary colors. Those weren't the first time I made the pattern, however; originally I made this version below, for my nephew. (His dad is a Michigan fan; it's never too early to start indoctrinating, I say.)

This version is actually closest to what the pattern describes, although it called for red fabrics where I used blue ones. In later versions I replaced the funny center pocket square with an initial (in one maize-and-blue one, a block M), or moved the order of the squares. The hardest part of this pattern was actually finding the black-and-white flannel prints. I managed to find the stripe that's used in the center square and the check that's on the borders; the doggy that you see in the center of the top left square is actually from the same print that provided the animal prints in the top and middle squares of the right column; creative cutting and piecing allowed for the different looks. I found a last black-and-white print that included small bits of red, blue, and yellow; you see it in the top left and bottom right squares.

I've made this maize-and-blue variation two other times, although I don't have photos; I still have a little bit of those black-and-white prints left, as well as some yellows and blues, so it's entirely possible I may go back to this pattern for the next baby I welcome into the world with a play quilt. Or maybe I'll splurge and find some green ... Nah, don't think that would work.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Photo of the Week--9/28/09

Pigeons in Vatican City? Sacrilege! So during this visit in winter 1999, we had Boy chase them around St. Peter's Square. You can see they're fat and lazy, and probably used to having people moving about. I guess that's why you don't see any of them flying away, even with an almost-five-year-old Boy barrelling down among them. Pigeons are so blasé; one more reason to despise the little sky rats.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Anna Karenina: The Official Haiku Review

Finally! After three renewals, six weeks, and 850-plus pages, I have managed to finish reading Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina. It didn't take so long because I thought it was boring; it took so long because I've been very very busy. Anyway, let's get to the haiku review:

Poor Anna; she found
passion, but could have used more
mundane happiness

As the title suggests, Anna Karenina is a main focus of the novel; but the first sentence hints that she is only part of a wider story: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Besides Anna's family, which includes her boring, passionless husband and her son, there is the family of her brother Stiva, a spendthrift who cheats on his wife Dolly; Dolly's sister Kitty, who rejects the honest earnestness of Levin for the pretty face of Count Vronsky; Levin the farmer and his tubercular brother; and Vronsky and his class-conscious mother. When Anna meets Vronsky and they fall into passionate, obsessive love, it sets in motion several plot threads that end in both happiness and despair.

Anna's story is the tragic one; she finds real love and passion with Vronsky, but can never be satisfied after consummating the relationship. She becomes pregnant, the affair becomes public, and she must choose between giving up her son or giving up her lover. She chooses the former, but cannot feel at ease: she misses her son, and cannot bond with her new daughter because of it; she cannot marry Vronsky because her husband will not give her a divorce; she cannot go out in public because she has been made a pariah; and as a result she cannot stop worrying that Vronsky will abandon her and she will be left with nothing. Her anxieties eat at her, poison her relationship with Vronsky, and ultimately lead to her destruction.

This is all set in contrast with Levin's journey, and I would argue that Levin is really the main character of the novel, with Anna serving mostly as contrast and object lesson. Levin is of the nobility, but makes his living farming and is always seeking ways to improve things—not just for his own profit, but for those who work for them. He is a man of deep and sometimes contrary thoughts, which we see laid out in great detail as he considers farming, Russian politics, religion, and love. After Vronsky's affair with Anna, Kitty reconsiders Levin's suit and eventually marries him. This brings Levin great joy and great pain, as he must fight his jealous impulses and learn to be a good husband. In the eighth and final part of the book (in which Anna does not appear, as she met her end in Part Seven), we see Levin enjoying the mundane happiness of family life, appreciating his new son, and discovering his faith. Levin seems to be a stand-in for Tolstoy, who wrote about religious struggles of his own, and it's hard not find Levin the book's hero as he concludes that his discovery of faith may not change his character, but now "my whole life, regardles of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!"

One last note on Anna Karenina: yes, it's very long. Yes, it's filled with details about farming, Russian politics, social movements, and religious musings. But unlike Melville in Moby Dick, Tolstoy knows how to make these interesting. We consider all these topics through the eyes and mind of Levin, who is continually struggling to make sense of the world. Where Melville's narrator gives us endless lists about whale parts, Tolstoy's Levin considers what new farming techniques mean to him as a landowner, an employer, even a human being. Anna Karenina has the quality of good historical fiction, where the details transport us into another world and another life, rather than bore us into a stupor.

So, you might have noticed it's now the fall. So much for my good intentions of reading lots of foreign-language classics for this summer's Remedial Lit Project. All those French classics will have to wait until next summer. I'm going to take a few weeks to read just for fun (I've also spent the last six weeks reading biographies for work), and then I'll bring back Janespotting. The library just ordered a copy of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (!), and then I think I'm moving on to Northanger Abbey and its offspring.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I don't care what the calendar says...

... when I look at recent additions to my garden, I think it's still summer! Last year I planted a white climbing rose, and this spring a pink one:

The white rose didn't do a whole lot last year, but this year it's thriving and spreading beautiful blossoms all over the side of the garage. The scent is sweet, but even nicer are the beautiful buds, which start out a lovely blush peach before turning white. When the pink climber gets going next spring, it's going to look incredible.

Not long after we returned from England in 2002, I dug up little beds along each side of our garage, so that I could plant bulbs and annuals. The bulbs never did well; between bunnies and our very clay-ey soil, they were doomed. But I've tried different annuals over the years. I did begonias a few times, and they spread very nicely. They're not very bright plants, though, so last year I tried red and white salvia. Those were bright enough, but they didn't spread very well. I didn't want to try impatiens because they are so prevalent, and I worried they might not do well in an area with so much sun. So I tried vinca, aka periwinkle, and we have a winner! Look how many blooms and how much color I have after a few months!

So although fall is my favorite season, and I prefer cooler weather, I'm going to dig my fingernails in and try to hold onto summer a little longer this year.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Photo of the Week--9/21/09

Here we have the first in our ongoing series, "Boy Terrorizes the Pigeons of Europe." This was our first major trip, a week in Italy with my parents and my paternal grandmother. (Her first trip to Europe, taken at age 79!) The six of us flew into Florence, where this photo was taken, and then after a few days took the train to Rome. Boy was pretty portable then; we could get a couple of quiet hours in a museum by promising a trip to the gelateria (ice cream store) afterwards, and by pointing out all the naked people in the pictures. When you're almost five years old, that's a sure giggle. And this photo, taken in front of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, includes a copy of Michaelangelo's "Naked David," as we liked to refer to it. Bonus! So Boy was in a pretty good mood and cooperated for this shot, where he's giving those fat pigeons some exercise.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Still sitting at the kids' table...

2009 has been a weird writing year for me. I've greatly increased the amount of paid assignments I've been taking on; so far this year I've invoiced almost 20 pieces, which is double the number of invoices I've issued in the last three years combined. (Unfortunately, this is not double the revenue, as many of the pieces are shorter and don't pay as well as the one project I worked for those years.) Of course, the other side of more paid work is that I've had very little time for my own writing. Over the last eight months I think I've managed a few chapters (and chapters is a generous term) in the middle grade novel I'm writing. I've only sent out four query letters on my three finished projects, and all four of those were rejected. (Although my picture book manuscript did get a champagne rejection, and one editor did request the full manuscript of a novel before sending a form rejection.)

On the other hand, I did get a very nice "maybe" from an agent I wrote to last year. After holding on to my novel for a few months, he finally wrote and said he was intrigued, but thought the manuscript needed work before he could represent it. He said he'd be willing to consider a revision, or another piece of mine. This was very exciting news, but it's left me in a kind of limbo. He wasn't specific about what revisions he was looking for, so I'm not ready to drop everything else and start rewriting. In the meantime, I'm hesitant to send out anything else to an editor or another agent, in case this does pan out. I'm going to a writers' conference in a couple of weeks, and I didn't try to sign up for any critiques—partly because I'm still in limbo, and partly because I've already had most of my stuff critiqued at other events.

This whole pursuit of publication and the upcoming conference reminds me of when I was a little kid at family gatherings and I would watch the older generation play cards. It looked like fun; I wanted to join in; but I was told, "your nose is too short." I knew this meant I wasn't old enough, or didn't know how to play well enough, but when when when would I get to play with the grownups? (Eventually I discovered the truth: when they were desperate for a fourth for euchre.) This is how I feel at these conferences: I see the writers who are already published, and they are encouraging, but when when when will my book get to play with the publishers?

I know each query, rejected or not, is making progress. I can see the progress: from form rejections, to personal comments, to this "maybe." It's still very frustrating, and combined with the focus on paid writing it's making it very hard to get back into writing fiction. So I've decided I'm going to participate in National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. In November I'm going to write an entire 50,000 word novel from scratch. I'm giving myself permission not to worry about plot or language or making it to the big kids' table; I'm just going to write. I've got six weeks to think a little bit about what to write; I have a germ of an idea—a character and a narrative device, really—and we'll just see what ensues.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In praise of libraries...

I wasn't really thinking of writing in the blog today; I have a deadline Friday and I wasn't feeling particularly inspired, but then I read this in an industry blog: the Free Library of Philadelphia has announced it is closing. Philadelphia is a city of over 1.5 million, although, like Detroit, it has lost about half a million residents in the past 40 years and is in poor financial shape. Now granted, the library could be (and probably will be) rescued by last-minute financing from the state of Pennsylvania, but to me the thought is unimaginable. No library? No free access to books and movies and magazines and newspapers for 1.5 million residents? No reading programs for kids, no afterschool activities, no school or day care visits? No computer classes, classes for small businesses and job seekers, no visits to senior centers? No space for community meetings, GED classes, and ESL classes? No internet access to reference databases (without which I couldn't do my job)? Seriously, no library?

I know the financial situation is dire ... but I also know from talking to librarians and people in publishing that when the economy goes down, library use goes up. More people seek out free entertainment or use the free internet or take classes to improve their job skills. So seriously, no library? It's like roads or police services—everybody uses them. Everybody should be willing to pay for them, you would think. I don't want to get into the politics of library funding, since there are always some who complain we're taxed too much as it is, government should cut waste, blah blah blah. I don't care if that's true: some things are worth the money, and public libraries are high on that list. Ben Franklin founded the first public lending library in the U.S.; what's more democratic, more American, than the library?

No libraries? That's like no music, or no air.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Photo of the Week--9/14/09

I'm on my second cycle of vacation photos, this time featuring people; this one was taken 11 years ago, on a trip to Amsterdam. I didn't take many pictures on this trip (this was pre-digital photo era), mostly because we didn't see many "sights" but just walked around the city, taking in the canals and the gabled houses. It was fun seeing all the different ways people used the canals (for transportation, or even for homes), and you can tell Boy was fascinated. On that trip we traveled by bus, ferryboat, train, and yes, via canalboat. I love the photo because you can see Boy's stubborn double cowlick, which refuses to be tamed unless his hair is cut short.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wordless definitions: Indomitable

They say a picture can say a thousand words; this one says twenty:

"Screw you, motor-obsessed culture! I will run my errands on my bike even if you don't provide bike racks!"

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I'm not lazy, really...

... and I'm not ignoring the blog, either. I've just been so busy I've found it difficult to carve out the time to write something. Ideas have been sparse, too. I posted Word Nerd and quilting entries not too long ago, and my Remedial Lit Project has bogged down in the 800-plus pages of Anna Karenina. I've had to renew it three times (that's nine weeks, folks); not because I'm avoiding it—I'm actually enjoying it—but because I haven't had a lot of free time to read anything that's not a biography for a piece I'm writing. I've been spending lots of my time either working or chauffeuring, and those activities don't make good fodder for blogging. (Unless you want me to rant for two paragraphs about my nemesis the Tonda school traffic light, which invariably turns red on each of our six daily encounters.)

The only thing of any interest I've really done in the last couple of weeks is redo our front room. We're having a little (okay, not so little) litterbox issue, so I thought replacing the targeted sofas and carpet might help. I should have taken a "before" picture, but I didn't. You'll have to just extrapolate from this picture: blue carpet on the floor, and two light blue sofas (this one and a larger one) against the two walls. In addition to being a target for the cat, the sofas were over 10 years old and one had been broken by Boy when he was about six or seven, not being built to withstand a running jump onto its frame.

So we put the sofas out by the curb, at different times. One was scavenged, we think by the neighbor across the street despite our warning that it might have an odor issue (although we had removed the covers and washed the cushions with bleach); the other was consumed by the garbage truck (and wasn't that fun, watching it being broken in half in one big gollup). We moved all the furniture out, including my great-grandmother's antique (ie very HEAVY) piano, and ripped up the carpet and padding. Then TSU and I spent a day, plus any cartilege we might have left in our knees, putting in laminate flooring. It really was as easy to snap in as it looks in commercials, although getting the last row to click was a little tricky. The end result looked pretty good.

Next we headed out to Ikea, as it is close (ten minutes away) and their furniture is relatively inexpensive and in a style to our taste. They had a leather loveseat advertised for only $399, and on this visit it was actually in stock and looked like it might fit in my SUV if we left the lid ajar but tied down. (We took a tape measure and actually measured it, unlike the trio of coeds who spent five minutes in checkout before us trying to find the UPC on their mattress and then restack their cart, only to discover when they got out to their truck that it wasn't going to fit in the covered bed. I wonder if they finally figured out they could use the luggage rack on top; we didn't stick around to see.) We brought our prize home, followed the easiest Ikea assembly instructions ever (screw in four legs), and brought back in all the other furniture. And voila! We have a real room again, only now it looks light and open and organized. Now I just need to go remodel another room—the one where the evil cat will be confined until we figure out her problem. Sigh. It looks like it'll be a while before I find more free time for serious blogging.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Photo of the Week--9/8/09

Since I've caught up with the present day as far as vacation photos, I thought I'd go back to the beginning and find some of the better pictures with people in them. Expect many, many photos of Boy chasing pigeons; a turn that will not please him, but since he refuses to read this blog he won't know about it anyway. {Evil cackle.}

This photo is of the two of us climbing the Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire, England. It was our first vacation after moving across the pond, and the area was full of fun things to do (at least they were fun for a four-year-old), like visit the train museum and climb on rocks. And yes, that's me in the photo, too, bespectacled, in the middle of an unfortunate attempt to grow out my bangs, and wearing Mom jeans. Ah, the foolishness of youth! I've learned better in the ensuing eleven years, luckily.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Word Nerd Sez: P is for ...


I thought a while about what "P" word to choose. I thought maybe palindrome, because I love playing with words, or maybe propinquity, because I can spell it but I'm not sure what it means*, but when I saw this one I had to choose it. And yes, it's another of those words that I know how to spell, and think I maybe know what it means, but when I look it up I discover I had the totally wrong idea.

For some reason, I was thinking a palimpsest was a specific poetic form, like a sonnet or a limerick or a sestina. It turns out that a palimpsest is actually a piece of paper or manuscript "which has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible." Now that's a word with some interest for a writer: who wouldn't like to feel like writing has some permanence, that it can travel through time and speak one mind to another, years later. Of course, in my house you usually find examples of palimpsest on old grocery lists, but still ... it's a pleasing idea, as is the secondary definition: "An object, place, or area that reflects its history."

The word origin is also interesting, from the Latin version of the Greek word palimpsestum, which means "scraped again." It's a fun reminder that writing used to involve a lot more manual labor than it does today, when a couple of keystrokes can put your ideas on a virtual page and then share them with millions thousands a couple of readers. Next time I feel like griping about the struggles of revising, I'll think of some scribe hundreds of years ago who had to scrape down a stinking animal skin just to write another copy of his master's accounts, and I'll keep quiet.

*propinquity=proximity or similarity. Sounds more interesting than it is, unfortunately.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Photo of the Week--8/31/09

We always like to make time during our vacations to just go exploring: that is, just drive around and see what we see. Sometimes we see something incredibly picturesque, like this dilapidated barn up in Leelanau County. I made TSU turn the car around and pull over on the curb, so I could snap a couple of shots. On the one hand, it's kind of sad to see so many barns in a state of disrepair, if not total collapse; it makes you wonder about how many farms will be left in another 25 years. On the other hand, though ... so picturesque!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The hamsters are loose again!

Remember that time when I talked about metaphors and the hamsters in my head? Well, this week the hamsters not only fell off the wheel that runs my brain, they started running around screaming, like they were on the Poseidon Adventure, looking for the exits in an upside-down cruise ship.

In one way, it's been a quiet week. TSU was out of town Monday through Wednesday, and Boy had marching band practice in the evenings, so I was home by myself for dinner, no arguing over the TV clicker. But today was also a crazy week: black belt workout on Tuesday, critique group on Wednesday, and a deadline for a piece quickly approaching. By Thursday, the hamsters had had enough. I was trying to figure out how to take Boy to pick up his sophomore schedule and get my weekly time volunteering at the shelter. I came home and realized I'd completely forgotten the vet appointment I set up for that morning ... and then I returned to my e-mail to discover that the deadline I thought was next Wednesday was actually this Wednesday, and my editor was politely asking when I thought I'd be finished with my assignment? I'd only just finished wading through the first 78 of 165 pages of electronic research on Wednesday, but I managed to work late yesterday and get most of the rest incorporated into the essay.

By now the hamsters wanted to collapse in a heap. But Boy informed me upon his return late last night that he was missing a class in his schedule, so he needed to return to the school and talk to the counselor, and TSU informed me I needed to get a cashier's check for our mortgage refinance that's happening tomorrow. At this point I think the hamsters started decomposing, judging from the nasty snarling that was all I could manage when Boy showed up late when I came to pick him up, but somehow I managed to get everything done. Now I can relax until Monday, when I start worrying about the next deadline.

So now I get to blow off steam on the blog, maybe revive the hamsters with a little mental sauna. My critique buddies were sharing some of the things they've heard at recent conferences, one of which was about an agent or editor who Googles anyone they're seriously thinking of working with; if she reads that person whining about the hard work of revision, she turns them down. If that should ever happen to me ... well, I can just hear the hamsters laughing about it right now.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Quilt Files, Episode 13

... or, Theme and Variations in Primary Colors.

I think I've mentioned before how much I like to make baby quilts. They're small enough to assemble quickly, and machine quilting is a breeze (unlike the queen-sized quilt with which I'm currently wrestling). There are a couple of patterns I've used more than once, just because I like them so much. There is the "Stars and Moon" pattern, which I've used in both boy and girl versions, using cotton fabrics. And then there's this "Busy Baby" pattern for a play quilt, which I like to make using flannels. I've made this pattern at least five times; three with a maize 'n' blue theme (and each time I forgot to take a picture, so maybe that will be a future entry), and most recently with primary colors. It also features black and white fabrics, since high contrasts are supposed to be appealing to babies' undeveloped eyesight.

When I started the first of these two primary variations, I was running out of the blue and yellow fabrics I had bought for the Michigan variations. I had plenty of the black and white puppy dog print, which included blue, yellow, and red highlights, so I thought I would include some red flannels as well. After all, the original pattern called for black, white, yellow, and red. I had just switched out the red for a color I thought went more naturally with blue. It made for a balanced pattern: the center square had a black and white frame, and then I had two squares each with red, yellow, black, and white frames. I changed up a couple of the decorations, and put an "A" in the middle for baby Aaron.

When it came to the next quilt, you can see I swapped out the red frames for blue ones. It's a lot harder to find red flannels rather than blue ones, especially ones appropriate for babies. So this time I made the red a prominent accent color. I ran out of solid black flannel and didn't feel like running out to the fabric store in the middle of piecing, so I used a mix of small primaries for the border. I think this variation is a little brighter, a little more "Superman," which is great since it was intended for a family who are big movie fans. I added an "L" for Logan (I couldn't find the X-Men font, so I went with Blade Runner), which you might also see quilted in the center of the top left square. I picked up enough black flannel for the binding, and I had a quilt which was the same pattern, but looks a bit different.

I still have quite a few yellow, blue, black, and white scraps left, so I might make another variation on this pattern in the future. It's a fun mix of applique and patchwork, and I love hiding squeaky toys in the squishy square attachments. (Square 9 on the top quilt, square 6 on the bottom.) Hopefully it's just as fun for the babies as well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Photo of the Week--8/24/09

We just got back from a lovely extended weekend in Benzie County, Michigan (on Lake Michigan, west of Traverse City). It's a lovely area to explore by biking or hiking, and the weather was very interesting. Lots of sun, lots of clouds, lots of showers, lots of wind. Take your pick, we got it during our four-day stay. This is the lighthouse by the beach in Frankfort; although we walked out to it on first day there, watching kids jump off the breakwater and climb back up, on our last day there was no way anyone was going to be out in the water. Too much wind and waves to visit up close—but just enough to make for some great photos!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Faust, Part Two: The Official Haiku Review

Because Goethe wrote his masterpiece Faust in two parts, that's how I decided to read and review it. The first part was a little confusing—at least, it wasn't what I expected at all. Goethe took over twenty years to write the second part, about ten years fewer than the first. Was it any clearer? Here's my official review:

Gretchen fails? Helen
May tempt the cranky old fart.
Never mind. God wins.

As you may recall from my review of part one, I was a bit perplexed that the Devil would tempt Faust—a scientist seeking ultimate truth—with nothing more than a tasty young morsel of German maidenhood. It didn't work, although we did see the poor girl rescued by angels after Faust abandoned her, accidentally killed her family, and left her pregnant. Faust went on, and Mephistopheles had to come up with a new approach to claim the scientist's soul. I eagerly anticipated a new strategy ... and instead saw the devil playing around with an emperor (presumably that of Germany) by advising him to sell shares in the treasures that lie buried on his lands. While these passages were amusing, reminding me of recent shady Wall Street shenanigans, Faust doesn't even appear until scene four, after a bunch of strange, mythological appearances. Then, challenged by the emperor to do something amazing, he conjures Helen of Troy, and of course falls promptly in love with her.

At this point, Satan is not striking me as a very creative character. In Act Two he uses Faust's dusty old study to create a homunculus, or artificial person, who eventually leads Faust to another crazy Walpurgis Night, this one inhabited by all sorts of figures from Greek mythology. Act Three, Faust finally wins Helen, by defending her castle from intruders. They reside happily in Arcadia until their son Euphorion appears, fully grown, only to fall to his death after trying to reach the sun, like Icarus. (It really helps to have read your Greek mythology before reading Faust.) Faust returns to the emperor and helps him achieve military victory in Act Four. Good for the emperor, but Faust doesn't seem to think it a big deal.

That leaves Act Five for Satan to try to claim Faust's soul. Does he offer understanding of the universe? No, we just see Faust as a cranky old man, ignoring the hospitality of Philemon and Baucis (another Greek story about hospitality) and pooh-poohing the military/political power he has gained from the emperor:

I merely raced across the earth,
Seized by the hair each passing joy,
Discarding all that did not satisfy;
What slipped my grasp, I let it go again
I have merely desire, achieved, and then
Desired some other thing. Thus I have stormed
Through life; at first with pride and violence,
But now less rashly, with more sober sense.
I've seen enough of this terrestrial sphere.
There is no view to the Beyond from here.

After that Faust glimpses a moment of bliss and dies, thwarting Satan's bet because he technically did not achieve perfect satisfaction. Since choruses of angels come down to argue the point and collect Faust's soul, Heaven triumphs, winning a wager that framed Satan's interactions with Faust. So never mind that Faust committed adultery and murder, God wins the bet so he goes to heaven!

If you're confused, join the club. It was evident that Faust is a work that was written over a lifetime, because it can't seem to make up its mind on anything. What's the plot? There doesn't seem to be much to the story beyond re-creating classic myths. Who's the hero? Faust the character is missing from half the story; Mephistopheles has the best part (if you were actually going to perform it as a play), but he loses in the end. I'm not sure why Faust is considered a classic; it may not successfully explored modern issues, but at least it made a very grand attempt. And it's hard to argue with Faust's conclusion, that modern man is never satisfied but is always striving for something.

As far as judging Faust as a work of poetry, there I'm in the dark. The library couldn't be bothered to purchase translations by the same person, so this time I had an Oxford University
Press translation by David Luke. While the Peter Salm translation of part one eschewed poetic scheme for keeping meaning, this translation goes all out in trying to reproduce the poetic effects. Rhyming couplets, varying rhythms, it's all there—and often to distracting effect. With great poetry (like the Dante translation I read last month), the rhyme sneaks in, enhancing the words and playing with sound. With mediocre poetry, you get distracted by the rhyme and the sing-songy rhythm as you overlook the rest of the words to get to the couplet. So I found it a lot harder to get into this translation than the other one, which had music and meaning to it even though it didn't rhyme.

There, I've spent almost as much brain power writing this entry and trying to figure out Faust as I did actually reading the stupid thing. But next time I'm going Russian: Anna Karenina is up, and hopefully it won't take me the rest of the summer to read it. All 50,000 pages of it.