Saturday, December 31, 2011

Out With the Old, In With the New


What is it about a pending new year that inspires so much hope and energy? I’ve just spent half an hour making a list of major areas of interest in my life and what activities and projects I want to tackle in each one. Looked at as one entity, it’s a pretty daunting list! But in my current frame of mind (which may last only until the reality of that list sets in), I feel like I can accomplish the whole darn thing. And that’s probably just because the old year is fading, the new year is on the horizon, all shiny and full of possibility, stretching ahead in series of gleaming hours as yet unfilled…surely this will be the year when I’ll accomplish xyz…

Before I get too carried away, however, I need to remember I don’t need to change everything, or expect to tackle my whole list the first couple weeks of the new year. (I say “I”—do you do the same thing?) I need to remember the principle of baby steps and approach all this with an attitude of love (not disgust that I’ve let my life become such a shambles!), acceptance, and patience.

The ending of an old year and the beginning of a new one is a natural time to take stock of one’s life, and maybe plan for some changes. Especially when we’ve just come through the holiday season, when the usual routine gets thrust aside and lives become a little messy. When the holidays are through, as they will be for most of us tomorrow, we’ll be faced with return to “regular” life, and all its attendant responsibilities. Those responsibilities can quickly fill up those shiny new days, leaving little time for the new list of goals I’m making right now. The trick is to blend the old with the new, letting some things fall away, being open to new processes and habits and not giving up altogether when I fall short of my ideal.

Do you get introspective about your life at the new year? What are some of your plans for 2012?

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Monday, December 26, 2011

My Day in Books (meme)

This meme was so much fun, I had to share it with you. You can see it done by other bloggers here and here. This was my day (all books are ones I read this year):

I began the day with Kick-Ass Creativity.

On my way to work I saw The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

And walked by Revolutionary Road,

To avoid Death in the Garden.

But I made sure to stop at Swamplandia!

In the office, my boss said, “Do One Thing Different,”

And sent me to research The Tao of Equus.

At lunch with Cluny Brown,

I noticed The Sinister Pig

Under The Winter Sea,

Then went back to my desk, Naked, Drunk and Writing.

Later, on the journey home, I bought Home is Where the Wine Is

Because I Was Told There’d Be Cake.

Then settling down for the evening, I picked up The Paris Wife

And studied How Not to Look Old

Before saying goodnight to Bossypants.

What would your day in books look like?

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Heart Full of Christmas


“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.”
—Roy L. Smith

Wishing you a heart full of Christmas joy!

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Stop Right There


“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”
—Guillaume Apollinaire


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Monday, December 19, 2011

The Good Enough Blog Post

Photo courtesy Laure Ferlita
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of Good Enough. The painting trip to NOLA focused my attention on the concept as I created sketchbook pages that were far from perfect, but were “good enough” for their purpose: to help me remember a captivating place and group of people.

For me, that’s the biggest blessing: Good Enough is an antidote to perfectionism. How many times do we avoid trying new things, obsess over details, or become stalled by the idea that something must be Perfect, or even its cousin Really Good, before it sees the light of day? (I know this blog post could be better—I could spend hours “perfecting” it, but it still wouldn’t be “perfect.” I’ve already delayed posting it once because it wasn’t—you guessed it—Good Enough.)

The holiday season is a good time to focus on the concept of Good Enough. How easy it is to fall into the trap of searching for the “perfect” gift, decorating the house perfectly, cooking up delicious and special Christmas treats, and so on. All this on top of your regular, everyday life and its responsibilities! Frankly, that way lies madness and sitting in a corner, slugging down eggnog and biting the heads off gingerbread men on Christmas morning.

Good Enough can be excellent. Or it can be average. It’s not settling, but as author Heather Sellers writes, “It’s celebrating the truth. Good Enough means you know when to quit.” It’s up to us to decide what gets our time, resources and attention—and how much of those resources we are willing to spend. Everything we do cannot be Perfect. I’m sorry, but it just can’t be.

So how can we embrace Good Enough? By applying the three Ls:

Lower our standards. Don’t have time to cook an entire holiday meal from scratch? I know from experience that many grocery stores have really fine options for the harried holiday hostess. Can’t work out for an hour? Take a 15-minute walk. Something is better than nothing, and it will keep us in the exercise habit.

Laugh when things go wrong, or don’t quite come out the way we envisioned. Laughter is a better option than tears, and others are more likely to relax and go with the flow when they see that we’re not overly bothered by the unexpected.

Love the opportunity, love the process, love the result. Sometimes we (I) forget that life is an adventure, full of new experiences, not all of which will seem “good” on the surface. It’s all a process, leading to the result of a full, rich life.

And repeat after me: Good Enough is…Good Enough.

Has there been a time when you’ve embraced Good Enough and found the outcome was just fine, or even better than you expected?

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Done!

I read most of these...
I finished the last book from the Off the Shelf challenge earlier this week: Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters. Very moving and readable book about some of the reasons New Orleans is special and why careful rebuilding after Katrina is so important. From the introduction: “New Orleans is not just a list of attractions or restaurants or ceremonies, no matter how sublime and subtle. New Orleans is the interaction among all those things, and countless more. It gains its character from the spirit that is summoned, like a hologram, in the midst of all these elements, and that comes, ultimately, from the people who live there—those who have chosen to live there, and those whose parents and grandparents and ancestors lived there.”

I completed both my reading challenges on time—not that either of them was all that “challenging”—and they both served a purpose. The Vintage Mystery Challenge introduced me to some new authors in my favorite genre (Frances and Richard Lockridge, Margery Allingham) and allowed me to revisit some old favorites (Rex Stout, Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie). The Off the Shelf challenge helped clear my shelves a bit. (Shh…don’t tell anyone, but I’ve filled up that space with more books I’ve purchased this year!) I read some books that had been languishing there for too long and even got rid of a couple without reading them at all, hopefully passing them on to someone who will appreciate them. (See the 2011 Reading Challenge Log for a full list of the challenge books I read this year.)

I’ve considered signing up for new reading challenges next year, like this Classics challenge or even revisiting the Off the Shelf challenge to try to clear that shelf for good (hahahahaha). But I decided not to. I love reading, and I will still read for pleasure, and for research, but 2012 must be devoted to writing the book that I keep telling people I’m going to write. I can’t allow myself to be distracted by reading challenges, tempting though they are. My focus must narrow a bit, at least for now. It’s time to put up or shut up.

What challenges, reading or other, are you going to tackle in 2012?

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

For the Chipmunk in My Yard

Photo courtesy Maria Corcacas
I love to sit outside and be very still until some little creature appears and begins to go about its business, and here is another poet, Robert Gibb, of Pennsylvania, doing just the same thing. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

For the Chipmunk in My Yard

I think he knows I’m alive, having come down
The three steps of the back porch
And given me a good once over. All afternoon
He’s been moving back and forth,
Gathering odd bits of walnut shells and twigs,
While all about him the great fields tumble
To the blades of the thresher. He’s lucky
To be where he is, wild with all that happens.
He’s lucky he’s not one of the shadows
Living in the blond heart of the wheat.
This autumn when trees bolt, dark with the fires
Of starlight, he’ll curl among their roots,
Wanting nothing but the slow burn of matter
On which he fastens like a small, brown flame.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. From “What the Heart Can Bear” by Robert Gibb. Poem copyright ©2009 by Robert Gibb. Reprinted by permission of the author and Autumn House Press. Introduction copyright ©2010 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas in New York


When considering writing about holiday traditions, I found myself thinking about my family sitting at the dinner table wearing the crowns from Christmas crackers, or the year the cat knocked over the Christmas tree (not coincidentally the last year we had a live tree). You can see what kind of holidays we have at our house. But what I found myself wanting to write about was the year we broke with tradition: the year we spent the days between Christmas and New Year’s exploring New York City.

Let me back up. It all started when we (my husband, son and mother-in-law) were discussing plans for celebrating Christmas in 2007. Out of the blue, Mom suggested renting an apartment in New York City. That captured our imaginations, because we’d always wanted to spend some time there. It didn’t take us long to search the vacation rentals on Craigslist for possibilities. We finally hit upon one that sounded suitable: “Sunny Apartment Old World Charm (Upper West Side)” and negotiated a price we could afford.

Memorial for John Lennon in Central Park
We flew to New York on Christmas day—practical, if a bit unromantic. We had no trouble reaching our apartment via cab ride. The 1929 building stood just a few blocks from the Dakota, where John Lennon was killed, and from Central Park. After settling in, we decided to see if we could find somewhere to eat dinner. Francesco, an Italian/pizza restaurant just down the street sounded good to us. Our “Christmas dinner” was pizza, pasta fagiole soup, shrimp scampi and chicken wings! Delicious, if untraditional.

Top of the Rock
We spent the next few days crisscrossing Manhattan, taking the subway and walking to the places we wished to visit. Our son seemed determined to sample a hot dog from every vendor in town. While it was cold to us Floridians, there was no snow to contend with. We packed a lot into our trip: a visit to ground zero at the World Trade Center, Times Square and lunch at Sardi’s, visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. We rode the Staten Island Ferry at night for a stunning view of the lighted New York skyline, sandwiched ourselves into the crowds at FAO Schwartz toy store, rode the elevator to “Top of the Rock,” the 67th floor observatory deck at Rockefeller Center. One of my favorite stops was the New York Public Library, where the stone lions, whose names are Patience and Fortitude, wore festive Christmas wreaths. Inside, we marveled at the painted ceilings and elaborate mechanized system the staff uses to procure books for library patrons.

Patience...or is it Fortitude?
That year, we traded sitting in front of the fireplace opening gifts for riding the subway to the southern tip of Manhattan; a decorated tree at home for the decorated tree at Rockefeller Center; turkey and ham for pizza and pasta. We still talk about the year we went to New York for Christmas. We built many happy family memories as we walked up and down the city streets. Most years, I wouldn’t want to trade the comforts of being home for the holidays, but Christmas in New York? For that, I’d make an exception.

What are your favorite holiday traditions? Are there any new traditions you’d like to start this year?

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Friday, December 9, 2011

I'd Rather Be Reading


I’m shamelessly stealing a page from Dani Torres’ blog (pun totally intended but not very good) and doing a library books post today… mostly because I’m snowed under by so much stuff I “should” be doing that I don’t want to do anything. And because when I went to the library to return things, a whole bunch of my requested books had come in AND I found a couple books at the Friends of the Library bookstore. You never know with the library request system. Sometimes books come right away, and other times it takes a week or more. I got all hot and bothered requesting books last weekend, and five of them came in all at once! This makes me simultaneously happy and stressed…happy because I love to have plenty of delicious books to choose from, and stressed because I’m worried I’ll have to give them back before I finish with them. Though I want to start on these right away, I’m already reading a novel (The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, which I am loving) and the last book for my “Off the Shelf” challenge (Why New Orleans Matters, by Tom Piazza, also excellent)

I know it’s crazy to have so many books hanging around waiting to be read, especially this time of year when I have so many other things to do. I can’t seem to help myself! See, here are the library books I picked up. Don’t they all sound tempting in their own ways?

Of Flowers and a Village, Wilfred Blunt. I can’t remember where I heard of this, but it sounds charming. This is a novel written in the form of “chatty letters” from a godfather to his goddaughter who is bedridden while recovering from an illness. The letters paint a picture of village life, combined with history, gardening knowledge and local lore.

The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, William Nicholson. Laura, a happily married mother of two, begins to question her choices after her college boyfriend resurfaces after 20 years, comparing the passion of her first love with her current suburban life. Little does she know, she’s not the only one having a personal crisis in her small English village.

Civil War Wives, Carol Berkin. A peek into the lives of the wives of abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and Union commander Ulysses S. Grant. Publisher’s Weekly says, “[Berkin] wants to catch the realities of three privileged, yet restricted women and thus to reveal how even the most fortunate of wives—at least fortunate in the importance and celebrity of their husbands—struggled, not always successfully, to face down the difficulties of their sex. In this, [she] is entirely successful.”

Design*Sponge at Home, Grace Bonney. Design*Sponge is one of the most popular design sites on the web, and creator Bonney’s book contains home tours, DIY projects, before-and-after makeovers and more. I’m enamored of this table/library project...

What It Is, Lynda Barry. How to describe this book? It’s called a “writing how-to graphic novel” and one review commented, “Each page is a feast for the eyes with beautiful full-page collages of photographs, watercolors, ink drawings, and text, resulting in a gorgeous volume that explores and encourages writing in a combination of ways.” Sounds fun, yes?

My two bookstore finds were Mary Emmerling’s Romantic Country, and, ironically considering the state of my house and my mind, Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui.

It’s likely that while I “should” be wrapping gifts or writing Christmas cards, I’ll be reading. Oh, well. Maybe I can use reading time as a reward for getting my chores done?

Which book would you choose to start with?

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Riding the Waves

Photo courtesy Mirko Harnisch
“Happiness, like everything else in this rhythmic realm, comes and goes in waves, and it’s good to savor it when the wave rises and, when the wave recedes, understand that another wave will come. Sometimes you ride the wave; sometimes you ride out the trough. A wave’s height is measured by its depth, anyway.”
—Carl Safina, The View From Lazy Point

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Guilty Pleasures and Comfort Reads


Perhaps it was a reaction to the gathering speed of life in this holiday season, but my weekend was full of guilty pleasures and comfort reading. Every year at Christmastime I make a big batch of molasses sugar cookies for us and our neighbors across the street. Our sons have been friends since they were preschoolers, and we’ve developed a friendship and an alliance with the parents to keep the kids supervised and out of trouble (as much as is possible with teenage boys). Jodi always bakes us something yummy at Thanksgiving—this year it was a loaf of red velvet cake—and I return the favor at Christmas. Of course, when I make these cookies, there is much tasting of dough and of finished cookies (don’t want to give the neighbors something that doesn’t taste good, do we?). Then we have a cookie jar full of cookies for a few days, and these cookies go really well with my coffee... I’m eating one as I write…

But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes, guilty pleasures. While I was baking said cookies, I was watching—and I almost hate to admit this—a Netflix disk of Laverne & Shirley. Go ahead, laugh if you want. My husband does. L & S came out in the late 70s/early 80s, and I remember watching it with my mom. It’s a silly show, but one with a sweet heart and optimistic spirit. I like to have the TV on when I bake, but I can’t watch anything too engrossing. I either lose crucial plot points, or get caught up in what I’m watching and burn the cookies. Laverne & Shirley was perfect for my purposes. Guilty pleasure piled upon guilty pleasure.

When I was done with guilty pleasures, I moved right on to a comfort read, revisiting a book from my childhood: Rosamund du Jardin’s Double Date. Double Date is the first book in a series about twins Pam and Penny Howard. A few months back, feeling nostalgic, I was trying to remember the names of the books in this series, or even the author’s name. I remembered the series involved twins, and I thought some of the titles included the word “double,” but beyond that I was stumped. Through the magic of the internet, I was able to track it down and even order the first book from Amazon.

Double Date is set in the 50s (coincidentally, so is Laverne & Shirley), and I thought the story held up well, even though it’s incredibly sweet and innocent compared with today’s children’s/tween books. Just before their senior year of high school, Pam and Penny move with their mother and grandmother to a small town outside of Chicago, so their mother can open her own interior design business. Pam is the more self-assured twin, popular with everyone, while Penny is quieter, unsure of herself and more serious. The story takes place through the school year, and Penny learns to come out from under Pam’s shadow and blossom into herself. I can see why I liked this so much when I was growing up—I must have identified with Penny.

Between cookies, Laverne & Shirley and Double Date, I had a very comforting weekend.

What guilty pleasures, or comfort reads, have you indulged in lately?

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Friday, December 2, 2011

General Beauregard Slept Here


On our last full day in New Orleans, we spent the morning touring and sketching at the Beauregard-Keyes House. Built in 1826 by a well-to-do auctioneer, it takes its name from its most famous residents, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who lived there for some time during the mid-1860s, and author Frances Parkinson Keyes, an author who penned 51 books beginning in 1919.

During the tour, I confess I was much more interested in Mrs. Keyes than in General Beauregard, so most of the information I took away concerned her. Mrs. Keyes (pronounced to rhyme with “eyes”) rented the house in 1944 from a group of ladies who had saved the house from demolition in 1925. (They had tackled the house as a historical project because General Beauregard had lived there.) Mrs. Keyes eventually bought the house and restored both it and the formal garden, and turned the kitchen washhouse into her writing studio. For 25 years, she lived there during the winter months and wrote several of her books there, including the only one that I have read, Dinner at Antoine’s. She died there in 1970.

The house contains furniture belonging to General Beauregard and his family, as well as many items Mrs. Keyes collected throughout her life: dolls, fans, and veilleuses, described to us as nightlights, but originally used to keep a small portion of drink or semi-liquid food warm at nighttime, usually for an infant or sick person. I loved the veilleuses Mrs. Keyes collected and wanted to bring a similar one home as a souvenir, but the only ones sold in the museum gift shop were plain white and not particularly attractive. Something to look for in antiques stores, perhaps.

A veilleuse
 My favorite part of the tour was seeing Mrs. Keyes’ writing studio. (I love seeing other people’s creative spaces!) She wrote in longhand in a composition book, one of which was open on the desk. The light-filled space charmed me completely. Hmm, maybe I’d get more writing done if I had a studio like this?



Handwritten manuscript for The Chess Player
Following the house tour, we sketched in the formal garden. I always loved seeing everyone scatter to the different places that intrigued them for sketching purposes. Even when two people chose to sketch the same thing, the final products always came out looking different from each other—the “hand of the artist” in evidence.

Two sketchers at work
This trip just reinforced my love for New Orleans. Spending five days exploring different aspects of NOLA’s culture and history whetted my appetite for more. I want to go back!

All our sketchbooks. Mine is the one on the bottom left.
Have you ever visited someplace that captivated you? Were you ever able to return?

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bach in the DC Subway

Photo courtesy Jonathan King
It’s likely that if you found the original handwritten manuscript of T. S. Eliot’s groundbreaking poem, “The Waste Land,” you wouldn’t be able to trade it for a candy bar at the Quick Shop on your corner. Here’s a poem by David Lee Garrison of Ohio about how unsuccessfully classical music fits into a subway. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Bach in the DC Subway

As an experiment,
The Washington Post
asked a concert violinist—
wearing jeans, tennis shoes,
and a baseball cap—
to stand near a trash can
at rush hour in the subway
and play Bach
on a Stradivarius.
Partita No. 2 in D Minor
called out to commuters
like an ocean to waves,
sang to the station
about why we should bother
to live.

A thousand people
streamed by. Seven of them
paused for a minute or so
and thirty-two dollars floated
into the open violin case.
A café hostess who drifted
over to the open door
each time she was free
said later that Bach
gave her peace,
and all the children,
all of them,
waded into the music
as if it were water,
listening until they had to be
rescued by parents
who had somewhere else to go.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by David Lee Garrison, whose most recent book of poems is “Sweeping the Cemetery: New and Selected Poems,” Browser Books Publishing, 2007. Poem reprinted from “Rattle,” Vol. 14, No. 2, Winter 2008, by permission of David Lee Garrison and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Pomegranate Season


When I was a child, every Thanksgiving my mom and I would make the drive from our Southern California home to visit my grandparents in Cottonwood. Aside from the game-playing and family fun, I looked forward to getting my fill of one of my favorite fruits: the pomegranate. My great-grandparents, who lived across the street from my grandparents, had several pomegranate trees so my grandma always had at least one big box of the sweet, juicy fruit. I remember often eating more than one a day, prying the ruby-like seeds, called arils, from the bitter membrane, liberally decorating my clothes with hard-to-get-out juice spots, and turning my fingernails purple.

I just learned today that November is National Pomegranate Month, so in honor of that, I decided to learn a bit more about one of my favorite fruits. If you like your food to come with a story, then pomegranates are the fruit for you.

Pomegranates are one of the earliest cultivated fruits, and can be traced back to 3000 B.C. They’re linked to health (scientists have discovered they’re full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that may help protect against heart disease, cancer and age-related maladies), fertility, prosperity and rebirth. Hoping for a second life, some ancient Egyptians, including King Tut, were buried with pomegranates.

However, my favorite pomegranate story is the Greek myth featuring Persephone, Hades and Demeter. In one version of the myth, Hades, god of the underworld, abducted beautiful Persephone to be his wife. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, the goddess in charge of crops and the harvest, didn’t know what had become of Persephone, and began to neglect her duties as she mourned and searched for her daughter. When crops withered and died, man begged Zeus to intervene and get Demeter back on the job. Zeus finally agreed, but said that if Persephone had eaten anything while she was in the underworld, she would be bound to return to Hades and the underworld for half the year (some versions of the myth say a third of the year). Alas, Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds offered to her by Hades and was thus bound to spend part of the year with him, and part of the year with her mother. Therefore, the pomegranate is one of Persephone’s symbols.

Pomegranates were originally grown in Persia (Iran) and other areas of the Middle East and Asia, but most of the pomegranates we eat here in the U.S. are probably grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Pomegranate season usually starts in October, with peak season in November and December. At my grocery store, they cost $2 each on sale (so far), so I don’t buy as many of them as I would like. (Oh for the days of eating them for free at my grandma’s!) I’ve always just eaten the fruit plain, but you can also add the seeds to yogurt, salads, ice cream or cereal, and there are a number of recipes that call for the addition of pomegranate seeds. When buying pomegranates, look for a fruit heavy for its size, with a smooth, bright skin. You can keep them in the fridge for up to two or three months.

Pomegranates might require a little patience and tenacity to eat, but to me they’re both a simple pleasure and an everyday adventure. Even though they seem expensive, they are cheaper than a bag of Doritos, and much healthier for me! Even if they do leave me with purple fingernails.

(Check out this video demonstration for a neater and easier way to get the seeds out.)

Note: The New Orleans travelogue will continue in future posts.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thankful


“Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.”
Henry Van Dyke

I am grateful for so much this Thanksgiving—family, friends, good health, and my wonderful readers and followers. Thank you for sharing yourselves with me these past two years. I hope you have a marvelous Thanksgiving!

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Monday, November 21, 2011

While I Was in the Shower

Saturday, my husband left half his chicken parmesan sandwich for me on the kitchen counter. When I came into the kitchen, the paper plate was on the floor, the meat portion of the sandwich was gone and my 12-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, who spends most of her time sleeping, was licking the tile.

This is the kitchen counter (it's not usually so clean).


This is the dog.


She usually looks like this:


Do you think she’s just lulling our suspicions?

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Out on the River Road


Tuesday morning, our Tours By Isabelle guide, John, drove us from the French Quarter to a plantation called Oak Alley. Oak Alley is about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and on the way there, we took a road running along the Mississippi, lined with sugar cane fields and old plantations in various states of repair.

Sometime in the 1700s, an unknown settler built a small house, where the plantation house now stands, and planted two rows of 14 live oak trees, forming an alley leading from the house towards the Mississippi River. In 1839, a wealthy Creole sugar planter bought the property and built the home that now stands to please his young wife. However, according to our Oak Alley guide, though the planter himself loved plantation life, his wife preferred town living and escaped back to New Orleans every chance she could. Eventually, after the planter died, his wife and then his son tried unsuccessfully to run the plantation. It had to be sold to cover the family’s debts, and later fell into disrepair. (We were told that at one point, cattle broke into the home seeking shelter!) In the 1920s, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Steward began the restoration of Oak Alley, the first example of ante-bellum restoration along the River Road. Oak Alley is now a National Historic Landmark, run by a non-profit organization. The land around it is still working acreage, leased to local farmers. In addition, a number of movies, videos, commercials and TV shows have been filmed there (for instance, Oak Alley is Louis’ homeplace in Interview With the Vampire).

View of alley from second floor balcony
After our tour and lunch, we had time to sketch. We scattered over the grounds, set up our stools, and began. (We were not allowed to sketch or take photos inside the house.)

Oak Alley was my first real taste of artistic frustration on this trip. I still consider myself a beginner at sketching on location, but found myself disappointed by my lack of ability to produce the images I had in my head. I know that is something that will come with time and practice, and I tried to adjust my expectations to fit what I was able to accomplish right then. I loved seeing my fellow travelers’ journal pages, trying hard not to be embarrassed by my own, while holding out hope that someday my own pages would look something like theirs. It’s hard to accept limitations—hardest when you think you should be able to perform a certain way. (I finished one page, and began another, so at least I didn’t give up!)

Kettle used to boil sugar cane
Oak Alley’s graceful house and peaceful grounds made a great contrast with the brilliant modernity of Mardi Gras World the day before. Maybe next time I visit, I’ll be able to do the sketch I visualized!

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Like Coins, November

Photo courtesy stock.xchng
 I love poems in which the central metaphors are fresh and original, and here’s a marvelous, coiny description of autumn by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck, who lives in Illinois. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Like Coins, November

We drove past late fall fields as flat and cold
as sheets of tin and, in the distance, trees

were tossed like coins against the sky. Stunned gold
and bronze, oaks, maples stood in twos and threes:

some copper bright, a few dull brown and, now
and then, the shock of one so steeled with frost

it glittered like a dime. The autumn boughs
and blackened branches wore a somber gloss

that whispered tails to me, not heads. I read
memorial columns in their trunks; their leaves

spelled UNUM, cent; and yours, the only head. . .
in penny profile, Lincoln-like (one sleeve,

one eye) but even it was turning tails
as russet leaves lay spent across the trails.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck. Reprinted from “The Spoon River Poetry Review,” Vol. XXXIII, no. 1, 2008, by permission of Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

87,330 Steps, More or Less


What is it about New Orleans—especially the French Quarter? I returned Friday night from my second visit to NOLA, this time as part of Laure Ferlita’s Imaginary Trips Made Real painting holiday, and I’m more enchanted than ever. The city continues to reveal new aspects of itself, tantalizing me with glimpses of seductive alleyways, the old and the new living side by side, snatches of music on the air, and delicious food aromas (and flavors). Despite sampling nearly every New Orleans culinary specialty, I managed to avoid gaining weight—probably because we walked nearly everywhere, racking up an average of more than 10,000 steps per day (or 87,330 steps according to my rough estimate). Just for kicks, I brought my pedometer with me and wore it every day to see how much ground we covered. (Our high: 18,877!)

Eight artists, including me, joined Laure for the trip. Though we’d never met in person, I “knew” several of the women through blogging. The camaraderie of the whole group was magical, a term I heard several people use about this experience. Laure had lined up a number of tours with opportunity for sketching afterwards, and made reservations, when possible, at some of NOLA’s iconic restaurants. I’ll write more about the trip in future posts, but to start with, I’ll share our first destination, Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World.

The artists at Mardi Gras World work on props and floats for Mardi Gras parades year round, beginning the day after Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is the last day of Carnival, which begins on the Feast of Epiphany Jan. 6 and ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras parades can take place any time during Carnival. Mardi Gras World produces about 600 floats per year, for about 40 of the 54 parades thrown by the New Orleans krewes each year. Each krewe chooses a different theme for its parade every year, so the only float that stays the same is the krewe’s signature float. Below are pictures of parts of the signature float of Harry Connick Jr.’s krewe, Orpheus:


"Smokey Mary"
Mardi Gras World also makes Styrofoam and fiberglass props for restaurants, billboards and other businesses, as well as props and floats for parades around the world. A few more shots of props-in-progress:



Diagram of float
Mardi Gras World was a great choice for our first day of sketching, because everything was larger-than-life, brightly-colored and just plain fun—a great atmosphere for those of us who were a little nervous about pulling out sketchbooks and watercolors and sketching in public where someone might see us. It was easy to get lost among the giant dragons, giraffes, seahorses and whatever this thing is:


If you ever find yourself in New Orleans (and I sincerely hope you do), the trip to Mardi Gras World is worth your time. Even if you don’t pull out a sketchbook.

Mardi Gras World was just the beginning of our adventures. We ate lunch at Antoine’s the second oldest restaurant in the French Quarter (opened in 1840). Antoine himself invented dishes such as Chicken Creole, Crayfish Etoufee and Shrimp Remoulade. His son Jules created, among other things, Oysters Rockefeller. We spent the afternoon taking a walking tour of the French Quarter with a guide from the Friends of the Cabildo and later walked to dinner at Mother’s.

And that was just Day 1.

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