Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A New Home Revisited

Things have been quite hectic this past month, so I thought I'd do a picture post this time. Enjoy the before and after of my new apartment!

Front Door View - Before
Front Door View - After
Living Room - Before
Living Room - After (and better view!)
Bedroom - Before
Bedroom - After
Kitchen - Before
Kitchen - After
Back Door View - Before
Back Door View - After

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pentecost

One hand crumples like a broken wing
And the mouth’s left corner folds words to a slur,
Imprisoning an old man
Within a half-crippled body.

Left inarticulate, only memory keeps him company.

While his wife putters about, he sits and waits,
Recalling his children, and the grand-children
Who visit occasionally to pin another photo
Amid the collage which papers the wall.

Once they leave again,
He reflects on fifty-eight years of service
Rendered and not paid, for sheer love.

It is strange to dwell with these recollections
Since the stroke cut him off from common life;
He hobbles from table to chair to bed
Hearing a changeless voice.

For charity’s sake, those he helped for six decades
Send strangers to sit with him at times.

He speaks to them slowly and politely,
Offering thanks, over and over, relieved
not to be alone
With the past which can no longer be.

It was Memorial Day when the children came
To sing. Fleeter than angels they descended
Upon the house, opened their mouths for a moment
To emit the praises of God.

Then they were gone again, though the echo
Resounded in the man’s quiet brain,
Stirring round and round the solitude of age
And illness, when a soul is trapped with itself.

Sobs rise, suddenly, and he is humbled
To be seen in weakness.

No shame, though: a man’s prerogative
Is to grow into emotion with age, to feel
The richness of his humanity recalled.

Tears flow to baptize his memories,
Washed and arrayed about him
Like clean white robes of grace.

***

I've joined a local youth group, and we visited an old community benefactor for Memorial Day. It was bittersweet to see his joy and sorrow at the tiny service we did for him.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Things We Inherit

In the backyard of my new apartment, I have a clump of irises growing luxuriantly against the fence. It’s been a warm spring here in Idaho, so already they are thrusting up their buds in long spears. I imagine they’ll bloom within the fortnight.

At this point, the buds are still tightly furled and secretive, so it’s impossible to tell what color the final product will produce. I feel like I inherited a surprise from whatever renter in the past decided to toss some rhizomes in the ground and hope for the best. Irises are actually my favorite flower – I love the extravagance of their enormous blooms, not to mention their incredible shades of blue – so the surprise will be especially exciting for that reason.

In the mornings, I can stand in my kitchen while I drink coffee and watch the flowers, wondering what color they will be.

I was doing this the other day, thinking about Mothers’ Day coming up, and also reflecting on my own personality, which has lately been thrown into stronger relief in my mind, thanks to suddenly living on my own. It occurred to me that I would have never guessed at twelve or thirteen, on the cusp of adolescence, what I’d be like now, fifteen years later. Granted, definitive traits were beginning to make themselves known, but at the time I mostly focused on the anxiety of being the youngest in my class and wondering how to make friends with girls one or two years older than me.

Time passed, of course, and I discovered my real friends (Vasnefy, the Fashionista, Mrs. L., and, most recently, the Phoenix Girl). In relation to them my personality settled and took shape. My various romantic relationships have had their effect, too. The result seems to be a combination of confidence, enthusiasm and determination, although when confronted with other people, a wave of diffidence mutes all of these attributes. I’ve become strangely afraid of crushing others with my admittedly strong personality, so I hold back and guard myself around them, both for fear of hurting them and for fear of being hurt should they dislike my natural self.

When I was younger I often thought that I had only inherited my father’s characteristics.

Recently, however, my brother said to me in passing that of us three children, I especially seemed to have received the best and worst of both parents. So I’ve been reflecting on what has come to me from my mother. The confidence and enthusiasm and determination listed above all are obvious traits from my father, and everyone who is familiar with us both will point out that I resemble him in behavior almost exactly, even while looking far more like my mom.

There are plenty of jokes about middle aged women looking in the mirror one day and realizing they’ve become exactly like their mothers (perhaps to their chagrin). For quite a while I thought that would never happen to me, and perhaps indeed I shall not have that exact experience. However, I have realized that my sympathy for others comes from Mom more than from Dad.

She has an almost infinite capacity for interest in others – both their joys and their sorrows.

Sometimes (because I’m an ungrateful daughter, as all children are a little ungrateful!), I feel wearied by her indefatigable interest. Mom wants the news concerning everyone and their births and deaths and marriages and friendships and babies. We joke about the debriefing everyone in the family must undergo when coming home from an event, since she is so curious about all the attendees and their stories.

However, it’s not just idle curiosity. She remembers everything and next time she sees one of these people about whom she knows a few facts, she’ll run to greet them and discuss their news, whether happy or sad, offering congratulations or condolences as needed. Granted, my interest in others is not so wide-spread or so generous (due perhaps to the diffidence I mentioned above), but I find the same pattern on a smaller scale in myself. Moreover, it has its effect on my writing, too. All writing requires the ability to put yourself into another’s shoes and feel their joys and sorrows in yourself.

I inherited that ability from my mother, and on this Mothers’ Day, I’d like to thank her for that. This tendency in myself has been slowly developing through my young adulthood, and it has surprised me, much like my inherited irises are set to surprise me when they bloom in a few days. No doubt over the next fifteen years, I’ll discover other elements of myself that she passed to me and be surprised and delighted by them as well. I look forward to the process, and I hope my mom will be with me during those years to guide me with her example.

Happy Mothers’ Day to every mother who stops by my blog to read this post!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Finding Normal

I’ve discovered all sorts of things since moving into my own place. With no one around to offer distraction or influence my schedule, there is a lot of new time to occupy. This was actually one of the effects for which I was hoping when I started the search for an apartment, but I’ve been amazed at how dramatic the difference is.

For example, when I was sharing a house, if we were planning to go out together, I’d wrap up whatever I was doing maybe fifteen minutes before the scheduled departure. Then I’d chat with the other people involved until the time to go. Now, on the other hand, I just leave when I want to leave, without worrying about inconveniencing anyone, or having to wait for them.

I’m a little concerned that I’ll become hopelessly spoiled by the total control over my own schedule! At the same time, though, I still have to get to events on time. It’s just been interesting to notice that the effect of going out to a party or a concert or a movie with friends has less overall impact on my time, because I can keep working on projects until the last minute, then grab my purse and leave to get there perfectly on time.

The real question has been how to fill up all those randomly multiplied fifteen minute increments. The first week I was in my apartment, I managed to get an entire story rewritten (it was old and needed to be approached from a new angle altogether), just by pulling out my computer every time I had a few minutes before bed, or before leaving for work, or before an event. It was kind of amazing. I realized how much can be done if one is able to use all one’s time efficiently.

However, that first week, I was still settling in and getting used to being all on my own. Now that I’m comfortable, I’m working on deep-cleaning the apartment. The carpets were cleaned before my move and the guy who had the place before did a reasonable job in surface cleaning before his departure. Man-clean is different from woman-clean, though. I’ve cleaned an amazing amount of grease and grime out of unlikely corners and surfaces that he apparently just didn’t think of (the ceiling above the shower, for example – a surprisingly gross place).

I’m also working on curtains and some other projects, just to get the place feeling more like home. It’s amazing what a difference window treatments and wall decorations make. Until all those are hung, there’s always a lingering feeling of being an itinerant – not quite settled in the place and ready to move on at any point.

I’ve actually been making amazing progress – black-out bedroom curtains and all my kitchen curtains last week – but even so, the cleaning and sewing makes it busy enough that I’ve not been able to fit any new writing into the days. I was feeling a little antsy about this, but then I realized that all those projects will be basically done by the middle of May, at the very latest, and then I’ll really have lots of time to fill. I can write to my heart’s content until the next round of projects rises (I have some furniture refurbishing plans in mind…).

The final thing I’ve realized is that when you don’t have friends built into your home life, you suddenly become much more interested in other people. I’ve joined a choral group, met with old friends, gone to a party, and had several friends over since my move, just two weeks ago. The pleasant thing, though, is that since I do in fact find so much extra time in my schedule, I can enjoy socializing, without feeling that my chance for writing or getting projects done is being eaten up. Just today I went for an hour walk around town, and I’m still managing to get household chores done, a blog post written, and some sewing preparations set up.

It’s interesting watching one’s own life adjust and settle after a big change. Luckily this has been a good change, so I’m enjoying the process and finding almost all the effects enjoyable and exhilarating. Life is busy but good – and very productive, which is something I value!

I realize one can’t live alone forever, so this new abundance of time is a temporary luxury. Even so, I’ll probably be here for at least a year (my lease term!) so I might as well enjoy what I’ve got, while I’ve got it! So far that process is going very well. I’d be curious to know, though: do you find that you are more productive alone or when living with others? Leave a comment to share your experience!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Getting Some Sleep

As you might imagine, my life has been a bit busy for the past two weeks. I’ve been moving to my new apartment slowly but steadily, so that I could sleep there for the first time on Friday. Everything went according to plan, but whenever I have a lot going on – planning, moving, cleaning, etc. – I have a hard time going right to sleep when I get in bed.

I’ve talked before about my (somewhat obsessive) love of planning. This does make my life extremely organized, in general, but also keeps the gears of my mind moving long after I want them to stop. During hectic times, I often lie in bed for a half hour, convincing my brain it’s time to close up shop for the night. This has been the pattern for me for almost as long as I remember. If nothing in particular is happening, I fall asleep in a minute or five, but not so much if life is busy.

To help myself fall asleep when I was a child, I used to tell myself stories.

Often I’d lie in bed and tell myself my own versions of fairy tales. Later, as I read more books, I’d make up the after-story for books I’d particularly loved. Sometimes I’d work on the same story for several nights; sometimes I’d make up a new one every night. Thinking back, I realized that even at the age of seven or thirteen, I had the penchant for writing.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is, infallibly, the night-time story-telling in my head would send me to sleep in half the time it might have otherwise taken if I’d just let my mind wander unchecked. Perhaps because my father frequently read to us at bed-time, I am inclined to be soothed to sleep by stories.

Even as an adult writer, I’ve found this technique both sleep-inducing and constructive.

For example, I’ve not really had time to write for the past month or so, what with the apartment hunt, Easter and the move. I’ve kept up with the blog, but I decided it would be wiser to let the writing rest instead of forcing it out while my mind is occupied with other things. However, last week I slept at my parents on an ancient spare mattress. My bed was already at the new apartment, so I had to make do while I was getting everything else settled for starting residence.

The bed was hard; my mind wouldn’t shut down. Finally, after a half hour of strategizing about curtains and kitchen necessities and a china cabinet I needed to purchase, I despaired. Obviously my mind was not going to let me go to sleep easily. So I fell back on my childhood solution. I’m working on editing a collection of short stories right now, and one of them I decided needed to be rewritten entirely. It is the oldest of the bunch and it just doesn’t have the same impact and polish that the more recent stories have. That being said, I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about reviving it in my mind, so that I’d find the inspiration to write it again.

So I lay in bed with my eyes closed and pictured the scenes as I wanted them.

A few minutes later, I was composing the opening paragraph in my mind. A few minutes after that, I was sound asleep. I jotted down the sentences I’d memorized the next morning, and now my story has a new beginning. Moreover, I was rested at work. It was a win-win situation, and the best part was that I got to make progress on my writing without having to carve a chunk out of a schedule already very busy with work and moving.

I often compose difficult sections of my stories in odd places: the shower and church are both good candidates. I work on poetry in my head while I drive. Now I’ve added lying prone on my bed in the dark, under the covers, as one of my ideal environments for good story-telling (pretty weird, I know).
The thing that struck me most, though, was that I simply stumbled back on a pattern which had worked perfectly for me as a child. One doesn’t tend to think that children really have a sense of who they are and what they want to be – or if they do, it changes every year (sometimes every week). Granted, when I was seven, I didn’t consciously want to be a writer, but nonetheless every night I lay in bed and told myself stories. Twenty years later I am still doing the same thing. In reality it seems that one’s path in life begins opening up very early on.


Anyway, I’ve been employing my rediscovered method all week, and I’ve got quite a bit of the first page of my re-envisioned story planned out in my head. I plan to transcribe it this afternoon. Then I can actually go back to normal, day-light hours story crafting, since the move is done and I’ll have a lot of time to work on writing in the evenings. In the meantime, though, I’d love to know if you have any tricks for getting to sleep, especially if they reflect somehow on your creative life.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A New Home

It happened at last: I found a new apartment. Actually, considering that I only looked for about two weeks before a friend of mine bumped into me at a social event and told me that her landlady was looking for a new tenant, it was about the easiest apartment hunt anyone ever had. It also only served to confirm my growing suspicion that most things in life come through connections with other people, rather than from one’s own efforts in a vacuum.

The building is an old Victorian style house in the town next to my current one. There are old neighborhoods between the original downtown and the newer, more sprawling uptown, and this is where my new apartment can be found. In college I lived in old apartment buildings on tree-lined streets in Texas; this converted house has a lot of the same appeal, but is luckily far better maintained. I am very excited about living there.

All my furniture has been moved over, and next week I’ll be working on getting my kitchen supplies, clothes, pictures, decorations, etc., all organized and settled. My first night there is set to be next Friday. I’m very excited, but also exhausted by the process piled on top of my normal work week, so I’m going to have a short post today, but several pictures of the apartment as I first met it. Believe me that there will be plenty of updates in the future, as I work on window treatments, furniture updates and budgetary management!

Welcome!

Here's the Living Room

And the Bedroom...

And the array of kitchen windows, which is my favorite part!

And out the back door, with a farewell to the Kitchen!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Technological Hiccup

For the past three months of 2015, I've been working on having a less internet-dependent life. I have a personality which tends slightly to the addictive, so I have to review my habits periodically, to make sure that I'm not too dependent on some crutch or other for passing the time. It's easy to find mindless substitutes on the internet for writing or working on projects at home. At the beginning of the year, I decided that internet usage was becoming such a habit for me, so I began working on cutting back.

The attempt has been pretty successful: instead of watching TV shows at night, I read. I've gotten a fair amount of editing and some original writing done. I'm enjoying the change.

Something came up this week, though, and made me realize that internet access isn't totally to be despised. My laptop's adapter cord died suddenly on Monday, so I ordered a replacement from Amazon. It arrived in a couple of days, and I plugged it in...to have no result at all. Apparently there is something wrong with the connector in the computer (not too surprising, as I have dropped it a couple of times!).

So here I am, stuck without one of the common tools of a modern writer!

I used about 50% of my remaining battery life getting my files backed up, and now I have to take my computer in for repairs with fingers crossed. In the meantime, though, I have no internet access and can't even use my computer for word processing. I'm borrowing my accommodating brother's macbook just to get this blog post composed.

As of Thursday, before the new adapter cord refused to work, my plan for the upcoming Sunday was to write a blog post, work on some web content for my church, and perhaps finish the chapter of House of Mirrors which I am revising. However, without a computer, I had to rethink my plan completely. I could, of course, write everything by hand, but as I would then have to retype it all at odd hours of the day when I can borrow family members' computers, that effort seems a little redundant.

It's actually a little alarming how dependent a writer's plans can be upon technology.

When I wrote the original draft of The Art of Dying, I handwrote the entire thing (some 500 pages!) and the work was definitely worth it, since it made me slow down and really analyze my style. It also proved to me that in case of a nuclear apocalypse - for example - I'd be able to keep on writing, as long as I could find a surface to write on.

With that in mind, then, I went over my various writing projects this morning while I was getting ready for the day, trying to decide which would be the best one to undertake by hand. Back when I was in college, I took Classical Greek for four years. I was the only person at my college who took it during a couple of my semesters (surprise, surprise!) and so I pretty much got to pick whatever translation project I wanted. Semesters were about 15 weeks long, so once I volunteered of my own will to translate ten psalms a week, so that I could get through the entire Book of Psalms from the Greek Bible in a semester.

It was kind of an insane undertaking, as far as the workload went, but extremely illuminating. 

After I finished the project, I was looking through the Latin Bible - these were the sorts of things we did at my college; it was a nerdy place - and discovered that there are two versions of the psalms. There's the Greek ones, and the Hebrew ones, and there are quite a few textual differences, even though the general meaning is the same. I decided that someday I'd also translate the Latin version of the Hebrew psalms into English, and then compare them to the Greek, to give me the basis for writing an English poem inspired by each psalm.

It's been about seven years since I did my Greek translation and I always have other projects going on, so I've not gotten around to the Hebrew/Latin translation yet. However, last night I went to a concert, because Vasnefy was performing in the choir, and I heard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. They inspired me to attack my own psalm-related project. Moreover, when I translate, I always do it by hand first, before typing anything, so it would be an ideal undertaking for this time when I have very limited access to computers.

So this afternoon while I was waiting for some muffins to cook, I pulled out all my translation resources and got the first psalm done. I'm pretty excited, too, since I'm looking into a move and may not have internet until my finances get sorted out. This project will give me something to do while settling in and getting adapted to a new schedule.

In short, there are pluses and minuses to my temporary lack of computer. It helped me decide on a new direction while I'm dealing with other stuff (translation is less stressful than editing!), but also prevented me from working on some of my current projects. I'd be curious to know: has anyone else found that technology is a particular help or hindrance to their writing? Let me know in the comments, if you have a moment!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Deliberation

I have always been fascinated by personalities. I actually think it’s one of the elements which prompted me to become a novelist, since writing fiction gives one a whole new world in which to explore the possibilities of the human psyche. However, it’s not just other people who intrigue me, but also myself. ‘Knowing thyself,’ as various Greek philosophers advised, is surprisingly difficult. Just when one has pinned down an element of one’s personality, some situation brings another out of hiding.

Something, though, which seems common to a lot of people these days – or at least, all the self-help/lifestyle books I’ve read suggest this – is an urge to act on impulse. Perhaps because the advertisements and media around us suggest that rushing out and following your heart to is the path to satisfaction, there’s a constant temptation to buy things or eat foods on impulse, or even to make important life decisions based on one’s feelings of the moment.

For me this is a particular temptation, because I fall on the aggressive end of the personality spectrum.

I’ve always been the type who can review a situation quite quickly and come to an instantaneous decision – whether it be to buy something, or to take a job, or even (in my writing life) to take a novel and cut out 1/3 of its bulk. Sometimes this can be extremely helpful in getting things done and making progress in life, but at the same time, there are inherent dangers with acting so precipitously. I have on occasion been ‘burned’ because I bought something that was out of my price range and got stuck with it, or hurt someone because I analyzed the situation too hastily.

So, for the past four years or so, I’ve been working on tempering this side of my personality so that I thing about things and make decisions in a more tempered way. I had opportunity to practice just this past week, because I needed a new piece of furniture. I was using a chest which Vasnefy built for me as a college graduation gift (ah, the joys of having a carpenter’s daughter for your best friend!) and the top was getting increasingly dinged. Moreover, it was a bit too low and too deep to be just the right shape to have beside a bed. I was in constant danger of hitting my legs on it as I swung out of bed in the morning.

So I went out to look for something which matched my room and my very particular tastes.

I had a budget of about $175 (and that only if it was truly magnificently perfect, otherwise less than $150 would be better). I went to the many consignment/antique stores we have the area. The very first one I entered presented me with a beautiful cabinet, perfectly in line with my taste. Made of reclaimed wood, and stained a warm gold, it featured a plethora of little drawers and doors, all giving the feeling of something ornate and stylized from Asia. I loved it. Of course it cost an overwhelming $430.

At one time I would have said to myself, ‘You know, it’s perfect, and I have the money in savings (even though I need that to buy new tires for my car this spring…). I’ll just get it.’ However, I resisted. Even if I bartered the price down, I doubt I could have got it for less than $300, which is almost twice my budget. Instead, I logged away the fact that what I wanted was a sort of cabinet look, with several compartments, rather than the standard beside table appearance. I bid the gorgeous piece of furniture adieu and fled before impulse could win.

Of course, once you’ve seen the perfect thing, other options appear quite dull.

It can be hard to resist yielding and just going back to buy the first option after all. I went to all the remaining consignment stores, several thrift stores, and then all the regular furniture stores over the course of a week and a half. Nothing remotely interesting appeared. The one other piece that might have worked was in a ‘reclaimed’ furniture shop, where the owners had painted a wooden cabinet white and distressed it for the shabby chic look. Unfortunately, I have zero interest in pre-distressed furniture (it bothers me on a philosophical level – yes, I am a snob), so I couldn’t take it after all.

Charming!
Finally, I ended up at Fred Meyer, where I do my grocery shopping. I dropped by the furniture section, and what did I find but a little cabinet. Tall, with wicker sides and three pull drawers with wicker fronts, it had the right aesthetic to fit in my room and please my pickiness. When I inquired, they only had the floor model available, which means that I got to take it for 10% off the sale price, plus add another 10% discount for a sale going on in the store. The final cost was $110, a good $40 under my budget.

I feel proud of myself with this purchase, not just because it was a good price, but also because I saw all kinds of furniture that would have worked reasonably well, or that would have been exquisitely beautiful, but instead of settling in the first case or going wildly over-budget in the second, I waited until something that fit both criteria showed up. I resisted impulse successfully!

This was good practice for me, because I’m about to start shopping for a new place to live, and I’m also working on a special writing/editing project right now. Both endeavors require judicious consideration rather than impulse decisions, so buying the bedside table has reminded me of how to use the former instead of giving in to the latter.

I’d be very curious to know how visitors to my blog approach this same issue. Do you find that waiting and thinking help you make better decisions, or do you prefer spur of the moment actions? 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I hope I remember...

The Fashionista and I have an ongoing conversation topic together, which she has dubbed ‘I hope I remember.’ The title comes from her half-joking desire to write a self-help book for her own future. In it she will record all the things which she has observed about her married siblings and friends, which she hopes not to do when she also is married and/or having children. Then, when she reaches that stage in her life, she will be able to reread the book and recall the lessons she learned from observation.

For example, she pointed out to me once that a few of her married friends complain because they have no time to themselves. Instead, they have children to look after and houses to keep up (most of them are stay-at-home moms), so almost all their day is committed to household chores of various kinds. We were talking about this complaint, and she observed that it certainly is true that married women are very busy, but if they are homemakers, they also have the opportunity, if they want, to whip up a cassoulet for dinner (I use cassoulet as an illustration because I thought about making it once and discovered that the whole process would take two days!).

Working/single women, like the Fashionista and I, on the other hand, do have time to ourselves since we don’t have any particular obligations from children or spouses during the hours off from work. However, due to the fact that we have no choice but to work, we don’t get to pursue certain personal interests – like cassoulet-making – because the time we have is limited. So we have the benefit of having no claims put on us in our hours off, whereas married women and mothers always have a claim laid on them but usually have the support of a second adult to allow them more leisure for hobbies, etc.

The lesson my friend wants to remember when she is in her friends’ position, then, is that everything is a matter of perspective.

I’ve recently stumbled across another matter which I want to add to the ‘I hope I remember’ list. My younger brother has been home since he is waiting for the spring construction season to start up. He and I naturally have been spending a lot of time together, and I have realized in relation to this that I have been turning into my parents.

You see, when I was around ten, my dad retired from the Navy and he took a job as a high school math teacher. Prior to this our family had often had exciting Sunday outings, since that was Dad’s reliable day off. We visited museums and zoos, spent time with family friends, went to sport events or at least all spent time at home as a family. Once we moved and the new job, started, though, suddenly things changed.

The area where we live in North Idaho is very beautiful, but not very cultural, so we no longer had good options for Sunday outings. Moreover, Dad has always been a perfectionist, so he would devote long hours to class preps and grading, since most of a teacher’s work has to be done outside the classroom. On Friday evenings, he’d be too tired from the week to work on his school matters; on Saturday he had to get household chores done; so the result was that all the preparations were left for Sunday. It became the family homework day. After church we’d all retire to our various corners of the house and work in silence for hours. It was very boring.

The sad thing, though, is that I’ve gotten in the habit of doing very little on Sundays, too!

Again this is partly because there isn’t a lot to do in this area (there’s about one museum of any interest). However, even with this excuse, there are theaters and concerts, not to mention the possibility of spending time with friends. I don’t have to do very little besides read, write a blog post and watch a movie on any given Sunday. If left to myself, I wouldn’t mind such a day, but since my brother has been relying on me to provide a little entertainment, I’ve realized that I’ve become a bit of a recluse. 

Since children often don’t quite understand their parents’ motivations, I remember feeling quite resentful in my middle and high school years, because all the fun activities I remembered from Sundays had evaporated. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t ever fall into the same pattern of quiet, work-oriented Sundays. However, lately I’ve slipped into the same pattern. Supposing that I marry and have children, they’d find themselves in the same shoes I used to wear, perhaps resenting me just as much.

I’ve always been a believer in establishing habits now rather than later.

I find that if you rely on some external circumstance to become ideal so that you can change yourself or develop a good habit, realistically that change/habit will never come to be. The time to make good habits is when you are thinking of them and actually have the motivation to pursue them. With that in mind, then, I’ve decided that I need to bestir myself more on Sundays. I’m somewhat of an introvert by nature, so I don’t particularly relish the thought of going out, but at the same time, I enjoy myself once I’m there. Moreover, I often have experiences which lead to good fodder for my writing.

Tonight my social event is a conference at my church, so that is a good start. Next week I’ll be attending a community dinner and fundraiser; the week after that Vasnefy is singing in a concert to which she gave me a free ticket. After that we’ll see what happens, but in any case, I think it’s time to stop complaining about being bored on Sundays and actually solve my own problem! Hopefully that effort will mean that I’ll remember the lesson I learned once I have children of my own. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ideas

From various statistics I’ve seen over the past few years, and also based on the books I see coming out from bloggers and writers I follow, the most popular type of reading material right now is the memoir. I think I’ve written before that I feel a bit conflicted about memoirs, although I admit I’m not immune to the appeal of taking a peak into someone’s personal life. The memoirs I’ve enjoyed most, however, tend to be ones which are about more universal topics than the writer’s personal relationships, etc.

For example, I’m highly anticipating the release of Clare and Elena Dunkle’s companion memoirs about anorexia and its impact on family. While I’m sure they will discuss their personal lives, I know that Clare Dunkle’s book is both about a mother’s role in the recovery of a child with an eating disorder, and about the actual process of writing the two memoirs. Those topics are general enough that they have a universal appeal beyond the private story of the mother and daughter.

Perhaps because I am a novelist, I find stories (even true ones) which are limited to a single person’s experience uninspiring.

I want to read a story whose themes expand to ideas and reflections which have an impact on everyone. Whether a story is fiction or non-fiction, it must have a sweeping application, I feel, or else reading it becomes a sort of voyeurism. Perhaps on the author’s part, too, writing a story which is only a reflection of him or herself and nothing broader is an exercise in narcissism, rather than the creation of art.

The reason I’m rambling on about this is because I have a novel which I decided to write as if it is a memoir by a child about his recently deceased, alcoholic father. It was my NaNoWriMO effort from 2013, in fact, so it needs to be heavily revised and expanded. I was thinking about it recently, since I’m hoping to tackle it this summer, once I’ve finished the editing process on House of Mirrors. I’m tempted to start it completely over, using the old draft more as an outline than as the direct basis of the manuscript.

Since it is extremely brief in novel terms (55,000 words), I need to flesh it out substantially, and for the past year or so, I’ve been not really sure how to do so. Recently, though, I went to the Fashionista’s book club and a friend of mine unexpectedly was prompted to explain the plot of her book/memoir/master’s thesis. The story was supposed to be a biography of a local woman who apparently was a member of the Hitler Youth, but she backed out of the project at the last minute, leaving my friend in something of a pinch.

So she decided to write a memoir about the book she could no longer write.

She still went on her funded research trip to Germany, and she had a basic outline of the woman’s life, so she wrote about the research, the interactions with the woman (name changed, of course), and her own imaginations of what the woman’s anecdotes might have been. The book actually sounds fascinating – sort of a study of the writing process and its challenges, combined with the impact that history has on a writer’s topics. Even I, already professed to be not much of a memoir-reader, will read that book if she can get it published!

Her words about her experience worked themselves into my memory, though, and from there they gave me the germ of an idea. As it currently stands, my novel disguised as a memoir is almost completely composed of the child’s reminiscence about his father, combined with stories from the father’s friends and family. I think that the story has emotional weight already in its portrait of the father, but since I chose to write it in the form of a memoir it needs more contribution from the child.

The point of a memoir, after all, seems to be the impact of an event on the writer.

So from listening to my friend, I realized that my current manuscript already has the root it needs to be fleshed out to a better novel. The child is a novelist/screenwriter, you see. He has been deeply affected by his father’s alcoholism, which he sees as tied to his Native American heritage. So the first published work he wrote was a story about a Native American who travels the world looking for identity and only finds it on returning to his home on a reservation.

When he returns home for his father’s funeral, he discovers that his father has a dog-eared copy of this book by his bed, heavily annotated. Obviously this has an impact on him in my current manuscript, but I have realized, thanks to my friend’s anecdotes about her own memoir, that the child’s experience in writing the book is the way to give a portrait of how his childhood affected him. Since even in a fictional memoir, I don’t want the story to devolve into narcissistic self-reflection, having the plot be divided between reminiscence about the father and the son’s memory of writing a book heavily influenced by his cultural background should solve that problem. 

Anyway, in all this, I’d like to experiment with the memoir form to see how well a necessarily intensely personal story can speak to a broad audience, without resorting to any sort of voyeurism or narcissism to lure in readers. Granted, it’s not my personal story, but even in fiction I don’t want to catch interest with cheap tricks (I view pandering to curiosity about overly intimate details as a sort of trick, you see). We’ll see how my experiment works as I delve into it this summer!


Also, I’d love to know how my readers feel about memoirs. Have you ever felt uncomfortable reading them (I have, in a few cases!). Do you feel that fiction or the true experiences of a living person is more valuable to read? I feel like the knowledge that an event is ‘true’ in a historical/factual sense sometimes detracts from its value in my mind, but I know not everyone shares this reaction. Please feel free to explain why you appreciate that approach – or don’t, as the case may be!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Power of Lists

About a week and a half ago, I was supposed to go over to Vasnefy’s to help her review some pages of her dissertation. She unexpectedly got sick, though, so the visit was postponed and I suddenly found myself at loose ends. I decided to take a trip to one of the local libraries, as it was the only one in the region which professed to own Grendel (by John Gardner, whose writing exercise I used a couple of weeks ago). Well, it turned out that the book had been missing for years, so they ordered a new one for me. That, however, left me without my planned reading material, so I had to decide what new book to check out.

The reason I’m telling you this is because a few months ago, this turn of events would have left me stumped. I’m the sort of person who can go into a bookstore or a video rental place or a library and immediately have every book or movie in which I was interested disappear from my memory. I’m not sure why this happens, but it infallibly does. Perhaps it’s the multiplicity of choices suddenly presented.

Of course, it’s also not very convenient, since it means I often leave empty-handed!

Back at the beginning of January, I started a new notebook to keep in my purse. I have a list of projects I want to complete in the first half of 2015; I have some reminders about my trip to Norway in the summer. It also occurred to me, when I was first setting it up, that keeping a list of weekly tasks to check off in my calendar was working really well to help me remember them in the first place. I decided to write down a list of all the movies I’ve been wanting to see. Since I cancelled my Netflix subscription, as well, in the hopes of removing writing distractions, I no longer had a good place where I could keep track of movie interests.

Well, it occurred to me that along with a movie list, a book list would be helpful as well. I wrote down some intriguing books about which I’d read articles on line: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, the aforementioned Grendel – to name a few. I also scribbled down the name, ‘Joyce Carol Oates,’ because I’ve been intending (but forgetting!) to read something by her for years, and also because she had been mentioned favorably for her writing style in Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

So there I was in the library, and instead of leaving empty-handed, I pulled out my list and went searching for some of the items I’d jotted down.

I ended up coming away with a novel by Oates called, The Falls. It won a prize in France, so it seemed like a fairly prestigious place to start. It’s the story of a woman widowed on her wedding day as her husband commits suicide in Niagara Falls, and the new man she meets during the week of looking for the body, whom she later marries. It follows them and their children through several decades of their lives.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through now. I’ve been impressed; I see why Gardner approved so much of her style. She writes beautifully and evocatively, and also experiments with form (for example, she’ll include random one-line snippets of first-person narrative, interspersed with the bulk of the third-person omniscient viewpoint. These lend an incredibly vivid sense of the characters’ direct experience). However, at the same time, I find the novel very cold. I wonder how Oates feels about her characters. All of mine, even the bad ones, are very close to my heart. I only get that feeling – of the characters’ being loved and lovable – from a couple of the male characters.

Perhaps Oates is writing about a character she finds interesting rather than lovable, which I can understand, or perhaps she wants to create a cold atmosphere so that the readers don’t become too attached to any one character. All of them are flawed, after all, so the reader is perhaps supposed to be able to judge them fairly.

So in short, I’m enjoying the book, learning from the style, but still it’s interesting to discover that for purposes of my own entertainment and from the point of view of my artistic craft, even a famous writer has flaws.

That sounds incredibly presumptuous, no doubt, but you know what I mean: every artist and every reader is different, and not every taste meshes, even if the artist is universally admired and the reader is completely unknown. It’s a good reminder, actually, since I sometimes wonder if my stories will be appealing to anyone. No doubt, just as Oates has found a wide and admiring audience, some readers will also have the right taste to appreciate my writings.

Anyway, I would probably never have actually remembered to read something of hers if not for a little brown notebook in my purse, with her name scribbled hastily as the fourth entry in a list of ten authors and books. I told someone recently that my brain is tied to reality by scraps of paper – and that is true when it comes to lists, which help me remember, and also when it comes to my stories which somehow express and clarify my sense of reality and existence.

Not everyone needs lists, of course, but I’m glad I’ve rediscovered their usefulness. I’d like to keep reading great writers and watching great movies, so that I can learn and be inspired, but by example and by contrast. I’m sure every writer and artist, and even people just wanting clarity in their lives, must find ways to remind themselves to read more and find new avenues of learning and entertainment. I’d love to know what good books/movies my visitors have been enjoying lately, and how they were inspired to pick up that particular story to explore.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Small Stone

Freedom can taste like happiness
When your soul finds a little ledge above the ocean,
And breathes air like wine
To revive muscles exhausted in the struggle
Of holding your head above water.

After a little pause, though,
You realize that your fingers clinging to stone
Are bloody with the effort
And tidal waves leap to clutch your skirt hems
Because the ocean is still alive, still thirsty.

So you think, “This will never be done,”
And freedom is no better than misery
Since behind you the red angry sky lowers
Over ominous, leaden swells
And the wind cries memories of drowning to your ears.

Then a shadow above
Forces you to raise your head and see
A figure standing on the edge of the cliff.
You can’t quite make out who it is,
Only that he or she is dropping pebbles into the surf.

Of course you think, “What an asinine thing to do,”
Since there you are, wishing
For a rope or a strong hand to save you in that instant,
But the figure remains unmoved
And behind your head the pebbles fall and fall.

There you cling, resisting the pull of gravity,
The suck of tides, for an endless time
(It seems in your distress),
Until balance gives way.
You totter from your narrow foothold in the stone.

There is no need to catch yourself, though.
Your foot falls on a soft slope,
Where your own unruly waves have silted
A billion pebbles into place,
Founding a new peace between land and sea.

Like every human person, you live by struggling
For freedom from the abyss, for identity,
Even beyond sanity doing what you must.
So you yourself and they in time
Build happiness together like a gift. 

***

I've been thinking lately about survival. Those who cling to it amaze us, and everyone of us is (in a small way) a survivor - at least of our own internal pains. However, the very word indicates that we've been through something which leaves us with wounds and emotional turmoil which seem to make happiness a real challenge. I was thinking about this on my way to sleep last night, and it occurred to me that the freedom of surviving something is often assumed to be happiness in itself, but actually the happiness comes later, once everything has been laid to rest thanks to our own efforts and others' on our behalf. 

So the result of all this reflection was a poem. In perusing blogs over the past few years, I've seen writers and poets refer to their briefest works as 'small stones' because even writing a few words helps them survive in their chosen artistic path. In the end, I think perhaps every kind of success and resulting happiness is built out of such small stones. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Writing Exercise

The door creaks on its hinges as it swings open. No one has come here, to the barn on the hill, for—must be years now. The fields this end of the farm have been let go. Too few hands to work them; not enough demand for the hay the barn used to house.

The space under the high rafters is silent. Birds’ nests leak over the corners of beams like strange creatures watching the intruder, but no rustling or cooing, no crisp flap of wings breaks the breathless quiet. The barn’s current inhabitants must be outdoors. The weather has been strangely mild for Idaho; the bulk of snow is melted, even in shadows under the hills and along the highway where plows pass back and forth. Already in February the sun touches the fields with pastel green. By five each morning the birds are up chatting about their good luck.

Wind finds its way through the loose walls. Chaff swirls and puffs across the barn floor in a visible sigh. From an empty knot in a board over the door, a beam of light shoots through the floating particles. They ascend and descend on their brilliant pathway like visitors from another world. A person could reach out and grab hold of the light, perhaps also get carried aloft. Of course, that is only appearance—a trick of the eyes. That knothole has been present since the barn was built, and from that day, too, it has admitted light like a solid presence, as if the air inside had some special quality. No one has ever been transported, though, and many a farmhand has passed through as he hauled in great bales for winter storage.

The wind dies and the motes settle. A shadow passes over the sun. The beam grays, fades. The brown shadows behind open like dark wings. A few bales from seasons past have been forgotten in corners. Rats must have gnawed the twine, because the neat rolls have slumped across the dirt floor. One bale always broke like that, back in the day. The workers cursed, dutifully, when it happened, since it meant one fewer bale to sell, but no one really minded. At the end of the day someone always had a six-pack stashed in one of the pick-ups outside. Hired hands and employer alike would crash backwards onto the collapsed hay, crushing it into a comfortable shape beneath the shoulders.

The beer was cold and slid down the throat like mercury. Baling was hard work; lying in the hot August afternoon in the dusky barn, the muscles groaned and unloosed themselves. A person felt almost high with tiredness.

Inevitably while the men lay there, one of the boys who had tagged along would scramble up the intricate lattice of rafters. The kids were never tired. Watching them clamber about like monkeys overhead only made the weariness of a good day’s work sweeter. Up, up, the boy would go, muscles working in skinny brown legs. Then the trapdoor to the roof would swing open and a shower of late sunlight would fall like gold on the faces below.

No eager child was left to climb up and let in the early spring now. The barn’s roof-door had been latched for years; there had been no time or need for roof repairs on an old structure fallen out of use. The air is musty. Though the wind whines through the boards, it just stirs the old smells. They cannot find a way out, so they remain and stagnate. Only light is renewed through the inch-wide knothole. It travels like an eye, back and forth across the barn floor, picking out a beam here, a rafter there, a pile of straw scuffed across the floor, the delicate shadow of a spider’s web, the ragged edge of a bird’s nest. Every day it casts down its silver pool upon the soft, dusty floor, and finds nothing new.

***

I’ve been reading The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. It’s a fascinating and helpful book – sort of the explicit statement of everything that I’ve thought and slowly learned about writing over the years, plus some new ideas I’d not yet discovered. I’m probably the last person to the party, as you might say, since I believe his works on creative writing are standard fare, but even so I’ll say that if you haven’t read the book, you should!

Anyway, he had proposed in passing a descriptive writing exercise. Basically, he was discussing how symbolism in fiction isn’t something imposed by the writer, but rather the result of careful writing,  reviewed and reworked to develop the hidden meaning which emerges from word choices and tone. So he claimed that a good writer could describe even a barn from a particular character’s point of view, and trick it ‘into mumbling its secrets.’

The exercise is to describe a barn from the point of view of a man whose son has been killed in war. The catch is that the writer cannot mention the son, the war, death or even the man. The focus is solely the barn. Of course that means that the written result of the exercise won’t be about mourning or loss specifically, will only hint at a particular mood, but the point was basically that in good writing even description must support the overall theme and emotion and effect – the ‘dream’ of the story.

Well, I figured I’d try my hand at the exercise, so the first part of the blog is my ‘barn,’ seen by a bereaved man. I like what I wrote, but I’d love to hear the reaction of anyone who takes the time to read the piece, since it’s hard to analyze one’s own work! Also, if anyone else decides to try out the exercise, please send me a link to the result. I’d be very interested to read it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Chatting with Strangers

I took a day off from work on Friday, just to safeguard my sanity. Everybody needs a little time to themselves once in a while, after all. For me this occurs about every six weeks. Besides this, my brother is home between construction jobs. He’ll most likely start his next one at the end of February, so I thought a day to spend time together before he leaves would be welcome.

We were supposed to go skiing at one of the local resorts (this being North Idaho, there are six within an hour’s drive). Unfortunately, though, we are having the weather of mid-April in February this year, so it was 45 degrees out. There were avalanche warnings due to the melting snow. We tended to think it would be safer to stay away from the slopes.

My brother has a membership with a local gym, so we decided to go swimming at the pool there instead. It was a lot of fun. When I was a child, my mom took us swimming all winter at indoor pools, so our Friday outing was quite nostalgic.

However, the real interest of the outing came when I was in the public showers, finishing my ablutions before heading out to meet my brother in the lobby. An older woman emerged from the shower stall beside me and seated herself a few feet away. I was inserting my contacts when without warning she said, ‘You’re so skinny! I used to look like that.’

I glanced at her in surprise (firstly because she was in very good shape for being probably in her late sixties, and secondly because I’m fairly trim and fit, but not what I’d call skinny). She seemed regretful of her past slenderness, so I suggested that perhaps the loss of one’s youthful looks was worth it in exchange for wisdom and experience.

I’m not sure if that comment unleashed her tongue or what, but next thing I knew she was telling me her life story.

I discovered that she was preparing for her upcoming fiftieth high school anniversary. I also learned that her father was on a PT boat in World War II, in the Pacific theater, and that he would have been part of a crew to sneak a bomb into Tokyo harbor, had the atomic bombs not been dropped first. She informed me that she had two brothers and two sisters.

Then she moved on to her married life. She showed me her beautiful diamond ring and said that after forty-eight years, she still had the original husband. She also let me know that, while they had been high school sweethearts, they had waited to get pregnant until they married at age twenty. The tone of implied disdain in her voice for those who did not wait so patiently was rather amusing. She also recounted the epic tale of how she and her husband met each other in Europe in the July after they were married. He had been sent over about two weeks after the wedding, but due to paperwork she couldn't join him for another few months.

In the end, she had to travel alone to Germany, but it was quite the exciting journey. Her aunt and uncle got her safely on the train, but almost lost their own daughter in the process. She had to catch a taxi in New York City in order to get to La Guardia, but the man who shared it with her made a pass at her. She switched from training through Europe to flying above it, so her husband was waiting for her at the station in Frankfurt instead of the airport. Apparently everything ended up happily, though, and has continued more or less in the same vein, since they are still together forty-eight years down the line.

I listened to all of this because it was fascinating (and also because I feel that sometimes older people in our world end up quite lonely and the kindest thing you can do is share some time with them).

Afterwards, once I had finished dressing and packing and taken my leave of her, I headed out to rejoin my brother – patiently waiting for a quarter hour in the lobby and wondering if I’d died in the bathroom! I told him all about the lady’s story, and then ended up sharing some of her anecdotes with my parents and friends as well, just because it was so interesting.

Then yesterday I was complaining to my brother that I wasn’t quite sure what to write about for my weekly blog post. Nothing out of the ordinary has been happening at work. I'm also only doing rewrites for an old story right now, which doesn’t make for super dramatic blog material. Very sensibly he suggested that I tell the woman’s story.

As you can see, that’s what I’ve done, but his suggestion also made me realize the reason why I should. At the end of our conversation, the lady said in passing that perhaps someday she should sit down and write her memoirs. Many people have that urge to record their lives, but few in the end have the inspiration and ability (or even just time) to sit down and compose such a long story. However, just by sitting with someone and telling the anecdotes and adventures which made her who she is, the lady has passed on her experience, enriched another person’s mind with it.

Of course, because she happened to be telling her story to a writer, it’s highly likely elements will sneak their way into stories of mine. Writers are never scrupulous about the sources of their inspiration, after all! But in the long run it will all be fair. The lady whose name I never learned will not be forgotten since I’ll tuck her story away in my memory for future use. On the other hand, I have been richly paid for sitting and listening, because she gave me the gift of her experience in story form.

I’ve always been more on the introverted side – the sort of person who avoids talking to strangers for fear of getting involved in awkward social situations. However, after my conversation with the nameless lady, I wonder if perhaps more openness to others would be a good idea. Perhaps strangers are an unmined wealth of story inspiration which all of us writers could use both to create better fiction and to honor the people who gave us their stories. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Short Fiction is Strange

Over the past few months, I’ve taken a break from editing House of Mirrors, so that I could work on getting together a collection of short stories. I chose what I felt like were my seven best stories and I’m editing and polishing them to reflect my current writing style. Since some of them were written as many as seven years ago, this has been an interesting undertaking. I don’t want to lose the original tone and approach entirely, but at the same time I’ve become a better writer since then, so I want the stories to reflect that.

However, while the process is going quite well (I have about one story left), I have only confirmed in my mind that I’m not really a proper short-story writer.

When I was in high school, my favorite literature teacher was deeply interested in the works of Flannery O’Connor. I myself enjoy her stories very much, though I’ve only read about eight, plus one of her two novels (Wise Blood). What I’ve noticed in reading her, along with other short fiction from writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Eudora Welty – to name a few – is that a proper short story has in itself a very small scope, which nonetheless reflects a very wide reality, and in that scope it completes an entire action. These actions often are surprising, even shocking, because the brevity requires a certain intensity of events in order to give them weight.

I do not have the knack for this. Perhaps I could practice my way into the technique, but my short fiction tends to be more like a vignette – a small window upon a world of characters. If I cared to open that window, I could probably develop the vignette into an entire novel.

A young friend of mine just sent me a little Christmas poem recently. It was more like a work of micro-fiction, actually, since in about 50 words she perfectly narrated the story of some shepherds who are suddenly overwhelmed by the appearance of a thunderous choir of angels. It had a plot, a turn, a resolution…I couldn’t do the same if I tried for weeks. My mind just doesn’t work the same way.

I’m not giving up on my little collection of short fiction, since I think some of the vignettes are interesting in their own right. One of the stories even succeeds completely as a stand-alone short story (I hope, at least!). However, it has been a good experience to face my own limitations as a writer. I don’t know if I’m a particularly good novelist according to anyone else’s standards, but for my own purposes, novels just work in my mind. I understand instinctually how to sustain a plot for a long period of time. It’s unraveling it from beginning to end in just a few pages which overwhelms me.

It has been a while since I worked actively on a new novel, and it probably will be a while longer (I fully intend to finish editing these stories, followed by House of Mirrors, followed by my NaNoWriMo novel from a couple years ago). One novel idea has been taking shape a little in the back of my mind, though, and I have to say that it’s a good feeling.

Perhaps the difference between short fiction and novels is perspective. When I think of a novel, I often think of the resolution first: I see the character in terms of achieving his or her proper fulfillment. Once I understand where the (imaginary) person is going, I want to explain the entire process of getting there, which usually means a narrative involving at least few months, if not many years of human experience. After all, human beings usually take quite a long time to reach fulfillment!

I’ve noticed in reading short stories, though, that they often involve characters already hovering on the brink of their fulfillment (or destruction, as the case may be). The story presents them as their lives are resolved, with just enough references to their history to show from where and how far they have come. Just writing that makes me understand better the appeal of short stories – reading along with the full process of human growth can be a challenge in its own way – and even want to become better at them. I’ll probably always write a short story here and there, just to see if I can get the technique down.

In the end novels are my comfort zone, though. Even in reading, I prefer the long, thoroughly developed narrative, to the quick, startling turn of events. Perhaps it’s because I have an analytical turn of mind, so I want to know the whys and wherefores of events and persons, instead of just seeing them for a flash and marveling at how wonderful they then appear.

I get the impression from talking to friends and reading blogs that many people now prefer short fiction, even micro-fiction. I can understand that: it’s a busy world we live in, and it’s better to read something than nothing, so very short stories can be ideal. I may have chosen the unpopular route in heading down the path of a novelist. However, one can’t completely toss out one’s own inclinations. I think frustration and possible failure can be the result of overriding instinct in such a way, so I’ll stick with what comes to me and try to perfect my skills there.

I’m curious, though. Does anyone have any strong feelings about reading or writing short vs. long fiction? What is it about one or the other which appeals to you? If you have a chance to let me know in the comments, I’d love to read about it.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Free Strategies

Last week I got way-laid by a dinner with some complications, so I postponed discussing budgetary matters until now. I have a fairly well-regulated financial plan, but I almost always do at least a little reconsidering at the beginning of a new year. This year, though, I had to do more of an overhaul than usual because I have some special plans for this summer.

Last year my friend, Mrs. L, called me up and said, “We’re moving to Norway!” After I had picked up my jaw off the floor, we talked about the reasons (her husband’s Norwegian; their kids won’t get to enjoy their two cultural backgrounds unless they actually live over there for a while; etc.), plus gossiped about lots of important girl matters. At the end of our conversation, though, she said – half-joking, “You’ll have to come visit me in Norway.”

Well, besides the fact that she’s one of my three closest friends, Mrs. L also did me the honor of choosing me to be godmother for her oldest child. My goddaughter is a beautiful, smart girl with a quirky sense of humor and a love of adventure (some of her favorite story and movie characters are Iron Man and Darth Vader, so you can see what I mean!). It’s harder to stay in touch with her when she’s in Norway, of course, so I’m taking matters into my own hands.

I’ll be flying over in late June to stay for a whole week.

Now, last time I went to Europe, my trip was completely paid by the school for which I was working, since I was the homeroom teacher for 11th grade and they needed me to keep an eye on my students. Free trips are awesome, I can attest, but hard to come by. This time I have to pay for the plane tickets myself, which meant some budgetary juggling.

As I said, my finances are quite well-regulated, which is good for keeping me out of credit card debt, but not so good for finding extra money to save for trips. Most everything is already accounted for, you see. However, back in late November (in fact, when I began my KonMari project – I promise I’ll stop talking about that someday, just not quite yet!), I had an idea. You see, I’d been selling DVDs which I no longer wanted on Ebay, and I made about $15 in the process. That’s not a lot, but it was free money, so I put it into my trip fund.

Then it struck me: I actually have quite a few sources of random income that count as ‘free money.’

For example, I like to grocery shop at Fred Meyer and at least where I live, the store has a very generous gas discount program connected with its rewards card. I signed up once I began shopping there regularly, and then realized that the other benefit is a cash rebate program. If you spend $500 or more in a quarter, you get back 1% of the total. This rebate arrives in the form of a coupon four times a year.

Up until now I had simply spent the coupon the week after it arrived in the mail. I’d not thought about it except as a nice discount on my grocery bill here and there. Then I realized: that coupon is income. Not very much, granted, but every little bit helps. Since it's basically equivalent to cash (even if I can only spend it in one place), I started treating it as if it really were cash. Last time a rebate coupon arrived, I deducted the amount from my grocery money. Then I transferred the same amount from my checking account to my fund for the trip to Norway.

Since I have a cash rewards credit card, the same process gets applied there. I’ve also made some returns recently where the credit was applied to a store card which I couldn’t use anywhere else. Every time I spend part of the credit, I transfer the equivalent amount to savings. This has made my home-banking a little bit of a juggling act, but by dint of regarding every free thing (rewards rebates, return credit, work bonus, consignment sales…even free movie tickets from a Regal Cinemas card!) as a source of income to be deposited into the trip fund, I’ve collected about $1000 in approximately two months.

Of course, some times of the year are more generous for random income than others. December through January are probably particularly lucrative, due to end-of-year work bonuses, or tax returns, or gift-cards in one’s stocking, etc. My rapid savings has also been affected by the fact that I cleaned out my belongings and consequently consigned books and DVDs and kitchen wares. However, even without those favorable factors, I’d say that any person could put aside a fair amount of random income in any month.

The basic strategy is to change one’s perspective on free things.
                                                    
I guess what I realized was that in the past when I received ‘free’ income in the form of a gift-card or rebate or what have you, I ended up spending that money in addition to my usual budget. However, if instead I regard my budget limits as absolute (no more than $100 a week for groceries, for example), then when I suddenly receive an extra $6.48 for groceries as a coupon, that automatically goes into savings. This can applied to everything; if you want to be incredibly strict, you could go so far as to use the strategy even when friends and family are nice enough to treat you to something!

Of course, the approach may not work for everyone, and I admit that sometimes it’s a bummer to be so strict, since a free movie ticket doesn’t mean an extra movie, just a deposit of $10.75 in savings, but in the end I think it works out. After all, the things for which we save tend to be special: trips abroad, possessions that will either be extremely useful or very important to us, down payments for investment purchases. The satisfaction of being able to build up a fund for such a goal – perhaps of reaching it sooner – is well worth avoiding a few indulgences here and there.

So anyway, I’m curious. If you’ve made it through my whole post I’d love to know what your saving strategies are. Everyone has different ones, and I’m always looking for good tips!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Not Quite Right

I was going to write about some budgetary discoveries that have been helping me in the past two months, and which I plan to follow all year, but then I had another idea. The budget will have to come later, it turns out, because I cooked dinner tonight and realized there was an immediate topic which needed addressing.

You see, my dinner did not turn out quite right.

Everybody has cooking flubs, where the recipe doesn’t quite work for whatever reason, or the diners muscle their way through the dish out of politeness, even though it really isn’t good at all. I have actually had a fairly low percentage of these in the eight years or so that I’ve been cooking seriously, perhaps because I am not an innovative cook. I follow recipes quite faithfully the first time through, and only on the second or third try will I make adjustments.

I was beginning to feel sort of fail-proof, thanks to this low percentage of flubs. I’ve even served entirely new recipes at parties, just because I’m pretty confident that what I make will turn out reasonably well the first time through. (I realize this may sound insufferable, but I have to explain in order for my story to make sense!)

For Christmas this year, I received the marvelous and beautiful ‘Kitchen in France’ cookbook from Mimi Thorisson. I’ve been following her blog quite avidly for about two years now, and while I don’t use a lot of her recipes, just because the ingredients can be hard to come by, the ones I have used are now favorites (see Gratin of Asparagus with Cheese B├ęchamel…best asparagus preparation ever).  I was making Sunday dinner for my family this week, so I decided to treat them to a wonderful dish from her collection of recipes: Mustard-Roasted Cornish Hens.

Smitten Kitchen, my favorite cooking blog because the directions always work, also had posted a new Key Lime Pie recipe. This is one of my absolute favorite desserts, so I knew it had to be the the last course of my dinner. Deb Perelman has mentioned in the past that she doesn’t like desserts to be TOO sweet (a concept I do not understand at all, since I’ve never met a dessert that was too sweet or too rich for me), but I decided to follow her recipe unaltered, and use the full amount of lime juice.

My dinner was practically received with applause, since it at least tasted delicious, but in fact it was kind of a mess.

I set the lovely little hen in its nest of roasted potatoes at my place; I cut into the thigh; I realized it was pink and stringy; I successfully resisted the urge to hit my head against the table. Instead, my family proved themselves to be good sports. We reset the oven at a higher temp and popped the four birds back in to roast for another quarter hour, while we staved off starvation with salad and potatoes. I’ve never had a roast bird not be done when I served it, so I admit to feeling a substantial amount of chagrin. I almost think there is a typo in the cookbook, since it called for a 350 degree oven – almost a hundred degrees below the usual temperature suggested for roasting.

The salad and potatoes were a hundred percent successful, and luckily the mustard rub for the Cornish hens was fabulous, so once they were actually done, everyone loved the food. It was nonetheless a definite lesson in humility when I first cut into the bird and found the underdone meat staring rudely back at me. That wasn’t the last lesson, either, because the crust for the pie stuck, crumbling the slices into delicious blobs, plus the full amount of juice was a bit too sharp (even for me, and I adore tart fruits and desserts).

So do I feel depressed over my (moderate) failure?

Not particularly. You see, I’ve had a few reversals of various kinds recently: no response for job applications; no results from writing contest submissions; some personal struggles; a dinner that wasn’t quite perfect – silly as the last may sound. I’ve been learning from such things that I come out of every such situation with a clearer picture of what I want. Yes, I may have messed up this time, but now I know what went wrong and what to do in order to fix it. 

I talked in my new year’s post about wanting to live a mature life, rather than a haphazard one. I think that struggles and failures and trials can actually help someone achieve that goal, whether as a person or specifically as a writer. Granted, in the midst of the painful thing, it may be hard to suppose that in a month or two understanding and clarity will come, but every time I’ve discovered that’s exactly what happens. Even in the case of my dinner, next time I know to roast the birds at 425 degrees and to reduce the lime juice by two tablespoons. Sometimes it’s good to be forced to stop. One can reassess and learn, instead of traveling onward with the kind of over-confidence that can get a body in trouble!

So among my…not resolutions, but let’s call them hopes for the new year, is the determination that when things go wrong I will remain patient. I want to see what’s happening as a chance for human and artistic growth, not as a source of embarrassment and unhappiness. I doubt I’ll succeed every time, but  at least I can try! I’d also love to hear any tips my readers might have for surviving the little difficulties and bumps in the road which life - and especially the writing life - throws our way.