Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Culinary Baggage

I was out to breakfast (again - I LOVE breakfast) with Dave last weekend, and as we each ordered, the following scene plays out:

Me: I'll take the Farmhouse Hash please and coffee.

Server: How would you like your eggs?

Me: Scrambled, please - but you you ask the cook to make them really well done?

Server: Got it. Scrambled, hard.

Me: Ask them to cook it until they feel bad about themselves as a person and then just a little longer. Thanks.

Dave: *dies of embarrassment before ordering eggs "over easy like a normal person"

This has played out with a few variations, but is essentially the same. "Until it's nearly a tragedy" or "until nothing remotely gelatinous remains" or "there must be nothing oozing or I can't eat it." And I can't. I used to be able to eat over medium eggs, though I was never into sunny side up or over easy. And then Paris happened.

When I was going to turn forty, a friend was assigned to a 6 month project in Paris. His company set him up in a small flat just off the Champs-Elysee. He sent out a call for visitors to come over the pond and see the sights, offering up the couch. I jumped at the chance and booked my week to overlap my birthday. Paris would be a wonderful place to turn 40, I thought. It was - it really really was. Mostly.

Like anyone would when planning a trip to Paris, I made a list of sights and a list of foods. I was relentless in the quest for both. In no particular order:

eiffel tower
Musee D'Orsay
Notre Dame
entrecote au poivre
pain au chocolat

You get the idea. My friend made reservations for us at a restaurant inside the Eiffel Tower for lunch on my birthday, followed by a short architecture cruise of the Seine. We sipped kir royale and I ordered prawns and gazed out upon the City of Lights. It should be noted that prawns in France come with the heads on. They stare at their diner with their long dangly legs hanging off the plate. It's off-putting. I must have had a bad one, because I was almost immediately sick which made the river cruise less enjoyable and the following Metro ride unbearable. I skipped Montmartre and went back to the flat where I spent the next 24 hours ridding myself of all traces of the vengeful prawns.

When I emerged the following evening, it was the night we'd penciled in souffle. We went to a very fancy restaurant, but I could not get through my cheese souffle. The texture was more than I could take. Since then - only well-cooked eggs.

For the record - I did eat all the things. ALL THE THINGS AND MORE. And Paris is wonderful. Skip the crustaceans.

I have similar backstories for my distaste for peaches, pimentos, and others, but I'm not terribly restricted with my food options. I dislike oysters, peas, capers, and olives. I don't like salad bars or buffets. Sometimes I put all my foods on one bowl (eggs, grits, cheese, bacon - or turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy) and I don't mind that they touch and mingle. I like fruit, except for the aforementioned peaches. I like cheese and yogurt, but not cottage cheese. Ice cream is my favorite food group, right before pizza, cheeseburgers, and warm cinnamon rolls.

I have a friend I've known forever who inexplicably discovered many, many food allergies in her twenties. Like to everything. Lettuce, all dairy, all squash, peppers, almonds, etc. We've traveled together frequently over the years and the dietary restrictions are tough. She has reintroduced a few things, but most are still an issue. No butter, cheese, or ice cream - three of my favorites. She gets her pizza without cheese, just sauce and meats and the occasional wildcard like pineapple. Her choices are driven mostly by necessary dietary restrictions.

My other friend, though, has even fewer options, thought they are of her own choosing. She won't eat cheese. Cheese is one of the most delicious things about living on this planet, so I find this one hard to imagine. She's not vegan, she just finds the idea gross. She only likes chicken that has no residual moisture left. Dry as the Sahara. I can see how this may have started from a desire to make sure it's completely done, but it even applies to dishes which would normally have sauces on cooked chicken. It's a no from her. She eats a lot of salad. So many, that she buys them two at a time so her next meal is covered as well.

We all have our food baggage I guess. When Dave and I watch Food Network and the Chopped chef tops the random dish with a partially fried egg, he waggles his eyebrows at me, like "See? That's how it's done," while he scoops the remainder of whatever our dinner was out of his dish with his bare fingers. I don't feel so bad about my lengthy breakfast instructions.

On a side note, Food Network is a wonderful source to discover new food items to try. Broadening one's culinary horizons is just as healthy as traveling and cheaper, so go forth and conquer! Though I doubt that I will ever love beets, I have discovered many new things that I do love. Bon apetit.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

And So it Begins...

I have begun the novel.

With actual words. Nay, pages.

Okay, not a lot of pages so far. I am currently stuck on character names. Not the main ones - all the ancillary characters necessary to weave this thing together. I am baking without all the ingredients. Just kidding - I'm baking for real because it's nearly Thanksgiving and that's one of so very many distractions from the grind of creating pages. It was the pies on Monday and today it will be tarte tatin.  In my mind, this long holiday weekend will be crammed with opportunity to build the early chapters and continue my incomplete roadmap for the later chapters.

In truth, I will Netflix and snack. I will nap. I will lose a half day researching deer stands or North Carolina history or vacation rental properties. I'll feel guilty about it. And yet, I will also be excited, my brain sending me little nudges. Add a dog. Let's learn more about the fisherman. This is a great way to introduce a little background since she spent time here as a child. I should emphasize the contrasts here. That internal well of the subconscious is flowing ideas, hoping to nourish the fallow rows of my too-sparse outline.

So, the laundry will pile up along with clutter from half-completed sort-for-donation efforts in nearly every room. I'm not one of those writers who has all their shit together, the clean house, the stocked fridge, and the completed pages. I'll get one of those, not all three. I'm choosing pages.

As much as it sounds like I'm a complete mess and my project is doomed for failure, I actually feel pretty good about it. I've learned a lot since the last one. The short stories and the essays and the readings have all built skills and provided ideas about my options as I choose how to tell this story. Reading has become inspiring and exciting again and not a reason to feel insecure about my own work. Teaching reminds me to do the work and embrace revision. Providing encouragement to my students helps me to remember to give myself a break when I worry that this house of cards will all fall down and I'll have no plan.

So, if we are friends and you see that I'm in my writing cave, cheer me on silently, knowing that I'm chipping away at a huge block of stone as I try and shape it into something thrilling and funny and real. Forgive my mess. Understand that I will forgo real clothes for my jammies or sweats or whatever because I had to get the words down before that shower. Are you working on something too? Plan to meet me at the coffee shop or the library so we can work on our stuff.

Please don't ask me to explain the story to you. It really does deflate the sails. I have to hold it in for now, keeping my options to change course as open as the journey permits.

For all you fellow writers out there, may the coffee be plentiful and your own internal well overflow with possibility.

I'll be in my writing cave.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Building a Mystery

On the way home from our Saturday morning diner breakfast, Sarah McLachlan's Building a Mystery came on the radio in my boyfriend's car. I hadn't heard it for awhile, though I'm a fan.  Dave likes to share a story about a Portlandia skit featuring Sarah McLachlan and Aimee Mann in cameos, which he did again. I looked it up because when I was in high school, I wanted to be Aimee Mann, with her super-cool hair and rebellious outbursts in defiance of a controlling Greed is Good kind of boyfriend in Voices Carry. Hush hush, indeed.  I rocked the long braid for a bit, but otherwise, I was nowhere in the neighborhood as cool as Aimee.


That's me in the middle with the requisite perm and highlighted bangs. The braid is there, but not visible. Here's one a couple of months before:

This was my first trip to NYC with my friend Cindy. We came up to check out Pratt Institute where we would later take classes, but managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, including a visit to the World Trade Center (pictured) and some shopping on Canal Street (see bag). Cindy was way cooler than I, even then.

Anyway, back to the song. It struck me as coincidental for a couple of reasons. First, there's a line - You woke up screaming aloud - which, unfortunately, I did yesterday. I'm not normally prone to night terrors (I don't think) but once, after Dave made me watch a scary movie about a group of kids who break into a blind man's house, I uttered a cry when Dave came upstairs much later and woke me. He described it as "blood curdling" and "the utterance your body makes as its last sound before an imminent and terrifying death." I remember seeing him stunned and frozen at the bedroom door, too frightened by this sound to get too close and that I had been nonplussed and rolled over to go back to sleep. I had just mentioned the recent scream over my French toast and coffee and we had talked about it awhile, hypothesizing the potential causes. It's true that I prefer to watch my scary movies during the day, but I hadn't watched a scary movie on Thursday. I'd watched the trailer for The Haunting of Hill House remake on Netflix, though. Is the trailer enough to invoke involuntary shrieks from a sleep? Not sure. It may not have had anything to do with what I'd been watching. Like many post-burglary residents in a famous-for-crime city, I'm twitchy about break-ins. I'd like to think that I'd go all vigilante like the blind man in the scary movie, wielding my pink aluminum bat and unleashing some whoop-ass, but I'm secretly afraid that I would freeze, hide, cry, or otherwise fold in the moment in the most un-movie-like way.

But the second reason the song was timely is that I actually am building a mystery novel. It doesn't look like much yet:

Eventually those post its will be on the roll of paper in an order that makes sense.  They are color coded so I can keep track of my main and secondary characters, pivotal plot points, and the separate threads. As I build this out, I know that I will revisit my previous novel and make a few adjustments so that it flows a little easier into this one. I have to say that I have been inspired by my binge-listening of Preston and Child's Pendergast series. They seem to have little difficulty managing multiple points of view and outrageous premises that all seem to weave together into compelling and fun stories. Challenge accepted!

I've been focused on shorter fiction in the last few years, trying to get some stories published, but it's time to revisit my novels and get in the rhythm again. That means weird research, lots of random questions, impulsive scribbling when I'm out and about, and so on. And I'll be crippled by my inability to name my characters, so feel free to volunteer monikers for my suspects, victims, witnesses, and so forth.

That random collection of colored notes above will become the second Gina Morrison mystery, River of Death. Gina will leave Baltimore for a writing retreat at a not-so-peaceful lake house in North Carolina hoping to get some work done in the off season. Cue the deadly distractions!

And because I mentioned Aimee Man, here's one of my favorites of hers: Save Me

Friday, September 14, 2018

Ten Dysfunctions

The Vermont Train Writing Residency was most helpful in forcing me to finish my story collection. Interested in checking out my snarky tales of workplace terror? You can get it here on Kindle or Paperback:

I've learned that three things happen immediately following the publishing of one's first book. First - you see typos. Lots of them. And weird spacing, and all manner of things that need to be fixed. I marked them on my proof copy and flagged the pages so I could make the updates to the electronic file:

Second, people will let you know that there are mistakes. It's human nature, I suppose. I have to admit that I'd been hoping to glow in the "just published my book" sphere a bit longer, but the notes are well-meaning and it has been generally well-received. Still, I applied myself to the necessary edits and bumped up the font size. This is why editors are so valuable!

Lastly, it becomes obvious right away that SO MANY THINGS were left out. I could dedicate a murder mystery to any number of conference bridge meetings with their passive-aggressive, time wasting, self-aggrandizing smugness. And I learned that there is such a thing as a "motivational magician!" For realz. Team building, the rumor-mill, tech issues, the commute, panel interviews and on and on. I made a joke about including this stuff in the sequel, but I actually could. Alas, I have to focus on the novels for now, but keep the ideas and hilarious stories coming.

I'm reading a spooky story next month for Highlandtown's First Friday Artwalk. Look for Yellow Arrow Press on Bank Street at Conkling.

I'll have a few copies of the book there for sale and I'm also happy to sign any you bring along. Thanks for all the support!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Vermont and the Three-Day Writing Experiment

So, we did it - we made up our own "Residency on the Rails" and rode for twelve hours to Vermont and back. Here's what I learned:

First - train stations are cool. Unlike the bustle of airports and the uncomfortable uncertainty of bus pickup locations, train stations seem to have some nostalgic class from eras past, even in downtown Baltimore. Penn Station is beautiful, if a little shabby. The long wooden benches are comfortable and there was a (much needed) Dunkin Donuts for iced coffee and glazed donuts. Normally, when I want to really concentrate on writing, I'm dressed comfortably (like a complete slob or in my pajamas) but I at least put on a tee shirt and real pants. Here I am waiting for the train.

Amtrak is cool because you can bring on two carry-ons and two personal bags for free - essentially, four bags. And all of them stay with you, either above your seat on the shelf or under the chair. So, I was able to bring my little suitcase, my laptop bag, my purse, and an insulated cooler which had my packed lunch, some bottles of tea, and some celebratory cans (don't judge me!) of sparkling rose for the end of the day. I did not want to rely on the cafe car and its mystery snacks and prepackaged sandwiches. Writers need constant fuel! And caffeine!

Coach is comfortable on a train, unlike pretty much every other form of public transportation, and you can get up and walk around.  There were bathrooms on each car. As a means of getting around, I recommend it. No security lines, no removal of shoes or laptops, and no fuss at drop off and pick up.

So, my writer friend Stephanie (this was her idea) and I roll out of Charm City and head north, laptops and notebooks out. The pressure! I stall by setting up files for my remaining stories and taking a selfie:

It's rainy out, so that should be a deterrent from spending the WHOLE time looking out the window, but...

I wrote, I napped, I ate the lunch I packed:

Frankly, the trip up is a bit of a blur. When we arrive in Essex Junction, I have two stories partially completed - hardly the bounty of pages I'd hoped for. Stephanie and I are hungry, without a car, and in a residential area where nothing is really open or walkable - so we order pizza. The hotel is a nice surprise - spacious and clean, with a full kitchen and super nice staff. I check messages, drink one glass of my rose and I'm unconscious.

The next day is our "rest" day and we plan to go visit Ben and Jerry's, which turns out to be much harder than anticipated. It's about 20 miles away and getting a ride proved challenging. Turns out a member of the hotel staff drives a Lyft part time and the manager asks her if she can take us - she does. B&J is a zoo and the factory tours are sold out until the afternoon - not feasible for us to wait - so we tour the flavor graveyard,

where the tombstones of discontinued flavors rest, raid the gift shop for silly items, and get ice cream pints to go. Lunch - check.

In the evening, after a nice post-ice cream nap, we met up with another writer friend to explore Burlington. Chelsea is super-talented and has a novella coming out in September - stay tuned for more info on that. We had a lovely dinner, gazed at Lake Champlain, and back to sleep before the following day's ride.

I was a bit less organized on the way home - we did not have lunch packed up, aside from snacks we picked up at a gas station, and we very nearly missed the train but we were saved again by the wonderful staff at the hotel. (I sent Marriott a glowing report and shared their names. I'm told that they will be recognized, as they should be.)

It was crowded coming back, though the views were better, both due to the daylight in the mountains and the lack of torrential downpours. Check out the views below:

That's New York. I finished up my two stories-in-progress, and mapped out the final two. I'll finish them this week.

Would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY. I think I would stay longer at my destination space and either get a car or better transportation. For longer trips, it might be worth reserving the "roomette" which is what they used to provide for the Residency on the Rails I believe. This is definitely an experience that is just as much about the journey as the destination. You can't be in a hurry. We spent 12 hours each way, but my story collection is nearly done, and it was a great break from my regular life.

No one was eaten by a bear.

So, a success I think! Do you have other ideas for self-designed writing retreats? Let me know - I have to polish the novel a bit and get started on the next one.

Monday, July 2, 2018

DIY Writing Residency For the Fiscally Challenged

That would be me. I'm the fiscally challenged. For an explanation, scroll down my blog posts to the series on my home renovations, most notably the kitchen. Alas, no hidden gold spilled from the walls when I pulled them down, so I had to apply my creativity to my financing options. Anyhooo...

I've been on a bit of writing spree lately, as much as one can be with two other jobs. Fortunately one of those jobs really helps with inspiration. I'm on story three of ten for a collection I'm tentatively calling "Ten Dysfunctions of My Team: Tales of Horror for the Cubicle-Bound." Seriously, it's cheaper than a therapist, and as mentioned before, I'm broke until my glorious new dishwasher is paid off.

I find it difficult to write at home. It's not impossible - I'm doing it right now - but my home is where my refrigerator is (I've eaten a ridiculous amount of ice cream just since I arrived home from work) and where my sofa is (I'm prone to napping. I'm prone to napping! See what I did there? Oh, never mind). When I plan better, I like to pack up my laptop and go to my favorite library - the Athenaeum at Goucher College in Towson because it has everything - study carrels, a quiet floor, a beautiful but not too distracting view, and hardly any students. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that I didn't plan at all and so I tap out whatever words I can before and after work, sometimes after waking obscenely early in the morning when I should be doing nothing social or communication-related until coffee has happened.

I'd like to say that I get most of my writing done on the weekend, but the opposite is true. Weekends are for napping and lazy breakfast, or even better  - brunch, because that comes with mimosas and then afterwards, of course, napping. I also have to catch up on my DVR stuff and usually laundry and dishes and whatnot. Occasionally, I see a movie. Dinosaurs may or may not be involved.

A couple of months ago, I traveled down to my uncle's lake house in North Carolina along with my boyfriend. Away from the distractions of my home and my wonderful doggie (who likes to go out and come back in and then go out and then have a cookie and a tummy rub), I wrote and revised a decent short story in a genre I'd not worked in before AND I got to ride in the pontoon boat with wine and snacks. It was a lovely, lovely time and even though I worked hard on my story, I still had time for recreation, rest, and socializing like a human. But my uncle won't let me move in, so I need another way to get some work done. I'd love to do a writing retreat, but the budget can't bear it this year, so what to do?

The answer came from a colleague who is regularly forced to listen to me whine. Stephanie has found a different writing idea inspired by our work environment - children's books explaining the absurdities of project management. I have my doubts that anyone can explain the absurdities of project management even in a board book, but we'll see. It turns out that both of us had longed to do the short-lived Amtrak Writing Residency where after submitting a writing sample and an application, a few chosen writers got to ride the rails at no cost as long as they blogged and tweeted occasionally about their experience. Alas, neither of us were selected and we have neither the time or the budget to do the cross country thing, but Stephanie scouted out a route to Vermont from Baltimore that took roughly 12 hours each way. That seems like a lot of good writing time! And we end up at the birthplace of Ben & Jerry's! Win win! The round trip train ticket came in less that $150 and I had enough travel points saved for two hotel nights. Two nights were necessary, I reasoned, so that we could rest up between marathon writing sessions. And I wanted to gaze upon Lake Champlain. And go see the ice cream factory, maybe for the second time.

Thus was born our DIY Writing Residency on the cheap. We will go in August and I pray that lake breezes or mountains or northerliness saves us from what will be oppressive heat in Baltimore at that time. My renovations didn't include central air.

We will scope out some good seats, hopefully away from children, annoying businessmen on their phones, and the hygienically challenged and see how much we can get done. I will channel all my Murder on the Orient Express juju into twisty tales with only intermittent breaks for the club car, naps (plural - the rocking and clack clack of the rails is like writer-ambien), and a few stretching walks where I may look for suspicious characters. Stephanie likely has her own processes and strategies for success, though as long as they do not include primal screaming, we should travel well together.

Amtrak, if you feel moved by our plight, feel free to toss us an upgrade to business class - we won't say no. We'll be live tweeting and Facebook posting about it the whole time anyway. Who knows, maybe this will become a thing! God knows, we can't wait on another full on Residency on the Rails but we can get out of the house and find our own writing adventure, at least until our literary ships come in. Writing cruise, anyone? That's going to take many more yard sales.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Churn

I got caught up in a series called The Expanse - a sci fi mystery of sorts with a lot going on a few weeks ago. The churn refers to a character's dark notions about survival, but the image of a swirling, crushing mass of stuff that one could easily get sucked into resonates with me right now.

I'd like to think of it like this:

But it feels more like this:

I imagine that we all get caught up in the pressures of work and family and responsibilities and our dreams and finding our path. Lately, this feels overwhelming, like I'm caught up in machinery outside my control and I'm struggling to keep from getting too bruised to function.

The new year brought more change professionally than I am used to and honestly, it's left me questioning my life choices.

Facebook reminded me of a post I'd made over the Memorial Day weekend in 2010 commenting on the abundance of angry posts cluttering my feed and asking for reflection and positivity. I read it with dismay, thinking - Oh, sweet summer child, you have no idea.

I'm definitely angrier and my coworkers are as well. I channel my rage into short stories usually, but I wonder about the negative affect that this continual stress takes on my emotional and psychological health. There's a powerlessness that drives us to futility which might lead to recklessness. I have no idea what form that will take, though I can share that I bought lottery tickets and three pints of Ben & Jerry's last night.

And I'm writing.

And I'm thinking up new projects to write.

And I'm trying to stay aware and open to new possibility.

And I'm trying to remember to practice some self-care.

And I'm trying to rise above the pettiness and passive-aggressive jabs from others so as not to get caught up in their churn.

I spent last week in North Carolina where I got up early every morning and took my coffee down to the lakeshore so I could absorb this:

It's a start.