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Active or Passive? It’s All Good!


Some activities are active, like skiing, knitting, gardening, playing the trumpet. They involve energy, time, and commitment. Other activities are passive in nature, such as going to a museum, listening to music, and watching a movie. They don’t require much energy or commitment and ask for little energy in return.

Both types of activities are refreshing and satisfying in their own ways, but they are not accessed in the same ways. Active pastimes and hobbies demand you put energy into it to get something back. You expend emotional and often physical energy to gain the benefit. Passive pastimes don’t demand much from you. They provide emotional enjoyment while not asking much in return. They are there when you are in need of comfort and distraction but don’t have any energy to give.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, all good writing needs emotional energy of some sort to get done. And you can have all the the time you need to write (finally!) and the space, and the ambition and desire, but if you don’t have the inner wherewithal to do the job then you’ve got to fill your emotional gas tank—do the passive activities you love to fill your emotional gas tank, and when you are recovered enough to invest energy in “active activities,” then do those. And when your creative energy is at its peak, get busy writing!


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Your Mind’s Eye


In your mind’s eye, do you picture the story you are reading or writing happening in real-life locations? Do you picture your favorite narrative taking place in your back yard, your grandmother’s farm, or the national park you and your family camped in when you were twelve?

I do…and one of my favorite visualizations is picturing the abandoned church in HP Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark.” The building is a gaunt, steepled Victorian mansion. I get a good view of it when I drive on certain streets, and it always gives me a (welcome) shiver.

Picturing narratives taking place in real-life locations, the vivid details of sights, smells, and sounds, makes them come alive—makes them real. Whenever I reread Gone With The Wind, Scarlett’s mansion is the magnificent house of a rich friend of mine. The childhood classic The Wind In The Willows plays out in a shady glen with a trickling brook that I remember from when I lived overseas. And the events in HP Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” takes place just a quarter mile down the road from my childhood home.

Old-fashioned black and white sf movies often included scenes filmed in the US southwestern desert, I’m guessing because the surroundings look exotic and alien. Whenever I look at desert photographs I am eleven years old again lying on my family’s sagging couch in the living room, engrossed in whatever scary Saturday matinee movie was playing on TV that week. Portions of the Lord of the Rings movies were shot in New Zealand, and thousands of people look at photographs of that beautiful landscape or visit that area themselves and imagine Frodo and his companions walking there. And whenever I drive past that Victorian mansion I think afresh of “The Haunter of the Dark.”

What exotic or familiar, buildings, areas, or landscapes do you imagine when you are reading or writing?


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It’s So Simple!

spagh squash

Life is sometimes simple, except when it’s not. Writing isn’t simple, or at least I don’t find it so. Buying a house isn’t as simple as we would like it to be. Raising a puppy or a kitten isn’t as simple as it looks at first. But baking spaghetti squash is simple, if you know the right way to do it.

Don’t hack away at that rind! Why are you trying to cut that raw, hard thing in half? Why would you do that!?

Here’s the easiest way in the world to bake that big yellow sucker:

  1. Wash your spaghetti squash all over and pat dry.
  2. Poke a fork in that hard rind, all the way around, so it won’t explode in your oven. This is just a precaution; once I forgot to do it, and the squash was fine.
  3. Put it on a cookie sheet on a piece of parchment paper.
  4. Bake that thing at 350° for one hour. If you can stick a fork in it easily and if the rind is starting to turn brown, it’s done.
  5. Take it out and let it cool for maybe ten minutes, unless your hands are made of asbestos.
  6. Slice the squash in half with a carving knife. The knife should go in easily and you should be able to bisect it with no trouble. As I mention in my cookbook, it’s rather like deflating a big warm football.
  7. Remove the seeds and the inner pulp, which is often difficult to see because it’s only slightly darker than the flesh. It’s OK if you miss a few bits, it’s not toxic or anything.
  8. Now take a fork and rake the flesh of the squash into strands. This is your “spaghetti.”

Boom, done!  Wasn’t that easy?

Don’t put yourself through hell trying to stab and slice through that hard, raw rind. Save yourself the trouble and do it the easy way. My way!


written in response to a frustrating conversation with a clerk at the grocery store

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A Ballad To Remember


Way back in the dinosaur days when I was in college, I wrote a lengthy term paper about English and Scottish ballads. The reason this song, If I Die Young by The Band Perry (available in Amazon digital music) fascinates me is because it has all the elements of a true English ballad. I think it’s haunting and lovely, both the words and the music:

If I die young bury me in satin,
Lay me down on a bed of roses,
Sink me in the river at dawn,
Send me away with the words of a love song.

Here are the classic symbols of romantic love, emphasizing her youth and beauty and the future she never got to have. Most ballad subjects are about love, and death, the present and the future, sadness and the promise of that sadness being lifted in the future.


Lord make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother.
She’ll know I’m safe with you when
She stands under my colours, oh and
Life ain’t always what you think it oughta be, no
Ain’t even grey, but she buries her baby.

She speaks as though she’s already passed on, alternating with still being live—like one foot on the earth and one foot already in heaven. Concern about the survivors, and a celestial omen that might appear in order to provide comfort.


The sharp knife of a short life,
Well, I’ve had just enough time.

The sharp knife, a homey and simple image, not only for her mother but for herself, that it hurts not to have had much time on earth but it’s ultimately all right. No cause of death is mentioned, but that isn’t the focus of this ballad.


And I’ll be wearing white when I come into your (God’s) kingdom.
I’m as green as the ring on my little cold finger
I’ve never known the lovin’ of a man

But it sure felt nice when he was holding my hand

She has died a pure virgin, not because of prudishness but because there wasn’t enough time for the right man to come along.


There’s a boy here in town says he’ll love me forever

Dispassionate statement, no indication that she felt he was the right one.


Who would have thought forever could be severed by

The sharp knife of a short life,
Well I’ve had just enough time….

What I never did is done.

Just enough time because of God’s will, sadly not enough for the romantic love she would have wished for.


A penny for my thoughts, oh no I’ll sell them for a dollar.
They’re worth so much more after I’m a goner,
And maybe then you’ll hear the words I been singin’
Funny when you’re dead how people start listenin’.

The canny, wise girl-woman who sees backward and forward at the same time. Wisdom gained both before and after her early demise.


…the ballad of a dove
Go with peace and love
Gather up your tears, keep ’em in your pocket
Save ’em for a time when your really gonna need ’em oh

The prescience of the newly dead, a common belief in old times. Don’t grieve excessively for me, let go and move on with your lives.


The sharp knife of a short life,
Well I’ve had just enough time
So put on your best boys, and I’ll wear my pearls

Prepare for the kingdom of heaven. Also an implied hint that perhaps one of those “boys” might be the right man for her, in God’s kingdom.


A beautiful, perfect ballad.

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Out of the Deep Freeze

blizzard 1 (2011)

The midwestern US has its share of cold snaps, but this year was a record-breaker. On the worst day the air temperature stood at -25° and the wind chill was reported at -49°. Today, the second day of February, the weather has changed. It’s +37°, I can breathe through my nose without my nostrils sticking together, and the ice on the upper part of my windshield has finally melted. I don’t have to run out in the evening and run my car for a half hour to keep the battery charged. The monotonous scrape, scrape of snow shovels and the roar of snowblowers is suspended. It’s going to rain some time this afternoon, and I am delighted beyond words.

What have I learned during this cold snap, the worst in twenty years? I’ve learned that salt doesn’t melt ice if it gets too cold. I’ve learned that after a certain point, bundling up against frigid weather doesn’t help you any more. I’ve also learned that I am a wimp. In Siberia people live with extreme weather all winter long. They keep their cars running until spring because if the motors were turned off they would be unable to start them again. Children go to school while the thermometer stands at -50 degrees. Folks go about their normal daily business in temps that can freeze bare skin in seconds. It’s amazing what you can get used to, if you have to. But what does that make me? Lucky, yes. But a wimp nevertheless.

The next time I find myself complaining about normal winter cold, I will remember Siberia. I will try to do better, I swear—after I thaw out my fingers and unstick my nostrils, that is.

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There’s Something About Cacti

cacti4 rip red

I have an indoor green thumb. I really do. I’ve produced cuploads of cherry tomatoes from the tomato plants on my windowsill, raised healthy lettuce and onion sets, sprouted celery plants from root cuttings, and kept potted marigolds blooming into October. My three huge philodendrons are running wild and I have to trim them back whenever they get long enough to reach out to grab me when I walk by. But for the life of me, I swear I can’t manage to keep an indoor cactus alive.

Maybe my problem is feeling sorry for the underdog. At my local garden center I always seem to end up with that lonely orphan cactus shoved into the far corner behind its more successful siblings. I want to love that little runty thing, nurture it, and watch it grow tall and strong. But alas, it always ends the same—my rescue cactus looks fine for a couple of weeks and then without warning withers into a spiny skeleton of its former self or turns pale and succumbs to some mysterious wound in its outer layer that I somehow did not notice even though I inspected the darn thing every day for a month.

I’ve tried nurturing and coddling my cacti, I’ve tried neglecting them, I’ve tried over- and underwatering them, sunning them, keeping them away from direct sun, and more. Nothing I do seems to make them happy. Maybe cacti aren’t my thing. Maybe I should stick to normal plants that actually respond to kindness and nurturing. But—why the hell can’t I make a cactus happy!?

When all but one of my latest acquisitions bit the dust (literally, and I don’t know why that remaining one is still alive) I stopped by the garden store again on my way home from work. All the cacti in the Succulents area cringed away from me, hoping the Angel of Death would pass them by, but in vain. I selected not the runt of the litter this time but a nice, round, fat and very green barrel cactus bursting with good health. I paid too much for it, brought it home, and as I set it down where countless other spiny denizens have perished I whispered into what looked a bit like its thorny ear, “good luck!”


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