Mmmmm good!

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I am going to take a break this month. Instead of a short article, I would like to offer you a recipe I am planning to include in my upcoming low carb cookbook. It’s easy, inexpensive, and delicious:

SHREDDED SPICY BEEF

one 4-5 lb. chuck roast

1 c. salsa (I use Pace medium heat)

1 envelope taco seasoning (I use Ortega)

one large onion, sliced

optional: one green bell pepper, chopped; 1-2 cloves garlic, minced

Place the sliced onions in a layer on the bottom of the crockpot.  Place the roast upon the onion layer. Combine the salsa and taco seasoning, pour over the roast. Cover and cook on High for six hours. Shred the meat with two forks and heat another half hour to blend the flavors. Put into a serving dish. If desired, garnish with sliced green olives and slices of American cheese in a nice pattern. Use the meat to fill low carb burritos, taco shells, or lettuce wraps, or eat in a bowl with a dollop of sour cream on top.

I have not frozen this recipe myself, but I think it might freeze well. I also think it would be delicious using chicken.

(Disclaimer: I am not advertising for Pace, Ortega, or Rival! It’s just a photo.)

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February is the Cruellest Month

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THIS POST APPEARS OUT OF SEASON, BUT UNFORTUNATELY IT’S STILL RELEVANT…COME ON, SPRINGTIME!

I love winter. The soft white winter dawns, the sunny, icy hard-like-a-diamond winter days, the winter twilights with deep blue shadows shading into night, all evoke for me feelings of peace and wonder at the beauty of nature. I love winter — but not all of it. My most hated aspect of winter, really the only part I hate except for sudden ice storms, can be described with that falsely cheerful euphemism The Weather Channel uses to describe the most dangerous condition of the season – “wintry mix.” Not a tasty bridge mix of chocolate-covered nuts and candy, “wintry mix” refers to that dangerous mixture of ice, sleet, snow, and rain that seems to strike during every February just when spring fever rises. That is why, out of all the months in the year, I hate February the most.

February is neither full-on winter nor early spring. February brings alternating freezes and thaws, clear streets and dangerous black ice when the temperatures plunge after dark. February offers the hope of warmer weather by melting most of the snow on the ground, giving us one or two balmy springlike days, and then reneging on its own promise by slamming down a snowstorm which dumps more precipitation on our heads than an arctic blizzard in January. February is slipping and sliding pedestrians, fender benders in the streets, shoppers falling down and potatoes and cans of soda rolling over grocery store parking lots.

After one deceptively warm period last February, I had the memorable experience of being temporarily trapped inside my car. It had rained that day, but after dark the temperature dipped below freezing and the parking lot of my apartment building was coated with a thin, invisible layer of black ice. I had safely negotiated the slippery streets and parked in my usual spot, only to find that I could not stand up on the asphalt to get out of my car! This February, after two nice, deceptively warm days in a row (Lies! It’s all lies!) I thought I would prevent that by scattering salt and sand around my car just before the next round of “wintry mix.” When I finished patting myself on the back for my canny foresight, I realized that I had, in essence, sprinkled a magical protective ring of salt around my car to protect me from evil (and embarrassment).

I enjoy December and the ethereal loveliness of the first snow. I am sentimental about white Christmases. I even admire the huge killer icicles dangling from the eaves of the apartment building next door to mine, which apparently doesn’t have enough insulation in their attic to prevent them from forming. But I never, ever wax poetic about the one aspect of wintertime which makes me long for springtime and summer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the only good thing that icy, slushy February brings to the seasonal table is that it feels so great when it’s over.

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Venus on the Beach, With Ball

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Some people lead busy, active lives. Their idea of a vacation might be resting, reading, or dozing on the beach. Other people whose lives are scheduled, routine, and sedentary might choose a vacation filled with plenty of things to do and places to see. But my idea of a vacation is a rest from thinking.

Like many people, I work with words all day and sometimes all evening. Reading, writing, editing, revising, and communicating with others constantly engages my full set of verbal skills. My idea of a rest – a genuine, complete rest – is to quiet that part of my brain that deals with all that verbal traffic. I picture the perfect getaway for my mind, my cerebrum swinging in a brain-sized hammock on the sand, an iced drink beside it on a little table (it would necessarily have to raise that glass by psychokinesis, because no arms, but…). My brain would lazily swing back and forth, back and forth, chewing a piece of mental gum and occasionally blowing a sticky bubble, enjoying its respite from books, the Internet, and email. It would be feeling and not thinking, which it did on my most recent trip to our local museum.

At that time there was a special exhibit I was eager to see. One weekend I did so, taking my brain along for the ride, making sure its seatbelt was duly fastened and that I had admission tickets for both of us. The following Monday I related my trip to one of my co-workers, who was aghast that I hadn’t rented a pair of headphones to accompany my walk through the exhibit. I explained to her that I’d gone there not to learn or to think but to feel, but she didn’t understand. Why go to a museum in order not to learn? But I had, and I’m not sorry. I and my brain had gone on an emotional road trip, had come back refreshed, and life was good again.

Photography is another nonverbal activity which refreshes me. Through images, it expresses emotions and thoughts on a deeper level than any set of words ever could. When I am on a photographing expedition I use my brain in an entirely new way than I do in my daily life. I look at angles, lighting and shadows, and groupings, expressing through various arrangements of those elements what I feel about what I see through my view finder. When I come away from a successful “hunt” with my trophies, I feel as rested and relaxed as many people would feel returning from a trip to the Bahamas.

No matter what I do with my off time, when I (and my brain) switch back from resting to reading, writing, and the Internet again, I realize how much I have missed these things and that my vagabond self is returning to the place I truly belong.

 

 

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Tomato, tomahto…

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I am a fairly good speller, but I have my weaknesses. I always have trouble with sheriff – which letter doubles, the R or the F? What about ceiling – is that EI or IE? (I have to write it in the air with my finger every time.) Knowledge – to D or not to D? And judgment, shouldn’t there be an E in there somewhere, and if not, why not?  Yet I can correctly spell words like eccentric, appalling, and Renaissance. I am a stickler for correct pronunciation too, both out of respect for the English language and for fear of sounding dumb. However, I’m not perfect there, either. For years I thought the chief dweller on Mount Olympus was “Zee-uss.” “Zooss?” Who the hell was that, and why didn’t I know the right way to say this guy’s name? Because I had never heard it out loud, that’s why. In my younger years people would pat me on the head for such verbal mistakes as though I were some kind of child prodigy, too busy reading books to spend time in the real world. Now that I am well past that stage, errors like that just sound ignorant. All I can do is shrug and smile and try to say it right next time.

But I am not so innocent and eager to please as I seem. Sometimes my dark side comes out. Like a child reaching for a box of cookies on top shelf of the cabinet, I feel sort of forbidden glee in pronouncing selected words incorrectly. I like to scramble the word soufflé into “soof-ell,” which makes my culinary-minded friends twitch. I have been known to say “purpledicular” instead of “perpendicular.” When I come across a phrase in an older text such as “divers items of wealth” I whisper to myself, “divers, divers!” when I know darned well it’s pronounced “diverse.” I also take malicious pleasure in mispronouncing the old-style letter S, the one that looks like a lower-case F, in a lisping Daffy Duck accent: “Get fome Griftle of Beef from the lower Part of the Brifket, cut in Pieces the Bignefs of two Fingers, and put them in Water; take alfo some Griftle of a Leg of Mutton…” (The Whole Duty of a Woman, 1701, Gutenberg digital edition)

Good spelling and pronunciation isn’t a positive moral quality like being kind to animals or working with the homeless or listening patiently to your great aunt’s stories of her childhood for the hundredth time. However, having these things makes me feel warm inside and slightly smug, on a strictly personal level. I would be equally proud if I could play the trumpet, which I can’t to save my life, or if I could paint or draw, in my case the level of those abilities being so low that experts have measured them in the minus range.

So, like everybody else in the world, I am loud and proud where I can be. Anybody for zabaglione and escargot? Mmmmmm….

*image from Desktop Nexus

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(Insert Title Here)

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Inside my head I imagine myself at a book signing, fans of my latest work queueing up for autographed copies of my work in a line that stretches out of the bookstore and around the block. Policemen are directing traffic outside, and overworked bookstore clerks are glaring at me over the heads of hundreds of adoring fans.

“I just love your new book, High Ground,” one enthusiastic reader gushes. “Didn’t you also write Run for the Hills?”

“Oh, yes.” I nod sagely. “That was the first one of my books to make the New York Times Best Sellers list.” Bursts of admiring sounds come from the crowd and I smile, careful to keep my expression modest and humble.

In real life that scene would probably go like this: I am sitting in an empty corner of the bookstore with a stack of my books, looking anxiously at the people passing by me on their way to the children’s corner or the magazine racks. I hear a voice at my elbow – at last, somebody has fallen in love with my deathless prose!

“Wow, your new book High Ground looks awesome,” they say, pressing a copy into my hand for my signature. “Aren’t you also the author of Run for the Hills?”

Run for the Hills? Feverishly I wrack my brains and come up empty. As my lips are shaping the word “no” it comes to me. Of course I’d written it. All those anguished days and sleepless nights — this side of hell, how could I possibly forget I’d written Run for the Hills? Because for the time I was sweating over this book, I knew it as Milestone.

I admire the writers who always seem to find the right words to distill the essence of their work and elevate it to a higher level. Personally, I can’t do it. I have to sit down with my unfinished manuscript (sometimes a mere outline), talk to it, take it out for coffee, perhaps even dinner and a movie. Then I sit down with a pen and paper, generate a list of unsuitable appellations, and circle the three least obnoxious ones. Finally I am able to settle on the title by which I hope my novel will be known from this time forward. However, while I am still hunting around for that title I have to refer to my unfinished manuscript as something other than “that life-sucking black hole.” That’s where a working title comes in. Without a working title my manuscript remains a nameless, amorphous blob that slips through my fingers like warm jello. With a working title, the story acquires structure and identity and I gain some measure of control.

So, if you visit your favorite bookstore and see me sitting in the corner with a stack of novels at my side, come and talk to me about my latest work. Go ahead, ask me — “Didn’t you also write Anguished Draft?” And if I take a minute to think about my answer, please don’t think I have lost my memory. It’s just that during the time I was writing it, it was a Milestone to me.

 

(book titles made up for purposes of this post.)

 

 

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Waffling Around

waffles

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” as the saying goes. Well, I know my own road certainly is. When I get a great story idea, one that hits me in my guts and makes me hyperventilate, my intention is to write a good, rip-roaring tale about that idea. The trouble is, I almost never get there from here. I can carry a plot through to its logical conclusion, I can make it exciting and thrilling, but the finished product always seems to bear no resemblance at all to the idea I started with. I’m not referring to the normal changes of the creative process, I am talking about starting with skyscrapers or cheeseburgers or skiing in Colorado and ending up with a story about volcanoes, sea urchins, or Gothic cathedrals – it’s that much of a gap between my original idea and the end point.

Do other writers do it this way, or is it just me? I don’t know, but it’s next to impossible for me to finish a work with the same idea I started. But, as I have discovered and as Martha Stewart might say, this is a GOOD thing. Not only is my creativity enhanced, but that same starting idea can be recycled more than once, a sort of conservation of initial ideas, I suppose.

Waffles. To date, I’ve gotten two short stories and one novel out of waffles. The next time I am stuck for a fresh idea I will start with waffles again and see where they take me. Perhaps one day I will write a short story or a book that is actually about waffles, but for now those tasty treats serve as a jumping-off place for better things.

 

 

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Paper Love

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“No, not that one.” On the shelf to the right of the expensive gift pen sets I indicate another box, a cheaper, bulkier one. Thirty pens for $3.59, not bad. “I’ll take those, and a pack of pastel writing pads.”

“The legal pads are on sale today. The pastel ones are almost twice as much.”

“I know, but I’d like the pastel.” I require the pastel, I almost say, but I catch myself in time because I don’t want to be That Customer.

Since my Great Migration to computers years ago I have less need for actual pens and paper, but there are still some things I prefer to write out by hand. Brainstorming a new work from scratch is one of those things, but without my favorite cheapie pens and correctly colored paper, the center cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world–my apologies to Mr. W. B. Yeats. If the barrel of the pen is too thin or too thick or the wrong shape, if the ink is blue and not black, if the paper has three-ring holes or has the wrong texture, or worst of all, is yellow ruled legal-size paper (oh, the horror – !), then all is not well in my universe. I can’t think properly, I can’t concentrate on what I have to get done, and I might as well go do the dishes or throw in a load of laundry or go outside and weed the garden because I’m not getting any writing done today.

 Just kidding–sort of. The look and feel of writing materials does matter to me, perhaps more than it should. I would rather use hot pink or Christmas green ink than blue (never, ever blue!), and I would sooner scribble my ideas on the back of a grocery store receipt than on one of those ruled yellow legal pads. If I had been present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I would have held up the entire process because the quill came from the wrong bird.

I can remember life before computers, but I can’t imagine life without one. Neither can I imagine life without my pink, green, and purple writing pads and my grade-school quality black ink pens. These things satisfy my inner need to control freak about my working environment, and that’s OK. Just don’t get me started on pencils…or erasers…or sticky notes…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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