Marred for life.

I am using the last of my precious winter break Metro time to do some pleasure reading.  Having sated myself on crime fiction, I got Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan from the library (which I thoroughly enjoyed – highly recommended to people who like YA, adventure, steampunk, alternate history, or breathing) and ripped through it in about two days.

Waiting in my pile was a book on writing my wise mother handed to me during her last visit, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  I’m pretty sure she refrained from saying “You’ll love this,” and I think we may have discovered another way around my reflexive filter.  Just hand the thing to me without a deadline for completion.  I’ll happily get to it in my own sweet time.

I have had this book (along with “Writing Down the Bones”) recommended to me at length, and often enthusiastically, which is probably why I hadn’t gotten to either of them before now.*  Predictably, I am loving it.**

As much as I am loving Lamott’s book, one of the charms of getting to read it in the way I did is the scattering of a few tiny post-it notes my mother tucked among the pages.  These notes have cryptic remarks jotted on them which I understand well due to our shared history but might well be written in Urdu for all the sense they would make to a stranger.

Lamott’s book is especially good in one way because it offers you interstitial assignments – they’re not listed as such, but if the reader decided to take them that way, it is very possible to pull literal instructions from every chapter.  In the early going, there is a section on writing about school lunches to break a mental logjam.  Lamott is right when she says that this topic is fertile ground for stories and descriptions.  She herself writes a few humorous paragraphs about the “code” of lunches – what was acceptable and what labeled you as “other” in the eyes of your classmates.  I recognized exactly what she meant, even if the specifics were different when I was growing up.

My lunches, I am afraid, were never up to code.  Mom made lunches that a 40-year-old foodie would swoon over: homemade multigrain bread, real cold cuts (no bologna in my mother’s kitchen), and often bean sprouts.  These were thick, hearty, character-building sandwiches in every sense of the word.  Once, a classmate snatched a tangle of sprouts out of my sandwich, screamed, and flung them away from her as if they were alive.  They stuck to a window high over our heads and remained there for the entire school year, closely resembling the desiccated corpse of a spider.

The other thing I remember about my school lunches were the notes.  Mom’s missives, often illustrated with quirky doodles, were like a quick squeeze of the shoulder or a warm smile.  I remember them as full of love and humor and topical information like, “Christmas Tree decorating tonight!” or “5 more days until vacation.”  Mom’s handwriting somehow manages to be both loopy and strong, so finding this note tucked into the pages of Lamott’s book was like something out of a time capsule:

“Sprouts!  Marred for life.”

I laughed like an idiot on the Metro and didn’t care who noticed.

*See above re: “You’ll love this”
**I only said I have a reflexive reaction to over-enthusiastic recommendations.  I didn’t say it was smart.

You’re not fooling anyone, you know.

A small note to people who make movies and television with actors not using their native accents:

It really doesn’t help when the non-native character’s dialogue is decidedly… native.

An example?  Sure, I can give you an example.   For unknown reasons, BBC America has decided to air the television show “Demons ” for us Yanks.  Aside from making a sane person wonder why they produced a show which is essentially “A British Buffy in London” (you can see why I don’t write titles for television), they decided that the teen-with-a-destiny’s mentor had to be American.  And for that American, they cast the toweringly magnificent blusterer, Philip Glenister.

So, okay.  Glenister is apparently working on his American accent.  Why?  Maybe he looked at Hugh Laurie’s career and said, “Well that bloke seems to be doing pretty well for himself,” and signed on.  Maybe he wants to get into Hollywood movies.  Maybe… who cares.  At any rate, he wanted to stretch his skills.  All fine so far.

Except, he seems to be having trouble with it.  And again, I don’t really care all that much.  Accents can be tough, and I would imagine doing an American accent in England is probably doubly tough.  It is probably easier to do an accent when you are filming in that country: after all, you can just turn to upwards of 90% of the crew or walk down the street on your lunch break and hear the accent you’re going for in that case.

But here is where my patience breaks down.  If you are a British* writer, please consult an American about the American character’s dialogue.  If you don’t have an American friend, find one.  Because the final nail in the coffin of an actor’s attempt at an accent is to hear them say something that 99.9% of the people in that country just wouldn’t say.  When Philip Glenister, struggling manfully with a midwestern-neutral American accent** says something about the main character’s dad dying in a “car smash,” that’s where I just stop giving the benefit of the doubt.  Because we say “car crash” or “car wreck.”

Unless you’re a pretentious git*** like me who has spent a fair bit of time in the UK, read a lot of British literature,  and watches more British media than is probably good for her, then the following sentences wouldn’t come out of an American’s mouth unless it was put there by a writer:

  • So Jess, I says, get your skates on or we’re going to miss the queue for the motor-coach.
  • Her problem is she would always take the lift in an emergency, when the notices all say use the stairs.
  • The Skoda wasn’t half ruined in that lorry smash, but you don’t hear me whingeing about it.
  • That bloke’s bird is a silly cow.
  • Eat your tea.

I could go on.  But I won’t.

*Or an American writer writing a British character, I am sure – but I am not British, so I don’t get to do that rant.

**Hint: pick a geography.  Make the character a New Yorker or a Bostonian or Texan… ANYTHING but the neutral news-anchor “nothing” accent, because those accents will give you something to anchor the accent to.  Dipthongs are your FRIEND, Phil.

***We don’t say this either.

Anyone for Scrabble?

Because we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

This is a LOT of snow.

The great Julekake lamination of aught-nine.

As with last year, I made Julekake this year.  The big difference is I got off my hind end and decided to experiment.  My grandmother’s recipe makes five full-size loaves at one go.  This is a quantity of dough that swamps my stand mixer and, in the words of my mother, “You don’t knead it, you hug it.”  In other words, it is an incredibly daunting prospect to contemplate for any amateur Julenisse.

Modifying baking recipes is not something I’m qualified in any way to do.  My friend Linsey is an expert in such things, and from reading her blog I know there is seemingly endless trial and error in these experiments.  But I wanted cardamom and dried fruit in a lovely, slightly chewy, perfect for breakfast toast sort of way.  And so I fired up a spreadsheet and commenced to calculate.

My first experiment (five loaves down to three) was actually very successful.  Not enough cardamom, but I was (I believe) understandably cautious: cardamom is pretty pungent.  But the texture was perfect.  And I could get the bulk of the kneading done with the stand mixer and finish by hand.

We stored two of the loaves in the oven.  John’s idea, and not a bad one.  But it is a bad idea to preheat the oven without checking to see if there is anything in there first.  And so, preparing to roast a chicken, John essentially laminated two loaves of Julekake.

So I made two more batches.  Nine total loaves is proof of concept, I think.  And I think I’m finally getting the cardamom calibration correct.

I still won’t make the mistake of thinking that I did anything other than get lucky with my first attempt at modifying a baking recipe.  But it’s nice to have a more manageable version.

Newton. That bastard.

In the last month or so, I have:

  • Gotten a ridiculous amount done at work
  • Written two papers for school and the outline for a third
  • Done I-don’t-know-how-many homework assignments
  • Managed (in tandem with John) to keep the house from exploding (no small feat when it is also home to four furry critters)
  • Thrown our big household party of the year

In the last month or so, I have not:

  • Written a short story
  • Photographed anything of note
  • Blogged meaningfully
  • Done any significant amount of knitting (we shall not speak of the spinning which has not happened, nor the designing)

In other words, the work, the school, and the life stuff have taken over – seemingly permanently, and while I still may rebel to stand and shout, “There are four lights!” I feel that the creative part of my little corner of the world is… crumbly.  Perhaps crispy.  It certainly isn’t lush and vibrant just now.  I have only my internal assurance to know that it even exists.

And I have what may amount to a hubristic faith in that assurance.  So thanks for sticking with me.

Laughter, drifting down from on high

This week is one of those funny, stubby weeks – a few days of work, a few days off, John is picking up my mom from the airport and working an odd, late day tomorrow due to a faculty senate meeting.

As a result, we have that semi-giddy, let-off-the-leash feeling you get when life is off kilter.  We watched Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch this evening – growing up in Red Sox Nation, we felt both the hero and the heroine’s pain.  And also their triumph.  It was a surprisingly nuanced movie.  If you like sport, or love someone who likes sport, I can recommend it.

I’m not ready to go to bed yet, and I can hear John upstairs laughing at Milo.  It’s a good sound.  Hearty and loud.  It makes me look forward to the holiday weekend.

He’s a magic man…

I got a Wii console for my 40th birthday – because though I may be 40, inside I am 12.  I generally use it to work out (EA Sports Fitness – though occasionally glitchy – is surprisingly intense), though I did get sucked into “World of Goo” on a friend’s recommendation.  Other than that, we only have the sports game that came with the console.  We had a party recently for my school colleagues, and the Wii was the hit of the party.  There is something about the game that seems to bring out the positive, encouraging side of people.  Miss a hit in baseball?  Nobody jeers.  Instead, cries of “You wuz ROBBED!” ring out, even from the opposing side.

As someone who really hates what my mother calls the “nyah nyahs,” I have been surprised to witness this sort of behavior.  Life has taught me more often that games where there are winners and losers are just… well, nasty.

Even John, who doesn’t really like video games, likes to play Wii.  Well, he likes to play Wii Bowling.  Since we are both New England kids, I usually respond to his, “Wanna bowl?” with, “Yeah – ya gonna take me bowlin’ an’ buy me a beah?”  We’re pretty well matched and the usual score is close.  But I found out today that John, well… he’s a magical Wii bowler.  He ran upstairs to do something when I was playing my turn, and his turn came before he had returned.  Suddenly, his figure went live, and I watched his Mii bowl a perfect strike.  Moments later, he ran downstairs and said, “How’d I do?”  He had brought his controller upstairs with him and heard it “ding.”  So he played his turn blind.  From upstairs.

Magic, I tell you.

(He smoked me that game by over 30 points.)

“I’m not dead yet.”

Just tired and uncreative at the moment.  I’ve had no odd or awkward encounters on Metro, no epiphanies, no humorous anecdotes about life with the librarian and our zoo.  Just a lot of head-down, straight ahead life stuff.

Sorry.  More later.  Promise.  I haven’t given up on blogging, but right now the work/school/life thing is kind of kicking my ass.

“Name some towns in New Jersey quick!”

Little did I know when I wrote “The Third Bird Carnival” that John had never read any Thurber.  I promised him this morning that I would attempt to rectify that, since Thurber makes perfect reading-aloud material.  We used to read aloud during dinner preparation when I was growing up.  Humorists like James Thurber and Patrick McManus are both perfect and hazardous for such endeavors.  Perfect in that they are short, dramatic, and engaging.  Hazardous in that they are funny enough to render the reader mute with laughter, leaving the listener stranded waiting for whatever made the reader paralyzed.

Having read “The Night the Bed Fell” and “More Alarms at Night” to John as he wrestled with a chicken, we may now have a new or recycled household habit.  Not to mention, a new catchphrase: “Name some towns in New Jersey quick!”

Here a toad, there a toad…

It was raining on my predawn dog-walk this morning, and the toads were out in force.  Squatting like netsuke or hopping across the shiny pavement of the walkway, they came in sizes from the tip of my pinky to a child’s fist.  Keeping Tosh from snapping at them preoccupied me almost as much as keeping myself from stepping on them.  I sang a soft little song to Tosh, trying unsuccessfully to distract him,

Old MacIntosh had a farm
Woofwoof woofwoof woof
And on this farm he had some toads
Woofwoof woofwoof woof
Here a croak there a croak, everywhere a croak, croak

Tosh is used to us singing silly songs to him, and his long pointy nose methodically scanned the pavement, ready to pounce on a hopping creature.  Only watchfulness and a firm hand on the leash kept him from hunting the little fellows.

We managed to complete our walk with no toad fatalities, I am happy to report.