watch.listen.snack.

 

 

Anybody turn to song lyrics when shit happens in your life? You know, for advice… for someone to commiserate with… just to know your experience is entirely human? Asking for a friend!

I went on a terrific long walk the other day and queued up, “All I Wanna Do,” from Sheryl Crow as the lead song for a playlist on my Spotify. Let me tell you, those lady singers… man did they have good life advice, with plenty of joy. It was like the musical equivalent of CBD gummies! A few random lines that spoke to me:

Everyday is a winding road
All I wanna do is have some fun
But I can’t let go
What it all boils down to, no one’s got it figured out just yet
You’re not alone like you think you are
We all have scars, I know it’s hard
Life is mighty precious when there is less of it to waste
Can I get a witness?
What it all comes down to my friend, is that everything is just fine, fine, fine
thank you, thank you, thank you

watch:

 

We are lapping up Mare Of Easttown at our house. Okay… not that it is stellar, (see I May Destroy You, or, Giri/Haji if you want fantastic and innovative drama) but if you want to be sucked out of your life, and if you want to learn about profluence — how to keep your readers turning the pages of your work — this show is a master class. Every episode reveals just a wee bit more, keeping us curious and pulling us deeper into Mare’s backstory, helping us to understand the meaningful actions characters take. There are stakes. Characters you can root for. Characters that get in their own damn way. Conflict. Remember, bad news for the character is good news for the story. And, some great acting. (Hello, Jean Smart!)  The slow unfolding of the story, week by week rather than a complete drop, is also satisfying. It’s an old fashioned pleasure to have to wait and see. Yes, there are women in peril, dead girls and yellow police tape, as with every crime drama. It is an exhausting truth that women aren’t safe in the world.

(Quick sidebar here: A friend who works for a Silicon Valley company was once on a work retreat on a private island (okay I know, let that go for a minute) she was taking a run by herself and she felt incredibly free, unfettered, light. And then she thought to herself, oh, this is how white men feel most of the time as they move through the world.)

A hilarious side story in the series is Mare’s flirtation with the creative writing teacher at the local college. The dude (Guy Pearce) has written one critically (though not commercially) successful novel, and now he’s relegated to teach in Easttown. The other joy (yes I am this petty) is that Mare’s life is so messed up! If ever you’re having a little pity party about troubles in your life, check what’s going on in Mare’s life. Whew. Talk about a shift of viewpoint from harried to grateful. You’re welcome.

Finally, a show must know they made it when there’s a Saturday Night Life spoof. After you’ve got some episodes under your belt, check out SNL’s sketch here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

listen:

I’m offering up my Listen to the Women playlist.

In addition, here’s a podcast I’ve been enjoying. Create Out Loud, from my pal, Jen Louden. She has some delightful conversations. I particularly loved the chat with Anne Lamott. Anne talks about treating herself with radical self care. What does that look like for her? A walk. Tea. Lying down for a nap with the latest People magazine and her cat. “Eat your heart out,” she says. She also treats herself to:

…a really, really delicious cup of coffee. I’ve moved on to heavy whipping cream… it is so nourishing, and it makes you so happy. The act of me making it is like a good mother making it for me and saying, “Honey, you should have the best…you need to worry about nutrition, psychic nutrition and deliciousness. So, you just sit down and I’m going to make you a cup of coffee that’s about a third heavy whipping cream.”

For some reason, this really struck me. Why shouldn’t I take care of myself the way I would one of my beloved children. When you get to the part about “God with skin on…” be prepared for a laugh, and for an attitude change regarding how we treat ourselves as we stumble and dance through our lives. We get to choose how we show up.

Jen’s episode library is growing. Do yourself a favor, treat yourself like a good mother would, take your creator-self on a walk and give a listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snack:

I was walking across a parking lot the other day and I overheard a woman say to her friend, “I’m underwhelmed by my omelette experiences.” Uh oh, I thought, me too! I can’t make an omelette. Can you? Sure, I can make a mean scramble. But I’d like to finesse the French omelette with a scattering of fresh herbs. Delicate, sophisticated and comforting. I am imagining my omelette with a small green salad, a piquant vinaigrette, and a crisp glass of white wine alongside, a big linen napkin, carelessly tossed across my lap. Alas, my egg attempts are oafish and filled with too many vegetables.

Enter Bill Buford, and this delightful essay from The New Yorker, plus an accompanying video, in which he says, “it is my pleasure, my thrill, my privilege” to teach you to make a French omelette.

Alison Roman, another cooking fav of mine, has an omelette video here.

And, so does Julia Child!

Now I am in search of an omelette pan. This one looks as if it fills the bill, with a ceramic interior and no toxic chemicals in a non-stick surface. But this too strikes my fancy! In sunny yellow… What do you think? Really! Do you have a pan you love? A technique you’d like to reveal? Shoot me an email.

Meanwhile, to hold me over until I make an omelette, I will enjoy again these sweet little nibbles I made for friends the other day. (Yes, we are entertaining again!)

 

Find yourself ripe apricots with a lovely blush to their skin. Cut them in half, remove pits, and then cut into quarters. Fill the center with a dollop of triple creme cheese, and then add a roasted and salted pistachio.  Not only have we the fabulous texture of creamy cheese, tender flesh of the fruit, and the salty crunch of the nut, the colors are gorgeous! I served with the cheese and crackers alongside, breakfast radishes with flaky salt, and pickled blueberries. It was all quite tasty, served with these pink bubbles from Austria.

 

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Wishing you warm days and warm hugs (safely). If there is something you adopted during the pandemic (Hello, early bedtime! Hello, quiet nights at home! Hello, drinks only on weekends. Hello, cold splash at the end of a shower) that made your life better, that you’re surprised brought you solace or joy, keep it! Hang on to it, just like Stanley here, refusing to let go.

 

 

 

 

 

watch.listen.snack.

 

 

Let’s begin by noticing what we admire.

Those are the words I say at the start of each writers’ workshop, focusing upon what went right rather than wrong in a students’ pages. After years of saying this, I joked the other day that those words should be on my tombstone. Then I thought, why wait? I’d like a t-shirt with that phrase. Pretty good way to move through life. The next thing I say in workshop: let’s shift to questions, considerations, concerns, places where you are curious–always with the intent of making the work better. Again, a pretty good way to travel through the world. Come with the best intentions, be curious and complementary.

watch:

I finally got up the courage to watch, “A Promising Young Woman.” I was nervous that the film, marketed as a thriller/comedy, would upset me. It’s a rape revenge film and as a survivor of sexual assault, I wasn’t sure how much I could take. Let me tell you, I loved it. There is no gore, minimal (though heartbreaking) on screen violence, no sex, no nudity, and for me, supreme satisfaction. Not that all the good guys come out on top, but the film feels like a super hero bio pic. We get the backstory of Cassie, the main character, we understand what “built” her, and thus we get her agenda. It’s like knowing why Batman is Batman, or how the Joker came to be so cruel. Cassie, played beautifully by Carey Mulligan, is like Liam Neeson avenging his dead wife, but smarter and without a gun. She’s avenging her best friend, and let me tell you no one (looking at you Betsy DeVos) gets a free pass for the rape culture in our college system.

And then, should you need an amuse-bouche, check out these two poems for uplift and beauty. Plus a small piece by my (aspirational) pal, George.

Shake the Dust,” by Anis Mojgani, gorgeousness for the late night cereal eaters, the Walmart greeters, the prom queens and school yard wimps, the tired and the dreamers. For all of us. What we need to do right now, shake off the dust.

When the world knocks at your front door
clutch the knob tightly and open on up
and run forward, forward and as far you must
into its widespread greeting arms
with your hands before you
fingertips trembling though they may be 

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, which begins, “Before you know what kindness is, you must lose things.”

Importance of Kindness by George Saunders, who speaks of regret, a missed opportunity to be kind. “Sometimes I’d see her hanging around in her front yard as if afraid to leave it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

listen:

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been inundated with words. Last year I spent so much time worrying, so much time trying to stay on top of the dual catastrophes of the pandemic and our then president, constantly bombarding myself with news and numbers.

I need a break. Enough with the talking, talking, talking. Maybe it would be healthy for me to walk without my earbuds. Maybe I’ll hear birds, or the muffled sounds of people enjoying one another’s company. What a relaxing and easeful entree back to the post-pandy world. Maybe my mind will wander, be curious, get in touch with my thoughts rather than those of someone else. If I spend time looking around on my walk, being curious, slowing my brain, maybe, fingers crossed, I’ll be thinking about my creative work. What about you? Any interest in a quiet walk? If you do give it a try, I’d love to hear what comes up.

And, here’s a song I’ve got on repeat: Blessed the Brave by Liz Wright.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snack:

Three! Yes, that’s how many times I’ve served this salad this week alone! It’s a non-recipe/recipe. I trust you, you’ve got this!

Farro Salad

Into your favorite salad bowl place about 3 cups cooked farro. Now, you could really use any grain, but I love farro for the chewy texture and nutty flavor and because, I’m kinda sick of rice. Add roughly one half cup chopped dill (be generous, I promise this is the money maker of the salad), plus one bunch of asparagusroasted with a giant leek (chopped), olive oil and a little salt.  Cut the asparagus into two inch pieces, about the size of a stubby pencil. Be certain not to overcook the asparagus or the whole thing is ruined. Seriously. I also chopped up a bunch of radishes, added a handful of roasted sunflower seeds. You could add walnuts, fennel bulb, roasted carrots, feta cheese, whatever floats your boat. For the dressing, mince one clove garlic, add about 3 heaping tablespoons greek yogurt, one fourth cup of olive oil and as much lemon juice as you love. You want the dressing to be creamy, so add more yogurt if you desire. Pour onto your salad, give it a stir and serve it up. We had it with fennel rosemary salmon, then we had it with an orange and prune roasted chicken, then we had it with bagels and fruit salad for brunch.

Cannot get enough.

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I know you know about the suffering in Asian Communities through the pandemic, and the horrifying rise in hate crimes. We all feel heartsick about it, so HERE are some places you can take action. I’m fond of Welcome to Chinatown as well as opportunities to help the victims of attacks.

Wishing you warm days and warm hugs (safely). Change is coming. While we wait, I’ve got an essay about the shoulder season, and the world opening up. Find it HERE. If you need a book, I’ve got all the recommendations from two years of this newsletter at my Bookshop.

Stanley!  Loving/Not Loving the hose!

 

 

 

 

 

watch.listen.snack.

 

 

It’s come to this: I yelled at a car this week. Yes, I was having a bad day. Nothing major (trouble sleeping, the devastation of a missed haircut appointment, difficult work moments) and the car did stop for me to cross the street. I waved my thanks and the driver failed to acknowledge my politesse. So, I yelled, (screamed?) “Hey! Thank You!” shaking my head with great judgment. How could anyone leave a thank you dangling like that?

I’ve been in my home, with my husband, for nearly one year, and yes, I’m glad we love each other and like each other, but I had no idea what eternity meant until now. I guess I’ve hit a covid-wall.

How about you? Maybe the humble offerings below will brighten your day.

watch:

Yes, what you’ve heard about Minari, is true, it is fantastic.  We popped up a giant bowl of popcorn, slicked it with butter, salt and turmeric, then opened a great bottle of red wine, and settled in. We turned off the lights, turned off our phones, made a no talking rule and pretended we were at the movies.

As a quick aside, I’ve been reading George Saunders’s new book on writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, (which I am loving by the way) and I applied his teaching to the film. What breadcrumbs were dropped throughout the film? How were they used to propel the story forward? What do I (viewer/reader) wonder about? Do the scenes, one after the other, answer my questions and pose new ones? What did the filmmaker include at the start of the film (the proverbial gun on the wall) that shows up later in a satisfying and surprising way?
I also want to say, sure…we’ve all had a year. But the Yi family’s year? Wow.

Just check out this joyful eye candy, Joana Vasconcelo’s site-specific installation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

listen:

I have music for you! Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, the Four Seasons has been on heavy rotation at our house. There’s something wonderful about slightly defamiliarizing the familiar. I mean, that is sort of what life is right now, no? Everything is weird. Everything is slightly off. Let’s listen to some music we all know, and perhaps draw comfort from with a slightly skewed, gorgeous sound.

Wynton Marsalis has a new piece as well, Democracy Suite. You can hear him speak about it in an interview on PBS Newshour. I love how he musically includes the rhythm, intensity, and percussion of a “Black Lives Matter” chant, yet with no words.

Also, this poem by Lucille Clifton, read by Terrance Hayes, Cutting Greens, has really touched me. I love seeing his fanboy response.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snack:

Watch this, Alison Roman bean homage, then make it! I did and I was so glad. I replaced the greens with broccolini because, broccolini.

The New York Times wrote a one sentence homage to chocolate pudding, “a dessert of great comfort.” When I was a kid, my aunt made the best chocolate pudding. She did things like put sesame seeds in it, so delicious. The comfort-in-pudding zeitgeist, caused me to dig out this gem.

Coffee Custard (from India Joze in Santa Cruz)

8 egg yolks
½ c sugar
2t vanilla
1 c milk
1 c strong coffee
¾ c heavy cream

  • Heat oven to 325 degrees.
  • Scald milk and coffee together, leave to slightly cool
  • Put egg yolks into a bowl. Add sugar and vanilla, beat w/whisk until mixed but not airy.
  • Add heavy cream to scalded milk then add to yolk mixture.
  • Arrange ramekins, or coffee cups in a 9×13 pan and fill cups with custard.
  • Carefully pour hot water into pan, creating a bath for the custard cups—about halfway up the sides.
  • Place in oven and bake till custard is firm, about 30 minutes.
  • Remove custard cups from pan and allow to cool. Place in fridge.
  • Serve with a dollop of whipped cream if you like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wishing you all ease of mind. Slowly but surely. I know many people are suffering (cold, no power, no food on shelves at the grocery store, water struggles) in Texas. If you have the means, if you are safe and warm, consider donating to help out our fellow citizens.  Stanley donated here: Austin Pets Alive. And I donated here: Austin Area Urban League.

Stanley Pucci has hit a wall too.

 

 

 

 

watch.listen.snack.

 

 

Well, it’s come to this—prune talk. I’ve been working on a story that has some elderly characters moving into assisted living, and believe me, prunes are a big topic. What I know, besides what we all know about prunes, is that I’ve got two really tasty, pruney snacks for you.

It’s true! I promise. Trust me. Read on—

watch:

I’ve become reliant on my plants during the pandy. The greenery, here in the dismal gray winter of Portland, has lifted my spirits. The opportunity to tend to a living thing has been good for my soul. Watering, spritzing, feeding, and yes, talking to my plants, has given shape to the sometimes shapeless days of life indoors. Is it Monday? Is it Thursday? Who knows? But the soil in the Ficus is dry! The snake plant needs some attention.

Imagine my delight when this gem of a mini-documentary fell into my inbox. “Noble Planta,” is charming, a bit slow moving, so maybe play it on your tablet in the kitchen while you prepare dinner. The story of a plant shop in Manhattan, and a marriage, both of which require tending. The husband is a bit woowoo about plants and humans communicating. “Nobody wants to be smacked in the face. We are giving a silent suggestion to the plant and the plant is telling us when the time is right.”
And the wife, well, let’s just say she’s a bit more pragmatic. “B.S.,” she says. “I’m tired.”

In our house, we’re also pretty smitten with “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.” My only advice, don’t watch when you are hungry.

Finally, PIFF, the Portland International Film Festival is underway. The value add about no in person films? Everyone can access the amazing menu of films to watch in your own home.  Check out the virtual calendar, schedule a watch party from afar with family and friends. Honestly, every year I find some gem that inspires me, makes me laugh, and expands my world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

listen:

I have two jazzy spring playlists for you. Here, and here.

The NYTs recently put out this list of 36 Podcast Personalities Recommend Their Favorite Shows, which appears to be a great trove of suggestions.

I’m going to start with: “Goodbye To All This,” described as an audio memoir by Sophie Townsend, the entire series is a beautifully told journal about family, loss, love and discovering what’s next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snack:

So, prunes. Hang with me. I know some people (not you) turn up their noses at prunes. Just here to say, I try to have a container of these sweet babies in the fridge at all times.

Prunes Poached in Red Wine.

  • ½ pound pitted prunes
  • 2 cups red wine,
  • ¼ cup mild honey, such as clover -or- 2T sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise, seeds scraped out
  • 1 cinnamon stick

Put everything in a saucepan on the stove, heat till bubbling and then turn down VERY low. Simmer for 30ish minutes. If the prunes do not remain submerged in liquid, add a bit of water. Let cool. Store in fridge. Your options for serving are now endless:

  • On vanilla ice cream
  • In Greek yogurt
  • Atop this delicious Olive Oil Cake
  • In a dish with a sliver of Roquefort cheese
  • By themselves
  • Alongside a roasted chicken (if this is the plan, maybe go easy on the vanilla)
  • Smeared on a grilled cheese sammie, made with sharp cheddar

I promised two prune recipes. When I was having chemotherapy (I am fine. Nine years out. Hooray!!) I made this, both for iron and for sluggish digestion. I still make it, for us, for family and pals, all the time.

Take about 4 cups of dried fruit. I use pitted prunes, dried cranberries, dried figs, sometimes dates. Always let the prunes do most of the heavy lifting. Place in a pan and cover with one bottle of organic, sugar free, pomegranate or cranberry juice. Add several cinnamon sticks. If the fruit is not submerged, add enough water to cover.  Let simmer on the stove for about 45 minutes, until the fruit softens and absorbs liquid.  Once cool, remove cinnamon sticks and puree in a Cuisinart.  Store in the fridge, and add a spoonful to your yogurt or oatmeal, or, spread on bread along with some almond butter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wishing you all ease of mind. Slowly but surely. Change is coming. While we wait, why not take a moment to treat yourself to a little something something? Maybe an ice cream bar, maybe a long bath, a glass of bubbles, some Bombas (which really do hug your feet!) or a new top, maybe these fantastic spatulas, or a new saucepan (I know, a splurge. I was given one for the holidays, and I am ridiculously in love). We are in the shoulder season between winter and spring! Vaccines are rolling out. Let’s kick up our heels.

Here’s Stanley, with a chill park vibe for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

need a laugh?

 

Feeling Blue? Anxiety-itchy? Make some popcorn and plop down on the couch for one of these films to ease your mind, or at least give you a diversion.

 

Laugh-riot movies (suggested to me on FB. I have not vetted all of these. Bold titles had multiple mentions):

 

Booksmart
Hot Fuzz
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Isn’t it Romantic
A Fish Called Wanda
Stakeout
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Sisters
(Original) Pink Panther movies
Death of Stalin
21 Jump St.
Throw Mama From the Train
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
What We Do in the Shadows
JoJo Rabbit
City Island
Fleabag (not a film, but season 2? WOW!)
How to be a Latin Lover
Bridesmaids
Private Parts
Trainwreck
Soapdish
9-5
Between Two Ferns
Flirting w/Disaster
(Original) The Producers
South Park Movie (emphatic endorsement)
Team America-World Police
Quick Change
Airplane
Cold Comfort Farm
My Favorite Year
Impromtu
Hot Rod (advised to watch while high!)
Life of Brian
Kentucky Fried Movie
Zoolander
Meet the Parents
Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Singing in the Rain
The Lady Eve
My Cousin Vinny
Little Miss Sunshine
Get Shorty
Happy Face
Yesterday
Safety Not Guaranteed
40 Year Old Virgin
The Proposal
What About Bob
Vacation
Moonstruck
Best in Show
Waiting for Guffman
A Mighty Wind
How to Build a Girl
Almost Famous
Lady Bird

 

Thank you for taking care of yourselves. Thank you for being extra kind to the people you see in the world (from 6 feet apart). There is nothing racist about this virus. Thank you: medical professionals, farmers, grocery store clerks, generous neighbors, sanitation workers and many other kind human beings. I’ll be in touch.

 

 

 

watch.listen.snack.

 

I’m having a bit of a hard go right now. How are you? I cannot tell you exactly how much time I spend cruising the Humane Society, Pixie Project, and other dog rescue websites, but it’s significant, it’s basically like sucking my thumb. I also self-soothe by lying on my floor pretending to do Pilates, drinking tea, scrolling through Instagram, and I’ve developed the habit of taking one tot of booze while I cook dinnertime snacks. Notice I did not say dinner. Reading, writing, and eating have morphed for me, so here are a few things to see you through: watch.listen.snack. (Forgive my rudimentary graphics! I’m flying by the seat of my pants.) read.write.eat will be back in a week!

 

watch:

Remember last week when I suggested War and Peace!  Ha ha. That was a joke on me! If you are doing it, I am so proud of you!

  • We’re having a silly old movie festival:  The Princess Bride, which we watched last night and it is still a joy! Next, my husband’s fav: Groundhog Day, which we will follow with Big.
  • We’ve also made a group movie date for Emma, which our cable company has made available. We’ve reached out to pals and plan to make popcorn (see below!) then all press play at the same time, and yes, we will text each other through the movie! I know, heresy!! Yet we will feel some togetherness.
  • If you don’t know about Better Things I am quite jealous because you have 3½ seasons of smart, funny, and real ahead of you.
  • If you’re limiting your news intake, which I recommend, you may want to follow Katie Couric on Instagram, as she has a solid and quick Covid-19 Update every day.
  • For art, please, please (especially if you have children at home, though not a requirement) follow WendyMac on Instagram as well. Click on her stories to get amazing art classes. I think she deserves a MacArthur Grant for this work she’s doing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

listen:

Podcasts are your friends! Clean out closets, take a bath, trim your bangs (well maybe not). Whatever you need to do, put on a podcast, and take care of yourself while you listen.

Pumping-up your sagging spirits:

Art/Literature/Poetry:

Chitty-chatty:

  • Armchair Expert, I liked conversations with Malcolm Gladwell, Peggy Orenstein, Sanjay Gupta, and Ronan Farrow
  • Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, particularly the Al Franken episode.
  • Longform storytelling: check S-Town, it’ll captivate you.

And for music, we’ve got United We Swing, Best of Jazz at the Lincoln Center, on repeat. And, we’re enjoying Nick Drake as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snack:

A lot of salami happening at our house! My husband has been putting tiny morsels (to make it last) on top of cheese toast and setting it in the broiler for a few minutes. Salty, crunchy, fatty. It checks all the boxes and goes down quite will with that tot of booze I mentioned earlier.

  • If you must be pseudohealthy, try this from Smitten Kitchen: kale chips crushed over buttered and salted popcorn.
  • Happen to have a pantry full of nuts, this looks delicious!
  •  Wholeheartedly recommend these Spinach Balls with Honey-Mustard Sauce:
  • For something sweet and delicious, I’m loving Chocolate Panini! I know, it’s decadent and slightly weird. If you don’t have access to a grill, you can cook them in a cast iron fry pan. Check out Mark Bittman’s entire website for delicious food, but these panini are easy and satisfying and bring to mind the Italian film I loved when I was in high school, Bread & Chocolate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it for today. Thank you for taking care of yourselves. Thank you for being extra kind to the people you see in the world (from 6 feet apart). There is nothing racist about this virus. Thank you: medical professionals, farmers, grocery store clerks, generous neighbors, sanitation workers and many other kind human beings. I’ll be in touch.

 

 

 

Workshop Guidelines as Relationship Advice

 

I overheard a student of mine mention that my workshop guidelines were very different than any she’d encountered before, in a good way. I got a little puffed up when I heard the comment. I’ve worked hard, read many books, and tried lots of strategies to come up with a workshop protocol that allows the writer to keep moving on her manuscript.  The last thing I ever want is to shut someone down. I imagine in my early days as a workshop attendee I did just that, pointing out faults and speaking with the unbearable pomposity of youth! I’m cringing right now and wish I knew to whom I owe an apology. I’m sorry…
My student went on to say that my workshop guidelines are actually good marital advice! Who knew? i certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I can see what she meant.

In an effort to contribute to good relationships and workshops, here’s what little I have!

 

Workshop Guidelines

The primary job of workshop is not only to help the writer recognize what may need attention in their pages, but also to describe, appreciate, analyze, and illuminate the pages as accurately, carefully and generously as possible. Reflecting back to the writer what the words on the page seem to say or want to be allows her to understand whether or not the work is conveying her intention. I am of the belief that we learn equally from what we do well and from our failed attempts. And yet, often we cannot tell which is which. Thus careful reading is not only for the writer’s benefit but for the benefit of the entire group. Ideally, the workshop should sharpen one’s ability to read, understand, and explicate any work, including your own.

Appreciate, illuminate, reflect back, be generous! We have to let our partners know that we see them, right? Pay Attention. 

The greatest problem with a fault finding workshop is that it’s discouraging! It reverses the writer’s momentum driving her back upon what has been written rather than forward toward continuing the work or toward development of her essential vision. Bitching and nagging are ultimately barren, in love and in criticism. Partners and manuscripts become hostile resentful, inhibited, fearful and depressed. They slam doors, pout and refuse to talk. Revision is a continuous, incessant, vital part of writing, it is the effort to see and to develop further what’s right about a piece, what is good and successful and engaging. Only finding fault is not necessarily supporting the writers vision.

Focusing on faults (though I get that it’s tempting…I’ve been married 30 years) is discouraging. And, criticism may prop you up for a second, as in feeling a bump of superiority when you’re the one who remembered to buy soap, send your mother-in-law a card, maintain your boundaries, but it won’t last and it won’t build anything. You want to support what you love about your partner, and hold yourself up to the spirit of revision as well.  

Read your colleague’s manuscript through twice. (I recognize that few of us will do this…it’s about hours in the day, but if you have time, please do. You will be amazed at what you notice and you will learn so much about writing.) The first time, do so with the intention of absorbing the story. Read slowly and carefully. The second time, read through with pencil in hand to make notations in the margins. underline or draw circles around what is working, what sparkles, is memorable, evocative, effective or fun, vivid, rich in sensory details, language that says the right thing in the right way. Explain in the margins why you liked what you’ve marked. Be celebratory and generous and true. Believe in the best of the story.

Celebrate what’s working. (Thank you for bringing me coffee in bed! Thanks for going to that obscure French film you probably would never choose on your own! Thanks for reminding me to laugh and let it go…) Give compliments. Be generous. Believe in the best in your partner. 

Put question marks in the margins where things aren’t going well, where you get lost, bored or confused, where the writing seems too shallow or oblique. Add a brief statement about what wasn’t working, why you were confused. These places that are sticky, stuck, or not working are often growth edges. It may be blurry but there may be good energy as well. Troubles are doorways. Ask questions in the margins.

Make your complaints brief and clear. Troubles are doorways to better understanding your partner, yourself, and your relationship.

Do not worry about grammar mishaps, misspellings, etc… This is rough draft material.

I know this one is abundantly clear! Is it worth it to complain about the way your partner slices the apple? Makes, or doesn’t make, the bed? Chews gum? You may not change them, ever. So you’ll have to learn to live with this rough draft material. Don’t sweat the small stuff. 

It takes far greater maturity to notice the words that shimmer, far greater generosity and vulnerability to admit when you’ve been touched. When reading someone’s work: REVEAL rather than revile. ILLUMINATE rather than deride and dismiss.

Let your partner know when they shimmer. Reveal what upsets you, discuss, listen to what upsets them. Be curious not cursory.

Finally, what are some questions or concerns you have at this point?  Based on a question or concern, offer one suggestion for revision. Give your comments to the writer.

Don’t overwhelm your partner with suggestions for revision! Maybe ask of them one thing that you’d like to be different.

Workshop Protocol

  • Select a time keeper
  • Writer reads a short passage from their story/essay
  • Writer remains silent
  • Responders discuss the work, beginning with a description
  • We begin with positive comments. Let them run dry
  • Shift to questions about the work. Of course positive comments will continue to come forth as we discuss what is and is not working.
  • Understand that as we continue to talk about the work, our own opinions may shift, grow and change. That is the alchemy of worshop.
  • Ask the writer if they want ideas in the vein of “Maybe this will work…”
  • After an allotted time, the timekeeper gives the 5 minute warning and writer gets to redirect discussion if s/he has a pressing question about their work

P.S.  Notes to Self During WorkshopOr argument w/partner

  • Strive for a personal balance between listening & talking. (Quiet people, this is your chance to shine. Surprise us with your wisdom and insight. Talkers, this is your chance to listen.)
  • Respond to one another.
  • Show compassion to one another.
  • Be helpfully critical.

 

Portland Book Festival

 

In 2002, when my family moved from Santa Cruz to Portland, one of my very first acts as a citizen was to buy a subscription to Portland Arts and Lectures—world class authors speaking to capacity audiences in a beautiful concert hall? I’m in! Arriving downtown for the first lecture, my husband and I were pleased and shocked by the hullaballoo. There were people with lighted wands directing cars to parking garages. This traffic situation was not for the Rolling Stones, but for a writer. Man. My heart warmed. I knew this city and I were a good fit.

Last Saturday I spent the day at the Portland Book Festival in which the Schnitzer concert hall and nine additional stages, plus the Portland Art Museum were filled with 100+ amazing writers, booksellers, and readers for an entire day. Thousands of attendees buy books, become inspired, support writers and join in the city’s thriving literary community. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Here are the events I attended:

I was lucky to hear Ambassador Susan Rice speak in support of her book, TOUGH LOVE. At this time in history we’re all so hungry for heroes and, reality check: we can’t depend upon finding them in our current leaders, so we seek them in our writers. Ambassador Susan Rice is all three: leader, hero, writer.

In her conversation with Dave Miller, she talked about her parent’s contentious marriage, her father’s strengths and philosophy. He told her, “Bigotry is a function of someone else’s insanity.” And he pushed her to never ask for permission or affirmation. Believe in herself, she was taught.

Speaking about today’s political climate, no surprise that Ambassador Rice views climate change as the top national security threat. She spoke confidently that if the current administration prevails in the next election, damage wrought by them, on the climate, on the middle class and poor, on immigrants and health care, may not be able to be turned around. But if democrats win the election we can undo some of the damage starting by rejoining the Paris Agreement.

 

Tim O’Brien was next up on my dance ticket. He spoke about his new book, DAD’S MAYBE BOOK. O’Brien came to fatherhood late, having his first son at 56, and he spoke about the particular vulnerability of being an older father. He spoke of his sons as being “pains in the ass, and needles in the heart.” His sons brought “joy to a man who felt he had no joy left,” a man who self-identifies as having the heart of a crocodile. That was a heartbreaking thing to hear, especially knowing that the particular sweet joy of children in the house flows and ebbs.

O’Brien was incredibly candid and tender, tearing up a few times, as was I. He spoke about his wife, giving him a “kid ultimatum.” He tried cornering her, asking her if she loved what didn’t exist, the possibility of a child, more than she loved him. And she said, yes, absolutely. It was so curious. Don’t we all love what doesn’t exist? Isn’t that the very definition of yearning?

Finally he spent time talking about the concept of MAYBE. Since serving in the Viet Nam war, life has forever been a maybe. Maybe I will step on a landmine today. Maybe my best friend will take the hit. We’re all living maybe lives. Maybe, according to O’Brien, is not evil, it is not immoral. “Maybe.” “I think.” “Possibly.” They’re all excellent words. Not being certain is a gift, because uncertainty keeps us open to the possibility that we may be wrong, we may have something to learn. The current administration, said O’Brien, suffers from a dearth of maybe.

 

The last event of my day, a panel on family and history and trauma and breaking free, Ties that Bind. Damn! Isn’t that relevant to…ummm….everyone? Inherited trauma leaves little and large road blocks in all our DNA.  The panelists were the funny and wonderful Elizabeth McCracken, the exuberant Daniel Jose Older, and Karl Marlantes.

The thing that interested me most was when the discussion veered toward ghosts. Particularly how different cultures treat their ghosts. Older spoke of the disrespect and eradication of ghosts in the US, while in other cultures, namely his Cuban heritage, ghosts are leaned upon. ” Put out some food and ask for help,” he suggested. McCracken took up the conversation, noting that our ghosts are often disenfranchised from self and story. For example a ghost is simply “the ghost of a little girl,” not a particular little girl. It got me thinking about ancestors and dreams and how we might find guidance in this rough and tumble world. I know I could use some. I’d love to go through life feeling my grandmother, who died 27 years ago, has my back. And, what of the long line of ancestors about whom I know nothing? Maybe they have my back too. Maybe.

I always tell my writing students the quirks and idiosyncratic behaviors are the juice, the jam, of our characters. Those details make our people real. McCracken (whose work and humor I LOVE) says that quirks are the manifestations of trauma. Imagine, so many of us hang the hat of our personality upon inherited trauma, what a rich vein to burden our characters with quirks and oddball habits directly related to the lives of our ancestors!

 

All in all, the festival was a thrill.  I missed so many panels and readings, but you know what? That’s okay. It’s nice to know that Literary Arts lays out such a feast. And, we can hear what we missed in their Archive project.

 

 

 

 

 

Banana Cake

Around the time I was sixteen, visits to my grandma’s tiny cinderblock house in Hallandale, Florida were no longer fun. I didn’t want to leave friends behind for the twenty-one summer days they’d spend smearing baby oil on their shoulders, drinking weak beer and hooking up. It wasn’t missing my friends that made me resent the trip, it was worry that my friends might not miss me. Upon returning I wouldn’t be part of the inside jokes. Belonging was always tenuous for me, a kid who went to five elementary schools, moving regularly until my mom discovered where she wanted to be, a California beach town. In high school, I went along with all group decisions. Cut class? Why not. Watch the door while a “hilarious” friend pooped in the Burger King sink? Of course. Eat mushrooms? Sure. Yell out the car window at pigeon-toed, awkward Dara, mangling her name, taunting her for no reason other than covering up my insecurities? If it meant not getting culled from the pack, absolutely.

My single mom, sick of me sneaking in at two a.m., getting bad grades, and slamming doors, wanted her own summer life. So, off I went to Florida. The trip kept me out of trouble and ostensibly made my grandmother happy. I was not a kid who would get up to messy business on my own. I needed cohorts. At Grandma’s, I was mostly quiet and bored. I picked at my skin, played with my hair—styling, braiding, cutting progressively shorter bangs with nail scissors. I read Agatha Christie books, ordered ice tea and tuna sandwiches by the pool at the Miami Sheraton where Grandma ran the Kid Klub.

Though I’d long since outgrown Grandma’s size 4½ shoes, at her home, I loved to stare at them, pumps, flats, sandals with kitten heels, patent leather, red canvas, all lined up in her shoe rack, which amazed me. A shoe rack! At our house shoes were abandoned by the couch or the back door. Grandma’s home was clean, buttoned up. While my mother favored Indian bedspreads tacked to the ceiling, paperbacks by Peter Benchley, Xaviera Hollander and James Michener splayed on the furniture, and overflowing ashtrays, my grandma raked her white shag carpet so it stood tall. Grandma made her bed every morning, crisp with her cheery yellow chenille bedspread. She taught me how to cocoon pillows inside the spread, how to smooth the surface with the palm of my hand. When I’d left for Florida, my mom’s waterbed was leaking. She’d accidentally lost the cherry on her joint and burned a tiny hole through her sheets and the plastic.

Grandma and I quickly fell into a rhythm, movies on Saturdays, the pool every day, dinner—mostly cottage cheese, chicken salad and Sara Lee banana cake—served on her breezeway, and TV at night. Grandma went to bed early and I’d stay up to paint my toenails, watch David Letterman, read her Time Life book collection: This Fabulous Century, and snoop through the medicine cabinet, her small desk. I excavated the drawers, examined bills: Florida Power and Light, Burdine’s Department Store, State Farm. I held her letter opener, dagger shaped and heavy. It seemed so civilized, a tool for opening a letter! I felt the faint stirrings of aspirations…shoe rack, letter opener, smooth bed.

It must have been in her desk that I found the pot. Tucked into an envelope from my mom who thought my grandma might enjoy getting stoned. Why? I don’t know. Maybe Grandma had glaucoma. Maybe it was oblique criticism. Maybe Grandma had gotten a contact high the last time she was in California. My mom always talked about contact highs. Me, our dog, Grandma, we were all susceptible and my mom thought it was far out. Whatever the reason I do remember my mom sending joints in a letter, and I was happy to be the recipient in the first few days of my visit. After dinner and the news and a sitcom, after Grandma went to bed, I’d take a few hits and get more banana cake. David Letterman dropped stuff off a five story building, read his top-ten lists, had a Monkey cam and a dog that attacked a vacuum cleaner. I’d get another slice and flip through the Time Life books, past pictures of breadlines and the Viet Nam war, Woodstock and the stock market crash of 1929, Twiggy and Richard Nixon. I’d go for more cake, flatten the shag carpet lying on the floor and staring at the Picasso print my grandma had over her desk.

The Tragedy was from his blue period. A family mourned on a beach. Licking frosting off my fork, I would stare at the mother and father who stared at the cold sand, and I’d think about what it must have been like for my grandma to lose a child to spinal meningitis when the girl was only four. She fell sick with a fever on Friday and was dead by Sunday. Grandma was only twenty, just four years older than me. I’d heard the story once from my mother, never from my grandma. The print was unbearably exquisite. It was torture and beauty. The father and mother draped in heavy dark clothes. The flat sea, their bony feet. My petite, dark-eyed grandma who touched up her roots every three weeks and wore baby doll pajamas with terry cloth slippers at the breakfast table, asleep now in her queen bed in the other room. Imagining such intense pain, holding the letter opener, shuffling through her bills, shaking the box of Doan’s pills from her medicine cabinet, I let my ears fill with my own dramatic tears. Awake and alone, roaming her house I didn’t even know I was lonely. I didn’t know that I was using her story, using Picasso and the pictures of the Dust Bowl to explicate my awkward fears. Was I normal? Would I ever be loved? I did this nearly every night. And in the morning, if Grandma was disappointed that there was no banana cake to enjoy with her coffee, she never said a thing.

 

Banana Cake

1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup butter
2 eggs, separated
2 bananas, crushed
½ cup sour milk
1-2/3 cups pastry flour
1 T baking soda
¼ t baking powder
½ t salt
½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Heat the oven to 350° F. Butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans. Cream together the butter and sugar, then one at a time, mix in the egg yolks, bananas, and sour milk, stirring after each addition until combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients (and the nuts if using) to the wet ingredients and stir to combine. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, and fold into the batter. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until done.

Cream Cheese Frosting

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 T sour cream
¼ cup honey

Blend in a bowl and spread on the cooled cake. Decorate with toasted pecans.

Sometimes a Little Smack-Talk Helps

The holidays can be lovely and stressful (feel free to reverse the order or omit an adjective!). For me, the holidays are bittersweet. I miss family I rarely see. I miss times when my children were small enough to sit in my lap. I miss the anticipation and buzz of a full house, the scents from a busy kitchen, lingering at the table, and the great team my husband and I made—me cooking, him loading the dishwasher! It was fun and exhausting.

I admit to regularly weeping while I wrapped presents, alone in the living room late at night, a commercial for Maxwell House coffee would cue up, a young soldier coming home at dawn and making a pot of coffee for his family, the drip and smell woke his mom, whom he surprised. Got me every time. And now, it feels so false considering all the soldiers who come home and suffer, all the people who drink their coffee alone.

In addition to expectations pummeling us from advertising, there’s also social media’s constant portrayals of JOY!!!  Black Friday and Cyber Monday and the drive for more more more exhaust and disgust. These dark days (literally) beg for light, whether that means Chanukah candles, Christmas tree lights, the Kwanzaa Kinara, or celebrating Solstice with a cozy fire. I am so ready to embrace light (literal and metaphorical), to reinvent, to create and new rituals.

As I do, I turn to friends to find out what works.  I asked people what they do for selfcare during this freighted time of year. And, no surprise, I got a wonderful list.

  1. Dive into a book and/or a bath.
  2. Be a pillow for a dog or cat.
  3. Give yourself permission to say No.
  4. Take lots of walks.
  5. Cook something healthy…lentil soup, sourdough bread?
  6. Travel, if you can, preferably to a place where the holidays aren’t such a giant deal.
  7. Exercise.
  8. Lower expectations.
  9. Be as generous as you can, with your time, with your money.
  10. Make something: a potholder, a scarf, a pie, a short story.

Yes, this list can feel a little holier-than-thou. I recognize that sometimes a date with a trusted friend, a Manhattan, and a smack-talking session also does wonders for the soul. Just don’t overindulge in this one. Another thing that ALWAYS lifts my spirits…singing! Alone in the car is best, at full volume, particularly Alanis Morissette, this one.

Whatever you’re feeling about the impending holidays, I wish you a bright and light season which includes lots tenderness toward your heart. Here’s a little suggestion from Grace Paley’s story, “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age:

“…when you get up in the morning, you must take your heart in your two hands…put your hands like a cup, over and under your heart…stroke a little, don’t be ashamed…then you must talk to your heart. Say anything, but be respectful. Say—maybe say, Heart little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.”