Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What Could Have Been The World's Shortest E-Book ...

The day I published How to Bake a Better Cookie, a review appeared that ended with this: "Now I need one for breads!"

Yesterday, I was standing in front of the whiteboard in my office, jotting ideas for upcoming projects. I jotted: "Bread e-book? Do I have enough to say?"

Nope, I really don't.

I don't bake a lot of varieties of bread. (My one atttempt at rye was memorably leaden.)

I don't use starters.

I don't use a baking stone.

I don't mist my oven to encourage the crust.

I've made Greek bread in the past with reasonable success because Greek bread is really just white bread, pulled into a wreath shape and smothered with sesame seeds.

Mostly – almost exclusively – I make the bread you see at the top of this post. The Serbs in my family call it pogacha. It's a basic white bread but it only raises once, so it's slightly more dense than typical white bread. (The recipe's here.)

And it makes spectacular toast. I mean, it's good as bread, but it's sublime as toast.

A lot of people are scared to attempt bread, but it's not as daunting as people make it out to be.

Just before Christmas, one of my cousins mentioned that they tried making pogacha and it didn't rise. He presumed his yeast was bad.

Nope, probably not, I said.

And that brings me to the first – and possibly – only rule you need to know about baking bread:

Don't kill the yeast.

That's it. So long as you don't kill the yeast, odds are that you and your oven will produce something fairly edible.

See what I mean? It would have been a really short e-book. Even 99 cents would have been too much to charge.

If you proof your yeast in warm water, make sure it's warm. Not hot. Warm. Years ago, my Aunt Chick said, "Think of a baby's bath water."

The water needs to be warm enough to encourage the yeast but not so warm that it dies.

So hold the inside of your wrist under warm water and when it feels plesantly warm but not hot, you're good to go.

Likewise, if you're adding the yeast to an existing hot liquid, let it cool down to a pleasantly warm temperature first.

Don't be impatient. Swirl the bowl around to expose the mixture to more air to hasten the cooling process.

Or, as I often do, stick the bowl in the freezer for a minute or two or three.

Too-cool liquid will always be preferable to too-hot liquid.

Also, you can add a smidgen of sugar to your yeast to give it some food and make it happy from the get-go.

There you have it: the one piece of advice you need to get you started on your bread-baking way.

Baking bread is enormously gratifying.

And your family and friends will think you a genius.

Don't kill the yeast.

Friday, January 09, 2015

How Can I Help You Express Yourself? ...

I formally kicked off a book-coaching project with a new client yesterday. She's been working on a book for a long while. She's collaborated with a friend. She's shared a lot of material with me to review, including a table of contents so extensive, it's really an outline. She's rewritten the first chapter multiple times. And she's felt stuck.

So yesterday, with the hectic holidays behind us and a whole new year to explore, she was ready to get to work and figure out a new plan. She called at 8:30 a.m.

By 9:30 a.m., we had discovered that:

1. She's really writing two books.

and

2. The second book should probably happen first.

Book coaching, like all other coaching, looks different for every client.

For some, what I offer is really writing coaching, helping them to hone their writing skills.

For others, like my latest client, I join their projects already in process but early enough that I can help them shape their initial content, help them work through obstacles, or help them refine their approach to uncover what they truly want to say.

For yet others, I take on more of an editing role when they're further along in the process. Where I can offer insights, though, I do.

And for yet another segment of authors, I come on board at a point when they're almost ready to publish but seek one more set of eyes to review their work and I function as an editor's editor, if you will. In some cases, all that's really called for is proofreading. But, in some instances, I've been able to make suggestions that add another layer of polish to a project that the author didn't know was available.

For this latest project, our plan is to proceed session by session, as she's able to write. Our initial conversation yielded some good insights, but a creative process is just that, and she's open to letting this book – or these books – evolve.

But for the moment, she has a renewed sense of momentum. And I look forward to helping her see where it goes. My favorite part of our call yesterday was her pause after I made a suggestion, then the sound of her voice when she said, "Oh, I like that idea!"

Sometimes a project needs a fresh perspective and a bit of collaboration. Do you have a project you'd like to work on in the new year? Perhaps I can help you with that.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Holiday Giving ...

Pretty much everyone I know is in the process of shedding stuff. It is a delightful feeling, as I know from firsthand experience, having recently donated bags and bags and bags of books and an entire car and trunk full of stuff that, for years, I told myself I would sell at a garage sale.

After about 10 years of telling myself that story – and losing plenty of stuff to a flooded basement some years ago – I decided that it wasn't true. I could make it true, but not until spring, which, 'round these parts, doesn't often show up until June.

And I didn't want the clutter in the house any longer. I didn't want to walk past my guest bedroom and think, "I really have to deal with that."

So I dealt with it. Done.

Just in time for the arrival of the mac daddy of gift-giving holidays.

I already had a couple of gifts on hand that I knew were the right things but the balance of my list loomed.

On Thanksgiving, my father had announced that he had pored over all the sales papers and had found nothing he needed.

"The holidays aren't just about need," I reminded him. "Sometimes they're about want, too."

"Well, there's nothing I want, either."

All righty, then.

Dad got cookies and scratch-off lottery tickets. Seriously. He was delighted.

I talked with my oldest brother about gift ideas for the parents. He asked what I wanted. "Nothing," I said, and I meant it. "You pick up the tab all year when we go out for pizza and movies. That's more than enough. What would you like?"

"Nothing," he said. And I knew he meant it. He's spent the past couple years getting rid of stuff – the man is The craigslist Whisperer – and organizing the rest.

But I also know that he loves the white chocolate macadamia cookies at Subway, so I bought Ghirardelli white chips and half a pound of raw macadamia nuts, figuring I could do better than a fast-food chain.

He wrote the other day to let me know he had recovered from his cold and therefore could taste things again so he broke into the cookies at last. "They're great!" Take that, Subway!

Two of my nephews and my niece received afghans from their great-grandmother. I had two stashed in the guest-room closet, never used. They're navy and cream, rugby-stripe-ish, very graphic, rather nautical, and very cool. Each of the boys got one. And my niece received the afghan my grandmother had made for me when I was a baby. I included a pair of fluffy socks for her. The afghan is not big.

My grandmother was not a warm and fuzzy woman. But I was pleased to share her yarn talents with the kids. You can never have too many afghans.

I don't exchange gifts with their mom and dad, my brother and sister-in-law, other than stocking-stuffer treats. My brother always receives his favorite gummi bears from me. This year, my sister-in-law received a Toblerone. "I've never had one of these before," she said. "They're good!"

Of course they're good. A Toblerone played a supporting role in an episode of "Friends." It was cited in an episode of "Gilmore Girls." Toblerone rock.

My other nephew received a stash of cookies and a note that he shall begin receiving cookies as part of his college care packages.

It was a rather homemade Christmas, most of all for my mom.

She, too, got fluffy socks, which I did not make.

But her main gift was a wreath for her front door, which I did.

I was at their house one day, waiting for her to get home, lacking my keys for their house so I couldn't let myself in. I stood on the front porch considering the front door, knowing she was tired of the wreath she had, pondering what might work better instead, both based on her aesthetic and the style of the house.

My brain said, "Leather!"

Leather lacing would have been too fine though, the wrong scale, too busy.

"Old belts!" said my brain.

Yes, old belts!

And so I headed out to Goodwill a couple of days later to find old belts. Or new belts. Or any belts that would work with my vision.

And then I went to a second Goodwill store because I needed a larger stash.

And then I deconstructed the belts, removing most of the hardware. (I kept one belt intact to use at the top, as the "bow," as it were.)

And then I set out to find a wreath form.

Why in the hell are pieces of Styrofoam so expensive relative to what they are?!

That concern was moot, however, as the craft store I was in lacked the size I wanted. So I wandered the floral department. Surely something else would work. Maybe I could cannibalize a holiday wreath.

Or maybe I could use the straw wreath form staring me in the face.

Why, yes. Yes, I could.

I came home and wrapped that sucker in electrical tape to create a black base for any instances where the wreath form might peek through behind the belts.

And then I attempted to complete my project.

And then I attempted to complete my project.

And then, once again, I attempted to complete my project.

I finally finished on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, seriously just under the wire.

But I was pleased with the final result. Although, as I wrote to Angelo, who knew that this was in the works:

"DO NOT MAKE ONE OF THESE."

It was way more effort than I expected.

I shall not be getting into the bespoke leather-belt wreath business. One of these is all I feel the need to make in my lifetime and this is that one.

But we hung it up yesterday and Mom is very pleased.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: The Year That Was (And Is, For Five More Hours) ...

This year, by every metric I can conceive, was better than last year.

And that's saying a lot.

Surely 2013 was the nadir. Or the realization of the pendulum swinging as far as possible into bleakness. Not that I'm trying to tempt fate to prove me wrong, mind you. I just mean to say that 2013 sucked. Really, truly, awfully, painfully sucked.

So 2014 was bound to be better.

And it was.

I took on some wonderful clients. (I am so pleased to be a part of Michele Woodward's team.) And I took on – and then dropped – and then took on again – and then dropped again a not-so-wonderful client. The people were nice. The work did not suit me. But the on-again, off-again process taught me to trust my instincts the first time around. You know: for the next time.

I helped a lovely doctor with the best name in the world – Starla Fitch – bring her book into the world. What began as a technical exercise morphed into much, much more. I appreciated her faith in me as we tackled some new ground for both of us. I may not know everything from the get go, but I'm a quick study. And my goal was only ever to make her look good, and on that front, we succeeded. Editors are very anonymous that way: If we do our jobs well, no one can tell that we're doing our jobs.

At long, long, long, long last, I met the delightful and charming David Leite. We snuck in brunch at Dillman's right before Brendan Sodikoff shuttered the joint to turn it into Cocello. Happily, though, in recent days the news has surfaced that Dillman's will be back in 2015. Finally, a place to get good deli. Good deli is ridiculously hard to find.

And speaking of Cocello, I was pleased to have dinner there with the only person in my life who may like octopus as much as me. Or maybe I like it as much as him. In any event, it's good to have an octopus friend.

I hatched a plan this summer to publish a wee e-book – a weeebook – or an ebook(let) – of cookie tips. I've been baking for so many years, it seemed like a good idea to gather all the bits of information in my head and commit them to virtual paper. And, remarkably, I actually published it, earlier this month. As I've mentioned to friends, it is the publishing equivalent of wading into the shallow end of the pool and putting my face in the water before mustering up the courage to drift into the deep end and feel the floor disappear underneath me. In real life, though, I've always been a fan of the deep end. It'll be good to return to it in the coming year, metaphorically speaking.

Because now that I've published my ebook(let), I'm more inclined to write and publish again. For as much as I rail against e-readers, though, I really rather like electronic publishing. It suits my impatience.

The aforementioned David sold his memoir this year, which I am very eager to read, as David is a spectacular writer. It's scheduled to be published in 2016 or 2017. I marvel at that. I'm glad to be able to maintain interest in a project for a week. I don't know if I have the constitution to marshal a book through a process that takes years.

Working for myself suits me. And while I'm still getting the knack of the hustle required to find new projects and keep things humming, I am enormously grateful for the freedom this life affords me. Sometimes, it takes me a while to get a message, but I finally have. (Thanks for not hiring me, Mark. Truly. It was absolutely the right decision for both of us. I just didn't realize it at the time.)

I've had some clients return to me and recommend me to others, which is both lovely reinforcement and endorsement. I look forward to building on that foundation and planting new seeds in the coming year (to mix metaphors).

And I am very much looking forward to singing – and recording – in the coming year, too. I've been pondering a return to the voice class I've taken in the past, to get back into the swing of things, so to speak. And was very, very saddened to learn of the recent passing of the woman who taught the class. Gwen was just the teacher I needed when I embarked on taking classes and I'm so sorry that I won't have the privilege of studying with her again. But her passing has only strengthened my resolve to sing and record and maybe even – gasp! – perform. I feel like I owe it to her as well as to myself.

As this particular decade of my life speeds along, I realize every day the truth of "Life begins at 40." For 2015, I decided to choose a word as a touchstone of sorts for the year. I chose the word "become."

The process is already underway, of course. It began the day I arrived on this pale blue dot. But I am more aware of the process now and more ready than ever to steer when I can steer and to let go when I should let go and see where it all leads me.

May 2015 be all that you hope it to be(come).

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cookie Tips, Past And Present ...

I've been baking through my list of holiday cookies.

I also keep adding to the list.

Which has reminded me of a very key cookie tip:

— Make a list and (try to) stick to it

This was the year I was going to bake only two varieties, but lots of them: Peppermint Sablés* and Snickerdoodles.

But then I thought, "Oh, but I should make Oatmeal Raisin for Bill. And if I take cookies to Bill, I should make Peanut Butter for Donna ... ."

And just like that, the list had doubled.

And then I thought, "But Mom really likes Russian Teacakes. And Paul really likes Toffee Squares."

And presto! The list had tripled.

And then Mom reported that my niece looked crestfallen upon learning that Chocolate Crinkles would not be baked this year.

Well, that won't do.

Chocolate Crinkle dough is in the fridge.

And then I thought of a cookie-as-gift idea for someone for whom I do not usually bake, so, for those of you keeping score at home, that brings the tally to eight varieties.

From two to eight. Just like that.

So, that should be plenty, right?

Except that I've made what I thought was a sufficient quantity of each type of cookie and then realized, no, I really should make another batch of each.

So this year's baking has spiraled slightly out of control.

But hey, butter's on sale.

Speaking of having a lot of cookies on hand, though, one of the other tips I shared on Twitter this week was:

— Enjoy a couple (or a few) with your morning coffee, pre-holidays

We deserve wee rewards for our efforts.

Others that came to mind to share:

– While warm, roll Russian teacakes in powdered sugar to create a "skim coat"; the initial coat will enable powdered sugar to cling when you roll them in more before serving

– Toast walnuts – or other nuts – before using them in cookies; grind for better distribution, chop for better texture

– Baking two sheets of cookies? Rotate them halfway through the baking time, top to bottom, front to back; also, tack 30 seconds onto the second half of baking time to accommodate your oven coming back up to temp

– A stick of butter that's softened enough for baking should bend but not be too soft or greasy

Find more tips in my ebook(let) How to Bake a Better Cookie on Amazon.

* Swap in peppermint extract for vanilla

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ohmygosh! ...

Oh! In the intro of my ebook(let), I cite the vintage edition of Betty Crocker's Cooky Book as an influence!

What a trip to see myself in the same row with it on Amazon! (This is the Books > Cookbooks, Food & Wine > Baking > Cookies ranking.)

The modern-day reissue is No. 4, as it should be. It's a fab book.

I shall aspire to move up to that neighborhood and appear alongside the new version, but in the meantime, this picture delights me!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It's A Book(let)! ...

Historically speaking, I completed this project in record time.

I had the idea in July. I started jotting down thoughts on a piece of scrap paper in my wallet in a waiting room.

And then, as with most ideas I have, I let it stall.

I noodled around with it a bit, but not in any meaningful way.

Until last week.

And then, in earnest, on Monday afternoon. And into Monday evening.

And then as soon as I got up Tuesday morning.

And by Tuesday afternoon, it was a thing.

Available on Amazon.

What a trip.

Most publishing cycles take a couple of years.

This one took about 20 hours.

It's a good first step for me, the publishing equivalent of wading into the shallow end of the pool and putting my face in the water before heading into the deep end.

It's also terribly exciting and fun!

On to the next! Whatever that may be.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Crafty ...

Paint chips + circle punch + quilting thread = dotty garland, sample-strand edition. Should I ever make more, I think I'll swipe a black Sharpie around the back of each circle to eliminate the white edge. Fun little project, though. A good way to recycle!

Monday, December 01, 2014

Destiny ...

I had enough milk.

Whether or not I had enough milk was to determine whether or not I baked bread today.

I had enough milk. With a bit to spare.

So I made bread, the bread my Great Aunt Anne taught me to bake so many years ago. I was 8 then. Today, I am teetering on the fulcrum of my 40s.

It's second nature to me, this bread. I breeze through making it and shaping it.

The waiting truly is the hardest part.

But I waited for the dough to rise. And when it didn't look risen quite enough, I waited a little longer.

And then I fired up the oven and later, out came two lovely loaves, with more depth the the crust than the loaves I baked the other day. So I took a picture.

And then I waited for it to cool and then I cut a slice and the crust was indeed lovely. So I took a picture.

And then I set thin slices of butter on it to soften, because it was still warm. And then I smeard the butter into a mostly even layer and marveled at the chewy texture of the crust. These might be the best loaves I've ever baked.

And then I cut another slice – OK, two slices – and put them in the toaster and stood by, waiting for them to take on just the right amount of color, and then I set more thin slices of butter on them and let them mostly melt and I had already taken the two other pictures so I took a picture.


The happiest incarnation of bread is toast.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The First Bread Of The Holiday Season ...

The loaves rise separately but then kiss while baking. "Kiss While Baking" would be a good title for a fluffy novel.

Brownies ...

The secret to fab brownies: frosting, nuts, and a well-loved pan.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ho ... Ho ... Holidays! ...

The reindeer mug has made its seasonal cocoa debut!

Ooh, you know what'd be really good with cocoa?

These!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Scones Revisited ...

Once upon a time (read: September), I found myself with a bit of inspiration to create a little something new.

Thoughts and ideas swirled around in my head, as they do, and I settled on scones, which are like a distant cousin in the family tree of baked goods. Cookies and cakes and pies and muffins get all the love but scones aren't often invited to the party. Poor scones. They're often inexcusably dry, and while, yes, they're meant to be enjoyed with tea and slathered with jam and clotted cream, why can't scones star in their own show?

Well, these little guys are worthy of attention. I started with a recipe I've made in the past, and then doctored it, which is how most new recipes come to be. I knew I'd incorporate Nutella. And then I decided to add dark chocolate Ghirardelli chips because, well, can you think of a reason not to add dark chocolate Ghirardelli chips? And then I added toasted, chopped hazelnuts, to reinforce the Nutella and add a bit of texture, and voila! Scones with a double dose of hazelnut and a double dose of chocolate. And I knew I wanted to make them cookie-size because, well, have you seen the size of some scones? They can wear out their welcome.

These aren't very sweet but the dark chocolate chips add a nice intensity. And they're also rather moist, not crumbly like some scones you may have had in the past. They'd make a nice treat for holiday guests. Or package them with some cocoa mix and marshmallows for a holiday gift.


Double Chocolate Double Hazelnut Little Cookie Scones
(Adapted from Simply Scones, St. Martin's Press, 1988)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
1/3 cup buttermilk*
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup Nutella
1 cup dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped, toasted hazelnuts

Preheat oven to 400°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes and distribute them evenly over the flour mixture. With a pastry blender or two knives used scissors fashion, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg, vanilla, and Nutella. Add the wet mixture to the flour mixture and stir to partially combine. Dump in the toasted chopped hazelnuts and chocolate chips and stir to combine completely. The dough will be sticky. With a cookie scoop** (or two spoons), portion dough onto the parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake one tray at a time in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes. Remove sheet from oven, let cookies cool for four minutes, then transfer them to a rack to cool completely.

Yield: About 30

* Or mix milk with a teaspoon of lemon juice and let sit for a few minutes. It'll curdle a bit.
** I use the OXO 1 1/2 tablespoon cookie scoop which seems to hold two tablespoons. Go figure.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Knack ...

The selection of cards is an underappreciated art form. Of all the cards in the world – so, so, so many of them bad – to find just the right ones for just the right occasion requires tenacity and understanding and skill.

My friend Doreen is the mistress of this art form.

Doreen gives two cards for birthdays: one funny, one sincere.

Now, some may think she makes card selection easier on herself, that she removes the pressure to find the perfect card that conveys all intended thoughts and emotions.

But no, I say to you, no! Instead, she rises to two challenges, to find just the right sincere card and just the right funny card.

And this year is no exception.

Behold what I have dubbed the "Aw" card, with a lovely message that speaks to my ongoing journey:


And now behold what I have dubbed the "LOL" card, which truly did make me laugh out loud and also speaks to another aspect of my ongoing journey:


Thank you, Do! I love them. I love the care you put into choosing them. And I love you.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Undersink Discoveries ...

Many, many (many, many) years ago, browsing through Salvage One, I spied stacks of silver.

Ever the fan of shiny-but-worn objects, I wandered over to the shelves and discovered serving pieces that once lived on a ship.

Nifty!

I fell for this little guy, the bottom half of a small serving dish. If memory serves, the top and bottom were priced separately. Or maybe my memory doesn't serve and he was separated from his top.

Either way, I decided that he would make a fine soap dish. And home with me he came.

I think I paid $10.

For many, many years now, he's lived underneath my sink, the vessel into which I would plop my wet SOS pad after I'd scrubbed a pan.

And so it was today, upon finishing a frying pan (in which I'd fried the most gorgeous bacon).

And then my brain said, "Beth? Why is that under your sink? You love oval things. You love silver things. You really love silver, oval things. Put a plastic container under there for your SOS pad and bring him out."

And so I did. He was very, very tarnished and a bit rusty, but with a few applications of silver polish, I cleaned him up again, not pristinely but enough that he can now tarnish again, but more evenly.

I have no idea what I'll do with him but for now, he's pleased to be amonng his other silver friends.


Thursday, November 06, 2014

Twilight ...

My first-ever blog post in the whole wide world appeared on March 13, 2005.

I've decided that blog years are like dog years and this puppy's nearing its end. Perhaps it'll make it to the 10-year mark. We shall see.

Social media is a blog killer. Or maybe the culprit is apathy. Either way, my erstwhile drive to post on a daily – then regular – then semi-regular – basis has waned.

And when you start writing posts about how you don't write as many posts as you used to, it might be time to bring the curtain down.

Then again, the holidays are coming and I really am so fond of snapping pictures of holiday cheer and snow (snow and I have agreed to pretend that that Halloween bullshit never happened) and cookies that, well, as I type that, my inner blogger has perked up again. Perhaps we'll continue into the new year. Maybe even to March and beyond.

Yes, maybe.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Pundit For A Day ...

This is what I wrote to a friend this morning who wanted my take on today:

Generally, I feel good.

But here's the "no matter what" silver lining:

In the end, we win. If we hold the Senate, gridlock remains in Washington. Republicans continue their petulant bullshit. Voters continue to get further fed up with Republicans. And they lose the White House in 2016.

OR: If we lose the Senate, Republican factions will war with each other. The Tea Party wing is going to push for impeachment. The moderates will push back, understanding the lesson of impeaching Clinton. The Tea Party wing will scream louder, as they've been telling everyone for six years how evil Obama is and that he must be impeached so how can they *not impeach him now that they have the power? Nothing substantive will get done. Obama will veto any extreme shit they try to push through, like repealing the ACA. They won't have the votes to override his veto. Dems can then point to the GOP's "legislation" and say, "See? We told you they'd try to take away your healthcare. We told you they don't want you to earn a living wage even while they give more tax breaks to the rich people. We told you they want to destroy the environment." The GOP founders even further, and they lose the White House in 2016.

And if they lose in 2016, they're gonna lose for a very, very long time to come.

So, we *may lose this battle today. Anything's possible.

But we've already won the war.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Wee Garlic ...

Wee garlic from the farmers' market! It's too small to sell so the vendor was just giving it away. Cuteness!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

This Is Different Than Different ...

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, I worked at the Chicago Tribune. Looking back, my job wasn't particularly stressful, and yet, when I worked there, I arrived at a point at which I was chugging Mylanta straight from the bottle and subsisting on a diet of Lender's garlic bagels and Diet Pepsi. It was about all my stomach would keep down.

Consequently, I lost a lot of weight.

So much so that one day, not long after I had left the Tribune, I spied myself in a full-length mirror and I didn't recognize myself.

Literally.

I stopped and stared and tried to make my eyes and my brain arrive at a consensus. Yes, that woman in the mirror was me but hell if I could make myself understand that.

It was truly disconcerting.

Maybe my brain is wired differently than other people's brains. But yesterday, when I saw this ...

... I had the same disconcerting feeling again.

I still do.

If you showed me that image yesterday before I knew the story behind it and asked me, "Who is the woman on the left?", I would have said, "Renee Zellweger." And then if you asked me, "Who is the woman on the right?", I would have said, "I have no idea. Who is it?"

I wouldn't have said, "Hmm, she kind of looks like Renee Zellweger. Are they related?"

I wouldn't have made any association to Renee at all.

To me, those images look like entirely different women.

A friend on Facebook got a little testy with me, demanding to know what seemed so different to me about her two looks.

Looking more closely, yes, her lips are the same. And yes, her nose is the same. Her eyes are what are completely different, but look at how much difference they make.

I read this piece a few minutes ago, which begins with this lede:

"All Renee Zellweger did was what we told her to do: look different."

It goes on to discuss what demands are made of women to look different every day.

Oh, I agree.

Women – and yes, men, too, but this post is about women – are told every day that we should be thinner and we should have thicker, shinier hair and for the love of God, that thicker, shinier hair shouldn't contain any grey. We should have whiter teeth and we surely should never, ever, under any circumstances let on that our skin contains pores. Our lashes should be fuller – we might need a prescription to brush on every night to grow lashes if we lack them – and our lips should be fuller and our skin should be supple and would it kill us to slather on a lotion that contained a bit of bronzer or tanner and some sparkle, too? Because it's not enough to have soft, tan skin, we should shimmer, for God's sake. Honest to God shimmer. Like the air around a unicorn. We should do everything possible to hide all evidence of cellulite and stretch marks – even though it's not really possible – and we should definitely have bodies that look like Victoria's Secret models.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Yes, we're told that every day. And it's exhausting. And it takes its toll on our psyches because not even models look like models. They're airbrushed and Photoshopped into fictions of themselves.

But Renee doesn't look different to me. She looks unreconizable.

And some women are saying, "So what? Good for her! It's her face!"

And I don't begrudge her her face. She says she's happy. I'm glad she's happy. Good for her for being happy.

I'm just saying that – to me, anyway – she doesn't look like the same person.

And maybe that was her intent. But if you've shown up for all of your career with one face, and then you show up one day with a different face, yes, people are going to say something, not to be unkind – at least, that's not my intention – but because it's a disruption in what we've come to expect, whether or not those expectations are valid.

Plastic surgery is common. I get that. And while I think Meg Ryan, for instance, didn't enhance her face with her plumped-up lips, I still recognize her as Meg Ryan. I think Jennifer Grey looked fine before her nose job, but I see pictures of her now and I still see her, I just see her with a different nose.

But our eyes are a different matter. And that's what different about Renee's transformation. She's transformed the one feature that, for most of us, stays the most constant. Paul Newman's eyes were Paul Newman's eyes even as he aged. We can often identify a person just by their eyes, even if we can't see the rest of their face.

I suspect this story will go away after today or once the images of Before Renee and After Renee are seen by a wide enough swath of people that the change no longer comes as a surprise.

But I'm thinking there won't be a third installment of "Bridget Jones."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Nelson Algren Renaissance ...

Many years ago, I wrote a post about an interview I'd conducted many, many years before.

I mentioned that I had read in my research that we're experiencing a Nelson Algren renaissance. He shook his head.

"We're not experiencing a James Farrell renaissance, either. A renaissance can only begin at the university and the university can only teach books they can get their hands on. And with certain writers, the computer at the publisher says it's not worth keeping them in print." I asked if he thought there was any way to keep these writers' names alive.

"We live in a disposable culture where 40 million people can't read. That is one Spain, that is one South Korea. Talk about keeping something alive? Talk about a huge corpse. You don't need a fire to burn down a library. Apathy'll do it."

He thinks that Algren will vanish entirely, and he thinks he'll vanish entirely, too.


That Kurt Vonnegut said that he thought he'd vanish entirely too struck me as preposterous at the time. It still does.

But indeed, Nelson is not widely known.

I was reminded of Vonnegut's words today, though, because what feels like a Nelson Algren renaissance has arrived at last.

He's had a following – however small – for years now. His books, once banned, have been reissued and appreciated once more.

But now two documentaries are finally in the world and both at the same time.

Willa Cather's "The end is nothing; the road is all" is Nelson's epitaph. I use it on my web site and in my email signature, not because I am much of a fan of Willa's but because I am very much a fan of Nelson's.

And so today, as I wandered around the Internet and watched clips of the documentaries, I thought about the photo I'd taken of Nelson's grave.

Some people visit the graves of well-known musicians or actors. And some of us don't.

I flipped through a box of photo envelopes and my brain said, "They're in your Nelson box."

I hadn't opened my Nelson box for a very long time.

It is stashed in the corner on the floor of the closet off my office most of the time. Today, I hauled it out and put it on my desk.

Another time capsule.

The box contains a jumble of note cards and newspapers and Xeroxes and cassette tapes and books. Nelson's books. Some of which I'd forgotten I owned.

Could these be any cooler?

I can't remember where I bought them.

I don't think I bought them at Canio's in Sag Harbor, but I must have, I guess.

Nelson used to hold forth at Canio's, the Nelson Algren Saturday Salon, if memory serves.

When I was there, of course I took a picture of "his" chair:


I also interviewed Joe Pintauro, a playwright who owned several properties – at the time; he may still – in Sag Harbor. We talked inside Joe's house and then took a short stroll down to the house where Nelson lived. This was his porch:

I hope that Nelson found some peace in his final days. Peace seems feasible in a place like that.

There was a manila envelope in my Nelson box. I pulled out the contents and burst into tears. Jeff's handwriting. I'd forgotten he'd sent this to me:

And then I laughed at the newspaper itself, for the way it's folded. It's such a perfect representation of Jeff. Jeff's offices were, in a word, a mess. I love that he didn't bother to take the time to fold the paper precisely. He made it small enough to fit into the envelope. Mission accomplished:


I found other notes, too, from Nelson's friend Stephen Deutch and from Linda Landis Andrews, one of my teachers at UIC. The cassette tapes contain interviews from the radio, I presume? I talked to Studs Terkel for the paper but I didn't record our conversation. I should find a cassette player and given them a listen.

And maybe I should hook up my VCR again and watch "The Man with the Golden Arm." Though, really, I should reread the book instead. Nelson really got screwed on the movie deal.

I'm glad that Nelson is finally getting more love, at least in documentary form. I hope more people discover or rediscover his books. His wrote about the people behind the billboards, as Studs had said: drug addicts and prostitutes and gamblers, the down-and-out and everyday folks he saw where he lived, the city he loved for as long as he could. In Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson wrote, "Once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

But he headed east at the end of his life. He's not buried in Chicago. He's buried on Long Island.

"The end is nothing; the road is all."

But that's not entirely true. Nelson lived a fascinating if not altogether public life, fascinating enough to compel a 19-year-old student to interview Kurt Vonnegut as a means to an end, the end being the opportunity to stand at the grave of a man she never knew so she could use a description of his grave site as the opening to a college paper and provide her with memories to last a lifetime.

The end is something, too.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Leaf Walk ...

Yesterday would have been a really good day to take photographs of leaves, as it was gloomy and the light was pleasantly moody.

Today the sun I've been craving has arrived, and I'm very pleased for that. But now I'd like another grey day for shooting purposes.








Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Spin Through The Past ...

For any whippersnappers who may have stumbled upon this post: The artifact pictured above is a primitive version of a contacts list.

It's called a Rolodex. It was invented shortly after fire and the wheel.

I am old enough to have had one. I still do. It lives on a shelf in the closet off of my office. It's probably time to shred all the cards and recycle the rest of it. But it serves a fine function as a time capsule, too.

There are phone numbers listed on some of those cards for ... radio stations that no longer exist.

I think I developed a tad of arthritis just typing that sentence.

In all seriousness, though, there are also phone numbers and addresses on some of those cards of people who are no longer with us and the world is a much poorer place for their absences.

It felt like such a rite of passage to buy a Rolodex, proof that I was a legitimate member of the working world. Once I had a permanent desk at the Tribune, I guess I was a legitimate member of the working world, though my Tribune business cards would not come until a couple of years later and, unbeknownst to me at the time, not long before I would decide to resign.

I thought about flipping through the cards and writing stories prompted by the various entries. I may still. Or I may not. I've spent a fair amount of time mulling apsects of my past.

As one person from my Trib past would say: Onward.

Monday, September 29, 2014

An Insurance Story (That's Not Quite As Boring As I'd Like It To Be) ...

This is what I've learned: Insurance is meant to be purchased, not necessarily used.

I grew up in a State Farm home. Bob Gaspadarek was our insurance agent. I remember being at his office once. But mostly, I remember that each year as Christmas drew near, a desk calendar would arrive from Bob in the mail. I remember thinking that that was a nice thing. It folded in such as way as to sit at a slight angle, for at-a-glance viewing. I believe the lettering for his name, address, and phone number was gold.

And so, when I bought my first car, of course I insured my car with State Farm. And when I moved into my first apartment, of course I bought renters' insurance from State Farm. And when I bought my home, of course my homeowner's insurance was written with State Farm.

I had been a State Farm customer for more than 20 years. Notice the past tense there.

"Had been," because last month, State Farm dropped me.


Why? Because in recent years, I made three small claims, all related to weather and power outages related to weather. My deductible was $1,000, so I paid $3,000 toward rectifying those situations. State Farm paid, exactly, $6,488.49. In other words, I paid about one-third and State Farm paid about two-thirds. That seems like a pretty fair deal.

But this is what else I've learned: The dollar amount doesn't matter.

No, what matters is the number and frequency of the claims.


Never mind that I didn't make a claim for the first 15 years or so that I had any kind of coverage with State Farm.

Never mind that over my years as a policyholder, I paid far more into State Farm's coffers than $6,488.49.

Never mind that our climate is changing and weather-related claims are likely to increase for all of us.

Never mind that just last year, when my homeowner's policy renewed, State Farm applied a Claim Record Discount to my policy.

Nope, none of that mattered. My claim in February, for which State Farm paid out a whopping $1,175.65 (to my $1,000), is the reason that State Farm dropped my homeowner's policy.

Ideally, someone at my local office would have warned me. Ideally, someone would have said, "Beth, don't file this claim. This will cause us to drop you at renewal. Pay for the entire repair yourself."

But they didn't.

So it was up to me to find a new homeowner's policy. (Side note: I tweeted my problem and tagged @StateFarm each time. I received no response to my tweets. Ever. I also tagged @Allstate and someone replied within 20 minutes. If you're going to bother having Twitter accounts, companies, use them. They're a handy means of interacting with your current and prospective customers in real time. Nifty!)

I called a local Allstate office for auto and homeowner's quotes.

And I soon learned that Allstate would not write a homeowner's policy for me.

Because of the frequency of my claims. (With some insurers, claims stay on your "record" for five years, in case you didn't know. I didn't know. Now I do. And, if you're reading this, now you do, too. It would behoove you to ask your insurance agent about your insurance company's policy on this front and file any necessary claims accordingly.)

The dollar amount of my claims factored into Allstate's decision in no way. Two claims in five years would have been OK. Three claims in five years? No can do.

The woman I spoke with at Allstate was as helpful and informative as she could be. She shared the number of a broker who she suggested might be able to help me because, she said, I didn't want to end up with forced-placed insurance.

Force-placed insurance? Googling that phrase made my stomach turn.

Of course, it's a condition of my mortgage that I carry homeowner's insurance. But, in the event that I could not secure insurance on my own – my ability for which was in doubt – a bank would have put into force insurance to protect its investment – not me – and charge me for the coverage.

The problem is, according to my Googling, force-placed insurance, in some instances, is 10 times as expensive as typical policies.

TEN times. Banks have been sued in recent years for practices related to force-placed insurance. Thanks to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, those banks have reached settlements and have been ordered to refund consumers a portion of their payments, but still.

I freaked out at the notion that I might have to pay TEN times a typical monthly premium because State Farm was dropping me – and at least one insurer wouldn't cover me – because I had the temerity to avail myself of my homeowner's insurance, which I paid dutifully for 11 years. And then a derecho moved through the area and wiped out a couple of my trees as well as a portion of my fence. I had no control over that storm.

And then I had the temerity to avail myself of my homeowner's insurance again a year later when a slow-moving – or stalled – thunderstorm dumped inches and inches of rain across the area and the power went out which meant my sump pump failed and my finished basement took on water. I had no control over that storm nor the power company's inability to keep the power on.

(Here's another handy bit of information in case you aren't already aware: If your basement takes on water, so long as it's storm water, not sewer water, odds are it can be cleaned up and you won't need to tear out the carpeting and drywall and baseboards and such.)

Once the damage was remediated, and not wanting to go through that again, I had a natural-gas-powered, hard-wired generator installed. They're very handy things, generators. They are not, however, inexpensive.

And then I had the temerity to avail myself of my homeowner's insurance again two years later when this winter dumped feet of snow on the ground and then rain arrived on top of it and though I shoveled snow away from my foundation and the power stayed on and my sump pump pumped, tree roots had grown into my sewer line and the volume of water trying to get out to the sewer was too great to get by the roots, and so – joy of joys – my finished basement took on water again.

We had another storm-related outage in July. My power was out for two days. If not for my generator, I would have had water in my basement again. (Even if you have an battery back-up attached to your sump pump, those batteries only last for so long.)

So when I received the notice that State Farm was dropping my coverage, I called my agent's office and spoke with a very nice member of his staff. And then, a day or two later, I spoke with my agent himself. I told him about the generator. I told him of my intended maintenance schedule to keep my sewer line rodded. He said he'd file an appeal.

He called back a week later to say that my appeal was being denied. The reason cited by corporate was that my generator was unable to keep up with the sump pump the first time my basement took on water.

"No, no, no," I said. "I didn't have the generator when that happened. I got the generator in response to that incident, which, ultimately, saves State Farm money."

He said he'd appeal the decision.

He called back a week later to say that State Farm was sticking with its decision to drop my coverage.

He was very apologetic and offered the number of a broker who might be able to help.

Through it all, I was very cordial to everyone I spoke with at the local office. I knew that they were doing what they could to retain my business. After all, my being dropped means less money in the agent's book of business; he's the one taking the direct financial hit.

His staffer thanked me for not yelling at her. I'm sure she finds herself on the receiving end of a lot of anger.

And then she, rather sheepishly, suggested that I consider State Farm when I need insurance again someday.

I laughed and said, "I can't imagine State Farm will be willing to take me on again."

"In five years," she said. "If you're shopping for better rates. State Farm will look at you again if you don't have claims for five years."

I didn't bother to tell her that there is no way in hell I will do business with State Farm again if I can help it.

But the State Farm amusement doesn't end there. Oh, no.

My auto insurance – which renews in mid-November – is also with State Farm. Once my homeowner's policy went out of force, my auto policy no longer qualified for the multi-line discount.

So State Farm sent an invoice to me for $20 and change, for the now-shortage.

Seriously, State Farm? After everything the company has put me through, for a policy that renews in a matter of weeks, someone there should have said, "Oh, let it go. Just send her a renewal notice at the increased rate."

I appreciate that all of this is automated, but still. It was irksome to receive that statement.

And then, as if to supply the cherry for this insurance-saga sundae, a week or so later, I received a letter "from" my local agent – again, auto-generated, I'm sure – that begins:

"Dear Beth:

Make sure you're getting the discounts you deserve.

Your business means a lot to me, and I hope you've already discovered why State Farm has such a strong reputation for customer service."

Yada, yada, yada.

In the end, I did find insurance. (No, I will not reveal the provider, not because I don't want to write nice things about the company but because I don't need to disclose that level of personal information for the entire world to read.) And I bundled my auto insurance. The first payment is due next week.

Which means that State Farm will have to send a wee check to me for the balance of my auto premium which would have renewed in November.

And that makes me smile.

So, there it is.

Caveat emptor, kids.

Ask questions about your insurance.

Know more than I did.

Query before you claim.

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Why I Cook: An Exploration ...

So, I just read a post that presented an argument for never cooking again, titled "An Argument for Never Cooking Again," and the most prominent thought I had while reading it was:

"I wonder how bitchy this woman could be if she tried."

Because she's plenty bitchy in an effortless sort of way. Or maybe she really was working at it. Or maybe she was trying so hard to be offensively clever (in the moment when she referred to her awful carrot pasta sauce as "goldfish cum") that she didn't realize her bitchiness but by God, she really, really, really wants you to know that she can make a fig galette.

Or maybe she was just tired. "Cutting up the vegetables took hours and pieces of them kept falling on the floor. The garbage can had been put outside because of an ant problem, so over the course of an hour I probably walked about a mile and a half throwing out vegetable scraps," she wrote.

To which my brain responded, "Right, because you couldn't possibly make a pile of scraps and throw them out all at once."

Who the fuck makes individual trips to the trash, wherever it may be, to throw out individual scraps?

I'm no fan of Rachael Ray but hey, the garbage bowl is a good idea.

ANYWAY ... .

I live alone. There are days I do not wish to cook. Because I don't have to. I don't have a child to feed or a husband to feed. Hell, I don't even have a dog to feed. So if I don't feel like cooking – as I didn't last night – and I cannot for the life of me figure out what I want to eat – as I couldn't last night – and if I drive around past every possible fast-food / take-out option yet can think of nothing that appeals to me – as I did last night – sometimes, I just don't eat.

Or I have some cheese.

But then there are days when I want to cook. The weather is turning cooler. The leaves are falling. Soup might be nice. Or chili. Or stew.

And yes, there are people in the world who will make soup or stew or chili for me and I could pay them instead, but there are days when I want to cook. Not because I'm out to impress anyone but because, well, first and foremost, food is what helps us to stay alive.

I was thinking the other day, as I was baking cookies, about how long I've been baking, about when I first started making what: My Aunt Anne taugh me how to bake bread when I was 8. I'm not sure when I made my first solo pan of brownies but I feel like I was around 10. Mom liked the idea of baking cookies for us but she really hated the portioning of the dough and the waiting through the multiple rounds of baking cookies one tray at a time, so she mixed the cookie dough and I did the portioning and baking, a nice division of labor.

I absolutely come from a family to whom box mixes were and are anathema. Just the other day, I clicked through to a recipe, saw that the first ingredient was yellow cake mix, and closed the window.

Mixes irk me. For the most part, they're just the dry ingredients of a recipe. Is it really too much trouble to measure out a teaspoon of baking soda on your own? Does someone really have to do that for you?

Many years ago, I had dinner at a friend's grandmother's house. I had asked what I could bring. I was given a simple assignment: salad. But, for the friend, it wasn't about the salad. It was about the gobsmackingly delicious garlic dressing that my parents used to buy from a restaurant in South Chicago. But I prepped all the indredients and put them into plastic bags and tossed everything together at the grandmother's house.

And I remember someone making some reference to me being a gourmet chef.

Heh. No. I am not a gourmet chef.

I once considered becoming a chef. Being a chef is hard. And, for me, would not be fun.

But I do have friends over for dinner from time to time.

And I like cooking for them, for us.

I do not strive to impress them. If they're impressed, that's nice. But I don't consult multiple cookbooks and devise menus that will require hours upon hours of prep.

Sometimes, I put in some effort (read: lasagna) and sometimes, I don't (read: the day my friend Dave and I decided to get together for dinner late in the day and I ended up making roasted shrimp and roasted asparagus; sticking two trays of food into an oven hardly qualifies as work).

But here's the key: If people enjoy what I prepare for them, it's because I prepared it for them with love.

Yes, I have a baseline level of knowledge about food, because I've been cooking for most of my life. And maybe I have slightly more of a knack for it than others do. (Once upon a time, Mom made chicken tetrazzini, the sauce for which is a doctored-up bechamel. One of my distant cousins asked Mom, of the sauce, "Do you saute it?" So, yes, I know more than her. I know that just because "sauce" and "saute" vary only by one letter, they are not foodstuff and method, respectively). But I just cook. Mom just cooks. She's had people in her church mention that they're loathe to cook for her (like when she and my father were recuperating after concurrent hospital stays) because they're embarrassed by what they'd be able to offer, given her food renown. That makes her sad. She told one woman that she'd be happy with a PB&J.

Intent means a lot. A PB&J made with love is delicious, just as a fistful of dandelions from a little hand are the most beautiful flowers in the world.

And, also, if you're fortunate enough to have other people in your life who love to cook or bake, spending time with them in the kitchen fortifies the soul. Every year, Mom and I make ridiculous quantities of sauce out of roma tomatoes and onions and garlic and mushrooms and wine. And it's delicious. But it's really not the sauce that matters. It's the tradition. By the time the marathon is over, my back aches from standing too long on the tile floor, but I love those hours that we spend in the kitchen, chopping and stirring and chatting.

A winter or two ago, I made bread, and as the loaves were finishing their rise, I called Mom and asked her if she wanted to come by while the bread baked. We sat in the living room as the daylight waned and chatted and inhaled the aroma of the baking bread. It doesn't get much better than that.

So, yes, some people can surely rely on other people to prepare their food for the rest of their lives. (Whether they can afford it may be another story.) But food is not a foe. There are reasons to cook other than attempts to impress your friends. In fact, that may be the worst reason that exists. Cook because you love them. Cook because you want to spend time with them. Cook because it makes you happy, helps you focus, melts away the frustration of a crappy day.

Keep it simple. Be generous with the love and care. Light a candle or two. Odds are, you won't regret it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Design Moments That Make Me Stabby: Part The Whatever ...

I didn't renew my subscription to Elle Decor.

I don't receive any shelter publications anymore, which, on the one hand, makes me sad, but, on the other hand, is probably good for my psyche because some things in shelter publications piss me off.

To wit, this stool:


It's copper-plated steel with leather upholstery.

It's also, per Elle Decor, $4,690.

I do not like vanity pricing.

Nearly five grand? Five thousand dollars?

And, of course, nobody buys one stool. My kitchen, for instance, contains four.

The idea of spending nearly $20,000 on four stools for my kitchen gives me chest pains.

Even if I have that kind of disposable income lying around someday, I vow to you that I will not spend nearly $20,000 on four stools for my kitchen.

And I lament more than a little that I live in world in which people will spend nearly $20,000 for four stools for their kitchen.

Note: If you've recently spent nearly $20,000 for four stools for your kitchen, please don't tell me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reading For Reading's Sake ...

One of the perils of spending so much of my time editing is this: It becomes damn near impossible to not edit. It's involuntary at this point. I see mistakes everywhere.

Ev-ry-where.

Billboards. Menus. Road signs. Books.

So reading for pleasure is often not at all pleasurable.

Which is a shame. Because I love it. I really do.

So I'm delighted – delighted! – to happen upon books that suck me in and keep me turning the pages until the very end with nary an instance of "Well, I wouldn't have said that that way" or "She should have flipped the order of those words."

Yes, sometimes that part of my brain shuts the hell up and instead, I enjoy a well-turned phrase and a compelling story.

I'm a non-fiction gal for the most part. I read novels from time to time, but non-fiction's my thing.

And Doreen has been on a purging jag of late, so she offered me two titles she had bought and had read and felt no need to keep.

Last Saturday, I picked up one of the books and was prepared to read the first page or so to decide if I wanted to read more.

Sunday, midday-ish, I turned the last page. It helped that I couldn't really sleep during the night in between so I turned on my bedside lamp and read. In bed. Which is normally a thing that puts me to sleep, not a thing that I do while I'm quite awake. But I read. And then I did turn off the lamp and sleep for a while. But when I woke up again, I kept on reading.

That book was Frances Kuffel's Love Sick.

As I wrote on Pinterest:

I rarely finish a book in less than a day. But Frances is a fine, fine writer. "That seems often to be my job: giving people words" made me nod in agreement. And "He loved parts of me the way mammals love salt" is an outstanding sentence. This is 260 pages of generosity, of wading into the online world of looking for love so you don't have to, voyeurism without the guilt.

And when I finished Frances's book, I got up, refilled my water bottled, returned to the love seat in my living room, and picked up Kristen Johnston's Guts.

As I wrote on Pinterest:

And for my second book this weekend … . (Not sure where this compulsive reading jag has come from, but I dig it.) The book starts out a bit glib, as if she's nervous to introduce her story (I totally relate to that), but it only gets more interesting and compelling so stick with it. I was proud of her by the end. A brave story, well told.

I remember that story being in the news when she went through her awful health episode and I remember seeing the book floating through my feed on Facebook, but then I forgot about it. Until Doreen shared it. And pointed out that the type is on the big side, as are the margins, and that it's a one-day book.

Indeed. I was done with it that evening. But it's an interesting story, and I have a soft spot in my heart for Kristen because when I worked for Thomson after I quit the Tribune, Jen, the queen of the editors, kept a running list of who would play each of the staffers if Hollywood ever made a movie about our life in that office, and when she asked me who would play me, I said Kristen Johnston, because someone I knew at a radio station in town had told me that one day when I visited the morning show (and said about five words on the air). We're both tall. I could be blonde again. And we have similar voices.

I'm glad Kristen's OK. And I hope Frances finds who she's looking for, be that a new man or no one at all.

I have many more books on my to-read shelf. And I put in a request at the library for Charles Blow's Fire Shut Up In My Bones. It's being ordered, according to the library's site. I hope it arrives soon.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Sadness Of Abandoning A Book ...

I rarely fail to finish a book.

If I begin a book, it is with the intention of finishing the book. I like the sensation of turning the last page. Sometimes, that moment brings with it a sense of satisfaction. Sometimes, that moment brings with it a sense of regret, not for having read the story but for having come to the end. If Memoirs of a Geisha would have contained an index, I would have read it. I hated to bid that book farewell.

I have great faith in most authors and their work. Even if a book is leaving me cold, I hold out hope that it will get better. I keep reading. And then, by the time it becomes clear that a particular book will most likely not improve, I'm so far into it that it seems a shame to not persevere. It's like quitting a marathon with the finish line in sight. May as well finish for the sake of finishing, right?

I can remember giving up on The Shipping News. Everyone raved about that book. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why. (I saw the movie because Kevin Spacey had the lead and, as you know, I will watch Kevin Spacey wait for a bus. I remember the beginning of the movie. I don't remember the end.)

I can remember wishing that I'd given up on The Fourth K. How Mario Puzo could write a masterpiece like The Godfather and then write such utter dreck will forever remain a mystery. It's not like I can ask him what happened.

I gave up on Twilight (and was amused, re-reading this post).

And now it's happened again.

I am loathe to write negative posts about books because, hey, I've never written a book. I have one with which I've been noodling around. It may be worthwhile. It may not. I may finish it someday. I may not.

But today, I gave up on a book.

On Sunday, I tweeted:



Later, I added this:



I did not finish it. It went back to the library. Someone else is waiting for it. Perhaps they'll enjoy it more than I did.

Mind you, I loved The Alchemist. Me and eleventymillion other people on the planet.

And I'm well aware that any author who writes such a phenomenon of a book is destined to never repeat that success. Lightning rarely strikes twice. Liz Gilbert knew that she would never again write another Eat, Pray, Love, though her latest book, a work of fiction, is doing very well.

But I expected a book titled Adultery to be steamy and fascinating, an examination of the complexities of love and relationships, full of moments of insight and explanation of our psyches.

It is not that. (After I gave up reading, I went to Good Reads to read reviews – I don't read reviews in advance of books or movies – and I found that I was very much not alone in my thinking. At the moment, Good Reads reviewers give the book an average of 3.14 out of 5 stars.)

Not only did I not relate to the main character, I found her rather disgusting but not in a fascinating "Oh, why would she do the things she's doing?" kind of way, but rather in a "What a vile person" kind of way. I felt no empathy. I had no desire to find a reason to empathize.

But my bigger issue was with the writing.

It's tricky for me to read books anymore because I can't disengage the editor part of my brain. Some books are so well written that they sweep me along and I can't find any flaws.

But as with Twilight and "When we entered the classroom, Angela went to sit at a black-topped lab table exactly like the ones I was used to," the sentence in Adultery that really made me want to give up appeared on page 77: "But who wouldn't like to say that her husband was president of Switzerland, otherwise known as the Swiss Confederation?"

I read that and thought, "Well, later on in the book, I guess there will be a need for me to know that Switzerland is also known as the Swiss Confederation."

There were other instances. I didn't bother to flag them at the time and I didn't take the time to find them before I returned the book to the library.

I did read the last page, so I have a general sense of how the story played out.

But meh.

I have many other books on my radar and some on my shelves. Hope springs eternal.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Where Does The Time Go? ...

Some nights ago – I can't remember how many, exactly, which is fitting, given the point of this post – I was watching my beloved Rachel Maddow and she mentioned the botched execution of Clayton Lockett ... in April.

Whoa. My first thought was, "Rachel is wrong."

But Rachel is rarely wrong. (And when she is, she corrects her errors on camera as soon as possible.)

My second thought was, "That can't have happened in April because this is September."

I mentioned this to Doreen. She was in my "Rachel is wrong" camp.

But I looked up the date of Clayton's death and, sure enough, he was executed on April 29.

Which is almost May, but still. That happened in April.

And this is September.

Which means that since that news happened, May, June, July, and August have come and gone.

Holy crap. A third of a year, gone.

Now, May was busy and then my father had a health episode in June which lasted into July, and other life-type things came up and needed tending, but still, it was disconcerting to hear something in September about something that happened in April and not be able to account for much of the time.

But you know what I haven't done in a really long time?

Record. Or sing in front of other people.

The latter is far more scary to me than the former – which is why, though I've done it, I need to do it more often.

My friend Briggetta was over for dinner recently and asked about my singing. As in, was I?

Nope, I said. I've lost touch with my recording connection and I haven't had the means in recent years to plunk down cash for studio time. Not to just play around.

She mentioned that she's told some people about my voice. She compared me to Diana Krall.

Which was very sweet of her. And which made me think, "And she rich and married to Elvis Costello!"

Not that I expect to get rich. And I'm sure she and Elvis are very happy together.

But I need to get back to it. Because I really, really miss it.

So today, I pinged my recording connection. I may not hear from him. Or I may. We shall see.

And I checked out the schedule at Davenport's: Yup, Mondays are still open-mic nights. And yup, George Howe is still the man at the piano on those nights. He's the one I sang with before. And I lived to tell about it. So I feel good about singing with him again.

There's something about fall that brings out my creativity. I wanted to make bread today just to make it. Have no real inclination to eat it. I just want to bake it. (And I would have, if I had enough flour on hand. Any any yeast. I must stock up on baking supplies.)

So here's to singing again, at long last. I'll post songs if I have them to post, on my web site, where you can hear what I've noodled around with in the past.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Sauce, Now Even Better ...

I've posted a post similar to this in the past. This is updated with recipe improvements.

Every year, we make sauce.

Mom and I procure some amount of plum tomatoes – somewhat easily had at this time of year, and this year, we procured a bushel, in an honest-to-God bushel – and then we procure the rest of the ingredients and then, when we're both feeling ambitious, we convene to make sauce.

The division of labor is as follows: I dice tomatoes. Mom does everything else.

Lest you think that I'm getting off easy, allow me to assure you that I do not.

Have you seen a bushel of tomatoes?! That's a freakin' lot of tomatoes!

There are always a few tomato casualties, tomatoes that are far past their prime. But for the most part, I don't have to trim up most of the tomatoes, and so today, I diced the entire bushel's worth and we made half of the sauce that we will eventually make. But now all of the tomatoes are diced, and handily portioned into ginormous Ziploc bags, so the rest of the process will be easy, as the recipe is a snap and all Mom will have to do is dice onion and press garlic and measure out the other stuff.

When all was said and done, I diced enough to total 96 cups of tomatoes, which doesn't sound like that much, considering that dice tomatoes was all I did for most of the afternoon.

But it's nice to do once a year and Mom has a commercial freezer, so she stashes the tidy pints and lets the flavors meld over time and then, in the middle of winter when the closest thing to nature is a twig sticking out of the snow, she can pull out a couple of pints and boil some pasta or simmer down a couple of pints to use as pizza sauce or defrost a few pints as a base for soup. (Me, I'm perfectly happy to pile in meatballs and an embarrassment of Parmesan cheese and stir it all up and dig in. I don't miss the pasta.)

It really is delightful stuff. And simple. So if you have a lot of tomatoes on hand and you're stumped for an idea, give this a try.

Beth Note: The recipe below is for a single batch of sauce, but we always double each recipe and adjust accordingly. So the first amount is for a single batch and (the amounts in parentheses) are our tweaks and substitutions for a double recipe.

Spaghetti Sauce

1 cup chopped yellow onion (2 cups)
2 tablespoons butter (3 tablespoons)
5 cloves garlic, pressed (1 head garlic; there is no such thing as too much garlic)
12 cups chopped fresh tomatoes (24 cups; we use plum tomatoes)
2 cups dry red wine (1 bottle; the recipe as written calls for Burgundy, but somewhere along the way, we started using Chianti, so now we use Chianti)
12 ounces tomato paste (Yep, the recipe for a single batch calls for 12 ounces of tomato paste. Mom and I both think that's nuts. Twelve ounces for a double batch is perfect, so: 12 ounces)
2 teaspoons instant beef bouillon granules (5 teaspoons beef base)
4 teaspoons dried basil (6 teaspoons dried basil; rub it between your palms to crush it)
2 bay leaves (4 bay leaves)
8 ounces sliced mushrooms (16 ounces; we buy prewashed, sliced mushrooms; save yourself the effort)
Improvement for 2014: If you have some Parmesan rinds in the freezer – and you should; don't throw them away! – toss a couple in to simmer with the sauce. Oh, yeah, that's a good idea.

Saute the onion in butter until translucent. (We use 16-quart stock pots just to give ourselves plenty of room to stir and to allow a nice amount of surface area for simmering.) Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the tomatoes in batches, giving yourself a chance to incorporate them with the onions and garlic. If you dump in 24 cups of tomatoes at once, it's trickier to get everything stirred together.) Add everything else. Simmer about 1 hour. Then sprinkle with a bit of baking soda and stir. (It's rather atomic!) Continue cooking for 10 minutes. Ladle into freezer containers (you can buy sleeves of 'em at food-service stores for just a few bucks). Be sure to leave a bit of room for expansion. Top with lids and stash in the freezer. Makes about eight pints. (Or 15-ish pints when doubled.)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Cookie Has Spoken, I Must Obey ...

The fortune made me smile but the Learn Chinese phrase drove home the point: I gotta get back to singing.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Good Fortune Of Good Neighbors ...

Unexpected doorbell. Neighbor hands me a plastic bag. Inside, I find this. Soon, they will be drizzled – nearly doused – with a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette and buried under a mountain of Parmesan cheese. Summer, you continue to make up for years past. Neighbor, thank you.

The Fuzziness ...

... makes me happy.