And So It Toes

At the end of the day, the feel of clean, white, sweat socks is unparalleled.  Not those wimpy thin-ribbed ones, no.  The ones with deep ridges and thickly cushioned soles, yes.  When I get home, one of the first things I do is release my imprisoned feet.  This is a brief moment of ecstasy.  Then I slip those faithful feet into a pair of high-quality sweat socks. They envelop my feet with just the right amount of warmth and support.  My toes are cradled in fluff.  And the bottoms?  Well, the soles feel like they’ve made a trip to the local spa to be swaddled in that lush terrycloth those expensive robes are made from.  Food for the soles!  Then I stand up, enjoying a moment before I have to slip my shoes on.  As long as I can wiggle my toes in those thick socks at the end of the day, my feet and I can stand anything.

Some people have a hard time dealing with feet, even though they know that life would be missing something essential without them.  In spite of that, these footophobes are repelled by feet.  I once was on a long road trip with one of these foot haters.  When one of the other passengers nonchalantly removed shoes and socks, and propped her feet up on the back of the front seat, I thought we’d have to pull over and call the paramedics.  My phobic friend’s immediate response was a high-pitched yell that brought every dog within fifty miles to its feet.  As the driver, I was sure I struck a member of some endangered species, perhaps even a whole herd.  No, she assured me, after I had pried my fingers off the wheel; it was merely her shock at seeing a naked foot appear close to her face.  They are just so ugly, was her first intelligible comment.  Well, I countered, they are the underpinnings of our entire civilization after all.  Her answer was about what I should have expected.  She didn’t care if the world stood on its own two feet as long as she didn’t have to look at them.  Where I saw ten nicely spaced digits with the big toes providing real and artistic balance, she saw ten nubs of flesh, akin to giant warts, with the big toes being merely the largest offenders.  The woman has no soul.  Or maybe no soles.

I may not have the most beautiful feet, but they have afforded me hours of pleasure, to say nothing of the entertainment they provide for others.  I happen to have fairly small feet, which is fine when trying to hop rocks across a stream, but is not so fine when snugged up in a pair of hiking boots.  Of course, the mocking to which my feet are exposed may have something to do with the fact that my former hiking boots happened to be twenty years old.  I thought I would never give these babies up.  Every spring I cleaned and polished them, coated them with silicone, and stored them away.  Snow came, and I hauled them out for their annual appraisal.  Every fall it was the same—they looked great; why fool with a sure thing?  Anyway, those boots had a two-inch sole, which brought me up to the tallest I will ever be—five feet, five inches.  That was the point the mocking began.  Because I have a size 7 boot, and the soles look pretty hefty in proportion to the length of my foot, it appeared that I either, like Cinderella’s stepsisters, lopped off part of my foot in order to fit into those boots, or my foot was so flexible that it folded up, accordion-style.  I took the derision in stride, so to speak, because those boots, which, I admit, made me look like Frankenstein’s bride, proved themselves.  At one point in their long career, they were totally immersed in a shallow stream in which even my small feet could find no steppingstones.  By the time I climbed out the other side and walked another five minutes, the sheepskin lining wicked all the moisture from my feet, and I was good to go.  Even my heavy-duty sweat socks, which I put on with such enthusiasm, didn’t even need to be wrung out when I returned to camp an hour later.  If those boots didn’t lead me to defeat that night, I was not about to give them up in the foreseeable future.  But the foreseeable future came too fast, and they wore out.  I gave them a dignified burial.

Feet are wonderful things.  Considering the abuse dished out to them, they do a fine, upstanding job.  In fact, I think I’m going to take my feet out right now for a reward.  Let’s see.  How about a new pair of clean, white, sweat socks?

Time Management

I’m stalling.

I’m getting really good at this!  Finding things to do other than…

What’s that?  There’s a chipmunk in the live trap that needs to be relocated?  No problem.  I’ll just take care of that now. Put plastic in the back of the car, grab the trap and talk to the chipmunk a bit, assuring it that all will be okay.  Seat belt, key, and so on.  Go way out of town, so the chippie doesn’t bother invading anyone else’s birdseed supplies.  I’m surprised they stick around our yard, because our birdseed is secured in galvanized garbage cans in the garage.  Well, that’s neither here nor there.  The chipmunk has been relocated.

Back home, I’m ready to…

What’s that you say?  The tree that broke off and was hung up some thirty feet up has apparently fallen to the ground in that last wind blast.  No, I can’t see it up there anymore either.  Just a minute, I’ll get the binoculars and double check.  Nope.  It’s gone.  Must be down on the ground.  Maybe I’d better pull on the wellies and go out and check.  I’d hate to be traipsing around back there and have it come down on me.  Or on the grandkids.  (Who, by the way, never go back into that part of the woods.)  Yup.  All clear.  Tree down where it will cause no harm.  While I’m out here, a quick check for any leftover garlic mustard.  Nothing to pull, so I guess I’d better head back in.

Pull up a chair and…

Wait, where ya going?  Are you sure your prescription is ready?  Oh, they called.  Okay.  Um…can I ride along?  I’d like to get out a little bit today.  Shoes on, grab mask and wallet, just in case.  Seat belt, settle in.  Twenty minutes or more filled up, just like that.  And I’m nowhere near home, so can’t do a thing, other than enjoy the beautiful weather and the minimal traffic at this time of day.  What am I worried about traffic for?  I’m not driving.  I can even wait in the car at the pharmacy and watch the people go by.  Maybe the scrip won’t be ready, and he’ll have to wait.  Whoops!  No such luck.  Head for home.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Ready, set…

What?  Turkeys in the front yard!  Lemme see.  Head for the front windows.  Sure enough, two adults, one juvenile, and two very young ones.  I see the blue heads and necks of the adults bobbing around in the weeds.  One disappears into the woods, but the other steps out proudly onto the lawn and starts aerating.  These are not attractive birds.  Ben Franklin, didn’t you see them outside of breeding season?  Long legs, brown feathers, huge feet (the better for scratching in the dirt, which is what they’re doing just now), and those ugly blue necks.  Easy to see where the term turkey skin came from.  The little ones sure are cute though, especially the youngest ones.  They haven’t developed those powerful legs.  They’re still fat little quail-sized…oh, my gosh, wouldn’t they taste good?  All right, all right, forget that.  They’re melting into the woods anyway, so no chance to nab one.

Back to…

Oh dear.  I was supposed to clean the bathrooms earlier.  Well, buck up, lady.  Might as well do it now and get it over with.  That doesn’t take long anyway, and then it’ll be time to create something for supper.  I’ve still got the evening to get the other stuff done.

Going to bed already?  It’s barely ten o’clock.  Okay, g’night!

Sit down at the table.  Again.  Place fingers on keyboard.  Just get typing the rest of that chapter.  It won’t write itself.

And I’ve run out of time to manage.  Sigh.

Tenting Tonight

My neighbor put his boat to bed the other day, and I watched him pull down the cover and tighten up the cords before he drove away to store it for the winter.  The motions reminded me a lot of striking a tent, what with the canvas tarp and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it.

When I was in high school, our Girl Scout troop was gungho on camping and all sorts of other outdoor fun.  If we weren’t canoeing on the river, we were camping in the woods, or working summer jobs as counselors at a nearby camp.  One summer, we traipsed out into the woods to spend two weeks pioneer camping.  That meant pitching tents away from anybody or anything…which also meant digging pit toilets and cooking over a fire.  But it was the tents that were our worst challenge.

These were Army surplus tents, dating back, I swear, to the French and Indian Wars.  Well, okay, not really, but they were probably used in World War I.  Canvas that weighed a ton, they had a 12-foot ridge pole into which the two uprights fitted, one on each end.  That meant at least three people were needed to put up one tent: one on each end to hoist up the ridgepole and tent, which was seated onto the uprights with grommets, and one person to run around like a crazy person, pounding in tent stakes and tightening ropes to hold the entire contraption upright.  Many a tent capsized before enough stakes were in to hold it.  And even then, if the “pounder” selected soft ground, the whole she-bang could tip over, like the Titanic slipping under the waves.  Impossible to stop.

That was just the beginning.  We were astute enough—we thought—to dig a trench around our tent, just in case it rained.  Rain is pretty much a given when you camp.  Mother Nature having fun.  Anyway, with three of us in a two-person tent, it was crowded, and when the inevitable rainstorm hit, it overpowered the trench.  Water coursed in a full-sized creek right down the middle of our tent.  What was the Army thinking when they didn’t put floors in their tents?  With a body in the middle, and all of us encased like mummies in our sleeping bags, none of us stood a chance of avoiding the deluge.  We could’ve slept outside in the rain, considering how wet we were inside.  All this is to say nothing of the daddy-long-legs we collected on the inside of the tent.  Falling rain outside, and falling spiders inside.  Delightful.

I moved up a notch to a tent with a floor…and a front awning!  Heaven.  Although it was still canvas.  Sigh.  This was a trip around Lake Superior with a college roommate who never camped before.  We entertained a lot of neighbors in the campgrounds when we pulled in and got out of the car in clean shorts and tops, or even a skirt at times.  One couple pulled out their lawnchairs to watch us set up, convinced, as they told us later, they’d have to step in and help.  Nope.  We pulled on our Wellies and lumberjack flannel shirts and proceeded to launch into our routine.  This was no Army tent, so we had the protocol down pat, and the tent went up in record time.  Canvas turned  out to be a good thing when a mama bear with two cubs was scared away by campers in an RV.  The cubs took off running, each zooming up a tree on either side of our tent.  Mama, lumbering between our car and tent, called them down, and off they went.  Scared the bejesus out of us!

Finally, I reached the pinnacle of tent camping when I camped with our adult daughter, just the two of us.  She has the Ritz Carlton of tents.  Perhaps not to some folks, but to me, grown up with those unwieldy canvas beasts, her nylon tent, WITH a vestibule, mind you, is the cat’s meow.  Slide in the framework, pop it up, and voila! a 4-person tent.  Well, it would be a 4-person tent, except that we travel in style.  That means a queen-size air mattress (self-inflating, of course), sheets (yes, real bed sheets), blankets and pillows.  With the ability to take off shoes in the vestibule, the inner tent stays pristine clean.  Maybe “pristine” is a bit optimistic.  But a lot cleaner that a tent with no floor, or a tent without a place to leave grubby shoes.  Did it rain?  Is the pope Catholic?  Of course it rained!  A huge, gully-washer of a thunderstorm.  The trees above us sheltered us from some, but we pitched on high ground, and we put on the rain fly.  Our mamas didn’t raise no dummies.  We zipped the window closed, and slept all night.  We remained dry as a bone.  In the morning, all around us sleeping bags were draped over branches and cars, drying out.  Some people went home.  I tried not to feel smug.  Been there, done that, I reminded myself.

Will I tent again?  You betcha!  Of course, cabin camping is nice too.  And so is the Ritz , come to think of it…

The Cranberries Are In!

Those glorious little red globes are back in season.  Thank God! 

A few weeks ago, I got a hankering for cranberry bread.  Tart and sweet together in one loaf.  Salivating at the thought of it, I headed for the freezer, sure that I had one bag anyway, left from last year.  My pout was deep enough to balance a spoon on my lip when I rummaged around and found…nothing.  Well, nothing in the line of cranberries.  None in the stores either.

I headed up to my hometown, the heart of cranberry country in Wisconsin, for a visit.  I was all primed to purchase cranberries, fresh from the vine.  Did you know Wisconsin is the largest producer of cranberries in the country?  True!

I was staying with a friend, and we headed out to the marshes.  The bogs stretched out on either side of the road like dominoes laid out on a table.  The water in each huge rectangle was low, but sluice gates open to flood the bogs when cranberries are ready to harvest.

Imagine my consternation when I discovered I was three days early for the start of the harvest.

The owner filled us in.  Tractors pulling a series of prongs head into the bogs at low water to stir up things so that the berries pop off the vines.  Then the bogs are flooded to about 18 inches of water.  Cranberries are hollow, so they float, and workers can push them to one end of each bog, where they’re scooped up and zipped away to be sorted, bagged and sold.

All very interesting, but I still didn’t have any cranberries.  But then my luck changed.  My friend Jackie offered me her frozen cranberries from last year’s harvest.  I jumped at the chance.  But I didn’t want to leave her without any.  Not to worry.  She already had the promise of fresh ones coming from a friend in a week or so.  Bring ‘em on!  She sent me home with bags of ruby-red berries.  Ecstasy!

If you think the berries you get at the store are yummy, you are in for a great surprise if you can somehow snag some fresh ones.  Even the ones frozen right off the vine are miles better.  The cranberry bread I yearned for is now sitting on my kitchen counter, all puffed up and crowned with a sprinkling of turbinado sugar to counter the tartness of the berries.  Food for the gods.

My favorite is a cranberry cake my mom used to make, a recipe everyone living near a cranberry marsh recognizes.  Invariably, mention of that cake brings a groan of remembered pleasure from everyone.  A piece of cake sliced open and laid out to receive the warm sauce.  M-m-m-M!  (Don’t worry.  I’ve included the recipe below, so you can try it too.  If you do, let me know what you think.)

Some things are worth waiting for.  Cranberries in the fall are one of those things.  But you can bet your bottom dollar I won’t let the freezer supply dwindle away to nothing again!


Mix:    1 C sugar

            2 TBsp butter, melted

            1 egg

            ½ C milk

Add:    2 C flour

            2 tsp baking soda

            2 C cranberries, fresh or frozen

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes in a 9 X 9 pan. (9 X 13 makes a thinner cake)

For sauce:

Heat 1 C half-&-half, ½ C butter, ½ C powdered sugar.  Stir until combined.

Slice each piece of cake crosswise to absorb the warm sauce.  Pour hot sauce over slice & serve.

Giving Me the Finger

Don’t worry, it’s not that kind of finger.  I had a benign fluid-filled cyst removed from the top of my little finger, so the surgeon actually gave me the use of the finger back.

Unfortuantely, it has caused problems with my typing…as you can see with that first word.  Spellcheck can only do so much.  So Ive had to make accommodations.  See?  There’s another one.  My Chicago Manual of Style editor friend must be going crazy, if she’s reading this.  I can go along just fine, and then, all of a sudden, *eman8uY&&….   You get the idea.  I’m adapting a bit by paying attention to when I need a little finger key, and switching to the ring finger.  What concentration that takes!  The Shifts and Returns are the worst.  But if I forget, my little finger hollers a bit, and I back off.  I wonder if I’ll get so habituated to this way of typing that I won’t be able to return to normal.  Writing my manuscripts could pose a new challenge.  But for now, this is the way to go.  Which sometimes means using Delete a lot when my little finger, bandaged like a breakfast sausage, descends unbidden to sneak in something strange.  Bear with me; it’ll be okay.

This not the only thing going crazy.  Playing piano is almost impossible.  It’s amazing how often pieces want me to stretch that right little finger up to those lovely high notes that add such color.  Well, it ain’t happening now.  Now, my piano teacher would point out—accurately too—that I do have a left hand only piece.  Two of them, in fact.  Because my left hand work is definitely weaker, that would certainly be a plus for my meager skills.  However.  I don’t like those pieces. Shhh!  Don’t tell her!  My excuse is that I can’t play the occasional chords for the right hand, because those need the fifth finger to complete the chord.  I can hear her say, “Yes, but then don’t play that top note.  The idea is to strengthen the left hand, after all.”  I have no answer there, so maybe I’ll have to cave in, and do those exercises after all.

Washing up is also a circus.  I have two more days before I can get the thing wet, which means no shower right now.  So, what does that mean for walking my usual miles in the morning?  Okay, the walking is not necessarily strenuous, but I still end up drenched from the effort.  And no shower for two days?  Well… don’t come visiting just now!  I’m also under instruction not to do any heavy work, which is just fine with me.  No hoeing or pulling weeds?  No problem.  But does that also include setting the table or cooking, or even dusting?  I’m sure I can pull the directions, like taffy, to cover a myriad of tasks.  In the meantime, my left hand is getting all the soap and water.  Squeezing out a washcloth is going to give me muscles like The Hulk.

In spite of the trials and tribulations—they’re actually pretty minor—I am ready and willing for one thing that requires a raised pinkie:  Tea with the Queen.  I’ve let Buckingham Palace know that I am fully certified to partake in an English High Tea with Her Majesty.  I would even be willing to remove the bandage, should the invitation come through.  By the time it does, the blood should all be dried up.

Doggone, I love ‘em!

Gus comes galloping across the road to greet me on my morning walk, then begs for a pat or two.  From that sentence, you might think Gus is a horse.  But no.  Gus is a hundred-pound bullmastiff.  A dog.  Yes, he’s the size of a miniature horse, but he’s a dog.  A very well-trained, sweet dog who loves his neck scratched and his hips massaged.  His tail may be the size of a broomstick, but when it’s wagging, it’s clear he’s a real people lover.  When I see him coming, I brace myself.  He leans once he gets to me, and if I weren’t prepared, he’d bowl me over.  Gus’s best friend lives across the street.  Hazel is teeny-tiny compared to Gus, but she’s just as friendly.  When they’re together, it’s a bit like watching Laurel and Hardy.

I’m glad that dogs love me, because I’m a real dog lover.  And we have plenty of them in the neighborhood.

There’s Lacey, the chocolate brown who’s gone prematurely gray on her muzzle and paws.  I say hi to her owner and lean down to pet her.  She smiles placidly up at me, wags her tail madly, and asks to be scratched “right there,” right behind her harness.  If her owner and I talk a bit too long, she sits down, waiting patiently until we’re ready to go our separate ways.

Some of the neighborhood dogs aren’t nearly so calm.  The various spaniels seem always on alert, ready to pop away at the scent of a rabbit or other such delectable that just demands a race into the woods and back out again.  Only they’re all on leashes.  Sigh.  Such is the sacrifice they make for a walk with a human.  Some little dogs are only at the level to chaw on ankles, should the fancy strike them.  Luckily, they don’t, all being well-fed enough not to do more than bark to let me know I’m getting close to their territorial border.

An old fat German shorthaired pointer lived next to us when I was a kid.  Penny was too old to hunt any longer, but she was still a member of the family.  I was the only one who could pet her while she was eating.  Somehow, she knew I wasn’t after her food, even though she apparently was convinced that every other kid was, and would growl and snap. But she and I had an understanding.  Her biggest talent was her ability to retrieve a raw egg placed in a sock without cracking the shell.  A number one hunting dog, retired after years of faithful service.

After a childhood full of animal allergies, which prohibited owning a dog, I was happy to leave that all behind when my daughter and her husband acquired not one dog, but two.  Both Oscar and Maddy were rescue working dogs.  Oscar was mainly a blue heeler, and Maddy was mostly border collie.  Maddy was the smart one, able to finish her chew bone, then grab Oscar’s toy long enough to distract him so she could steal his bone.  Maddy was the soft furry one, but Oscar was the gentleman dog.  He watched Maddy go crazy over a frisbee, while he seemed to shake his head and think, “Goofy dog.  Too much energy spent on such foolishness.”  When we visited, Oscar came bounding out the door—we always met him outside because too much excitement made him pee—dancing and “talking.”  He was, and always will be, my very favorite dog.  He knew it too, and I was his very favorite human.  (Don’t tell my daughter and her husband!)

The best thing about making friends with others’ dogs means that I don’t have to do the work associated with any animal.  No need to pick up after potty breaks, nor dole out medicines.  No trips to the vet, or remembering to get that particular kind of dogfood they like.  No watching a dog age, and then having to perhaps make the awful decision to ease them out of a life of pain.

But.  And there’s always a but, isn’t there?  No fluffy warmth lying on my feet at the bottom of the bed at night.  No dog going wild with happiness when I get home, no matter what mood I’m in.  No deep satisfaction when a dog learns to Sit, Stay, Wait, Come, Drop It.  No watching the silliness of play, or the excitement when they come back with the ball, and wait, tail wagging, for me to throw it again.

Without a dog in the house, now I live vicariously.  I “borrow” the neighborhood dogs, meeting and greeting as we do morning walks, then letting them go off, while I keep the sweet memories of wagging tails, smiling doggie mouths, and generous owners willing to share a moment or two of their dogs’ lives.

Doggone, I really love ‘em.

What Language Are You Speaking?

One word in Canadian author Louise Penny’s newsletter stopped me cold.  She was praising her assistant’s many talents, and included “hooker” in the list.  Wait.  What?  Based on the rest of the list, she must have meant “rug hooker.”  But that’s not what came out.

All that took me back to similar inadvertent gaffes.

I know enough German to get by in most situations, and I can mimic accents so well that I sound like a native…until about five minutes later when the grammar trips me up.  So, all was going swimmingly in the Munich restaurant, until it was time to call for the check.  I turned and called to the waiter, “Herr Obst…”  Well, instead of calling, “Waiter,” I called for Mr. Fruit.  How embarrassing!  Luckily, he responded anyway, having, I’m sure, realized I was a second-rate speaker.  We all had a good laugh over my blunder.

The ticket vender at the railroad station, however, was not nearly as understanding.  Another trip to Germany where we used trains all the time led to another slipup.  We were headed out for a day trip somewhere.  Another castle?  An old walled town?  I don’t remember.  But I strode up to the ticket window confidently enough, having done this innumerable times before.  A round trip ticket.  What could be simpler?  Hin and zurück in German.  There and back.  But what did I say?  “Ab und zu.”  Which translates to now and then.  I immediately realized my mistake, but was laughing so hard, it took a minute to recover and correct.  In the meantime, the lady behind the counter stood, stolid and scowling, probably figuring I was absolutely crazy.  Either that, or I had no business mauling her language like that.  I found it hilarious.  She didn’t.  I guess I wasn’t cut out to join the diplomatic corps.

A friend was telling me about a friend of hers I didn’t know, other than, he was old.  She said, “He passed.”  Here comes the faux pas.  “Oh, so he re-took his driver’s license and passed.  What good news, at his age!”  She looked at me as if I’d offended her.  Which I probably did.  She said, “No.  He passed away.”  Without thinking, I blurted, “Oh!  He died!”  In an attempt to recoup, I fumbled out, “Passed away.  I’m so sorry.  Sorry about misunderstanding too.  Sorry, sorry…”  It’s an unfortunate shift of language, in my opinion, that the “away” has disappeared.  There are so many things to pass that life should not be on that simplistic list.  But then, language is in flux, and I’d better learn to adapt!

On a lighter note—no pun intended, as you’ll shortly see—when I was in Ireland, and staying at a vacation apartment, a paper with various instructions sat on the kitchen table.  How to use the TV remote, how to turn on the air conditioner, how to light the hob.  Wait.  What?  What the heck is a hob?  We checked out after two days without figuring it out.  I finally got up the nerve to expose my American ignorance and ask some Irish people, “What is a hob?”  They laughed and said, “I guess you guys call it a stove.  That one must’ve been a gas hob, if you had directions to light it.”  Another occasion for a good laugh, and no harm done.

While half-listening to the radio, I heard the name Laura Loock.  Wow!  The name of an old friend of my mother who made our wedding cake!  All sorts of wonderful memories surfaced.  Her expansive kitchen, always full of delicious aromas of baking or cooking.  The sound of Morse code coming from her husband and sons’ ham radio shack off the living room.  But mostly, her round face, always full of joy.  Even today, I can conjure up her contagious laughter, though it’s becoming more elusive.  However, I couldn’t understand why someone was talking about that delightful woman so many years later.  I honed my hearing and heard instead an advertisement for Laurel Oak, a new retirement community.  A case of language playing tricks on my ear.  But it was ever so fortunate a trick, as it brought back to mind a woman relegated to those back files hardly ever accessed.  A fun diversion.

I love language, even though it’s betrayed me at times.  It’s embarrassed me, made me laugh, given me the gift of nostalgia, and sometimes even stopped me in my tracks.  All of this reminds me to listen carefully, check my sources, ask questions, and generally revel in the craziness that language offers.

What language are you speaking?

Casseroles and Diving Wells

 Once upon a time, a lady was consulting with her pastor about her funeral.  (She obviously wasn’t dead yet, or she wouldn’t be consulting, now, would she?)  Anyway, she said she wanted a nice service and all, followed by a luncheon for anyone who could stay.  “Oh, one more thing,” the dear lady said.  “I want to be buried with a fork.”  The pastor’s eyebrows went up.  He’d heard plenty of strange things, but this kind of took the cake.  “A fork,” he said.  “Well, I suppose that can be arranged.  May I ask why a fork?”  The lady smiled.  “At church potlucks, they always tell you to keep your fork for dessert, because the best is yet to come.  So, I figure, it’s the same going to the Pearly Gates.  Jesus pretty much told us, the best is yet to come.”

The story is not about keeping your fork for a casserole, but that story did trigger a slew of memories connected to casseroles.  Tater Tot casserole is still a go-to when time is tight.  Ground beef and onions, then frozen peas, a can of mushroom soup, topped with a layer of Tater Tots laid down in a fanciful, but packed, pattern.  Or, mix quick-rice with cream of mushroom soup to the consistency of mush, and spread in the bottom of a pan.  Top with chicken breasts, and maybe some frozen broccoli.  Drizzle wine, or milk, if that is your preference until it puddles a bit on the surface.  Cover tightly with foil and bake.  Oh, heaven!  I’ve served that second one for Christmas dinner and gotten a lot of oohs and aahs.

My mom often made a Seven-Layer casserole with potatoes, onions, ground beef, carrots, and a jar of home-canned tomatoes.  Wait! you say, that’s only five layers.  I made the same mistake.  Mom informed me that the salt and pepper counted too.  Voila!  Seven layers.  Mom would dig down and dish out great spoonfuls of the casserole.  “To get the best parts, you have to make sure to plunge right to the bottom,” she’d enjoin.  Mmm-mmm!

Plunging right to the bottom took me away from casseroles.  Stay with me here.  The mind flits here and there, and this is one of those diversions.  Remember those childhood swimming lessons?  Most kids don’t even want to dunk their entire head underwater, but by the time those Lifesaving classes came around, we did more than hold a nose and do a quick dip.  The final exam in the pool consisted of “rescuing” the biggest guard, or else the pool manager, from the bottom of the diving well, an abyss fifteen feet deep.  When I took the test, it was the 200-pound manager.

He plunged straight to the bottom, and sat there, cross-legged, waiting for one of us to pull him up.  I didn’t have much time to ponder his lung capacity, and how long he could stay submerged, because I was frantically trying to get down to him.  Like a baby duck, I kept bobbing back up to the surface.  Finally, I released a steady stream of air to fight the buoyancy as I struggled to get down 15 feet.  Of course, that meant I really didn’t have much air left to re-surface.  But I did manage to grab him—inflicting a deep bruise on his arm—and drag his dead weight to the surface.  I still had to get him to the poolside, and therein, practically drowned myself in the process.  But we made it.  And I passed the class.

Just as all the “heavy” stuff can be hidden way at the bottom of a casserole—or a diving well—a lot of the good stuff—our successes—can be hidden way down in the deep end, where we have to struggle like crazy to bring them to the surface.  Along the way, maybe we feel like we’re never going to be able to surface, never going to be able to get to the meat of the casserole.  But hang in there!  Like the lady buried with a fork, hold onto the tools we use to get down to what we want, because the best is yet to come.

Getting Out from Under

We visited family in Chicago a week or so ago.

That sentence feels pretty bland, until you realize, that because of the pandemic, we were sequestered for over a year before we could get vaccinated and loosen up a bit.  We still follow the Center for Disease Control guidelines, of course, but are now able to visit people who are also vaccinated, as well as masking and keeping safe distances in public places.

But this post isn’t about Covid-19.  It’s about Chicago, one of my favorite cities.  I could wax poetic about the attractions of the central city, but that’s pretty old hat for people knowing anything at all about the tourists’ Chicago.  The sprawling parks, the architectural gems, the outdoor sculptures, the Art Institute, the Miracle Mile, the oodles of restaurants and blues bars.  Just too numerous to list them all, much less do them justice.

However, this trip, we explored two spots a bit off the beaten path.  The Chicago Botanic Garden, about a half-hour’s drive north of the city, is a venue far too good to pass up.  When we visited, daffodils carpeted many of the slopes, bringing to mind Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils…fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”  The best part of that poem are the last few lines, which reminds us, we can close our eyes at any time and be back among the flowers.  The Garden boasts 385 acres of hills and dales, ponds and fountains, roses and prairie plantings, fruits and vegetables, and so much more.

Besides the banks of daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths, one of my favorite spots is the Japanese Garden.  Approached over an arched wooden bridge, the garden really consists of two interconnected islands.  Each is encircled by a wandering path taking amblers past carefully trimmed evergreens, clusters of tiny wildflowers nestled under the trees, and swaths of miniscule succulents.  The views out over the water are artfully curated so as to look entirely unplanned.  A stone lantern with upswept eaves, a weeping willow trailing pliant fingers in the water, a stretch of smooth stones barely visible under the shallow water along a shore.  Then a wider vista, opening the gaze to a distant shore across the water, a waterfall cascading off to the left, a trail with a lone biker off to the right.  The whole Botanic Garden is full of such delightful surprises.

Our second discovered treasure was the Lincoln Park Zoo, not very far from downtown, right on the lakeshore.  Begun in 1868, it remains one of the oldest zoos in the country.  Not only that, it’s free!  Pay for parking, which helps keep the zoo maintained, and you’re in.  The walkways wind through wooded and landscaped areas, allowing visitors to get close to the animals.  The animal habitats are true habitats, mirroring the animals’ natural environs, with plenty of room to roam, as well as quiet areas to retreat from the crowds.  The zoo is committed to breeding and training programs also, so we were lucky to be there when the trainers were working with the seals.  This year (2021) includes a huge renovation of the cat habitat.  When finished, the lions will feed by attacking food presented on a zipline, which simulates prey.  How clever!

Many of the older buildings are still there, having been incorporated over the years into updates and reconstructions.  Walk through the African building and get close up to a pygmy hippo, lots of birds, and plenty of informative wall plaques.  Outdoors, and not six feet from us, we watched a stork carefully turn her eggs and then settle down to incubate.  Because it’s spring and the weather was cool, the animals were very active.  In a zoo, I often wonder who is watching whom!

Every town has jewels perched here and there.  The major attractions are always fun, but sometimes the offerings we have to search for are the real rewards.  Even your home town holds little treasures to ferret out.  Let me know if you find any!

To Write a Book

When I told my students, I was tired of reading books about dysfunctional families and teens, so I was contemplating writing a book about a normal teen, the biggest football player in class stood up and cheered.  A murmur of approval from everyone else followed.

That was in 2006-2007.  When I valiantly managed to write some during that school year, I read pieces of it to the kids, and they affirmed that I captured the language, angst, and all the other stuff that normal teens experience.  

I don’t remember exactly when I finished the story, maybe two or three years later as I worked through everything with a wonderful writing workshop.  By that time, I was retired, and I printed out the manuscript, smiled broadly, and set it aside in its very own three-ring binder.

It “fermented” for a number of years before I pulled it out again, after a long hiatus from the workshop, followed by a welcome return.  With encouragement and coaching, I got gutsy and submitted it to a dozen small publishers.  One picked it up, and I was on the way.

But what happened before that?  Every manuscript has its own “birth” story.  To Know Her, my first published novel, grew out of frustration with portrayals of abnormal teens, troubled teens, damaged teens.  I figured there had to be a story outside of that turmoil.  Not that teens don’t face all sorts of problems, but many, if not most, of them learn to cope.  Kids are flexible, and for the most part, not dumb.  I worked with teens for thirty years, and saw how “normal” they really could be.  How kind, generous, yet innocent too.  We don’t always “see” them.

Out of that came the question, how well can we really, truly know anyone?  We simply can’t discern everything about the people we know, the people we are related to, even the people we love.  So, I devised a situation where parents didn’t know everything about their beloved daughter.  They thought they did, but…they didn’t.

This doesn’t really contain spoilers, as the synopsis on the cover of the novel sets up the fact that the daughter is in a coma as the result of a car accident, and the parents, after receiving all the stuff from the car, find things they can’t explain.

The funny thing was that, as I wrote the parents, they told me that they were battling over whether or not to withdraw live support.  That was a total surprise!  I had not intended to go in that direction at all, but the characters let me know this was true to their lives.  Well, all right, then.

You may have heard about these strange “conversations” between writers and their characters.  I am here to tell you that we’re not crazy.  It does happen.  If I try to write it the way I think it should play out, and the characters “told” me, “Nope.  I didn’t do that,” then I’d better listen, because the scene will be nothing but frustration to write.  It just won’t work out the way I first planned it.  Call it crazy, but sometimes all the planning is wrenched aside, or just plain discarded.

Speaking of planning, I do tend to plan ahead.  Not outline, exactly, but I at least figure where I’d like the story to end.  That sometimes doesn’t work out either, but most of the time it does.  I have to resolve the conflict I’ve introduced in the beginning somehow, after all.  But how to get from A to Z can change as I go along.  I can choose the “beads on the necklace,” but I can’t always choose the order or intensity of events, or what links it all, until I keep writing.

I’d love to say I write from start to finish, and I’m done.  Ha!  I do write from start to finish, but it looks more like one of those mountain switchbacks.  Up, loop around and change directions—and oops!  Look down there!  I need to go back and add more drama, more dialogue—or take out something.  Sometimes it’s lots of somethings.  Two steps forward, one back.  Four steps forward—moving right along, then—five steps back!

And once through isn’t enough.  When I’m “finished,” I usually end up going back three or four times to check, double-check, proofread, re-write.  With To Know Her, once the book was accepted, I eventually had to do three more read-throughs, looking for all sorts of mistakes, and possibly do an edit or two.  Even on the last read-through I found one spelling mistake!  Who knows what readers will find?!  This is where I truly realized how important and powerful editors are.  Necessary task-masters.

Initially, writing is a solitary endeavor, but it surely doesn’t stay solitary very long!