Writing as a Lifeline

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Luna and Sasha

My last post was on December 12, 2015. I’ve missed major holidays and events. “Happy holidays,” “happy new year,” and “happy St. Valentine’s Day,” by the way. I missed my blogaversary. As of February 4, I’ve been blogging for five years—I can’t believe it.

And while this isn’t the longest break, it’s the first time I’ve seriously considered stopping. Blogging. Not writing. I’ve been doing plenty of writing. No. That’s not completely true. I’ve been writing. I kind of have been on a hiatus from fiction writing, too. For a while I had a technical writing contract, but that’s not why. I’ve also felt too distracted to write.

Why? A lot of life changes. Big and small. Now, the potential for a move to a new state. Away from Maine. Away from Maine? Where I raised two children. Said good-bye to two dogs. Owned two houses. Have lived the majority of my married life. Have taken hundreds upon thousands of photos and videos. Written millions (yes, I’ve calculated), millions of words.

It’s not definite. And if it does happen, it won’t be for a year (or so). But the writing is on the wall. Funny, that particular expression coming to mind. The fact is I can write anywhere—I know because right now I’m writing from a garrison in Newton, Massachusetts, overlooking not a tiny New England town but busy traffic on Walnut Street.

Right now it’s like I’ve stepped into another life—because in essence I have. I’m living with and caring for two dogs while their owners are on the other side of the world for the month. When I walk the dogs, I see first familiarity then confusion on the faces of neighbors. Who is this woman? Not the neighbor they expected. The dogs are the same, the person not. If they look carefully enough they’ll see reflected confusion in my eyes. There are times I feel like I’m not myself. Different house, different dogs (my own sweet dog gone over a year ago), different neighborhood, different people.

I miss my friends, I miss my life and routines. I know that if I moved to this area permanently, I’d meet new friends, I’d develop new routines, I might even get a new dog. This situation is temporary. The problem is that everything in my life feels pretty temporary right now, and it has for a little while.

But here’s what I’ve come to this morning. One thing hasn’t changed: my writing mind. My ideas, my thoughts. My writing. My blogging. Which brings me back full circle to why I will not close down my blog. The opposite. I’ll be blogging more. My goal is weekly (we’ll see).

Writing. It anchors me. It’s my lifeline. It’s what keeps me, me.

Cheers,

Julia

Storybook Garden

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This year I want to have a storybook garden. You know, the kind the neighbors and passersby look at (and envy). The perfect kind you see in stories. I’m well on my way. Yesterday, we bought and planted “Hansel and Gretel” eggplants—the varieties named on the plant markers. I thought they were an apt addition to a storybook garden.

But—here’s the thing—the reason we are planting the eggplants is that the spinach seeds failed. They didn’t come up. The truth is that we have bad luck with spinach. There was that stand back in Colorado when our kids were young, the one that’s become a legend, but that’s been a few years, and subsequent years we’ve not had good luck.

Spinach isn’t the only crop that disappointed. I just got in from replanting bean seeds. There were gaps between the small plants: seeds that didn’t germinate or seedlings that came up with deformed or missing leaves. I looked this up on Google. Chances are the corn seed maggots got to them, apparently. Maybe thrips, too.

Also, not to be picky, but the rows of plants aren’t totally straight. This bothers me (maybe a little too much). This is an ongoing topic of conversation between MEH (My Engineer Husband) and me every year—we’ve had a lot of gardens together. MEH has deep agricultural roots. His grandfather worked for the California Extension Office and he grew oranges. Not for fun or storybooks, but for real. There was an orange named after him, the Gillette Navel. MEH grew up cultivating and irrigating orange groves. He gained serious weeding skills, an even more serious work ethic when it comes to gardening.

On the other hand, I’m what you might call a fair weather, storybook gardener. If it gets too hot, if my crocs get dirt in them, if I get too many mosquito or black fly bites, or if I want to write a blog, I bolt. (MEH’s still out weeding.)

The beans had gaps...

The beans had gaps…

That’s not to say MEH is perfect in the gardening department. He doesn’t sow seeds uniformly (or in straight rows), he’s a reluctant waterer (too many California drought cycles, I’m guessing), and he is gung ho at the beginning of the gardening cycle, but by the end not so much. And MEH doesn’t like weeding. This was a surprise to me because I always thought he did. This morning was the first time I asked him if he liked weeding, and he laughed before answering quickly, “Of course not. I felt like that was my punishment as a child.”

We talked about it for a few minutes. Our memories of childhood gardening chores and how they might have impacted our adult views of gardening—how they might have impacted our life. My backyard was tended mostly by my mother and, later, by a gardener. We might have had a tomato plant or two, a fruit tree or two. Up until I graduated from high school, we had family gardening hours on the weekend when we cleaned up. But we focused on the beauty of the outdoor space. MEH’s experience was more utilitarian: weeding, watering, mowing. MEH had a lot more chores than I had. And because of his family’s dynamics, MEH was often solitary when doing his outside (and inside) chores—he was alone a lot in general.

I’ll admit that the garden has caused some tension over the years. Particularly during planting, we seem to have different approaches: form over function for me. The opposite for MEH. Probably not surprising considering our gardening roots. We’ve been known to argue when planting (those crooked rows) and for other reasons surrounding my storybook expectations. This morning we didn’t have any disagreements. We were both quiet and contemplative—we went out early to beat the bugs and heat—before we talked about our families of origin.

I left MEH in the garden shortly after—to write this blog. I had a pebble in one of my crocs, I had muddy hands, but I’d also finished weeding my half of the garden. I’m faster but less patient and less thorough, and I often leave the weeds’ roots—which drives MEH crazy. MEH’s slower and more methodical; he is more thorough. My beds look better after weeding; MEH’s last longer.

As I walked up the porch steps, I heard “the Tweedles”—dubbed by my daughter when she was home last month—a sweet House Finch family that’s nesting in the eaves. The baby birds were cheeping, and I watched as Mr. Tweedles emerged from the nest and perched briefly on the string of Christmas lights before flying out for more food. Mr. Tweedles might be the more persistent gatherer, I mused, but maybe Mrs. Tweedles is in the nest tending and sprucing. I wondered if the Tweedles chirped about this together. If they ever squabbled.

Last year we didn’t have a vegetable garden—a combination of the weather and lack of gardening gumption. It was our son’s last summer in Maine, and he missed it he said. This year we cleared and planted the garden shortly before he and his girlfriend moved to the southeast. He expressed disappointment when he realized he wouldn’t be around for the bounty, then he said he was thinking about planting a vegetable garden at their new place—“There’s a space,” he said. “I like my agricultural roots.”

I thought about that—what stories my son might tell in his garden.

After I finished my blog, I went out to check on MEH’s progress—he was almost done. I watched him carefully rake out the soil between the rows, and I realized something. Turns out we do have a storybook garden, but not in the way I thought I wanted. Not the glossy cover shot—the story goes much deeper than that.

What’s your gardening style? Are there parts of your life you’d like to be storybook?

Cheers,

Julia

It’s About Life

_DSC0010Long-awaited spring finally came to Maine…finally. Then we went back to winter briefly, followed immediately by a fast-forward to summer. Last week we hit the record books with one of the warmest days on that date in history: 84F degrees. The warmest day in 222 days. I was sweltering and I almost complained. (I didn’t.)

This post isn’t about the weather. It’s about spring. It’s about life.

Renewal and new life is everywhere. Daffodils in the garden. Tulips. That burst of heat brought the leaves into full bud (last week there were none). And the weeds are growing, too. MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I have been starting a spring cleanup in advance of a summer garden—there’s a lot to clean up after our long winter. A sweet House Finch couple is nesting in our porch eaves, and this morning I listened to the male singing happily while sitting on the string of Christmas lights we never took down (because of the enormous piles of snow)…now we’ll likely keep them up so we don’t disturb the nest.

Yesterday, for Mother’s Day, I had the happy and (these days) only approximately twice-yearly occasion of having both “my kids” home along with my son’s wonderful girlfriend. Bliss is not too strong a word. We had a lovely breakfast together then we went to a nearby goat farm to visit the baby goats. My daughter and I have been planning it for months, but I think my son was a bit skeptical. I’d been to the Sunflower Farm Creamery once before to “hold baby goats,” and I thought it was just the thing we all needed after a long winter of bad weather, of being indoors too much, of work, and of stresses…we’re all together because next weekend we’ll be celebrating the very exciting occasion of my son’s graduation from medical school. If you’ve read my blog for long, you may remember when he started medical school—it was the year I started this blog—four years ago. Those years have flown by (for me). For him it’s been a lot of work.

We needed those baby goats.

Did I mention that my daughter is preparing to apply to medical school? (Which in itself is a major ordeal.) She’s home—on vacation—but she’s working the whole time. Like I said we really needed those baby goats.

There were only about four families at the goat farm when we arrived, and almost every person—man, woman, and child—had a cat-sized baby goat in their arms. The goats were resting peacefully in their arms, and the people were quiet and peaceful, too. As we entered the pasture, we were immediately surrounded by bleating goats. I watched them scampering; watched the other families interact with the goats around us; watched the baby goats nibble at people, chase down their mothers for reassurance; watched even very small children quietly and gently stroking sleeping goats in their laps. It really was magical.

“Holding those baby goats really was therapeutic,” my son texted me after we parted ways: he and his girlfriend rushing to the next busy thing in their lives as they prepare to move a thousand miles away to where he’ll start his medical residency and she’ll start law school.

“I miss the goats,” my daughter said, as she settled back in front of the computer. “I wonder if I can find a medical school with a goat farm.” She put in her ear buds and turned her eyes to the screen. Next week she’ll head back to the west coast to start a new job—having her at the dining room table working for the whole week is this mother’s dream come true.

Later this month, the baby goats will head to their new homes, the woman who owns the goat farm told me. At eight weeks the baby goats go in pairs. She’s very particular about where (and to whom) they go. She has a long waiting list. My daughter and I would love to own a goat farm someday; we talked about it in the car on the way home. Someday.

Next week we’ll gather for my son’s graduation: my aunt, my father, and my son’s girlfriends’ parents will join us. It will be a celebration of life. As my son graduates, I know I’ll wonder. Where did those four years—where did my babies—go?

Then, we’ll scamper. To new homes, to new jobs, to new projects. We’ll all begin anew.

What’s new with you this spring?

Cheers,

Julia 

Groundhog Moments

Portland Head Light

Portland Head Light

It’s Groundhog Day, and Punxutawney Phil predicts six more weeks of winter. As two of my Instagram friends discussed this snowy morning, “there’s never been a more Groundhog Day than today.” (Thank you @littlelodestar and @lemead)

You see it’s been snowing pretty much nonstop for a while now. It all started with Juno, the Blizzard of 2015—was that only a week ago? When I realized it was Groundhog Day today, I started hoping, irrationally that Phil (the groundhog) would see his shadow and in six weeks voilà it will be spring. (I say irrationally hoped because I really don’t believe that Phil can predict or not predict anything—he is a Groundhog after all.)

But predict he did.

That’s not what this post is about. Not really. It’s about the iterative process of life. About the predictability (and unpredictability—shall we say serendipity?) of life. The hopes of life. The moments of life. Because the other side of Groundhog Day that has become legend (in addition to Phil) is the movie Groundhog Day. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Not only because it’s good, but because it has become iconic.

And that’s what I was thinking about this morning. Not the snow falling outside (yeah, yeah, another foot. What’s another foot when you’ve got three or so already?). Well, first I thought about the snow. Then I thought about the movie, and Bill Murray’s character reliving the same day over and over again.

I started thinking. Which day, days would I want to live over and over again? Murray’s character didn’t get to decide. But as long as I’m reinventing things, I’ll say I can. Decide. I started thinking while I woke up this morning. Which days?

Topping the list (of course) are the obvious ones. The days my children were born. The day my husband told me he loved me the first time. I reconsidered, realizing that while I definitely would want to live those days over and over again, there are other less obvious contenders.

The day my son harvested garden vegetables with us when he was just four. He carried a pumpkin he’d grown from a seed onto the stage of the 4-H Perfect Pumpkin competition (alone, he told us to stay in our seats in an auditorium of about 400 people), and walked onto the stage to claim his prize for “the perfect pumpkin.” That day.

The day I strolled arm in arm with my teenage daughter down the L’Avenue des Champs Elysées in Paris. That day.

The day our young family drove across California on the roadtrip of a lifetime and my son made up a song about “Dusty Mountains in the Distance,” and my son and daughter (five years old), unbeknownst to me, got into a competition to see who could make me mad first. That day.

Actually, any road trip day with either of my two kids is a day I’d like to live over again. Talking, playing, singing, napping, looking at colleges, the companionable silences, even the bickering and the complaining (mine as well as theirs). Those days. All of them.

Or a day like yesterday. MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I enjoyed the first sunny day in a good long time by going on an outing. It was cold and of course there was snow, but it was beautiful. We went to Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth and watched children (and some adults) sledding with the Atlantic Ocean as the backdrop. We visited the “Portland Head” lighthouse. We took photos—many—as is our wont to do. Ice coated the huge rocks surrounding the lighthouse. We met a small Yorkie Terrier running faster than any dog I’ve seen, across fields of ice. We chatted with Clyde’s “parents” for a few minutes about Clyde’s Patriots shirt (yes the Yorkie was wearing a shirt). They were excited about the Superbowl, and they’re probably even more excited today. Maybe today’s a day—or yesterday—many Patriots or Patriots fans would want to live over and over again.

I digress.

Yesterday was a day—an everyday day—that I’d want to live over and over again. Days like yesterday provide the framework of my life, they give my life meaning. They remind me that it doesn’t take much. A sunny day. An hour car ride with someone you love. A beautiful lighthouse to take photos of. A call from your daughter. An email from your son. A warm house to call home. A delicious meal shared.

These are my Groundhog Days. My Groundhog moments.

What are the days you’d want to live over and over again? The moments?

 

 

 

 

 

Pushing Through

Happy trails, Fella, wish I could be there to watch you run one more time!

Happy trails, Fella. Wish I could be there to watch you run one more time…

I’m somewhere in the middle. 28,481 words down, 21,519 to go (for NaNoWriMo). Of course to reach a rough draft of the complete novel, I’ve got a lot more than that to write. 

If last week was the highpoint of this month-long intensive writing, this week I definitely hit a low. Because this week I remembered. Sometimes writing is hard. Really hard. I hit a patch that didn’t come easily and I wondered: is the story really going anywhere? Worse. Is it (any of it) really worth it? Even worse: writing this makes me too sad or I just can’t let go enough to “go there.”

This week I hit one of lowest points I can remember in my fiction writing experience. Partly because life got in the way. That’s a funny way to describe writing, isn’t it? Sometimes when things go easily and flow (and I’m loving the feeling), I think writing is my life, but it’s really not. This week I had some emotional turmoil (I won’t go into it), and it made me think about giving up. Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, they did.

We said good-bye to our beloved Abby dog yesterday. She was my daughter’s puppy, but I spent a lot of time with her. Okay. All the time. As a writer, I spend long (sometimes lonely) hours at the dining room table. But I wasn’t. Abby was always there with me.

But lately, Abby slept all the time. She could barely make it across the kitchen without her legs buckling. Robbed of freedom of movement by crippling arthritis, doomed by genetics, Abby wasn’t the most active dog in the world for the past few years—she couldn’t be—but she soldiered on through the pain she lived with daily, never complaining, always ready for a run through her favorite dog park, Twin Brook, albeit more and more slowly. Always sweet and stalwart, steadfast and kind (can a dog be kind?). She was without a doubt the best dog I’d ever met. My soul dog I called her.

I thought about quitting NaNoWriMo after we had to have Abby put down (yes, it was our final decision, one more way we had to take care of her, to help her escape her failing body—which is the only way I could think of it). MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I were with her at the end, as was her beloved Dr. Renee (if you have a great veterinarian who’s also a good friend, you know how impossibly important that person becomes in your life). We all cried.

Abby leaves a hole in my heart the size of a galaxy, and this morning I feel like I’m in a black hole, but I’m writing. I will finish this book despite my crushing sadness. I will finish this book despite the many things that feel out of my control in my life right now that are struggling mightily to control my ability to write. I will finish this book because writing is my salvation. It’s what wakes me up in the morning, keeps me going in the middle of the day, and gives me dreams and hope at night.

I will push through.

The Lost Mittens

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The lost mittens

Sometime around Christmas, MEH (My Engineer Husband) lost his mittens. Let me explain. I had given him a pair of brand-new super-warm dog-walking mittens a few days before Christmas, but they didn’t fit. It was a shame because I wasn’t supposed to buy them at all. MEH had given me strict instructions to not buy him any Christmas presents whatsoever—you may recall that MEH lost his job in September.

He didn’t want me to spend any money on him, but his mittens had holes in them and we had a super cold winter so I was worried about him and decided that since they were a necessity, the mittens should be an exception to the rule. But THEN I felt guilty right before Christmas and didn’t want him to feel like I broke the rule (especially since he wasn’t giving me anything either, that was the other part of the agreement) so I gave him the mittens before Christmas morning…before our kids got home for the holidays …

(By the way, MEH broke the rule, too. He gave me a book for Christmas which can hardly be called a necessity, although an argument could be made because it is the collected short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which really are kind of a necessity of life…)

Anyway, MEH tried the mittens on, and after ALL THAT, they didn’t even fit…so…he put them into a box…somewhere “we’d never forget” so we could return them right after the holidays. But…

Those Poor Little Kittens

You guessed it, we forgot where we put them. And we’ve been looking for those mittens ever since. Luckily we bought them somewhere that isn’t picky about returns (in fact, LL Bean is actually is a whole lot better than “not picky,” they have satisfaction guaranteed so you can pretty much return anything anytime, receipt or not).

I digress. MEH lost his mittens. And he’d never even worn them once. I felt pretty bad about it because he wouldn’t, WOULD NOT buy another pair. He wore a mismatching old pair of gloves (also too small) instead, the whole winter long.

Fast forward to a week ago and MEH’s trip to San Francisco: the one that I gave him for his birthday to see our daughter. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. If he doesn’t want a pair of MITTENS then how can I possibly justify a trip to San Francisco? Good question. Answer: frequent flier miles. Phew, now I don’t need to feel guilty about that anymore either.

Anyway, the day before MEH left for San Francisco, he had a job interview. It went well, but you just never know (and we’ve had six months of “just never knowing”) so we (of course) just put it out of our minds, and MEH went and had a blast in San Francisco with our daughter. As an aside, let me tell you that our daughter really knows MEH… she had planned all his favorite things: they went on a boat ride (to Alcatraz), to the Science Academy, to the aquarium, and walked all over the city at all times of day and night. They even had whiskey. MEH said it was “the best birthday present ever”!

I digress (again).

So, Here’s The Rest of the Story

MEH came home and the very next day he got a call and was offered a JOB!!! Yes! A JOB!! We were of course elated and incredibly happy, but mostly we were just really, really relieved. And it kind of felt like someone pushed the play button again after we’d been in pause for a really long time—if you’ve never experienced being laid off or living with someone who has been, I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that’s exactly what it felt like. (And, by the way, I don’t advise ever going through it, so I’m very happy for you if you haven’t been through it and just have hear about it from me.) This is a good place to say that I wish we could’ve known it was coming, that someone could’ve told us that MEH would have six months off then he’d find a job… then he’d go back to work. Then we really could’ve enjoyed that six months a lot more. As it was, I’m sorry to say that sometimes it was tense and difficult and we even had an argument or two, MEH and I. Unemployment is not good… well, that’s an understatement, but that’s all I’ll say about it because it’s over (MEH started his job today, and I’m a little lonely, but I’m mostly very very happy).

But what on earth does all this have to do with those mittens??? I know that’s what you were thinking, right? It’s just this. Over the weekend, after we pressed the start button, we did some spring cleaning. Well, to be honest, we finally felt relaxed enough to enjoy doing something non-job-search related, and we decided it was time to do some cleaning up…in particular to look for those mittens because it was kind of driving us a little crazy. MEH was pretty sure the mittens were in a room that had gotten pretty junky over the winter, a place we were basically storing stuff, and that was the “somewhere we’d never forget,” but long story short, they weren’t in there…which we didn’t discover until we tore the place apart.

After we finished putting it back together, and as I was putting away the luggage from the San Francisco trip, I spotted a box in our closet that had some fabric in it that I’d used to make some Christmas gifts. I lifted the fabric to put it away, and lo and behold, there were those mittens!!

We had another (much smaller of course) celebration about finding the mittens. Afterwards, I said to MEH, said I: why is it that you always find something the last place you look? To which MEH agreed: mittens and jobs alike, it’s always that last place. After that, it’s like pressing the play button.

And life goes on.

Have you ever been driven crazy by losing something? Have you ever felt like your life was paused and something happened to press play again?

Cheers,

Julia

MEH’s Big Birthday Surprise!

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MEH at the mirror art installation in Terminal C of Logan Airport…always the curious MEH. (If you look closely you can see he’s wearing his MEH sweatshirt!)

Sometimes a surprise works out perfectly—if I do say so myself—and such was the case with the surprise birthday trip my daughter and I cooked up for MEH (My Engineer Husband). It all started when I discovered that I had just the perfect number of frequent flier miles to get a free trip to California, just where my daughter happens to live! What better way to spend the miles than for a trip for MEH to visit one of his kids? (In addition to being a wonderful MEH, he’s also the world’s best dad. This is not open to argument. He has the “world’s greatest dad” mug to prove it.)

Now, if MEH were like me, this idea just never would have worked. First, I hate to fly and would’ve been freaked out if I’d found out just two hours before a cross-country flight that I was going somewhere, let alone on a plane…let alone cross country. Second, I’m a naturally suspicious (and sneaky) person so I would’ve figured the whole thing out way before it ever got off the ground.

For MEH, however, it was the perfect gift. For one, he LOVES surprises! For another, he’s had a rough winter, still job hunting… and on top of that we’ve had over two feet more than the normal snowfall this winter (guess who never complains about shoveling the lion’s share?). Plus, MEH loves to fly. He’s a pilot and I knew that part of the fun for him would be a seat where he could watch the wing flaps go up and down (he called me from the plane and thanked me). But, mostly, I knew it was the perfect gift because he misses our daughter like crazy. We’re lucky enough to see our son a lot (he’s doing hospital rotations—for med school—very nearby), but our daughter lives clear across the country now (you can read about that here).

When we drove down to Logan Airport (in Boston) yesterday morning, I told him we were going to see my aunt at the airport. (Except he told me later that he knew that wasn’t true, and he really thought our daughter was flying home to surprise him!) When I handed him his bag in the parking lot and said “Happy Birthday,” MEH did what MEH always does when he talks about “our girl,” he teared up. To say he was surprised would be the understatement of the century, and after he regained his bearings, we went into the airport, had a cup of coffee together…he kissed me good-bye and he flew to California!

I came home to Maine to do all my regular things and all the MEH-y things, too. No small task because that man is a powerhouse. But I don’t want MEH to come home and have to do anything… What kind of gift is that? So far, I’ve put everything back in the pantry (we cleared it out for a repair), walked the dog a lot of times (she’s discombobulated having MEH gone), ran errands (don’t worry they included coffee), did a couple of loads of laundry, took stuff to recycling and the dump, took stuff to Goodwill, changed a couple of light bulbs, and shoveled a foot of snow (okay, that’s not true, but after I wrote the list it seemed pretty pathetic so I thought I’d throw snow in for good measure). Soon it will be time to walk the dog again.

Oh, and since we’re having our first real spring-like day, I also went to the beach.

beachMaine

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MEH! We all love you and appreciate everything you do for our family…always with love in your heart and a smile on your face! You are the best (and so are you, Miss H, my partner in crime…we did it!). Sending love to one-half of the Martin family way out in California (touring Alcatraz Island as I write this), from the other half of the Martin family here in Maine.

Love,

Julia/Mom

 

 

 

You Really Can’t Go Home Again

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Black Dragon Canyon Viewing Area in the Wasatch Range

I didn’t post a blog yesterday . . . and I almost didn’t post this morning. The truth is I wasn’t sure what to write. It isn’t that nothing happened on the road—far from it.

Bighorn sheep, more bald eagles, a coyote, two burros, and mile upon mile of gorgeous mountain driving, first in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and then in the Wasatch Range in Utah. That was just yesterday.

The day before, as we drove from Nebraska into Colorado, through Wyoming, I was overcome with deep emotion when we pulled off I-25 to drive into Fort Collins, Colorado—a place we called home for almost sixteen years.

We were there to see two of my best friends in the world, but to get to their houses—first one then the other—we had to drive through territory that looked so familiar yet as foreign as the Wasatch Range. My daughter drove while I, well, fell apart. In fact, I quite literally could not stop crying. Even writing this—some six hundred miles west, in a motel room in Beaver, Utah—I still have trouble stemming the tears. My poor daughter was puzzled then frustrated. She, trying to maneuver strange new rush-hour terrain, was helped not at all by her teary mother. There were a few sharp words on both our parts—the first of the trip—which made me even more sad.

After my daughter and I talked things out, my daughter—mature and wise beyond her years—said, “Isn’t this why you wanted to take this trip? To reconnect with your old self?” It gave me pause. And of course the visits were beyond what I’d hoped—we spent much-too-little time with each friend; and my daughter and her best friend (from pre-K and kindergarten!) reconnected, too. It was a wonderful day of talking and catching up in person.

As for the emotion, I’m still figuring that out . . . maybe that it was a place my husband and I graduated from college, started our newlywed life, welcomed two children, owned our first house . . . or was it that I was homesick for my now-home, over two thousand miles away? I’m still not sure, but I realized in those moments of teariness and in conversation with my daughter, my friends, and their families that in so many ways you truly can’t go home again.

Today, more home—to my hometown in California—then tomorrow to San Francisco and the big drop off.

Cheers,

Julia

A Busy Day

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Part 1: Dorm Living

I’m sitting on the beautiful campus of Swarthmore College—where my daughter has spent the last four years. In addition to being an outstanding liberal arts college, its campus is also The Scott Arboretum. It’s early (6:59 a.m.) but MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I are sitting in a small courtyard outside Willetts Hall where we spent last night. There is a coolish breeze and robins are singing; it’s quiet save for the few other early risers and Public Safety readying for commencement.

It was hard to sleep last night—did I mention in my last blog that there’s a heat wave on the east coast? “It’s always like this on graduation,” one of my daughter’s friends observed last night. Six families gathered on Parrish Beach—the large sloping lawn central to campus—for a celebration of our daughters’ achievements and graduations. Five young women who have become among my daughter’s best friends. They were saying good-bye to one another as we were meeting families, some for the first time.

photo copyAfter we shared delicious Indian food and warm conversation, we sat and watched one of the most spectacular (and closest!) fireworks displays I’ve ever witnessed. Then, after saying our goodnights, the almost-graduates went on to later night parties and packing of their worldly possessions. We parents left for our night’s lodgings—some of us, like MEH and me, staying in Willetts where it was hot and impossible to cool down. But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. An opportunity to get up and immediately see the amazing gardens of Swarthmore, to be woken in the middle of the night by the happy laughter of students enjoying one last night together, to experience a taste of what my daughter has experienced these past four years.

Later this morning, our family—our son and his wonderful girlfriend are here as well—will watch these remarkable six young women graduate with their peers, and our hearts will swell (can they swell anymore?). And I will sit in the beautiful Scott Ampitheater and marvel at the beauty of my surroundings and the moment.

 

Part 2: We Hit the Road

photo copy 5After graduation we packed up my daughter’s room in the sweltering heat… in addition to packing, we were visited by many of her friends, and my daughter made frequent trips to say good-bye to friends while I sat on her bed and held a fan about an inch from my face.

We turned in my daughter’s keys at “key central,” a final sign that she truly had graduated, then we hit the road at around 5 p.m. with the eventual (next day) goal to make it to Chicago to visit one of my daughter’s best friends. We knew we’d spend the night somewhere on the way, and once we got on the Pennsylvania Pike and saw the sign for Hershey, PA, we both knew where.

CHOCOLATE WORLD! No, we didn’t stay there. But we did stop there. This Hershey attraction is open until 10 p.m. and we walked in at 8:30 p.m. Late, I know, but many people were leaving so it was pleasantly empty. We asked the very nice ticket saleswoman what we could “realistically do” knowing how close it was to closing (activities were priced per the each). She suggested a 4-D movie or “create your own candy bar.” Was there really a choice?

Minutes later we were in aprons and hairnets (definitely no photo, no way!) and on the factory floor. This was a really fun (and funny), and easy way for us to start the trip. We were both very tired and emotional from the long and busy day. We each created a custom candy bar and wrapper. Although I couldn’t control the creation of the chocolate bar, I wish I could have. As I looked at ours (and other) creations moving through the conveyer belt, I couldn’t help but notice my bar turned out bumpy, cratered, and less than perfect. My daughter’s was smooth and without flaw… I won’t draw the obvious youth vs. middle age analogy… wait, I just did.

Today: On the road to Chicago!!

Cheers, Julia

Tales from the Road

_DSC0014_2On June second my daughter graduates from college, and the next day we leave on an epic mother-daughter roadtrip across the country: from sea to shining sea. (If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know that she and I have been making regular trips back and forth from Maine to Pennsylvania, where she’s been attending college. You can read about those trips here and here, where my daughter explains her worries about mountain goats.)

You see, my daughter (all 21-years-old of her) landed her dream job straight out of college. I’m very proud because she’s a really smart young woman, a really hard worker, and she’s also one of the sweetest and nicest people you’d ever want to meet. But I think it’s okay to say I’m also going to miss her a lot. And so I jumped at the chance when she asked me if I wanted to drive across the country with her—as a graduation gift for her. For her?

So far the only place my daughter has specifically said she wants to go is the Grand Canyon, but I’m guessing we’ll probably go a lot of other places. A LOT of other places, three thousand miles worth to be specific, but the Grand Canyon is the only place firmly on the agenda right now. Well, that and the city she’ll be working in, in California. We’ll go there, too.

Of course she’ll be there a lot longer than I will be because after we get there, I’ll turn around and come home . . . And it’s the way home that will get a little more interesting because for one thing I’ll be missing my girl like crazy the second she’s out of my sight. (I mean, she’s been gone four years already, but she was “only” a day’s drive away. Now she’ll be 3,200 miles away. That’s a long drive, a long flight, a long way, and she’s my girl and she’s also just about my best friend.)

For another thing, I’ll be on my own, just be me and the wide open highway. Don’t get me wrong. I’m actually looking forward to all that time alone. It will give me a lot of time to think and think and think. And to listen to audio books and to say a novel out loud into a tape recorder or Dragon Dictation. (I’m not sure which way will be better, but it’s a long way, and I figure I need to have some mystery about some things—like whether I will use a tape recorder or Dragon Dictation. I’ll bring both and I’ll see what works best.)

I’m also planning to visit some friends I haven’t seen in a long (really long) time, and I’m planning to meet some new friends, some bloggers, who I’ve only ever met on the Internet or on the phone. So that will be great fun!

And what else? I’ll be blogging: every day from the road—both ways across. But more than anything? I’ll be driving . . . so, if you see me in my small white nondescript station wagon—if it’s at the Grand Canyon or anywhere else—please slow down to wave and say hey!

And come on back to the blog in a few days for my first tale from the road!

Have you ever driven across the country? And/or have you ever dictated a novel? Do tell!

Cheers, 

Julia

 

 

Wisdom from my daughter


Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


“The Mountain Goat is not really a goat.” Somewhere in Massachusetts I read those words to my daughter, initiating one of the funniest and, perhaps, most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had with her.
We were hurtling down the Mass Pike at the time, on one of our mother-daughter road trips. These eight-hour trips have become a wonderful byproduct of her attending college many states away. We’ve had some great conversations. Some very serious, but most very, very funny. At times giddy; the giddiest are on the way home from a long semester after a very-low or no-sleep night for my daughter.

On this particular road trip our conversations had already ranged from the critical: the location of the nearest rest stop (we always talk about this oftensince copious amounts of caffeine, in many liquid forms, are consumed on every trip), why it’s against the mother-daughter code of road trip conduct to ever listen to an Adele song, how to prepare yourself for a rear-impact car accident, how to choreograph a car dance to Kelly Clarkson’s Catch My Breath, why Adam Levine was literally like the third passenger in our car, and why literally and trilla-anything (think trillasecond) are literally every other words out of either of our literal mouths.

To the more mundane: the classes she’s taking next semester (hey, I’m not a bad mom, she’s a senior in her last semester, so she’s got this nailed), a recap of our favorite holiday memories, the kind of suitcase she needs to replace the one that broke as we loaded it into the car, and reminisces of past road trips. It was a long trip, okay?

But then we got to the Mountain Goats, and like I said, it was one of my favorite ever. Turns out, like I read out loud in that NPR article, 12 Half-Truths we Live With, the Mountain Goat is not really or literally a goat. The ensuing conversation had nothing at all to do with the validity of the statement—it was not even a point of discussion—we both readily accepted it as a fact. (Although we did read the associated link explaining why the Mountain goat isn’t really a goat.)

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. Turns out (unbeknownst to me after being her mother for over 21 years), my daughter (her words): “is obsessed with how mountain goats give birth.” Literally.

I was laughing so hard when she told me just that, so I asked if I could please record the rest of her rant for posterity (and to blog about), and she agreed; thank goodness for the iPhone! She answered an emphatic “no,” however, when I asked if I could include the recording in my post, but she did agree that I could transcribe it, and here it is, literally word for word (she was driving at the time):

“…I’m concerned about the Mountain Goats giving birth because they’re just going to…I’m afraid they’re going to…what are they called, kids? Are they still called kids even though they aren’t related to goats? I’m afraid the kids are going to go shooting out of their uteruses and off the mountain. Because where on earth are they going to give birth? Have you seen pictures of where the Mountain Goats live? It’s like on these jagged edges. There’s literally nowhere to give birth to these Mountain Goats. And then what do they eat? Lichen is not very hearty or healthy, and there’s absolutely nothing except for snow, and you can’t live off of that. And also they’re just going to be toppling. How on earth can they stay balanced? They just can’t, and I think they are just too dumb to realize the imminent risk they’re in. That’s my analysis of everything… And when they fight? Oh my God. They ram their friggin’ heads into each other, and they just shoot the other one off the mountain. It’s so gruesome. It’s weird. I just get concerned.”

There. Now you know, too, why my daughter is obsessed with Mountain Goats. And neither you, nor I, would ever have known if it weren’t for that road trip. Sadly there are some things a mother just can’t make right, and this is one of them. All I could do was listen, laugh harder than I have in a long time, and do an Internet search on how Mountain Goats give birth—turns out they go “into cliffs,” as one article said, to which my daughter replied:

“That article was literally written by a fifth grader. How can you go intoa cliff?”

If there’s a takeaway, it’s this: start early taking road trips with your daughters and/or sons. There’s nothing better. You learn a lot from them and not just about Mountain Goats, take my word for it.

Cheers,
Julia

A Halfway Day: a post and a recipe

It’s an unsettled kind of day. It’s raining. Or is it snowing? I can see some snow on the ground, accumulated under some of the bushes—but it looks like rain coming out of the sky. Either way it’s gray and dreary.

I’m also ripping my house apart because I lost a credit card…actually the one in my wallet expired in 2011 (I don’t use it that often), but my husband’s expires in 2014. That means I never put the new one in my wallet, and it’s somewhere in the house—I can’t find it, but I need to. I doubt the expired one will work as even half a credit card (if there is such a thing).

Now, the tenth of December, I’m halfway in the holiday spirit, too, but halfway not. We have lights up but no tree (that will be after our two kids are home). Growing up I had an estranged Jewish father and a Christian mother, so we only celebrated Christmas. As I got older, and re-connected with relatives, our family celebrated Hanukkah too. I love lighting the Menorah and preparing latkes. But I also love decorating the Christmas tree.

See what I mean? A halfway day and a halfway month.

Kind of like my writing. Right now I’m halfway there to deciding to self-publish my newly-completed mystery. And I’m doing research for my almost-ready-to-start-writing WIP. I have one foot in self-publishing, one foot still in querying, one hand writing, one hand researching. It’s an exciting kind of time in a terrifying, breakneck, busy kind of way…

So this weekend I did what any sensible uncertain person with too much to do does—I baked cookies. Four kinds to be precise. If you follow me on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook you might have seen my photos, labeled Cookies Rounds 1 through 4: Black Walnut Sandies, Classic Sugar Cookies, Almond Spritzes, and Molasses Crackles. I posted a photo of the last ones on Facebook, and Leah Singer (if you haven’t visited her blog Leah’s Thoughts, you should, it’s awesome!) asked if she could have the recipe. It follows this post.

If you, like me, are having an unsettled, uncertain, half raining-half snowing kind of month…maybe you should bake some cookies! (And just know you’re not alone.)

Cheers,

Julia

Molasses Crackle Cookies

2-2/3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/2 cup stick margarine, softened (I’ve also used butter)

4 Tablespoons molasses

1 large egg

granulated sugar for rolling (I have also used red sugar around holiday times)

1. Combine first 6 ingredients in a bowl and stir well. Cream brown sugar, margarine, molasses, and egg. Add dry ingredients and mix until blended. Gently press mixture into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill two hours.

2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

3. Shape dough into smooth, small balls (about 3/4 inch in diameter), then roll in granulated sugar. Place balls 3 inches apart on a baking sheet (I line with parchment paper). Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Remove from pan then cool on a wire rack.

Yield: approximately 6 dozen cookies – I know it sounds like a lot but they go fast, and they are a favorite among friends who receive them for gifts!

The Tumble

It could have been so much worse. I know that.

“I’m not at work yet,” MEH (My Engineer Husband) said first thing when he called this morning. MEH rides his bike to work. He’s lucky—he works in the same small town we live in, and it takes him about ten minutes to ride to work.
“I took a tumble…my bike hit some black ice. And I landed on my back,” he said.

“I’m on my way,” I said.

“No. I’m fine. I was lucky.”

MEH didn’t want me to come. Even though his bike couldn’t be ridden, even though he landed on his back, even though (unbeknownst to him until I got there) he had a cut on the bridge of his nose where his glasses dug into it. But I had to go.

When I saw him in the bank parking lot he was hobbling. I wanted to take him to the doctor—his wrist hurt and his back hurt more—but he wouldn’t go. “Just take me to work.” Cheerfully.

I loaded the bike into the back of the car. He wanted to do it but I wouldn’t let him. He groaned as he got into the front seat. I asked if he had some Advil at work.

“I hope my bananas are okay.” MEH had taken two bananas in his pack for breakfast (what did you think I meant?). He opened his backpack to check. “And my pens.” Of course MEH would worry about his pens, he loves pens.

We drove the two blocks to where he works, and on the way, MEH examined his helmet. “I’ll tell you, I was glad I had this thing on—my head hit the pavement hard when I flipped over those handlebars.”

I shuddered.

After MEH painfully got out of the car, he tried to make me laugh by waving to me with his injured hand by holding it and shaking it with his uninjured one. MEH’s like that: he always says his day is better if he can make me laugh—even when he’s hurting.

As he limped into the building, I couldn’t help but think again—like I do every single day—that I’m the lucky one. It could have been so much worse.


Cheers,
Julia

Post-Thanksgiving Let Down


Abby with “her chair” in background

Every day MEH (My Engineer Husband) heads out the door to work around eight. Our ten-year-old black lab is used to this routine. Walked and fed, she jumps up into “her chair” and settles in for the morning. She waits until the door closes, casts a final look at me to make sure I’m not going anywhere except to the dining room (where I write), then she puts her head down and goes to sleep.

But not today. Over Thanksgiving weekend our daughter was home from college. Truth is, she’s Abby’s “real mother.” Last Wednesday, before we picked up our daughter from the airport, Abby was on high alert. She followed me around the house all day; she knew something was up. When my cell phone buzzed with an incoming text message she rushed over to my side and wagged her tail. When we got home from the airport, she was ecstatic, and she kept her eye on her real mom all weekend long—until we took her to the airport yesterday.

9:30 This morning it’s been hard for her to get back into routine. (Me too.) Feeling restless, I decided to edit on the couch instead of in the dining room. Abby jumped up onto her chair but her eyes kept opening. After a few minutes, I heard a chirping sound—at first I thought I was hearing things, but then Abby lifted her head and looked at me as if to say: “Aren’t you going to check that out?” When it chirped again, from somewhere upstairs, I headed up and discovered the smoke alarm battery was low.

I replaced the battery and returned to the couch. By this time Abby had jumped down from her chair and was sitting down in front of me. It was going to be a long day. She stared at me. Then somewhere outside someone started up a leaf blower….then another. Abby’s ears were perked up. Stupid lawn care companies.

10:13 I picked up my iphone to write an email to a friend, sending her the (above) photo of Abby.

“Abby is now on high alert—she usually sleeps in the chair in the distance, all day. But today she won’t leave my side, someone’s outside w a leaf blower and one of our smoke alarms is chirping …. No rest or editing for the weary. Must be my cue to write a blog…”

Mid-email Abby nudged me. Maybe she has to go out… I mean, most days she’s just fine from six a.m. until at least four in the afternoon, but you never know…

I put the email aside and snapped on her leash, heading outside for a walk. Nothing. Back inside. Back to the Abby stare down. 10:35. I got up and got a snack (okay, if you must know I had a powdered donut). Abby wanted some of it, but there was no way. I finished the donut and gave Abby the plate to lick (apparently there was a way). For some reason powdered donut crumbs are her new signal. She finished licking the plate then headed over to her chair and jumped up. She settled in and closed her eyes.

Back to editing. Still hard to concentrate—but then again, I miss Abby’s real mom too. 11:45 I finished a little editing and headed to the kitchen for lunch. Tomorrow maybe Abby and I will both have an easier time getting back into routine. 

But then what will I blog about?

Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving (like we did). Are you having trouble getting back into your routine? What about your pets? 

Cheers,
Julia

The Curious Writer’s Mind

Prince Edward IsAland

I am writing this post far from home: approximately 430 miles southwest of Maine. This early morning in Philadelphia, in a guest bedroom—more specifically guest bathroom (stay with me here) of my aunt’s house—I discovered this: I never turn off my writer’s curious mind.

But I get ahead of myself. MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I are here to celebrate an important birthday. Our daughter’s 21st! Last night we took her and four of her wonderful friends out for dinner at a delicious Malaysian restaurant. Then we wandered behind them through the streets of Philly, in search of a bar. Can I tell you it’s been a long time since I’ve done this? Of course I’ve never done it with my daughter! We had so much fun!

(An aside: If you have a daughter who at age two asks for a pony? Don’t expect she’ll outgrow wanting one. Even at age 21. Even as she’s sitting next to you on a barstool, ordering a drink called “Bulletproof.”)

I digress. What does this have to do with the writer’s curious mind? Earlier, on our way to the restaurant I took a photo—two houses with pretty unbelievable art displays in their front yards. I thought it was Halloween decorations, MEH thought it was more of a year round thing—and we discussed it for a while. But more importantly, I wondered: who lives there? What is their motivation? Why? What is the course of life events that leads someone to have such an assorted display.


The houses with the amazing art displays in their front yards.
Later, when MEH and I left our daughter and her friends to enjoy the late night scene, we wandered back to our small nondescript white station wagon. On the way we saw an amazing old building, beautifully lit up. I had to take a photo, of course, but I had no idea what building I was looking at—yes, I wondered and briefly tried to figure it out via Google on my iPhone. After I took the photo, we walked by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel—a couple dressed to the nines was getting out of a dark Mercedes, being helped by the doorman with their luggage. I had to wonder: who are they? Why are they in Philly? What’s theirstory? Are they in the foreign service? Are they spies? Are they here for their daughter’s birthday?
The mystery building turned out to be
none other than Philadelphia City Hall!
It just doesn’t stop. And so it was this morning (I told you, I’d come back to it), standing in my aunt’s guest bathroom, looking at the Map of the World shower curtain I noticed something. An island off the coast of Africa labeled: Prince Edward Isaland. No, that misspelled word is not a typo (well, not my typo). Of course I did what any curious writer would do: rushed back to my room for my iPhone to find out if there really is a place called Prince Edward Isaland—more specifically is it a typo?
The answer is yes, it is a typo. But, wait, there’s more! The first five search items returned in Google were other blogs written about this very same typo on this very same shower curtain (well, not my aunt’s shower curtain but another one just like it)! And one of the blogs was “overly harsh” (that blogger’s description, not mine) about this shower curtain, and not just because of the typo, but more about the mapping strategies and politics. And again, I wondered: why? Why the harsh reaction? What was that blogger’s motivation? It is, after all, only a shower curtain.

And that’s my short (not overly harsh) blog for the week—a look into this writer’s curious mind.

Do you, like me, see stories everywhere you look? Do you try to imagine what the people (and places) around you are all about? Can you turn off yourwriter’s curious mind?


Cheers,
Julia

A Change in Setting

Last week I was in Philadelphia helping my daughter move. A few days before I got there I finished the first draft of my current WIP, and I was at loose ends—between projects and figuring out what I want to write next.
Of course there’s still plenty to do with revisions so I have some time to think about it. But my writing mind was restless and searching, and the change in setting gave me the feeling of a fresh start, with lots of new ideas to think about.

I live in a small town with quiet tree-lined streets. My usual view is out a window toward a bird feeder, and my daily companions are birds and squirrels and chipmunks. My seat at the dining room table (where I write) is on the first floor of our house so I look out at the same level as these furry and feathered creatures.

My furry feathered friends.
In Philadelphia, I was on the sixth floor looking out over a cityscape view. I had a great view of the changing skies, parking lots below, many varied buildings, people walking by—even a party gathered under a tent in one of the parking lots. In short my setting was completely different than the one I was used to.

Inside, too, my activities were very different. At home I write and then I take a break to exercise, eat lunch, then I write some more. I lead a very solitary and quiet daytime life (of course in the evenings, MEH—My Engineer Husband—is home). But in Philadelphia, as we packed and cleaned (okay, to be honest my daughter did most of the packing and cleaning and I helped out as requested) we watched the Olympics, we talked and laughed, we listened to music, we went out to eat, and we moved the car to keep from getting tickets (okay to be honest, I moved the car, AND I got a ticket. I swear I didn’t see the fire hydrant I partially blocked…sigh…).

It was a good time to have a change in my venue and activities, having just finished the first draft and all. Not only because it helped me clear my mind, think about something other than what I had just finisheda step away before starting to revise and edit, but also because I came away with a lot of new ideas. 

Things I never would have thought of in my own little world. Ideas from my observations out that sixth floor window. Ideas from all the people watching—lots and lots of people. Ideas from riding up and down in an elevator and sharing a larger space with others—instead of simply walking in a door and being home. Ideas from a change in setting.
Are you, like me, restless and at loose ends after you finish a draft? What do you do to inspire new ideas and to move on to revisions? How does a change in setting inspire your writing ideas?

Cheers,

Julia

I Predict Coffee Cake in Your Future

It’s 7:00 a.m. Sunday morning. Our first day of being empty nesters after a wonderful month of our kids being home. We’re driving back from the place we walk our dog—a rural park—about 10 minutes from home; we’re talking about going out for breakfast. But then, there’s a loud clunk from under the car and a lot of metal scraping on pavement. This is not good. We fear the worst for good reason: the new muffler just put on our car two days ago has fallen off.
Did I mention it’s raining? And MEH (My Engineer Husband) is now outside in the pouring rain, lying in the mud, under the car, trying to force the muffler joints to stay together, willing them to stay together. He’s yelling, and every other yelled word is a swear word. Effing this, S word that. MEH is a calm man by nature, but when he’s mad, he’s mad. I am dry in the car, feeling incredibly annoyed at the car repair place, but also unbelievably relieved and grateful….

Back up two days. We’re all getting ready for long trips. Our daughter off to Pennsylvania for a summer internship; our son to Massachusetts for another internship in a rural area. Our plan for a while has been for our son to take the “other car,” an older sedan—the one with the muffler. MEH and I would continue to use the nondescript white station wagon—and MEH would bike to work for the summer.

But then we took the “other car” to the shop for its yearly state inspection. Despite its clean bill of health, something didn’t sit right with me. They fixed some rust, they put on a new muffler; they said it was ready to go. But I wondered. There was the shimmy on the highway, and something wasn’t right with the way the new muffler looked from the back as I followed MEH (My Engineer Husband) home. I was concerned.

Here’s the thing. I have intuitions—I won’t go so far as to say I’m prophetic; I can’t see into the future. I prefer to think that I’m really in tune with my surroundings. I watch, I observe, I feel, and I pay attention to those feelings. Sometimes it seems like I can read minds. (Like right now, I know what you’re thinking….)

When we first picked up the “other car” with its new muffler, I told MEH I had a feeling, a bad feeling, that our son should not drive the “other car.” MEH has learned to listen. He (almost) always listens. (For the record, sometimes he doesn’t listen—like when I followed him home in the nondescript white station wagon, after we got the new muffler. I honked the horn and asked him to pull over into a parking lot; I told him something didn’t look right about the muffler. He looked at it and said it was fine. I wanted to turn around and go back to the mechanic. He wanted to go on. We went on.)

But this time, about the rental car, he listened. And on the big departure day we set off—MEH, our daughter and me to Pennsylvania in the rental car; our son in the nondescript white station wagon to western Massachusetts, where it will stay for the summer.

Back to Sunday morning, sitting on the quiet rural road in the disabled “other car,” listening to MEH swearing under the car, hearing the scraping metal as he tries to force the muffler together, waiting for the tow truck. But thinking about my son—safe and sound in western Massachusetts—how it could’ve been him on the highway driving at a high speed when the bolts came loose, the muffler dragging on the ground, maybe safe (but I’m thinking probably not), then stuck somewhere in the pouring rain by the side of a busy turnpike.

Sunday morning safe and sound at home, the car towed away—we are carless, no way to go anywhere or buy anything, no way to go out to breakfast. We could walk, but it’s still raining hard. I get out the binder where I keep tried and true recipes, and I turn to one given to me the day I got married by an old family friend. Coffee cake, an old-fashioned moist and delicious crunchy-topped cake—warm and comforting for MEH who’s still soaking wet and mad after lying in the cold rain trying to fix the muffler.

I pre-heat the oven, I blend the ingredients, fill the pan, and soon warm cinnamon scents fill the air. And I can predict coffee cake in our future.

Classic Coffee Cake

For the dough:

Cream

3/4 c. sugar

1/4 c. butter or shortening

1 t. vanilla

Add one egg, then add and mix:

1-1/2 c. flour

dash of salt

1-1/2 t. baking powder

1/2 c. milk

For the topping:

1/2 c. brown sugar

2 T. flour

2 T. melted butter

1-1/2 t. cinnamon

1/2 c. chopped nuts

Combine topping and spread 2 alternate layers of dough and topping (end with topping) in 8×8 pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden and a toothpick comes out clean.

Enjoy!

Cheers,

Julia

The Busy Month of May

I knew May would be busy—and fun—I just didn’t know how busy and how fun. It’s been a month of homecomings, birthday celebrations extraordinaire, new washing machines (yes plural), airports and train stations, long and short road trips, cooking and baking and eating, walks and bird watching. Of laughter and joy, of love, of long and wonderful talks, of some tears.

But writing? May is not a writing month. My WIPs and my blog will still be here in June when my two kids and their respective girlfriend and boyfriend are hard at work on summer internships. When neglected spring weeds are large enough to harvest and ideas simmering in the back of my mind are ready to commit to paper. And when morning routines return to just MEH (My Engineer Husband), the dog, and me. And too much quiet.


May is a month of hellos and goodbyes and much in between.


When I picked my daughter up at the end of the
semester, she took me for a walk in the rose garden
on her college campus. Absolutely gorgeous.
This is where I usually write (in the dining room). Now it holds
the catch-up laundry of two very busy semesters!
These are the cake pops that my son’s girlfriend and
I made together. They are delicious! You can
find the recipe here (yes, they were very easy to
make!): Easy Cake Pops. Take my advice and
don’t forget the styrofoam (like we did)–we improvised.

This is Dedicated to the One(s) I Love

When you have a blog with a name like wordsxo you think a lot about love—roughly translated wordsxo means love of words.

So when I went to look for Valentine’s Day cards and saw a card with x’s and o’s on it, I started thinking about how xo signifies hugs and kisses. Wikipedia says x’s (as kisses) originated back in the Medieval Ages; o’s (as hugs) more recently, perhaps in North America. Even more recently xo has come to simply signify love and affection.

The truth is I’m a little in love with the whole concept of love. I always have been. Maybe it’s because “my family of origin” didn’t express love much. My mother said “I love you” to me only once, and my father has said it only occasionally since my mother died over ten years ago. We didn’t talk about feelings—ever—and to say it was discouraged would be perhaps the understatement of the millennium.

That’s probably why when I married, I married for love. My husband—who you know as MEH(My Engineer Husband)—is the love of my life, my soul mate, and I tell him I love him at least once a day. I sign every single note and email, large or small, with “I love you, xo J.” We end every phone call, no matter how short, with “I love you.”

And that extends to our two kids: every call ends with “I love you.” My son, a medical student, has called me back because he didn’t hear my “I love you” at the end of a call. Every note, every letter I write him is signed with a “heart” Mom. For my daughter, a college student, it’s “I love you xox times a trillion,” even at the end of a text message conversation.

These codes between us, small intimate gestures, let them know they are my number one priority and I love them absolutely unconditionally. They know without question this is so—it’s something we’ve talked about as a family.

Aside from our small nuclear family, this circle of love extends to our and our children’s close friends, our small extended family—and now to you, my blogging and Twitter friends.

One blogging friend, Hallie Sawyer, recently wrote in a card to me: “There are days when I shake my head and wonder ‘how did I get here?’—as a writer surrounded by all the love and support of people I have never met! It’s crazy, wacky, wonderful, priceless, and something I will be eternally grateful for.”

I couldn’t have said it better, Hallie.

A recent post by Hallie on handwritten notes inspired me to start writing more handwritten letters and cards, and since her post I’ve sent out 18 handwritten notes to family and friendsincluding some of you. Through the past year of blogging, I’ve been fortunate to exchange letters and even some packages with several blogging friends. In the past month I’ve written to others; in return I’ve received handwritten letters back, full of love and support, from people “I’ve never met,” as Hallie wrote.


I don’t know how I got here either, surrounded by the love and support of my blogging and tweeting friends, but it’s something I too will be eternally grateful for.
So please accept this Valentine…

With love from wordsxo,

xo Julia 

p.s. I would love to send you a handwritten note! If you would like one, please let me know in comments, and I’ll contact you for your address. 

The Great Crow Experiment, Part 2

The Gang of Seven
Abstract
The Great Crow Experiment is a non-scientific study conducted by wordsxo scientist-wannabes—MEH (My Engineer Husband) and me. As previously reported in MEH and the Crows (citation: wordsxo) and Science News (citation: Science News), American Crows are extremely intelligent animals. The hypothesis of this experiment is that Corvus brachyrhynchos (American Crow) has the ability to recognize individual people and individual cars. Part 1 of the experiment presented the hypothesis, materials, and method. This post, Part 2, presents Results, Conclusions, as well as opportunities for further research (i.e., things we just don’t know the answers to).

Results
On September 7, 2011, we started to feed the crows at the sports and recreation area where we walk our dog—about 1.5 miles from our house as the crow flies.
October 7, after a month of feeding the crows, and as evidenced by the Crow Log audio below, the crows definitely recognized us and waited for the peanuts. This is especially significant because we were not at the usual location (the softball field) but were instead at the nearby baseballfield. This indicates the crows saw our car (and/or us) and came to that spot for peanuts. Other cars did not elicit this response.

Crow Log Audio: Crows recognize the car (and us?), note the excitement in my voice!! (October 7, 2011)

Crow Log 10-7-11 (mp3)

These are the incredible contrails I mentioned
in the audio recording! Gorgeous!

On October 22 we were in a nearby town (about 10 minutes from the recreation area) and the crows saw us in the nondescript white station wagon and sat in a nearby tree and cawed at us, apparently waiting for us to give them peanuts.

On October 23,when we came out of our house, there were three crows in the tree outside our back door—this is the first time we saw crows in the trees around our house. We believe these are the same crows that we feed at the recreation area.



This video was recorded on November 12; it shows the crows arriving and descending when they note our car’s departure. (MEH’s caution: people who suffer from motion sickness may not want to watch.) 

Conclusions

“The Gang of Seven,” a murder (group) of seven crows recognize our car; and we believe they also recognize us and our dog, too. We believe these same crows may come to our house for peanuts—although we’re not sure it’s the same crows.

Feeding crows is a fun activity, but it can be hard to stop. It can also provide amusement to family members. Our college-age daughter told me that she and her friends were talking about what their empty-nest parents were doing since their kids left for college. She said our stories of feeding the crows made everyone laugh—hence it’s all worth it. After we sent her a photo of one of the seven crows, she said: “That’s one large crow! Have you considered what happens if you STOP feeding the crows and you have 7 large and angry crows outside your house?” 

She may be remembering a similar time when I was feeding chipmunks and one of the chipmunks ended up coming into our kitchen, presumably looking for food. (Note, chipmunks look really big in the house; crows probably look even bigger.)

Further Conclusions:

  • ·      Crows are very smart and definitely recognize our white nondescript station wagon, but they do not seem to recognize our dark blue even-more-nondescript sedan.
  • ·      We think the Gang of Seven recognizes us, too, because they turn around to look at us when we’re walking at the recreation area.
  • ·      Crows are very shy. Most of them fly away as soon as our back door opens—however, there is one larger crow that I’m convinced recognizes me because he/she does not fly away when I come out the door but instead sits and watches me.
  • ·      Putting peanuts in your yard will attract crows but will also attract squirrels, chipmunks, and Blue Jays (also in the crow (Corvid) family).  All of these are less shy than crows, and will come to get peanuts while we are in the yard (crows will not).
  • ·      MEH can drive and shoot videos (backwards!) at the same time—this is not a recommended activity but he only does this on a dirt road when no other cars are around.
  • ·      Many people we’ve talked to about what we’re doing have said they don’t like and/or are afraid of crows (some associate them with danger, death, Poe, or The Bob Newhart Show).
  • ·      Dogs (at least our dog Abby) love peanuts and will eat them shells and all (crows do not eat the shells).
  • ·      Peanuts are scarce this year because of drought conditions experienced in the south—and this has driven up their price (peanuts are expensive).
Opportunities for Further Research

We still don’t know with absolute certainty that the crows we see at the softball field (the so-called Gang of Seven) are the same crows that come to our house for peanuts. Casual observation indicates they are: we see them first thing in the morning at home; then when we arrive at the recreation area (about 1.5 miles from our house as the crow flies), they arrive about 5 minutes after we get there by car. MEH says the only way we’d know for sure is if we wore a cave man mask and banded them. (Note, if you don’t know about why we would choose a cave man mask, read about that here.)

Comic Relief

This audio recording made me laugh when I listened to it, and I thought I’d embarrass myself (even) further by sharing it with one or a trillion Internet users. (Don’t worry, my eye is fine.)

Crow Log Comic Relief (mp3)

The Halloween Costume: A Guest Post by My Daughter

I’m so happy to introduce my guest blogger today, someone brand new to blogging and very near and dear to my heart: my college-age daughter. Ever since I started blogging, we’ve talked about her writing a post, and Halloween seemed like the perfect opportunity!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN from my daughter (and me)!

As far back as I can remember I have always taken Halloween very seriously. Perhaps it was the three-piece princess costumes my mom sewed for me or the way my brother showed me how to strategically hit all the houses that gave out king-sized candy bars. For whatever reason, I accept nothing less than perfection for my Halloween experience.
Being a college student, this task becomes more and more challenging. Don’t get me wrong, I have consistently lived up to my expectations, creating costumes on the fly with a student’s budget and listening to Halloween songs on YouTube as I do my psychology readings. However, this year, the Halloween season took a disastrous turn. For some unfathomable reason, my organic chemistry professor decided to give us a test TWO DAYS before Halloween. Although I love Halloween, my grade in that class is exponentially more important. Thus, I spent the week before Halloween not carving pumpkins or roasting seeds or preparing my costume or making candy-apples but instead learning the mechanisms of Wittig reactions and basic enolates (I could probably synthesizea candy apple at this point).

You can imagine my stress, then, when on the Friday before Halloween (after my exam), I STILL HAD NO COSTUME, let alone decorations or Halloween cheer. Frantic, another friend who had no costume (he also had a midterm) and I assembled a team of Halloweeners for a group costume: two post-test students, one generally apathetic boy, and one kid who planned to go as himself for Halloween. Not usually the dedicated fan base I roll with on such an important holiday, but, hey, I was taking what I could get this year. After much debate among the group (read: I couldn’t decide what we should be and no one else really cared), we settled on the Winnie the Pooh gang. I would be piglet, mainly because everything I own is pink.

And so here is where the real story begins. Who knows why I embarked on the ensuing fiasco—perhaps my Halloween spirits were not sufficiently satisfied with the lack-luster Halloween preparations. Whatever the reason, I decided that I NEEDED to have a Winnie the Pooh ring tone for the occasion.

           

Sure, I thought to myself, It’ll be easy! Google free ringtones, piece of cake!

           

I think I was doomed from the minute I thought it would be easy.

           

I found the perfect ringtone for free—the Winnie the Pooh THEME. So, I clicked the link. Create a password? Perfect! BUT I realized it was one of those websites where essentially every password has already been taken. So I spent approximately five minutes coming up with a novel ten character password that I would never forget incase I needed to find another Disney ringtone.

           

After this, I got transported to ANOTHER website where I had to create ANOTHER password to get the ringtone texted to me. Fine, I thought, not a big deal, I love texts. Great. So I created this second password and received the text. BUT I had to follow a link on my phone to a website. And this website didn’t load. Argh, thought I, I just wasted half an hour (no joke) trying to get this ringtone!

           

So of course I checked my phone ringtones to see if I could BUY the Winnie the Pooh ringtone. What’s $.99 for an evening of entertainment and the icing on the perfect costume—the candy on the corn, if you will. So I bought the ringtone. EXCEPT, it was the SONG not the ringtone. OKAY, I yelled to myself, I WILL CREATE MY OWN RINGTONE. I’ve done it thousands of times before, I thought, so it’s not a big deal. (note: I’ve done this once with my friend. He literally did the whole thing for me).

           

I randomly opened various toolbars and pull-down menus in iTunes, trying to remember the directions. I struggled for about seven minutes (no way I was putting in a full ten), and then a brilliant idea struck me.

           

I bet there’s an app for this.

           

Low and behold, there is.

           

SO, I download the app and started making a ringtone. But, of course, I had to pick the PERFECT time in the song… which takes another five minutes because you can’t have a ringtone that awkwardly starts or stops in the middle of a verse. When I found the perfect timing, I saved the file.

           

There, I said to myself, I KNEW it would be easy.

           

BUT, as I checked my ringtones, IT’S NOT THERE. Then I realized the app has instructions. I needed to SYNC my phone with my computer and then download the ringtone to my desktop then upload it or sideload it or whatever to my iTunes and THEN RE-sync my phone with my iTunes. At this piece of instruction, my heart sunk. I never actually LEARNED how to use iTunes because I’ve never wanted to take the time to read the instructions. I usually just frantically click until something I want happens (but wait, some of you perceptive readers may think, aren’t you a science person, shouldn’t you KNOW to read instructions first? Yes, I should. It’s one of the many paradoxes of my life).

           

FINE YOU STUPID APP, I thought, I WILL DO THIS. NOT BECAUSE I WANT TO BUT TO PRESERVE THE SACREDNESS OF HALLOWEEN.

           

So, I followed the instructions on the app. However, they are utterly useless because they assume some competence with computers. At this point, nothing will stop me. SO I SEARCHED FOR IT ON YOUTUBE (this part is especially embarrassing, however, it helps).

           

After this, I finally had a Winnie the Pooh ringtone. Gosh, I thought to myself, glowing with pride, that felt like it took HOURS!

           

Because it did take hours.

           

In the time that I could have learned three more organic chemistry mechanisms, I instead created a Winnie the Pooh ringtone that I will use for one night and probably never actually hear because everyone who would actually call me will be WITH me.

Winnie the Pooh ringtone: multiple hours, Winnie the Pooh songs blasting from my speakers at 9AM, one new app, and $.99.

Retaining my Halloween pride: priceless.


Happy Halloween!

Sharing a Landmark Day

Landmark days—often these are what we mothers remember and hold onto: the first birthday, first steps, starting kindergarten or high school, moving your child into their first dorm room….moments frozen in our minds.

At the beginning, these memories are shared memories: their firsts are our firsts. As they get older—high school, college, and beyond—we mothers become someone to share good news with, sometimes a sounding board, maybe a shoulder to cry on. Then finally, our children’s landmarks become their own.

They find their way, they make their lives—in short they grow up. As mothers, if we’re so lucky, we may still have a glimpse, hear the exciting news, share in the moments and the landmarks.

Last weekend was such a landmark day in our son’s life, his journey. We were invited to attend his “White Coat Ceremony,”the symbolic occasion in the early days of medical school when students receive their first white coat. We traveled out of state and met up with our son, his girlfriend, and our daughter—all of us living in different states. We did what families often do the night before an event: we gathered at a restaurant. We congratulated and toasted, reminisced and talked, with much of the conversation centering on science and medicine—passions close to both my children’s hearts.

My son—a talented writer, who wrote a novel for his college senior thesis and was urged by mentors to seek an MFA—has known since a “job shadow” at 16 that he wanted to be a doctor. This is not an easy road, and he has worked tirelessly to make his dream a reality.

Last month, as he left our home to head out of state for his first day of medical school, he came over and gave me a hug—I’m happy to say he’s a big hugger, my son—and said: “I’ll make you proud, Mom.” He knew my reply before I gave it: “You already have.”

Sunday morning we went together to the beautiful theater where the ceremony took place. My son joined his class of medical students, and we joined the proud families in the audience. We sat and watched as our son along with all the other sons and daughters received their white coats and took the Hippocratic Oath.

Watching my son, now a man, pursue his life goal and passion makes saying goodbye to my daily job of motherhood a lot easier. To attend this ceremony, be a tiny part, is icing on the cake.

My time, my memories, of every step and every landmark as a mother are just that: mine. His time, his memories, as he takes this momentous step, are a continuation of hislife journey. Sitting in that lovely place, watching my son be “cloaked” with his first white coat made me happy beyond words to be a part of my son’s, this wonderful man’s, life and landmark day.