1 in 140 Million

With approximately 140 million bloggers and 175 million tweeps out there, what are the odds that it’s possible to make connections? To build friendships?
When I started blogging four months ago my goal was simple: to “build a writer’s platform.” Beyond that, I expected nothing. Beyond that I knew nothing. In short, I had no idea what I was getting into….

But the truth is, I found out the real power and strength behind blogging and Twitter is in the relationships and friendships you build, like the one I have with Natalia Sylvester who writes beautifully at one of my favorite blogs: finding truth through fiction.

So today I’m happy to say that I’m guest blogging at Natalia’s blog about this very thing. How against the odds, the massive number of bloggers and tweeters out there, it’s possible to build real friendships and connections like I have with Natalia and my other Twitter and blogging friends.

Please be my guest and read my guest blog What are the Odds? at Natalia’s blog!
Cheers,
Julia

Mushrooms in the Middle

The longish process of planting shiitakes:
we had big hopes, E and I
This is a story about an oak log, a bag of shiitake mushroom spores, and two women over three years. It’s also about hope and growth and joy and surprise. But most of all, this is a story about friendship.

“There’s always hope, Julia!” My friend E stood jubilantly on my porch, clutching the 4-foot long oak log.

I knew exactly what it was. Three years ago to the month, almost to the day, E and I took a road trip to a mushroom farm, about an hour from where we live, to buy shiitake mushroom spores. And a few days before that, E called and asked me what I know about growing shiitake mushrooms (“nothing”), and more importantly, was I interested in a joint venture of growing shiitake mushrooms together (“yes!”).

At the mushroom farm, we bought a ziplock bag full of small plugs that had been dusted with shiitake spores. These delicate plugs sat in the backseat of my friend E’s car as we wended our way home down the Maine coast. In the backseat of the car, on a hot May afternoon—way hotter than the early season would suggest—the mushroom spores sat while we drove and while we went out for a nice lunch in beautiful coastal Damariscotta. And while we were at lunch, the bag got all condensed and mushy and cloudy and moldy looking.

When we got back to the car, we looked first at the bag and then at each other, remembering that neither one of us brought the recommended cooler we both meant to bring along.

“Oops,” said E.

“Oops,” I agreed.

“Maybe we should’ve taken them to lunch with us.” E suggested.

I nodded my head, thinking she was probably right and wondering if there was any hope we’d ever get any mushrooms. I know E was thinking the very same thing.

On the way home, we planned. The next Saturday would be mushroom planting day. It sounded like a longish process, this shiitake mushroom planting, and we knew that we would be enlisting the help of MEH (My Engineer Husband) and E’s husband M. The mushrooms would grow at E’s house—because she had a lot more land and also a very shady area (shiitakes need that) under some pine trees. We lamented the fact that I didn’t live next door—because if I did, we joked, we would start a business called Mushrooms in the Middle. And the mushrooms would live between our two houses.

We had big plans, E and I….for feasting on shiitakes until we were so sick of them that we would take all our many excess pounds of mushrooms to the local farmer’s market, and then eventually in about a month or two we would produce so many mushrooms that we would really truly have a business called Mushrooms in the Middle, and we’d be famous, and we’d probably be on the Oprah show as famous women entrepreneurs or at least on the Today Show and we’d get to meet Meredith Vieira. Okay, we never actually talked about any of that (beyond the name Mushrooms in the Middle and the feast and maybe the farmer’s market). I started to talk about it, but my friend E is a lot more sensible and less fantastical than I am and she simply said:

“Let’s wait and see, Julia.” In that matter-of-fact tone she always uses when I dream big and get way ahead of myself like I do about almost everything in my life.

Anyway, E dropped me and the spores off at my house. To be honest, I can’t remember if we really talked about this, but I remember thinking to myself that if E got custody of the mushroom babies (yes we did call them that) for most of their lives, then I could at least take care of the babies for a few days.

So, there they sat: the spores, in my refrigerator, for several days. Every time I (and more especially MEH) looked in the refrigerator, we wondered what delicious new snack we’d purchased that we forgot all about. Then we remembered: the next Saturday was “mushroom planting day.”

Which, as it turns out, was not a simple process. Without writing an instruction manual for planting shiitake mushrooms (although I probably could write a better one than the one we used), it involves many large (6-8 inch in diameter) oak logs, a drill, paraffin wax, a mallet, LOTS of water to soak the logs in, and something to prop the logs up on. Thank goodness M, E’s husband, has a big pick-up truck that he was willing to use to haul freshly cut oak logs.

On that Saturday morning, MEH and I were supposed to go along to get the logs—we were going to meet M and E at the wood farm (I think it’s called a woodlot, actually), but we got lost on the way to the hard-to-find place, and we gave up (okay, it’s embarrassing, but that’s really what happened!).

Instead, after a few attempts via cell phone to locate the place (we failed), we instead met up with E and M at their house. It was a little quiet for a while, because I think we were all a little grumpy: E and M because they had to do the job alone, loading the logs, and MEH and me because we were pretty embarrassed and frustrated that we never found the woodlot.

Our baby mushrooms
(the spore plugs)

Anyway, we had the logs, and we drilled holes in them—a LOT of holes all over each of about 15 logs. Then we pounded the little spore plugs into them, then we covered each of the little plugs with melted wax. Then we soaked the logs in water. Or at least that’s the order I think we went in….what I really remember is that it was a long, long, LONG process. And we had several points of discussion. For instance, whether the logs were really freshly cut (we decided they weren’t) and whether we soaked the logs before or after drilling the holes (I don’t remember what we decided or even what we did) and whether we really had to cover the spore plugs with paraffin (we disagreed about this, E and I), and how hard we should pound the plugs in or whether we should drill bigger holes.

Did I mention there were FOUR of us making these decisions together? And during each of these brief decision points, we would look at each other, E and I, and realize even though we were in charge, we were far from shiitake mushroom growing experts. And did I mention that it was hot and we were tired and grumpy?

Finally, we weren’t so careful about anything, maybe even including each other, and we rushed to get done.

“I think that’s good enough,” said E.

“Me too,” I agreed.

“Maybe we should’ve gotten fresher logs,” E mused out loud.

“Maybe so,” I agreed. “And maybe we should have gotten better directions.” (Doesn’t the writer always want more information and better directions?)

“Maybe so,” E agreed.

And we both nodded our heads—and I wondered if there was any hope that we would ever get any mushrooms. I think E was thinking the very same thing.

Still, we finished, although not to our complete satisfaction, any of us, because in the end we all made compromises we maybe wish we hadn’t. Then, we put the logs away, and MEH and I went home. And all my thoughts of Oprah, and the Today Show, and even of being an entrepreneur at the farmer’s market and maybe even having a shiitake feast, and, yes, even getting one shiitake mushroom, had pretty much been dashed by then.

But at that point all we could do was wait. Supposedly, said the guy at the mushroom farm, by mid-summer we’d have all the mushrooms we could eat. Supposedly the next year even more, he said, from all the tendrils growing below the bark of the oak log. All we had to do was wait. All we could do was wait. So we waited. And waited. And no mushrooms grew that summer, or the next summer. Then one day sometime after the second summer, E called and said, “Let’s have lunch, I have some news.” (No, this is not the big announcement you think it is, still no mushrooms!)
The big announcement was that E and M were moving to a new place—about two hours away, to a beautiful coastal village. Of course I was sad, no question. But what about the mushrooms? Believe it or not, it came up because the biggest part of the announcement was that they were selling THEIR house and OUR mushroom logs.

And if that had happened, this would’ve been the end of the story because it was already two years after we planted them, and there were still no mushrooms. Neither E nor I really believed we would ever get any, ever. We talked about moving the logs, but MEH and I really didn’t have a place to put the logs at our house, and even if we did we might not have taken them because no one wanted to lug those 15 or 16 logs, covered with bugs and who knows what else, in the back of a pick-up truck!

But it’s not the end of the story because even after E and M moved, and more time went by and E and M couldn’t sell their house because of the bad economy (that was bad), their daughter decided to live in the house while she became a teacher (that was good). But by then, when I heard this news, I didn’t give the mushrooms a second thought, and I doubt E did either. We were just thinking about the house and E’s daughter.

And then more time went by, another whole year in fact. And all this time, now three years since the planting, E and I shared our personal joys and triumphs and tribulations as friends do—her mom’s and my brother’s deaths, our good-byes when she moved to her new-old house and the enjoyment of both our gardens and her ordeal with not being able to find her well (they eventually found it), both of our indecisions and decisions about career changes, joys and worries and achievements of our kids, her husband’s very-successful new business, and my husband losing his job, not to mention countless cups of coffee and lunches, and rainstorms and snowstorms, and horrible heat waves with visits to her new house and the beaches nearby.

Two of the most beautiful things
you’ll ever hope to see!

And then one day, two days ago, I was sitting and writing my blog at my desk, and I saw a car pull into the driveway. Then I heard MEH talking to someone on the porch. And I ran out, and there standing on the porch was my friend E, who had driven two hours in a fancy concert-going outfit to see a friend in a farewell concert and on the way there dropped by her old house to visit her daughter. And in her fancy concert-going outfit, on a whim decided to look at the mushroom logs, which she hadn’t done in a about a year or more.

And there, on the log, now cradled in E’s arms, against her very bosom in her lovely concert-going outfit, were TWO SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS!!

My friend E stood jubilantly on my porch, beaming. “I had to come straight here to show you!” E said. “It just proves, there’s always hope, Julia. Never give up hope!”

And both of us stood there, with tears in our eyes, and we marveled at the two small beautiful mushrooms on the log before us. And I knew E was right: you never can give up on hope!

What joys and hopes and adventures have you shared with your friends? Do friends enrich you as a writer, like they do me?

Cheers,
Julia

Hello Old Friends, Please Forgive My Absence!

My new “fiction workstation”

Ever since I started blogging, my non-blog writing has stagnated. Specifically, my fiction writing has stalled. Sure, I’ve had spurts of activity, but I’ve only written about 7,500 words this past month, not a great improvement since I blogged about it here and here.
Over the weekend I sat down to re-familiarize myself with my WIPs (yes, I have two in progress and another in revision/submission)—and I realized I’m a little out of touch. I felt sad when I realized I had to get to know some of the characters all over again, revisit scenes and even settings. It was really disheartening, almost like I had lost touch with a friend.

Just like when there’s been a rift in a friendship, I need to put in some extra effort. I’m just not pulling my weight, and things can’t go on this way! Although I am heartily discouraged, I also know that I’m not so unique. Lately I’ve read some similar blog postings, specifically by Aanna and Hallie Sawyer. And I’ve talked to other writers about this via Twitter and email, so I know it’s a struggle for other writers, too.

The real culprit for me is the blog-tweet-blogcomment-retweet-blogrecomment cycle. In the almost-three months since I started blogging, I haven’t found the right balance—but I’ve come up with some ideas of how to start. I’m hoping with my compromises and changes, my old friends will welcome me back with open arms—and that we go on to become even better friends, maybe even create permanent relationships through publication!

So, my dear WIP friends, please forgive my absence, and now you have my word as my seal:

Time tracking: Starting today I will track all my time. For starters, I’ll use a pad of paper and pen, but I may get more sophisticated with a time tracking app. 


Renewed commitment: To 1000+ words a day.
Daily Blogging: When I started blogging almost three months ago, I made a commitment to blogging everyday. This actually is working well for me because I’ve set an early morning deadline, and it helps me get the day started out right. Daily blogging stays.

Twitter: This is a huge time sink, especially if I keep it as an open window! I need and want to limit my time here. For now, I will track how much time I really do spend—with the eventual goal of limiting myself to a total of 20 to 30 minutes a day. I am also finally going to check out Hootsuite and Tweetdeck to see if they will increase my productivity and time management. This is a tough balancing act, because I get so much writer-now-friend support via Twitter! 

Reading and commenting on blogs: Again, this is tough, because I enjoy it so much! But I need to limit it to a maximum of 1 hour a day. Now that I use Google Reader and I am not notified by email, I can wait until it’s convenient for me to scan my list of blogs and see if new postings have been made.

Change of Venue: I usually blog/write at my desk. Over the weekend, I moved all my fiction writing to the kitchen table. I’ve decided that until I have a handle on the division of work, I will work on my fiction at the kitchen table and keep my blogging and other writing on my desk.

This is definitely an ongoing process. If you have any suggestions, comments, or thoughts, I’d love to hear them! How do you get organized? Do you have apps that help you? Do you use Hootsuite or Tweetdeck? Productivity or time tracking apps? Are you better than I am at focusing on your WIPs and avoiding other shiny objects of distraction like Twitter and other blogs? Do you ever feel like you’re out of touch with your WIPs?


Cheers,
Julia

“I’d Rather Eat an Earthworm than Blog”

The other day I went to pick up my friend Betsy. She was finishing up a session with a photographer.
“This is my friend, Julia,” Betsy said, introducing me. “Watch out what you say to her or it might end up in a blog.”

This has become a standard joke between Betsy and me, ever since she appeared in one of my early blogs about handwritten notes.

Still, I winced a little. It was true. In fact, at a recent party for MEH (My Engineer Husband)’s birthday, four of the six attendees had been mentioned or made starring appearances in a blog. I don’t think I’m that different than many bloggers. In fact in Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere 2010, 66% of bloggers stated that conversations with friends influence what they write about.

The photographer looked up from the bag she was packing.

“Really? You blog?” She sounded interested, maybe even experienced. I thought I might have actually stumbled upon another blogger! (For the record, since I started blogging, I have not met another blogger—except online—which is pretty surprising since there are an estimated 200 million blogs, according to Technorati.)

“Yes. You blog too?”

“I’d rather eat earthworms than blog.” She said it with a very pleasant smile on her face, but I could tell she was dead serious.

I couldn’t help but laugh.

After I stopped laughing, of course I asked her if she would mind if I used THAT in a blog, and she more-than-quickly gave me full permission.

But the truth is, more than getting a funny line, it gave me pause to think. The more I become immersed in this cycle of blogging-tweeting-blog commenting-retweeting-answering comments-re-retweeting, the more I just assume that everyone is doing it. So I wondered, is that true? (Clearly my new friend, the photographer, would say no.)

Being the naturally curious person I am, I had to find out. The thing I was most interested in was how many blogging writers there are. Interestingly, it is not so easy to pin these numbers down. I searched for about an hour (about all the research time I was interested in investing in today’s blog), and the best I could do was the Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere 2010. Of 7,200 respondents to Technorati’s survey, 33% of bloggers said that at sometime they had worked as “a writer, reporter, producer, or on air personality in traditional media.”

And 26% of bloggers stated that they blog specifically to “get published or featured in traditional media.” I’m assuming that means that those 26% of bloggers are writers, like me. Let’s see…26% of 200 million bloggers, that’s 52 million.

Perhaps needless to say, after reading all these statistics and doing the calculations, I was no longer interested purely for interest’s sake or curiosity, but I was borderline horrified, even terrified. 52 million bloggers, blogging specifically to get published!

Now, I think I’d rather eat an earthworm.

Where do you get inspiration for the things you write about in your blog? From friends, sometimes, like I do? Have you ever had someone get mad at you about blogging about them (Technorati says 7% of relationships have suffered due to blogs but 33% have brought friends and family closer together.). Are you daunted by the number of writers who are blogging to get published?

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. Here’s the link to the full Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere 2010.

For the Love of Cooking

I love to cook. I suppose it’s one of the best things I got from my mother: the knack for cooking good food and the right food at the right time.

When I was a child, I helped my mother with the cooking. Okay, the truth is that my mother worked, and from the time I was about 10 years old, I cooked dinner for the whole family three times a week. By myself. And at holidays? I was practically an indentured servant for the two huge holiday parties my mother always put on.

At the time, I was not a fan. I mean, what 10-year-old girl in her right mind would rather be cooking dinner than playing with her friends? And my mother was exacting; it had to be a complete meal: meat/fish/protein, grain, green vegetable, yellow or orange fruit or vegetable, and salad. Every night.

But, boy did I learn to cook a meal and cook it well:

  • The rabbit, that I didn’t want to cook, but it was there for me to prepare for dinner. (Julia Child led me through her recipe, and she’s been my friend ever since.) When I tried to refuse to eat it at the meal, my mother replied: “The French eat it, you were born in France, you can eat it, pretend it’s chicken if you have to.”
  • The family recipe for creamed spinach and bacon casserole that broke the blender every Christmas Eve (not to be confused with the Cranberry Ice family recipe that we made every Christmas Day with the new blender we bought late on Christmas Eve). Some of my best memories of my mother are when we laughed as conspirators in the kitchen every year.
  • The best (and simplest to make) baked macaroni and cheese you’ll ever taste, that my own kids adore.
  • The one-pot-meals we made on camp stoves in rustic kitchens in Kenya (yes, they still met all the food group specifications).
  • The knowledge that I can make a nutritious, complete, and delicious meal out of a crazy empty refrigerator.

I also collect recipes, especially recipes that remind me of people. When I make the recipes of my mother’s, I sense her in the kitchen, stirring whatever’s in the pot with the tip of her paring knife (her famous cooking technique).

But in addition to my mother, I think of others whose recipes I’ve collected:

  • Carolyn’s Krautburgers—that always remind me of sitting on her deck in Colorado, watching her dogs romp through the fields and laughing for hours with a wonderful friend!
  • Tatjana’s delicious pumpkin swirl cake and muffins. Lunch of bagels with melted cheese and tossed salad with garlic vinaigrette, followed by Cassis liqueur and conversation that goes on until dusk (and truth be told, you never want to end).
  • Aunt Marsha’s matzo ball soup and potato latkes—both melt in your mouth—served with generous portions of love, affection, and dancing at holidays.
  • Ramon’s beans and rice—simple to make, delicious, and utterly nutritious—from a high school friend’s friend from Mexico. Now a family favorite.
  • My Russian grandmother’s stuffed cabbage; my Ohio grandmother’s black walnut cookies, made from nuts from the tree in her garden.

Each dish has a story, shared with deep love and affection. As I prepare them, I remember the cook who first made them for me. And I don’t know which is better, the taste or the memory. Both are equally delicious and nourishing.

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. What are the foods that bring back memories for you? Are there recipes or foods that remind you of people or places?