Sunday, December 30, 2012

Transportation, Theatre, History and Dance - Part 1

Waiting Room area 
photo by Ted Klyce
A few weeks have passed already, but I wanted to share the opportunity I had to perform with Bedlam Theatre for the Grand Re-opening of the St. Paul Union Depot.  It was a much grander event than I anticipated.  In one week we had several intensive rehearsals culminating in an all-day event on Sat. Dec. 8.

The depot was built in 1923 and was in operation until 1971. I was familiar with the front part of the depot the Head House where the Christos is located and where I used to have lunch at the LeeAnn Chins back in the 1980s.  But I never knew about the waiting room area, newly renovated, which had been used by the U.S. Post Office for many years.  It was now going to be opened for use as a transit hub for trains, buses, bikes, taxis and the light rail.  It was a huge space, probably twice as big as the front area, and we got to rehearse and play in it all week.

Waiting Room area 
photo by Ted Klyce
 My roots are in St. Paul.  My mother grew up there. I grew up there.  Mom told me she had worked in downtown St. Paul in the 40s in an office not far from the depot, and one day she asked her boss if she could go during her lunch and say goodbye to this guy she had been writing to who was going into the Air Force.  (That guy later became my father.) She bought a box of Fannie Farmer candy and went to the train station.  The train was leaving, and she walked up to the passenger car.  She asked the porter to find my dad, and when my dad came back, the train engines were just starting up.  My dad came down the steps of the car, leaned out, and Mom reached forward and handed him the box.

Being involved in a well-organized production is like a gift.  With director Sam Johns, and Production Manager Birdie Freitag, the rehearsal process worked liked a well-oiled machine.  Telsche Thiessen found all the costumes and had been researching the 1920-40s for several months.  Core artists Barbara Berlovitz, Charles Campbell, Emily Gastineau, and Billy Mulvaney provided direction in the acting and choreography sequences.  There were over 40 of us involved in this production.

At dress rehearsal we got into our costumes and everyone was transformed.  For some reason the clothes that people put on - the dresses, the shoes, the hats and coats - they seemed to define the people who wore them.  We were not all a bunch of millennium, jean-wearing folks coming from work; we were travelers, army personnel, fine ladies and gentlemen.

On Saturday morning I have no idea what the politicians and speakers said about the project or how they introduced the event.  All I know is that when the curtain came down, and we finished our short acting/dance sequence to Sing Sing Sing, the people came poring in.  And they kept coming.  And coming.

More later...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

NaNo 2012 Closure

Playing a little catch up here...

At the end of November I finished NaNoWriMo - 2 days early with 50,508 words.  The working title of my novel is Captain Jo, Rogue Lady Pyrate.  Right now the story is a dynamic mess of scenes which I will revisit at a future time, but I'm very happy to have taken the time to start putting this project together.

This year it was nice to start Nano knowing a few more friends that I could touch base with during the month.  The Twin Cities region is very active with a Kick off and TGIO (Thank God it's Over) parties.  In between there are write-ins all over the city, a 24-hour write-in, and a writing tour (28 hours) which has split off into three different areas of the city.

During the month I went to 10 write-ins at various places such as the Loft, Wilde Roast, and the Mpls. Public Library.  Now that it's December I'm back to "normal" writing and unusual dance projects.

Stay tuned....

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Dragon vs. the Keyboard

Nanowrimo Day 8 - 14926 words.  Staying one day ahead of the daily goal (for today it's 13333).

The key is balance.  Although I went to two write-ins yesterday my goal is not to write as many words as I can, but to lay the foundations for this novel just by doing scene work and doing it in an easy 50,000 words.  Every day when I open my computer, I have no clue what I'm going to write, but if I have one sentence or a phrase (e.g. "main character is reunited with her brother"), then I'm able to sit down and write out that scene.

I'm also still doing research.  At the recommendation of two people, I decided to buy the Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software, not for the writing but for brainstorming new ideas based on the reference books I'm reading.  So far, Dragon has been a slick program and fairly accurate.  You speak into a microphone, and it types out your words.  It does take some practice.  You have to speak all your punctuation and formatting (comma, period, new paragraph, next line), and sometimes if you breath too heavy you get an "s" in your text box.  Overall, though it's been nice to be able to skim a paragraph in a book and then speak the summary or new idea that's triggered from your reading.

Technology changes the way we write.  I remember how difficult it was moving from the tactile experience of pen and paper to the head-to-keyboard thinking of using a computer.  I once had a job where everyone had a computer on their desk but they were still writing in longhand and then typing it into a document.  I suppose it's a little like trying to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand.

I might get used to this slightly different way of writing with the Dragon program, and then I might not.  It's like a whole different dimension to the thought and organization process.  Of course, then I had the problem late last night.  I was getting tired, and I started talking to my spouse in sentences with punctuation and formatting commands.  (!!)

This past spring I coached a student who was using dictation software to compose e-mails.  He was getting complaints about his grammar and usage, so I was guiding him on how to speak more effective sentences and to take the time to go back and edit if he needed to.

Regardless of how writing changes, it seems that editing will never change.  You'll always need to at least proofread your work, and even though you can make changes on the computer and do spell checks, that still doesn't substitute for printing out a hard copy to check spacing and the other wordy glitches that happen after you press Save and before you press Print.  And then, just to complicate the issue, once you're familiar with your own work, it's hard to edit a second time because your mind fills in the missing words or errors.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Writing Tools and Coaching

Day 4 - Word count currently at 7823 and rising.

This past week I coached two clients on using Scrivener for their writing projects. Many of the people participating in Nanowrimo are using the Scrivener program because there's a special deal offered by the Office of Letters and Light. Oddly enough, my clients weren't doing Nano or writing novels.  One person, a psychologist, was writing a non-fiction book and the other was writing her dissertation.

I've really enjoyed using Scrivener for new projects because with it you can lay your information out in both linear and non-linear formats.  I was using the corkboard feature this year to brainstorm about character names and locations for my story.  You can also collect related photos and research articles and include them all in the same document.

I used to use a brainstorming program called Three By Five which was like laying out index cards with ideas.  You could color code the cards, transform your ideas into an outline and print everything out in different sizes.  That program survived three computer upgrades before I (sadly) had to retire it.  Then I digressed to colored sticky notes on white pieces of paper spread out on the living room floor.

More recently I found a program called Scapple.  It's a simple tool, but it works much better for brainstorming than Three by Five.  You create balloons and you can connect them in whatever way you want.  You can even connect things in multiple ways.  There's color coding and font choices.  For this time around it was a great way to organize my initial thoughts and figure out what choices I needed to make about my story.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Listening to History

I squinted, one-eyed, at myself in the bathroom mirror.  First day of Nanowrimo and I had dropped my contact lens somewhere between my left eye and the sink drain.  I never found it.  Fortunately I had an old one in the drawer, and it's been working just fine.  I had also started writing right at midnight on Nov. 1 and got in over 1000 words.  Day Two left me a little short of par (3333) but now I'm headed for 5000+ for today.

Research has been interesting.  I realized that most of the research I've done in the past for my novels has been related to my own time frame, or if I was writing about earlier times (such as the 1920-1940) I had people I could talk to for the information.  Or, when I was writing fantasy, I could make up my own rules.  For this Pirate novel I can't even begin to imagine lifestyles, habits, and language patterns of the 17th and 18th centuries.  It's one thing to read about it in a book, but to imagine yourself there, walking through it and then writing it down is a very surreal and intangible experience.  Every sentence comes into question even with a simple scene of your main character waking up in the morning and hearing voices.  (What was the room like, the bed? What was her mindset?  How do you make her different without launching her speech and mannerisms into the 21st century?) Oddly enough, once I got to the crew on the pirate ship, the speech patterns came more easily, although I'm sure they're still inaccurate.  Best attempt is to take Shakespeare and rough it up a bunch.

For this Nano "hyper" draft I think the main focus will be on the relationships of the people and how they react to the issues of that time.  These are the things that are universal and timeless.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Swimming in Research

I didn't realize it, but writing has been so much a part of my life for so long that I haven't really blogged much about it.  I forget not everyone has conversations about their character's point of view, whether there's not enough tension or too much back story.  Not everyone goes to the library at least once a week to do research or work in the fumes of the coffee shop's roasting machine.  People don't have withdrawals because they haven't opened their journal at the end of the day to fill a blank page with gel-penned observations of the day.  But this month, I'll make up for it...

As I was trying to decide on my novel project for this year's Nanowrimo (see yesterday's entry), I dug back through my notes and realized I had done quite a bit of pirate research that dated all the way back to 2006.  I wanted to base my novel on historic facts rather than some of the pirate myths from the movies.  For example, the idea of buried treasure is very rare; pirates spent most of their plunder on women and drink.  Walking the plank is also not historically correct; the idea first appeared in Peter Pan and it has become part of regular pirate-lore.

Some of my earlier research included a book called Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly who is a historian and authority on pirate research.  He also appeared in some of the bonus features on the Pirates of the Caribbean DVDs.  More recently we went to the Real Pirates exhibit at the Science Museum which was all about pirate Sam Bellamy and Whydah ship they had sailed.  There were a lot of artifacts - weapons, gold pieces, hinges, articles of clothing - that they discovered from the sunken vessel.  They also had actors and actresses dressed as pirates to answer questions.

My favorite book so far is Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks.  It's the true story of Captain Kidd, and how he never intended to be a pirate, but got hanged for it.  It's a non-fiction book but reads like fiction with conflict, rich description and period details.  It's like a well-written dissertation that would never put you to sleep. 

With all the information out there, I wasn't sure where to start, and the thing about Nano is that you just write without even knowing exactly where you're going.  I think I got tired of all the common stories I kept hearing; I wanted my story to be fresh.  So, for right now I've got about ten books from which I'm gleaning information - I guess it's sort of like looking for treasure.  I'm taking bits of information from different books, making a general timeline, and seeing where things intersect in history.  It's proven to be very helpful.  The Golden Age of Piracy overlaps with both Colonial America and the later 1800s.  It also overlaps with slavery, Native American issues, and the outbreaks of smallpox and yellow fever.

One day and six hours left to Nano.  Hopefully I'll have more ideas nailed down by then! 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Nanowrimo 2012

It's almost November and that means most of this month's entries will be about writing.  For the third year in a row I'm involved in Nanowrimo or National Novel Writing Month.  This is about writing a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.  I think the first time I heard about this I was in the middle of editing several manuscripts, so how could I possibly add anything more to my plate?  And what kind of writing quality can you establish in just thirty days?

After I received my graduate degree, I was burnt out from editing and critiques and revising, so I put my writing on hold for quite a while.  Then some of my writing friends signed up for this endeavor and suggested that I do it, too.  And you know, it was the best thing I could have done.  For years I had been revising my manuscripts and not writing anything new.  For Nano, revising and editing is not allowed.  You write all new stuff, which is where a lot of the fun of writing comes from anyway.  It's like giving yourself permission to write sloppy and put the editing on hold until you get the whole story down on paper.  (as Anne Lamott would say, "shi*ty first drafts.") 

I also discovered that the Twin Cities region is very strong, with over 6000 participants.  There are scheduled "write-ins" several times a week where you meet other writers at local coffee shops and libraries and sit in silent support while you click out words on your laptop.  Once in a while you take a break, ask people what they're writing, compare word counts.  (Average per day is 1667 words which is a very doable goal.)

My first year I wrote the first draft of Touching Infinity, my fantasy novel.  Last year I went a bit unorthodox and added 50K words to my half finished thesis project which was a twins novel.  (Hey, I had to finish it at some point anyway.)  I'm still revising these novels, but at least I know I can take a break and write new stuff in November.  This year I'm writing a woman pirate novel and as the month progresses I'll give updates on my process.

The first Nano event for this year was the annual Kickoff meeting which was last night, held at Nina's Café in St. Paul.  This year I actually knew a few people from other writing groups, but I also met more people.  The best part is finding out what others are writing and then giving each other ideas.  I met someone writing a 30-something novel; I shared ideas with someone writing a novel about mermaids.  There are a lot of people writing urban fantasies, sci fi, romance, or mystery.  I also met someone else who dances.

The past two years I made my 50K goal; I'm looking forward to seeing how this new story turns out.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Music and Memories

Speaking of free activities at public libraries...

Last week my spouse and I attended a free music concert at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis.  The concert was called "Tiptoe Through the Sixties," performed by singer, Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard, piano and accordion player.  I remembered seeing Prudence one time when she was leading the group Rio Nido at the Dakota Bar in Bandanna Square, St. Paul.

The concert was set up in a small auditorium, and there was a video screen framed by a picture of an old TV set.  They sang and played songs from the sixties and invited the audience to sing along.  There was everything from TV show themes (Gilligan's Island, Flintstones, Addams Family) to songs of the Viet Nam war protests and Woodstock (Blowin' in the Wind, One Tin Soldier, Buffalo Springfield Song (Stop Children, What's that sound...)) as well as the popular hits of the decade (Hit the Road Jack, Stand by Your Man, Camp Grenada).

While the music played, they had the lyrics projected on the screen along with well-known photos from that era and personal pictures from Prudence and Dan's family albums.  Having those ten years laid out like that, I developed a deeper and more personal understanding of that time period and all the monumental changes juxtaposed with normal everyday living.

At one point they read stories that people had submitted on their website about 60s nostalgia and since I had written one up, they read it during the show.  I wrote something about how I had been too young to understand the political unrest of the 60s, but I remembered writing letters to my brother who was stationed in Thailand.  I remembered penny candy such as Slo-pokes, candy necklaces, and wax lips, nails, and vampire teeth.  Some of my favorite songs were California Dreamin', Aquarius and Georgy Girl. 

I hadn't been to a music concert in a long time, and this turned out to be a very enjoyable evening.   

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mixing Potions for Green Cleaning

When I was in fifth grade I liked to go over to my friend Jane's house.  Her mom let us experiment in the kitchen, creating potions out of regular household cooking and baking ingredients.  We gave them names like Flapderrypepin, Vinoosoda, and Bubboo which came from taking a few letters from each of the ingredients and putting them together to make a longer word.  So, Flapderrypepin was something like flour, paprika, baking powder, curry, pepper and vinegar and it was a spicy antidote to our first skin-soothing recipe of which I can't recall.  Vinoosoda came about because we added food coloring to vinegar and baking soda, creating a colorful foaming liquid.  Bubboo was invented by taking soap bubbles from the dish water and adding food coloring (about 3 different ones) which made a glorious colorful mound of suds on the spoon.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I started my latest creative project.  I'd like to call it Green Speed Cleaning.  I decided that since I need to clean my house anyway, I might as well turn it into something a little more exciting rather than chasing spiders and inhaling toxic cleaning fumes. I'd turn it into an opportunity to create useful potions that were environmentally friendly.

I found two books at the library - Speed Cleaning 101 by Laura Dellutri and The Naturally Clean Home by Karyn Siegel-Mater.  I decided to combine elements from both of them to pursue my own shine-up project.

Speed Cleaning is a great book to help you gather your tools and set priorities.  Dellutri describes different types of cleaning that are done daily, weekly, seasonally, and of course, speed cleaning - when you have unexpected company coming over.  There are lots of tips borrowed from professional cleaning tactics such as "avoid circular wiping," "carry your cleaning supplies with you in a bucket," and "clean a room from the top down."

The thing that I didn't like about this book was that the author discouraged the reader from using natural cleaning products saying they weren't effective.  She also used glass cleaner for the counter tops as well as for the mirrors and windows as an "all purpose cleaner."  (Sorry, I don't like the idea of having my food taste like Windex.)

The Naturally Clean Home offers a lot of different potions for cleaning floors, dishes, clothing, wood, glass, and even car battery terminals.  Ingredients include baking soda, vinegar, essential oils, borax, and castile soap.  I promptly jumped in and mixed up a few of the recipes starting with my own vinegar and water mixture in a spray bottle which did wonders for faucets and stoves.  Then I tried the Citrus Blast appliance cleaner - castile soap, white vinegar, lemon juice, water, citrus seed extract, essential oil and borax.  (A lot of this stuff you can find at the co-op.)  This is what I use for the microwave and fridge.  I also found a scouring powder that I like with baking soda, cream of tartar, borax and lemon peel that I keep in a shaker bottle and use for sink and bathtub stains.  The only problem I found with this book is that the author used a lot of lavender and eucalyptus oils to scent the cleaners, and I can't stand them!  So, instead I used mostly citrus oils.  I also didn't like the option for dish soap because it didn't seem to cut through grease very well and left a residue on the dishes. 

Oddly enough, the hardest thing about making my own cleaners was finding functional spray bottles.  I found some small ones at Target, and they worked for about a week, but then they wouldn't spray after that.  I found industrial sized sprayers, but I still needed some smaller ones.  I ended up going to the container store and grabbed a couple of metal ones which have held up pretty well.

Ok, and while I was at it, I also found a free class at the Hennepin County Library and made two more cleaners - an all purpose one with peppermint soap and a goopy scouring gel made out of baking soda and cream of tartar.

And, well, I have to admit that house cleaning has become a bit more enjoyable.  My stove top smells like lemons, my floor mat smells like peppermint, and I'm amazed that we spend so much money on cleaning products when vinegar is so cheap. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

sǝʌıʇɔǝdsɹǝԀ ʍǝN

When I was a kid I used to turn myself upside down in a living room chair in some pre-downward dog yoga position and take a look at my surroundings.  I liked to imagine what it would be like to live in a house where you walked on the ceiling.  To get into the room, you'd have to step over the door frame.  You'd have a whole open area to play in, no matter that the surface was a textured stucco pattern.  And then in the center, there was the light fixture sticking up like some sort of glass orb that you'd sit around as you would at a bonfire or a cookout grill.

I'd be upside down for quite a while, and then my dad would walk by and say, "Gee, you look a LOT better that way!"

Recently I began taking a class called Inverted (Upside Down) Dance taught by Jennifer Ilse of Offleash Area Dance.  I decided to take this class because as I do more dancing, people assume that I know how to do inversion work. 

"You mean you've never done a handstand before?"  ("No.")

"You don't know how to do a cartwheel?"  ("Not correctly.")

"Just grab onto my waist, tip yourself upside down, and I'll turn you in a circle three times."  ("Easy for you to say!")

As a kid I always wondered where other kids learned these things.  There weren't that many that I knew who took gymnastics.  I always imagined groups of kids outside on their front lawns just trying different maneuvers until they figured out how to do a cartwheel or a handstand.  I was not one of those kids.

As an adult dancing upside down was not something they taught in my ballet, jazz or tap classes.  I'd seen a little bit in modern, but that was usually at the more advanced levels.  As an older dancer I've also been a little hesitant to try things - what if I fall on my head? 

So far I've been enjoying the class.  I was a little concerned because I have neck and back issues, but Jennifer, and also my chiropractor, said that I'd probably be fine, and the reverse gravity (like an inversion table) might even be helpful.

The class starts with some core warm up and yoga positions.  Then we move on to some choreographed sequences where you support yourself with your hands and find the head and tail connection of your spine.  What's interesting is the wall climbing.  It's one thing to lay on the floor with the backs of your legs against the wall and then climb up and support yourself in a shoulder stand.  It's a lot harder (for me) to face away from the wall, put your hands on the floor and climb the wall with your legs so that you're supporting yourself with your hands.  Pretty intense!

Oddly enough, a lot of this stuff is easier for me to do when it's part of a choreographed sequence.  I guess it's because one movement flows into the next and it's connected with breath, core, and a steady beat of percussion in the background. I suppose the dance of it is motivating for me, just as if you take a phrase out of a sentence, the whole sentence loses its impact.  Or if you have just one instrument playing a four-part ensemble piece, the richness is lost.

I've only taken two classes so far, and I haven't done a complete handstand or cartwheel yet, but after each class I've felt pretty darn good.  Not only is it a great way to increase upper body strength, I'm also facing my fears, challenging gravity, stretching my spine in new ways,
ɐup ǝxdǝɹıǝuɔıuƃ lıɟǝ ɟɹoɯ ɐ uǝʍ dǝɹsdǝɔʇıʌǝ˙

If you're interested:  Classes meet on Tuesday nights 6:00 - 7:30.  (Advanced class is on Wed.)  Cowles Center for Performing Arts 4th floor, downtown Mpls.  Cost:  $5 - $10 sliding fee.  For more info contact:  Offleash Area

Thursday, July 26, 2012

SPARK Theater + Dance

Last weekend we attended an open house for our friends at SPARK Theater + Dance.  In the comfort of their living room they presented a preview of their theatre production The Evolution of Sam which will be performed at this year's Fringe Festival.

Corey Mills
Betsy and Corey Mills are the husband and wife team and artistic directors for SPARK, a non-profit organization that explores the connections between theatre and dance, art and community, and creator and performer.  SPARK has been their dream for many years.

Written and performed by Corey as a one-man show, and directed by Betsy, Sam was first performed in 2001.  Sam is about the evolution of a typical guy from monkey to man and back again.  It's about his search for love and his inevitable rejections.  It's billed as "a very physical solo show that asks, 'Is it really all about survival of the fittest?'"
Betsy Mills

We were very privileged to see two short scenes from the 45-minute production.  The first showed Sam as a monkey, doing what he does best - climbing, looking for food, and pursuing a potential mate (a stuffed monkey in the center of the floor).  He "evolves" with smooth movements from his bent-knuckled, all-fours position to present-day male, standing upright, trying to make conversation with a woman at a bar.  (6 million years in about 20 seconds!)

I'm not sure anyone can watch this show, at least the beginning of it, with a straight face. Being an actor and a dancer, Corey pulls off the physical comedy easily with the posture, movement and facial expressions of a true chimp.

In the actual show, the set will be composed of a series of metal bars in the shape of a triangle that he'll climb on.  The humor is also in how the script is written and the timing - how he delivers his line, waits for a response from other invisible characters, and then repeats it more loudly.  You can just sense the whole atmosphere at the bar with the loud music and the crowd. 

The second scene we saw was also humorous, but in a different way - the way that most artists can easily relate to.  Sam goes to an audition for a play.  He recites Shakespeare and does rather badly - forgetting his lines, starting over, mixing up words.  (It reminds me of the idea that in order to purposely sing off key, you have to be a pretty good singer.  By the same token, in order to recite purposely convoluted lines of Shakespeare, you've got to know it pretty well to begin with!)  Of course he doesn't make the cut, but you really feel for him as he experiences another embarrassing rejection.
model of Sam set
deigned by Samuel N. Cook

I have not gone to a Fringe show, but I will be going to this one.  I could be biased because these are friends of mine, but I don't think so.  I've seen other works done by these two - several dance performances, Masterminds from 2007 Fridgefest, and The Cubicle done in conjunction with Theater for the Thirsty.  As a writer, I can appreciate a good script, and as a dancer I enjoy the timing and movement of physical comedy.  This is one show that I highly recommend.

The Evolution of Sam
Performing at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul, 2400 University Ave. W.
          • Thurs., Aug. 2    10:00 p.m.
          • Fri., Aug. 3         5:30 p.m.
          • Sat., Aug. 4         5:30 p.m.
          • Fri., Aug. 10       7:00 p.m.
          • Sat., Aug. 11       4:00 p.m.
Show is rated for 16 or older.
For tickets call:  866-811-4111   
For more information:

Monday, July 23, 2012

Outdoor Theatre

There's something enchanting going to an outdoor theatre production.  I'm not sure if it's the lack of formal seating (just bring your own lawn chair), the elements of nature (even though it's 90+ degrees), or that you can bring your own picnic dinner and munch while you watch (a major plus).

Last weekend we went to Century College to see Shakespeare & Company's production of Cymbeline.  The theatre area is set in an alcove on grounds of the college.  The two-story stage is the same each year, but the costumes are very ornate.  The actors and actresses enter from across the field and make their way to the stage.  During the performance it's common for them to walk among the audience and once in a while interact with them by pointing them out or rummaging into their coolers for a bottle of water.  (Although I'm sure they only do this if they happen to be well acquainted with the owner of the water.) 

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's later plays and not as well-known as Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet or MacBeth.  The main story is about Cymbeline, the King of Britain who has a daughter named Princess Imogen.  Imogen is in love with one man, but the evil Queen, Imogen's step mother, wants Imogen to marry her son, Cloten.  In the style of Shakespeare, there are other subplots - love challenges, changed identities, and thwarted plans that complicate the story in a delightful way.  Unlike Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, Cymbeline has more black and white characters, and yet they remain three-dimensional.

This is Shakespeare & Company's 37th season, and the longest running outdoor theaters in Minnesota.  Other years we've seen Hamlet, Merry Wives of Windsor, King Lear, and Comedy of Errors.  The mission of the company:  "Our goal is to provide an environment where families can come and enjoy an informal picnic atmosphere and see performances of Shakespeare and other classical plays."

Besides Cymbaline, the other plays for this year are Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare) and Tartuffe (Moliere).  There are only two weekends left.  If you're interested, check out the website for more info or call 651-779-5818.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Flavors of Duluth

Besides being a great place for nature and art, Duluth has a lot of great places to eat, especially if you're gluten free.

The Duluth Grill

One of our favorite places is the Duluth Grill.  Located on the east side of the city in the less "touristy" area, Duluth Grill was once an Embers and seems to be very popular among the locals.  Moderately prices, the menu options range from standard Embers fare such as burgers and sandwiches, to more contemporary dishes such as wraps, gourmet omelets and a Curried Polenta and Fire Roasted Tomato Stew.

Smoked Salmon Wrap
This time around I had the Smoked Salmon Wrap - a gluten free Ethiopian teff wrap with Northern Waters Smokehouse Salmon, avocados, scallions with a side of lime-cilantro tartar sauce and a small side of fruit.  It was a great mingling of different flavors.  And of course, you have to try the Strawberry Lemonade.  Other times I've eaten here, I've had a BLT in a teff wrap and a GF Thai chicken pizza.


 Va Bene Berarducci's Caffé

Another one of our favorite places is an Italian Restaurant called Va Bene Berarducci.  Since there aren't that many GF restaurants in the Twin Cities that have GF pasta options, it's always a treat for me to go here.  It's located along Superior Street past Fitger's and the ice cream shop.  If you go before sunset, try to get outside seating because you have a great view of the lake.  But beware of the gulls (Minnesota vultures) who like to scavenge for food and are not shy.  The deck does get cold after the sun goes down, but they also have a covered porch which also has a view of the lake.

Even though it's customary to have a coffee drink after dinner and/or with dessert, I sometimes opt to have one right away before dinner.  (We also sometimes stop in for a morning espresso when they open around 9:00, but that's another story).  My spouse and I like to split a salad and then order separate entrees.  This time around we shared a Spinaci Salad - spinach leaves, pine nuts, honey and goat cheese with a honey peppercorn vinaigrette.

Spinaci Salad

Being gluten free, it's easiest for me to order the pasta bar - a sauce, a pasta and three items of your choice.  I had the gluten free noodles with San Marzano Tomato Sauce along with sausage, asparagus, and roasted red peppers.  Very satisfying!

pasta bar option
New Scenic Café

One more great place, a bit nicer, and higher prices, is the New Scenic Café.  It's a nice drive up the shore, and when you think you've gone too far, go a little farther and it'll be right there on the lake surrounded by its colorful garden.  

pecan crusted goat cheese on mixed greens

seared sea scallops
One of my favorite salads has delightful medallions of pistachio crusted goat cheese nestled in mixed greens.  (Being also dairy free, goat cheese can sometimes be an option, as long as I don't overdo it.)  

Their menu options change often, but I had an amazing dish of seared sea scallops on top of butternut squash and corn masa.  Among this decorative little "tower" was cilantro, grape tomatoes and sweet corn.

While these three restaurants vary in style of cuisine and price, they have one thing in common:  The staff were always willing to work with you if you had food allergies.  Restaurants like that always deserve five-star ratings.  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Foray to Duluth

Even with all the flooding this year, we really didn't want to miss our trip to Duluth.  It was only one week after we had seen the pictures in the paper and the news clips - the city streets of our favorite getaway spot looked like Gooseberry Falls.  There were pictures of the adorable seal swimming among the cars on the freeway and cars tumbling down the sinkholes in the asphalt. The parking lot of the Whole Foods Co-op had collapsed. (Although fortunately, the building had remained intact.)  I thought we were going to cancel our reservations, but we called up all of our favorite spots, and they said, "Yes, we're open for business; come on in!"  So, we went, and I'm glad we did.

Gooseberry Falls 2011
Gooseberry Falls 2012
Even though Duluth had been declared a disaster area, when we went, we didn't really see much of the flood damage.  Sure, there were some closed off streets and resurfacing on the roads, but we didn't have any other problems.  In fact, when we went to Gooseberry Falls, the water level was down quite a bit compared to how it was last year.

In one of my eloquent moments on Facebook, I posted this:  "Sometimes I take for granted that there's an amazing body of water only 2 1/2 hours away.  It makes you wonder what other things go unnoticed that are near or within reach of us that we can call 'Superior.'"

Duluth and Lake Superior are great places for food, nature, art and just hanging out - all the things that I love.  Along the Lakewalk, which is several miles of a shoreline walking/biking path, you can see metal sculptures, war memorials, and a huge mosaic tile mural. 

 The weather for that week was a bit warmer than usual.  We took a glorious bike ride - seven miles one way - which, like the former train tracks, passed through the flatter parts of the city, the back yards of the Lester River, and the green spaces between the freeway and the lake.  Lots of places to rest along the way.  It was sunny and warm, but the wind coming off of the lake made it perfect for biking.  (Yes, my bike is the one with the puffy seat cover!)  

More to come!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mom's Nature Paintings - Part II

lone cypress in California
 Here are more paintings from Mom's limited collection.

Many visual artists these days have artist statements for their work, and in collecting these pictures, I've wondered what Mom might have said about her own work.  I can only speculate - something about acrylics, nature, seasons, bodies of water, trees, flowers, butterflies, and light blue - her favorite color.  Hmm...  Sounds like the titles for some of my blogs.  I guess the (Minne) apple doesn't fall too far from the tree!
Lake Superior North Shore
rushing water

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Mom's Nature Paintings

snowy branches
(contributed by J&M)
Speaking of Mom, I had forgotten that she was a painter.  She worked with acrylics and created several dozen pictures that she painted from nature photos that she clipped from old magazines or adapted from old greeting cards.

butterfly and daisies
(contributed by T&S)
Mom was an artist, but she went about it in a way that was different from other artists.  Most people who have an artistic bend, have a passion that drives them to create their work.  If my mom had a passion for painting, we certainly weren't aware of it because she was too busy taking care of all of us to think about doing something creative.  One day she signed up for a painting course at the community center, and suddenly she was standing in front of an easel in the basement wearing an old blue shirt and mixing shades of blue on a piece of white cardboard.

I remember her first painting was a picture of a simple winter scene - a gray background and a white house with a black roof.  (I think someone commented that the house must not have had insulation.)  She worked on her winter picture during Jan. or Feb., and it seemed to take a long time.  My dad would tease her, "The more you paint, the more it snows! Will you PLEASE finish that painting so spring can come?"

Eventually she did finish, and then went on to paint several more.  My dad sometimes made frames for her out of plywood that she stained or dabbed with paint and then coated with a clear sealant.  Other times the frames were store-bought.  Dad also helped her stretch more canvasses after her class had ended.  She never named her pictures, so we came up with our own references for them.

bird picture
(contributed by E&B)
Another painting I remember was her spring picture with the birds.  (I think she took the picture from a National Geographic Magazine.) Using a different technique, she marked off a grid on the photo with a pencil and then measured and drew in the corresponding lines on the canvass.  The birds became a source of frustration for her, though.  "I just can't seem to draw these birds in correctly," she lamented.  So then my dad dusted off the old projector, put it on top of the magazine picture, turned it on, and aimed it at the canvass. "Ok, where do you want the birds?"  My mom stood in the dark and eagerly penciled the birds in on her canvass.  For me, it was neat to see my mom and dad work together on something other than the care and feeding of children.

The first three or four paintings were hung on the walls of my mom and dad's house.  As my mom completed other paintings, she gave them to my older siblings who had their own houses.  There were scenes of the North Shore, water flowing over rocks, butterflies, and daisies.  She also took another class in abstract painting, but she didn't care for that style very much.

(contributed by SAM)

Mom's shasta daisies
(contributed by B&R)

Mom painted for only a very short time, probably about ten years, and then she stopped.  She had started working on a huge sunset picture and it was taking forever just to put down the white base layer on the canvass.  She never finished that one; it sat in the basement leaning against the moldy wall behind the ping pong table.  I'm not sure why she stopped; maybe she got frustrated; maybe she got tired of it.  Or maybe that particular season of her life had ended, and she finished what she needed to do; shared these special works so that we could remember her fondly.

When Mom passed away seven years ago, I realized I was one of the only people in the family who didn't have one of her paintings on my wall.  (I was very young when she painted, so I didn't have a house to put it in at the time.)  My favorite one, the autumn scene, was still hanging at the old house, so I asked my dad for it.  It goes very well with my living room decor - reds and oranges, light wood and gold accents.  I remember this one the most because it reminds me of Maiden Rock near Red Wing.  (I also remembered how tedious it seemed as I watched her paint every single leaf!)  I also liked the close up and distant perspectives.  It just amazed me how she was able to capture that from the original photo.  On the back of the painting I found a birthday card that my mom had used for the picture.  It was from my grandma to my brother (dated 1973).

Also in my house I have one of Mom's abstract pictures.  She painted the picture of the smoke swirling up from an extinguished match (which as you can see, is a neat picture). Since it was an abstract class, the teacher suggested that she add the curved black slices in the picture.  Needless to say, this was not my mom's favorite painting.

Personally, I really like certain forms of abstract art, but I also didn't really like the black slices.  I'm not a painter, but I decided to add a few of my own creativity to the work.  I had some glitter paint which softened up the black portions.  I also glued on some colored embroidery threads to make it look more three-dimensional.  It's still a work in progress, but it's something of which I can say, "Mom and I did this one together."

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Friday, June 29, 2012

Movie-Inspired Choreography

Summer days like this remind me of one of my favorite movies:  Pirates of the Caribbean - Curse of the Black Pearl. The first time I saw it in June of 2003 I was not only drawn in by the action and fast pace but also fascinated by the strong themes and flow of the script and story.

I had to see it again. I went with another friend a month later.  

Then, I went with a group of teenagers, and we dressed in costumes - eye patches, scarves, boots, gold medallions.  

I was obsessed!  I spent bright sunny days by myself in obscure little theatres just to see it again. Each time I watched it, I saw something different, something new. At the same I wondered why I was so fascinated by this movie.  I bought the soundtrack and the music was on my mind constantly.  And, yet I still wanted to see it again.  My teenage friend teased me, "You just want to go again so you can ogle Johnny Depp!" 

Eventually I realized that I needed to choreograph a dance to the music.  Really?  I was supposed to teach a class in the fall, and I already had another song picked out.  I had planned to do a sword dance.  (The sword = the Word of God.)  But the only music playing in my head were the themes from Pirates, and I really didn't think that would go over very well with my class, especially for use in a church setting!
So, in the end, I decided I'd allow myself to play for an hour and do some choreography using different sections of the music along with narrated passages from the Bible.  Two hours later, I was still working on it, and thinking - OMG I think this might actually work.  
After I finished the dance, I went to the movie one more time.  There, I sat in the dark, grinning about the new levels and new meaning I had created, and how much the spiritual themes were connected to the action on the screen.  When the final credits rolled, I felt a huge satisfaction and knew that I didn't need to see the movie anymore. 

I had 19 people in my class that fall.  They were all excited about the dance and worked really hard to make sure they learned all of the movements.  We performed that dance for many audiences, in several churches and at different conferences.  It was very well received.   

Mango Salsa - When Food Becomes Art

I told myself that this wasn’t going to become a food blog.  There are plenty of really good food blogs out there.  However, I have to make an exception for a batch of fresh salsa.  There’s something about the colors, shapes, and the mingling of flavors that insists that it be called a work of art that’s worthy of a photo shoot. 

I made this batch of Mango Salsa for a party the other night.  It’s always a hit.  It takes a bit of time to make (lots of chopping), but it’s well worth the effort.  And if you’ve ever made salsa, you know it’s almost impossible to make a small batch.  Therefore, salsa is made to be shared, and usually it’s at a party! 

I can’t claim complete credit for this recipe.  I attended a graduation party several years ago and someone had brought it.  I was immediately addicted to it, and since I didn’t know the maker of the salsa very well, I studied it carefully and wrote down the ingredients when I got home. 
Hope you enjoy this one!

Mango Salsa

About 8-10 tomatoes chopped (more or less depending on your preferences)
1 small green bell pepper, roasted and chopped
1 red bell pepper, roasted and chopped
(To roast red & green peppers, put them in the oven on broil for about 15-20 minutes, turning often.  Remove and let cool.  Chop into small pieces.)
1 cup peeled mango, diced
¼ cup diced red onion
2 ½ tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons green onions, sliced
1 finely chopped Serrano or jalaeno pepper (for mild salsa, omit)
¼ teaspoon cumin (I use whole leaf)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 can black beans, drained
1 small can of whole kernel corn, drained
1 lime, squeezed
1 can green chili peppers, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Mix all ingredients together and stir well.  Cover and chill for at least 2 hours. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

High Waters

Speaking of Bodies of Water (2 days ago), I realized I've never really been afraid of water.  My mom used to tell me that when we got our boat I was one year old, and I crawled around on the deck, looking over the edge, hoping to catch a glimpse of the "wawee."  I think they rigged up some sort of harness thing for me after that.

I've never been a great swimmer.  I took lessons, but trying to coordinate the kicking with the arms and then the breathing was really quite a trick for me.  I think I made it to the intermediate level, satisfied that if I ever fell in, I would know how to survive and keep myself afloat.

Thinking about all the recent flooding going on, I was reminded of another water experience I had in high school.

I was tubing down the Apple River in Wisconsin with a group of people.  I had broken off from the raft of floaters and was drifting towards the shore.  The water was high and swift, and there were tree branches hanging out over the water.

My tube suddenly got caught in one of the tree branches.  My body was in the water through the center of the tube, and my arms hung over the top.  I couldn't seem to maneuver around the branches, and the waves swirled around rising higher.  I yelled for help as I struggled, but it would have been hard for anyone to help me.  I tried hoisting myself upward, but I kept getting pushed back down by the tree branches overhead.  I started to worry because I knew I'd get tired soon, and I'd be trapped under the tube.

What's the best solution here? I thought.  So, then, my survival instincts kicked in (divinely motivated, I'm sure).  The answer:  Forget the tube, and follow the most unobstructed path.  So, I let go of the tube, held my breath and went down under the water.  The tube passed by over my head, and I felt the branches brush my hair as I floated by.  I came up on the other side of the tangled tree branches, treading water as the current carried me along.

Someone caught my tube and returned it to me, and I hopped back on and continued my excursion, thinking I would stay away from the shore from then on.  (!!)

"You looked like a trapped animal!" my friend said a little while later.  Her eyes were wide.

Oh.  I guess I didn't really think too much about it, because I was only afraid for a very short time.  Life went on, and I forgot what had happened.  But now that I think about it, if I hadn't acted in the moment, life might not have gone on, and someone else would have been telling this story.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Unexpected Treats

Nothing profound for today, just a goofy little blog because it's getting close to midnight, and I'm tired.  So, here goes:

As I was taking a walk through one of my favorite parks, I saw some bright red raspberries along the path. I thought they looked ripe, but when I tasted one it was very tart.  Ok, so I figured I'd have to wait until August before they'd be ready.  

Then I went farther on and at another part of the path, I saw more bushes.  These ones had some purple berries.  Ok, so these are too small to be blackberries; they must be black raspberries.  I kept looking and found more so I started picking the dark berries because, after all, if I didn't pick them, someone else would, or they'd be food for the nearby critters.  Picking these berries was not without risk.  I had to step around prickly vines, and avoid stirring up the hornets buzzing around the bushes.  There weren't a ton of berries, but enough for a few small handfuls—a nice treat for that time of day.  

On another day I was walking down a road near my house and suddenly smelled something sweet and pungent.  It came from a patch of little white flowers with jagged green leaves.  They smelled a bit like mint, but not exactly, and the smell got stronger if I rubbed the leaves and flowers between my fingers.

When I went home, my cat was all over me wanting to rub himself on my hands.  Ah-ha, it's catnip!  I looked online to make sure, and then I went back down the road and picked some choice morsels for my furry friend.  So, he's been having a good old time with HIS unexpected treat, frolicking and acting like a kitten again (even though he's 15 years old). 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bodies of Water

For some reason I've always been drawn to bodies of water.  Maybe it's because I live in the land of 10,000 lakes; I don't know.  I grew up taking trips up and down the Mississippi because my family had a boat docked there.  Even though we visited the same places over and over and saw the same sandbars, and tediously rode the locks, there was always something soothing about lapping waves.  And of course, the Chain of Lakes—Hiawatha, Nokomis, Harriet, Calhoun, Lake of the Isles, Cedar Lake— as well as Como and Phalen always held excursions of biking, walks, swimming, picnics and ice skating in the winter.

It seems like a vacation is not complete unless it involves a body of water.  We've taken trips to Door County where the riptides of Lake Michigan mimicked the ocean.  Mackinac Island was a step back in time with horse drawn carriages (no motorized vehicles allowed), bike riding and the 10 fudge shops.  Duluth and Lake Superior have always been a great weekend getaway spot.  And Sanibel Island on the Gulf side of Florida had a zillion shells.  (I met my first live sand dollar - plucked it up from the shallow low tides.  It was gray instead of the usual white, and it had a bunch of tiny air holes that looked like they were gasping for water.  I apologized, and put him back in the water!)

The first time I saw the ocean (Atlantic), I couldn't get enough of it.  It was a feast for the senses.  The waves felt fierce, wild and relentless against my body.  I loved the vibrant blue color, the taste of the salt water, grainy sand on my feet, and the smell of the ocean itself.  It was a challenge - I had to constantly pay attention if I was in the water, because I could get knocked down and dragged under in a second.

Every time I visit the ocean, it seems like I'm usually in the process of making a decision or at a crossroads in life.  The sand, shells, and waves create epiphanies that I take home with me.  For example, one time I was on vacation in California and thinking about how I wanted a different job.  I was looking for shells, and I found a large, beautiful white spiral with a few flaws, but it stood out from the rest of the shells around it.  The message to me was:  Keep looking and you'll find what you like; it won't be perfect, but it'll be the right career for you.

Another time I was at a beach near Chesapeake Bay and the relentless waves reminded me of the love of God - never tiring, never ceasing.  I heard someone say once, "You are constantly in the presence of One who loves you."  That statement really transformed my life.

More recently when I was in Florida I tried looking for shells, but many of them were broken - beat up heavily by the pounding surf.  I found one really good shell only because it was under the sand, and I stepped on it in the water.  I had to curl my toes around it so the undertow wouldn't carry it away.  I realized that the broken shells represented some of the disappointments and broken dreams in my life.  But oddly enough, that didn't bother me.  I felt ok to let some of those old dreams go, and excited that the one good dream was still intact and right under my foot.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Blog-ness Monster

It's Day 23 of the 30-day blog challenge.  Only one more week to go, and it's been a fun adventure.  I never thought I'd enjoy blogging, but I think it's a habit I could get used to.  For several years I've had the "Slices" idea running around in my head, and I even started laying out the format for it, but it was the WriterPower blog challenge that made me jump in and actually do it. (Thanks, Elise!)

A lot of my writer friends started blogging years ago, and I was trying to avoid it for many reasons.  One was the time it takes to do it. (You could be using that time to work on a novel chapter instead.)

Also, there was the fear that I'd write something stupid and either embarrass myself or offend someone.  I had visions of strangers posting flaming comments on my site or somehow tracking me down at home and setting fire to my welcome mat.  Ok, maybe not, but you do have to be careful how you present your opinions.

I've made some important discoveries during this process.  A daily blog habit is hard to keep up, but I don't have to.  If I blog every few days, I do a lot better as far as choosing subject matter and refining it for the theme of my site.  I also have several saved ideas going at a time so that I can add to them before they get published.

In reading other peoples' blogs or writing my own, I find that the ones that are successful or kept up are the ones that have a specific theme or goal, whether it's promoting their own work or other peoples' stuff.  Or, if they write about their daily activities, they have a particular style or audience in mind.

I also find that while I have plenty of material from my own life to write about, I really enjoy promoting other people, venues, and businesses.  I heard somewhere recently, that if you focus on helping other people promote their writing, it helps your own work so much more.

For me, blogging comes from a different mindset than, say, journaling or writing on Facebook.  It's almost like I've created a slightly different persona just for blogging.  If you're journaling, it's just between you and God and you can pretty much write whatever you want - draw pictures, scribble inconsistencies, yell and swear if you need to.

When I first joined Facebook and had all these "friends," I was at a loss as to what to say.  And sometimes when I did say something, they didn't always reply.  I think I ended up throwing snowballs at people because I didn't know what else to do.  It takes a real skill to write for your FB audience because your "friends" are coming from all different parts of your life, and what you say to one group may not make sense to another group, and you really don't have a ton of space to explain yourself.  So, for FB I have a public persona that's more like the highlights of my life.

And blogging has created more of a public/personal persona - (is that an oxymoron?).  Maybe someday I'll write a more business-oriented blog with my credentials, but for now, "Slices" is about personal stuff that I wouldn't mind sharing with strangers or family.  It's been a risk, but it's also been empowering - to be able to put yourself out there in a way that you haven't been seen before.  It's also been really great to see how small observations or statements can really resonate with people.

Initially, my audience was (and still is) a handful of strangers.  (Thanks you guys!)  As each day went by, and I found out that more people were reading my blog, I felt a bit more challenged. By nature, a writer is trained to write with their audience in mind. When I imagine a particular person reading my entries, it's easy to get "constipated," so to speak, by that influence.  It's at those times, I need to step back, look at my original goals, and keep my perspective so that my writing can stay true to both my heart and mind.

Thanks everyone for listening!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Living Large

My sister was in town the other day so my family got together for a dinner party.  To most people this might be a common everyday activity, but for me, a family get-together is an Event.

I come from a large family (12 of us kids plus Mom and Dad).  Since there are so many of us, it's hard to get everyone together at the same time.  I think our last big family Event was for Christmas.  Each year we take turns hosting Christmas, and if you don't have a large enough house, you rent a hall or a church basement for an evening.  Usually there are 40-50 people which includes my immediate siblings, their spouses, their children, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Getting together with my family the other night reminded me of the rich support system I have that I often take for granted.  Our get togethers are more like touch-base times.  Everyone brings food, you eat, you talk, you make your rounds to catch up with people you don't see very often yet you're related to all of them.  Over grilled hamburgers, crock pot beans, 7-layer salad, roasted potatoes, and homemade desserts you have short, intense conversations about new babies, career ventures, ongoing struggles, health issues, and humorous anecdotes from day-to-day life.

After an event like this my spouse and I go home and compare notes.  "Did you hear about so-and-so's new job?"  "Did you know that your niece is pregnant?" and "I didn't know so-and-so had surgery a few weeks ago, did you?"  And then if you want to have a deeper conversation with someone, you write an e-mail, pick up the phone, or get together at another time for coffee or dinner.  (Or you go hunting for them on Facebook and make comments on their wall!)

People often ask me what it was like to grow up in a large family.  I guess I never thought much about it because it was just the way we did things. I also imagine my experiences as the youngest child were different from my oldest siblings or the ones in the middle.

So, what was it like?

I remember when I was young, there were always people around.  We had bunk beds and shared bedrooms, dressers and closets.  Privacy became a valued thing.  If you got your own room, it was a very big deal.  (Being the last one to leave home, I had the whole upstairs to myself!)

Being in large family is like a living in a small town.  If you tell something to one person, it usually gets spread through the sibling-vine and everyone ends up knowing about it.  So, be careful what you share!

There were major illnesses like the flu, whooping cough, mumps, measles and chickenpox.  When one person got sick, it became a household epidemic.

I always got lots of hand-me-downs, and once in a while I got hand-me-ups from some of my oldest nieces!

There was always something happening.  I wouldn't exactly call it "drama" but there was usually some major event—a car accident, a difference of opinion, a broken dish washer, or a violated curfew—that took priority over small everyday activities.

Sometimes people ask - were you one big happy family?  No, we were more like about four different families that overlapped.  And yes, we were dysfunctional even before the word became popular.

In a large family you learn how to listen to five conversations at the same time, and there are at least two that you're directly involved with.  I became very much aware of this after I got married.  My spouse comes from a small family, and for holidays we would to go lunch at his parents' house and go to my parents' house later for dinner.  At my spouse's family gathering, only one person talked at a time.  There were very few interruptions, and when you went to the bathroom, everyone knew about it.  At my parents' house everyone talked in pairs or little groups or announced things across the room.  You listened to one person but also kept your ears open to the soundbites across the table.  People would come and go.  If you disappeared for an hour and came back, you might not be missed.  The speed of talking is fast because time is limited, and there are a lot of people to talk to.  I suppose you could call it early multitasking.

Being in a large family you learned creative survival tactics.  If you skinned your knee, you found your own bandage, or you asked someone bigger than you to help you.  You learned on your own or by observation, how to deal with leaky winter boots, neighborhood bullies, puberty, bad relationships and stray cats.

You learned to think outside the box and to never take things at face value.

You learned that God and Jesus were important, but you didn't find out why until later when no one else was around to listen.

In a large family you're expected to be independent, but you also know that if you need anything, all you have to do is ask.

What's in the Box?

This year we decided to get a farm share.  Every other week or so, we pick up our box of vegetables from a neighborhood drop site and get fresh produce delivered from Harmony Valley Farm located in western Wisconsin.  They also have meat, fruit and coffee, but we decided, at least for this first year, to just go with the veggie box.

So far it's been a fun adventure.  You never know what you're going to get until the day before when they send out their newsletter. It puts you in a more creative and spontaneous mindset as far as planning meals.  After all, you don't want to waste anything, so you plan around what you find in the "box."  

I'll have to admit, some of the things we get, I've never seen before.  One week we got sunchokes.  They look like pieces of ginger root, and they taste a bit like potatoes.  I could get addicted to these.  There were these things called garlic scapes which looked like green onions, but they curled around into loops.  They work just like regular garlic.  We've gotten green leafy things that I can't pronounce - Hon Tsai Tai and Yukina Savoy (just toss it into a bowl with some fruit and make a salad).  We've also gotten some great things like parsnips, rhubarb, strawberries, asparagus, fennel and lots of mixed salad greens.  Of course everything tastes different than what you'd find at the store, and I like that it supports local farmers and organic food.

The thing is, because of the unusual ingredients, I'm making things that I normally would not make.  I made a strawberry rhubarb spread, and I'd forgotten how much I liked rhubarb.  I made pesto out of nettles and a mashed potato/parsnip side dish.  I usually make lamb soup in the winter, but since I received two fennel bulbs, I made a less-soupy batch last night and tucked it into a pocket pie.  Once a week there's a stir fry with things like baby bok choy, napa cabbage and green onions.  

We still pick up other things at the farmer's markets and co-ops when we need to, and I'll probably get tired of this by the time September rolls around, but for now "what's in the box" is making me think "outside the box."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Passion vs. Obsession

Ok, I'm cheating a little bit here.  Instead of creating a new blog, I'm posting an abridged version of a paper I wrote for one of my writing classes.  I enjoyed writing it.  I hope you enjoy reading it.

Passion vs. Obsession 

I have a love/hate relationship with Jane Hamilton's book The Short History of a Prince. There are some passages that resonated with me and I wanted to savor them, and yet, as I read, I found myself distracted, looking ahead, wondering when I would be finished.

The story is compelling enough. A gay English teacher at mid-life reflects on his senior year of high school when he's challenged by the illness and death of his brother, his love yet lack of talent for dance, his attraction for the same sex, and his confusing relationships with family and friends. The book travels between two time periods, 1972-73 when Walter, the main character and his friends are in high school, and 1996 when he looks back over his life.

As I struggled with this book and with my own work, I realized it was a matter of passion versus obsession. When I'm passionate about something or when I read passionate writing, it motivates me to read more and write more. When something I read or write feels obsessive, I get frustrated and want to stop reading and give up writing.

In the dictionary the word passion (as related to this paper) is described as an intense or overpowering emotion such as love, joy, hatred or anger; a keen interest in a particular subject or activity; the object of somebody's intense interest or enthusiasm.

Obsession on the other hand is defined as an idea or feeling that completely occupies the mind; the state of being obsessed by somebody or something; the uncontrollable persistence of an idea or emotion in the mind, sometimes associated with psychiatric disorder mania, fascination, fixation, desire, fetish, craze, fad.

In looking at these definitions there can be places where these two terms seem to overlap. Passion is a drive that's healthy and gives you energy. Obsession is also a drive that can turn into a sickness and sap your strength. Passion is lasting while obsession is temporary. It's the bewildering difference between a crush and a true love relationship; the fine line between a wine connoisseur and an alcoholic.

Jane Hamilton, in an interview about Prince was asked about her Walter character. She stated: "I wanted to write about someone who had a passion to dance but had no talent, like myself." (Hamilton interview)

Hamilton's passion for dance is clearly revealed in a passage she writes from Walter's point of view where he shares his feelings about dance with his aunt. He's involved in a Nutcracker production that he knows is second-rate and wonders why he's enjoying it so much.

"Why do you dance, Walter? Why do you take lessons?"

He was panting from the strain of the conversation. She was asking all the difficult questions. "I know I'm not any good," he whispered...

"So why do you keep on," she persisted, "if you think you're not any good?"

"Because," he choked, "I feel it."

"Yes, that's it."

"I feel the ideas and the patterns and the abstraction of the beauty, and—"

"Yes, you do. And you feel the meaning strongly enough you'll no doubt convey something of it. I don't think you can help it. I'd wager that you enjoy the rehearsals of this so-called tawdry production because you're communicating. In other words, you're succeeding." (Hamilton, p. 133) 

Hamilton's quote evokes passion because it touches on a universal theme, something that people can relate to and apply in their lives. It wouldn't have to be about dance. It could be about anything - singing, playing an instrument, running, baseball, or painting.

Hamilton's passage also works well because she writes passionately about someone's passion. According to her example passion means feeling strongly about something and conveying that feeling to someone else.

Where Hamilton becomes obsessive in her work is in the non-linear structure of the story. Since she works with two different timelines there's a tendency toward repetition and backtracking. The timelines are clearly marked, but they weren't distinctive. In the later timeline the author kept flashing back to fill in details and then in the high school years, she sometimes flashed forward to the future. Several times I had to keep checking to see which timeframe I was in. The parts of the story were well written, and I can't point to specific passages, but overall there was a lot of repetition and rehashed issues about how Walter dealt with his brother's death, how he felt about his lack of talent, and the love triangle between Walter and his friends, Susan and Mitch.

One place where obsession worked for Hamilton was where she described Walter's crush on Mitch with what I will call a passionate obsession. Hamilton intersperses descriptions about Walter's feelings throughout the chapter and other parts of the book.

"His was a pure love in the beginning, a love without the paraphernalia of hope and expectation. He might just as well have said Mitch to mean the word love... He whispered 'Mitch' into his pillow; he opened his closet and said it louder; he sang it softly in the shower; he filled a few notebook pages with it in different script." (p. 122)

"He no longer knew to eat or sleep or brush his teeth. He had lost any instinct that might guide him. He would have skipped off a cliff if his beloved had beckoned him across the abyss." (same) 

The first quote leans toward passion, but the repetition of he + verb structures hints at obsession. In the second quote the obsession is obvious but the universal feelings, and vivid pictures and descriptions provide passionate undertones.

Thematic symbols in a story can either infuse passion into a work or, if over-used, can drag it down.

In Hamilton's book she use the prince theme effectively. It shows up in the middle of the book and it's only in one chapter, but it flavors the rest of the story and points back to the title. Starting on page 128 Walter auditions for the Rockford Ballet. Walter is described through the eyes of Miss Amy, the director, as having "this raw kind of possibility." She ends up choosing him for the prince role because "what counted in the end, she said, was that Walter had moved his arms and legs as if he believed he was a prince." (p. 129)

Later Walter describes his passion for the role as he dresses in his princely costume:

"In the course of the rehearsals, he felt that he shouldn't be enjoying something that was so far from being even second-rate. And yet when he forgot to worry about the production as a work of art he threw himself into it wholeheartedly. He loved his blue velvet tunic that came midthigh, the matching blue blouse with cream-colored satin cuffs and a silver sequined V at the neck and his tights that had sequins sewn in clusters all the way to the ankle." (p. 130)

I think that the writing life like anything else is about passion and obsession. My passion for writing will drive me to write without rewards, do research for hours on end, and read many books. But there was one summer when I wrote so much that I developed stomach aches. (Most likely from the things I ate and drank and the lack of exercise.) Often I can get stuck in research. I get on the Internet and it sucks me in. I think that it'll just take me a few minutes to find something, but it takes hours. I run into dead ends, spin my wheels and become overwhelmed. I can see how the intensity could drive some people to drink, use drugs, overeat, chain smoke or gamble.

My life as a writer needs to be like the fine-tuned body of a dancer to maintain balance. It's a constant education and renewing of the mind in how to keep energy and freshness alive. Prayer has been helpful as well as eating healthy, getting rest, and exercising to maintain courage, stamina, and perseverance.

"Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truth-sayers with quill and torch. Write with your tongue on fire. Don't let the pen banish you from yourself."   Gloria Anzaldua


Encarta World English Dictionary. Microsoft Corporation. Bloomsbury Publishing: 1999.

Hamilton, Jane. Interview at Barnes & Noble. April 8, 1998.

Hamilton, Jane. The Short History of a Prince. New York: Doubleday. 1998.