Friday, June 10, 2022

Flash Friday ~ Effortful Fun

 


I first read the term "effortful fun" in Laura Vanderkam's email newsletter last Friday morning. Vanderkam's example of effortful fun was reading, which is interesting, because even though I love to read, I don't exactly consider it fun, and I also think of it as more of a lazy default activity rather than something that requires effort. At the time I read the newsletter, I was going through my email as a way of procrastinating getting ready to go camping, which is an extremely effortful, but fun, activity.

We'd planned the trip a few months earlier, then rescheduled it due to a friend's daughter's graduation party that would fall in the middle of our original weekend. We'd be going to our favorite spot, the place we'd gone nearly every year for the last 16 years. But still, I dreaded the prospect. Not the camping. Not the location. Not even the inevitable rain. But the massive amount of work required to find, sort, and pack all our camping gear and shop for and prep all the food. Not to mention the unpacking, cleaning, and putting away when we returned (a process I've dubbed "decampression"). Wouldn't it be easier to stay home?

Perhaps sensing my foot-dragging-ness, C stepped in and carried out some of the tasks I usually do--hauling the gear up from the basement, grocery shopping--on top of his usual jobs of loading about a cord of wood in the truck, getting together hatchet and lanterns, filling the water jug, washing water buckets, and tuning up the old Coleman stove. I eventually rousted myself out of my funk enough to sort through the gear and decide what we should take, wash the dishes that had been sitting in the musty basement all winter, load the coolers and organize the food, lug everything out to the car, and write a list for the children of their packing duties.

C and I headed out in afternoon in the pickup, with the tents, the coolers, the dishes, and the wood. The kids would follow later, after E and Z got home from school, M got off of work, and they had all packed their personal items into the car, with the sleeping bags and mats, duffel bags and pillows. It was cloudy and chilly, and I was tired. I still didn't feel like going camping. I dozed in the not-that-comfortable passenger seat, while C drove and surfed radio stations.

After we crossed the Kennebec River, drove under Route 1 in Bath, turned down the peninsula, and passed the shipyard, I began to perk up. I could sense the sea air. When the mudflats and estuaries came into view I could feel my body relax. Near the tip of the peninsula, I began to feel excited. We were going camping! A whole weekend away from screens and news and housework and real life. We stopped at the farm stand and bought two gorgeous pies---strawberry-rhubarb and raspberry-blueberry---and headed across the causeway and onto the island. We picked a campsite well removed from other campers, but not too long a walk from the beach, set up two tents, started a smoky fire to beat back the mosquitoes, and cut two generous slices pie. This was the life. Effortful fun. A lot of work, but so worth it.



What's even more effortful than car camping? Backpacking! And what's more fun than going backpacking? Reading about someone else doing all that work. If you want a little effortless fun, check out my book, Uphill Both Ways: Hiking toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

New Essay ~ Alligator Pear

 

Last summer I grew an avocado jungle on my deck. 


The previous fall, with school operating on a hybrid schedule and the pandemic unfurling before us toward what seemed like eternity, one of my sons asked if we could start an avocado tree from a pit. Eager for any of my children to show interest in anything that wasn't screen based, I jumped on the idea. I remembered my mom starting avocado trees by piercing pits with toothpicks and suspending them in water in a green depression glass sherbet dish. I didn't have a depression glass sherbet dish, so I used an empty yogurt container, and I didn't have any toothpicks, so I used party picks with paper Pinocchio heads on one end that my mother-in-law had given us for no apparent reason. Otherwise, my sprouting avocado looked exactly like my mom's.

Read the rest of "Alligator Pear" in the Flora issue of Stonecrop Review here.

And if you want to order a copy of my book, Uphill Both Ways: Hiking toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail, you can get it half off from Bison Books through July 15, 2022 with the code 6SUMM22.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Sunrise, Sunset


Exactly 17 years ago today (it was a Friday then, too), we held M's fourth birthday party in the waiting lounge of the maternity ward of the hospital. There were no candles on the cake his grandparents brought---because hospital---but there was ice cream. I sat on one of those uncomfortable hospital couches dressed in a Johnny with two three-day-old babies propped on a nursing pillow, nursing. Curry had done M's birthday shopping, because it was more than I could face at nearly nine months pregnant with 14 1/2 pounds of baby (and online shopping barely existed yet!). He'd bought him Hotwheels and Hotwheels cases, clear plastic boxes with hinged lids, a six-pack of scotch tape, and Peter Pan and Wendy, the original unabridged version, which he'd read out loud several times over the next year.

M turns 21 today. Twenty-one!!! It's a significant birthday, because it's the one you really don't want to spend with your parents. (I remember my 21st. It wasn't pretty.) That's not a problem, since M's in France, on the very last week of his Grand Tour. I suppose the big 21 is a bit anticlimactic in Europe, where the drinking age is 18. And I'm pretty sure that's a good thing. (I was going to go on a digression here about white guys too young to order a beer being allowed to buy weapons of mass murder, but I want to keep it positive.)

This week, E and Z both took---and passed---their driving tests, which means I'm relieved of my jitneying duties, and also that I'll never go anywhere again because one or the other of them will have my car (and no doubt be fighting over which of them gets to drive) from here on out. Last Saturday, they attended their school's prom.

And on Tuesday, they turned 17. I didn't have to do much to get ready for their day---E didn't want any gifts and made his own plans with friends, and Z didn't want any plans and asked for Hawaiian shirts and expensive cologne---but still I experienced the Pavlovian early May panic I go through every year thinking about three impending birthdays (aka Second Christmas). (I'm already getting ready to panic next year when when we'll again have two proms, three birthdays, and three graduations.)

The twins wanted pie, not cake, so I made them two beautiful tarts---one triple berry with ginger strudel and one lemon---only I left the tarts in the oven waaaay too long, because the filling didn't look set and I couldn't/wouldn't trust the cooking time. We ended up with very overdone pie. I know there's a metaphor in there for me, but it comes a year too early; I couldn't send them on their way now if I wanted to (and they're definitely not set).

A version of this post went out recently to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. Subscribe here and receive a free PDF of my illustrated short essay "Eleven Ways to Raise a Wild Child."

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Tender Flesh, Delicate Bone




 yesterday I opened the nest box

when the parents were away

to see if five pearlescent eggs 

the size of marbles 

were there


the box was half full

of fluffy white feathers snatched 

by the swallows 

from the yard 

where our ducks 

drop them


I lowered my fingertip 

into the feathery cloud 

and felt not cool, smooth egg, 

but warm, tender flesh 

sheathing delicate bone 

pelted in soft down 

feathers


today I woke to the news ---

a man walked into a school

in Uvalde, Texas and gunned 

down 14 - 15 - 16 - 17 - 18 

- 19 --- and counting --- 

children


with weapons of war he ripped

into tender flesh and splintered

delicate bone --- bodies so broken

they had to be identified 

with DNA


I remember Columbine ---

I was in the shower when my

husband came in to tell me of

a shooting at a high school in 

Littleton


I had to rinse suds from 

my hair and wrap up in a 

towel before I could press my 

ear to the radio and understand --- 

a different school from the one 

my sister attended

in Littleton


I remember Sandy Hook ---

how I held my breath 

all weekend, held my children

close, did not exhale 

until Monday 

when the school

called to declare a

a snow day


it's unseemly 

to borrow tragedy,

imagine yourself in another 

mother's pain


yet this morning I walked outside

tears in my eyes, ache in my gut

past the nest box 

where the mother

swallow swooped 

low over my head

and clacked at me with

her bill


I can still feel her babies' 

downy feathers 

on my fingertip, 

the warm tender flesh 

enclosing the

delicate bones

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Book Stack ~ April 2022

A monthly post about what I've been reading, with aspirations 

but no real hope of reading down a very tall stack of books. 

Previous posts from this year:

January 2022

February 2022

March 2022


Fiction 
I'm going to start at the bottom of the stack here, with fiction, because I read some escapist fiction last month and I desperately need to revisit that feeling. I was leaving the grocery store, and glanced in the bin of used books, the sale of which benefits the United Way or something like that, and which is usually full of half-baked self-help books and biographies of disgraced politicians and Christian romances. But that day, a hard-cover copy of Elizabeth Peters's Night Train to Memphis was on top of the stack, and I snapped it up for two bucks. Yes, I already had a copy of it, but in paper back, and I could probably scroll back through book stack posts to see when I last read it, but I'd picked up a different, less deft mystery where the author spent countless pages moving her characters around in space and describing details that didn't need to describing, so I wanted to turn to a master, who doesn't waste a word on the unnecessary, yet her settings are so vivid you feel like you're there, and you're never confused about what her characters are doing, even without painstaking stage directions. And I needed cheering up (I don't remember why I needed to be cheered up last month, now that this month is even worse). What I loved about rereading Night Train to Memphis now, even more than all the other times I've read it, is that E and Z and I recently saw the recent Death on the Nile movie, and I recognized so many references to that plot: the newly weds on a Nile cruise with the jilted girlfriend, a murder or two. I think even the chunk of stone falling off a monument and nearly braining someone was in the original. Of course it veers off into a wild and wildly different direction (with Schmidt dressed as a sheik no less!). Just super fun. And when I finished Night Train, I had to reread Laughter of Dead Kings, the next in the Vicky Bliss series, which picks up shortly after Night Train left off, though written many (I think around 15?) years later. It brings back some of the side characters from Night Train is is another fun frolic through Egypt, and I heartily endorse reading the whole series if you're in a funk too. If you like a strong, smart, independent woman who foils bad guys and has a complicated relationship with an international art thief, this is the series for you.

Nonfiction
Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault is a book I've been meaning to read for a while. It's about the author's years-long search for answers to questions about cancer and other illnesses in her home town of Mexico, Maine, and its across-the-river neighbor, Rumford, where a big paper mill has been spewing out air and water pollution for most of a century. I had an assignment to write about the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act (a nice, cheery, look-how-clean-the-water-is-now article), and it seemed like a good time to read this book, which looks into the ways that pollution was allowed, tolerated, and hidden for so long. It's a very non-linear narrative, that delves into the author's childhood, her family history, the dispossession of Acadians from their (adopted) homelands in Canada, her fathers' death, the Nestle corporation's movement into the area to privatize part of the water supply, the citizens who attempted to expose truths and fight back, the suspicion with which people in small towns regard people "from away" and people who move away and people who stay but don't conform. And a lot of other stuff. There were a few side threads to the narrative that I think didn't entirely add to the story, and the discursive structure might turn off some readers. But still, it's an important book, and the first time I've ever read in print a writer from Maine describing the state with anything less than glowing, blueberry-and-lobster flavored adulation. There's no firm conclusion about the health and the pollution, although it seems pretty clear to me. It also seems pretty clear that the Department of Environmental Protection failed in its duty to protect either the environment or the locals' health, and I feel complicit for even having worked there, as removed as my work was from either licensing or enforcement of paper companies. 

Creativity Books
I read three books about writing/creativity, and three more different books I don't think you could find. 

First, Draft No. 4, which is a series of essays by John McPhee about his systems and processes for creating the long-form journalism that he's so rightly famous for, as well as reminiscences about writing for The New Yorker (and other magazines) over the last half century or so. It's so, so good. Not exactly writing advice, although there are a few gems, but more like hearing an expert speak with candor, confidence, modesty, and understated humor about his work. It was amazing to hear about him spending literal weeks or months interviewing subjects at the same time that I had to psych myself up to interview people for maybe an hour. This is a book I'll read again and again (and it reminds me to go back and read more of McPhee's other books, too).

Becca Syme's Dear Writer, You Need to Quit, is more of a practical guide to change your mindset around your writing--the systems you have in place and your expectations--in order to prevent burnout. I have to admit this book threw me over and over again, to the point where I almost couldn't focus on the very good strategies, because Syme kept referring to writers who write a dozen books per year, or who want to write a dozen books per year. I don't even understand what that means. Does anyone write a dozen books per year? And if they do, can they possibly be any good? Please tell me if you know what the heck she's talking about.


Finally, Creative Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto is for all kinds of creative folks, not just writers, by my favorite zinestress (she of East Village Inky fame), Ayun Halliday. In it Halliday interviews a few dozen artsy types about all kinds of factors that apply to our work: making money, getting the work done, accountability, life getting in the way, self-doubt, self-promotion, etc. It's a helpful manual, an inspiration, and a reminder that creativity is democratic, not just reserved for the exalted few. It's also funny and quirky, and populated with these totally awesome potato character illustrations. 

Poetry
My friend Jenna Veazy sent me her chapbook, The Rise of Jennifer, months ago, and I jerkily didn't get around to reading it till National Poetry Month lit a fire under my keister. It's a lovely collection of poems about a lot of relatable aspects of life as a woman in this world. I know Jenna's working on another collection, and I'm looking forward to reading it (in a more timely fashion). 

I also made the kids and hubby read aloud from a stack of poetry books that I thought they'd relate to: I bought Charles Bukowski's On Cats, because I knew E would find that appealing; C took to William Carlos Williams; and Z's contribution was to read Kanye West songs. And that's all the poetry I managed for the month. 

 Don't forget you can order a copy of my book, Uphill Both Ways: Hiking toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail from any of the vendors listed here.

Friday, May 6, 2022

My Jane Addiction


It's been a repeated urge these past two years, a desire for escape, a search for connection--escape from pandemic disease and ugly politics and (now) war, connection with stories, with characters, especially characters different from the ones I live with and see every day. The search takes place in the pages of books, yes, but more so on the screen, because inherent in the need to escape and to connect is a need to shut down--the muscles required to sit semi-vertical, turn pages, and run the eye across lines of text, the synapses that must fire to find meaning in symbols, to turn words into mental pictures.

There was a time when my TV watching was limited to Sunday night Masterpiece on PBS, but that was a person with much more energy than I, one who had little kids to occupy her evening hours and who filled spare moments with writing and making. I miss her, a little bit, but she also makes me tired. For a while during the early months of the pandemic, watching shows was a way to be together as a family without the painful-for-all-involved efforts of trying to get teenagers to chat. But it wasn't long before we couldn't find a show that everyone enjoyed, or we adults couldn't binge with as much commitment as the teens, so we fell behind. Now, except for the sacred Monday night single episode of Friends, Curry and I are on our own.

We usually have one or two shows going at a time. We're all over the map genre-wise; we like British shows, period drama, comedy (though I like smart-funny, he likes stupid-funny), mysteries (without either too much drama or too much angst; humorous murder is our favorite, though rare, genre). We recently watched Inventing Anna, The Great, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Breeders. We're still devoted to Sunday night Masterpiece.

Whatever we're watching together, I have a show going that's mine, something to watch as a reward at the end of the day, after long hours of writing and sorting through emails and jitneying kids here and there, before I start dinner, or while it simmers on the stove, something to binge late into the night when the world gets to be too awful and I don't want to lie in bed thinking about it. 

For my shows, I search for something with women at the center of the storyline. Gilmore Girls carried me through many months of the pandemic. I liked that Curry hated it (ask my kids--it can be fun to irritate other people), and I liked that it was about relationships among women--mothers and daughters and grandmothers, friends and frenemies. I've watched shows about women who surround themselves with men (New Girl, The Mindy Project), shows about how relentless, unforgiving, and thankless motherhood is (Workin' Moms, The Letdown), and shows about women getting older (Grace and Frankie).

My new favorite show, perhaps my favorite show of all, is Jane the Virgin. I'd avoided watching it because the premise is ridiculous (Jane, a virgin, is accidentally artificially inseminated). But when I heard a podcaster whose taste I respect mention it, I gave it a try. And guys, I love it so much. It is ridiculous, but it's also smart and sweet and funny. It pokes gentle fun at the telenovela genre while embracing all of its over-the-top melodrama--crime lords, evil twins, faked deaths, an inordinate number of people killed by being tossed off hotel balconies--in its plot lines, plus a healthy dose of magical realism. But the human emotions, the relationship challenges and triumphs, the everyday experiences of the characters are so real.

And the acting is so good--you believe every emotion Jane has (and she has a lot). They manipulate your emotions as viewer, so that you hate certain characters one episode and love them the next. And though it's ultimately a romance (characters falling in and out of love right and left), the relationships among Jane and her mother and grandmother, as well as her father and her son, take up as least as much space as romance, and are far more interesting. Plus, it takes place in Miami, where everyone where's sundresses all the time, and everything is brightly colored. It makes me feel warm just watching it. I also get to pretend to practice my Spanish whenever Abuela speaks or Rogelio acts in his telenovelas.

As a bonus, Jane's a writer, and the show follows her journey from first published short story to fist bad review (and beyond), without sugarcoating the work that goes into the effort. (I admit, when I see Jane typing after Mateo goes to bed, I feel a little bit guilty that I'm on the couch watching TV). And, coup de grace, Fiesta ware dishes make an appearance in a few scenes, and there's the most gorgeous Art Deco vase in the first episode, in the exam room where Jane's fate is sealed. If that's not enough to make you want to watch, I don't know what is.

A version of this post went out recently to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. Subscribe here and receive a free PDF of my illustrated short essay "Eleven Ways to Raise a Wild Child."

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Stay Together, Learn the Flowers, Go Light


The day after I submitted the final manuscript of my book to the publisher, I read the poem “For the Children” by Gary Snyder, which ends:

 

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

 

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

 

These two stanzas would have made the perfect epigraph for my book. . .

So begins my essay "Stay Together, Learn the Flowers, Go Light," published yesterday in The Art of Everyone

And don't forget you can order a copy of my book, Uphill Both Ways: Hiking toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail from any of the vendors listed here.

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