Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Family History in Recipes

I collect cook books. I've collected vintage recipes for more than 20 years. I scored a lot from my grandmother while she was alive and when she passed away, my dad gave me ALL of her cookbooks, recipe cards, newspaper clippings, etc. My Great-Aunt Gladys taught me how to cook and bake from the time I was 5. She started me on the vintage recipes. When Gladys passed, my mother bequeathed me with ALL of her recipes, cookbooks, etc.

I have boxes upon boxes of old cookbooks. My three favorites are Betty Crocker c. 1956, Good Housekeeping c. 1958, and Better Homes and Gardens c. 1953. I have some older than that, but I'm not sure of the exact copyrights. Two of the vintage recipes from my grandmother netted me blue ribbons from the Florida State Fair many years ago.

But the very best recipes that friends have begged me for over the years, I can't give them, because they're family recipes, handed down mother to daughter, absorbed by osmosis from working together in the kitchen, and there are no measurements to pass along. One of those was the recipe for sweet potato pie that I made by the dozen for several years, selling pies at Thanksgiving to earn extra money for Christmas. Many of my customers begged me for the recipe. I would have given it if I could have. But it’s one of those dishes that are made by feel, not by checklist.

Most of my best vintage dishes are made by feel and memory with no written recipe. That’s how I got them from my mother and my aunt. That is how they came to them from my great-grandmother who was an intuitive cook. That is how she learned how to cook them. Those are the dishes that I cook for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those are the dishes that are part of my family tradition. They’re a family history in food, recipes without amounts, made by taste and feel. This year, Beth, my three-year-old daughter, is pulling up a chair and starting the process of learning them. Eventually, she will take her place in the family history by passing them down in the same fashion to her daughters, or her nieces in their turn. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Go on the NaNo

There is an old saying that life is what happens while you’re making other plans. This is unfortunately true.

I took on the challenge of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, with a plan and a schedule for writing. I had everything ready to go, complete with a semi-autobiographical account of my family dramas told with a touch of humor. Just as I was getting into the swing of things and two days ahead of schedule, two family tragedies hit within days of each other, and just as my husband learned he’d won the election to City Council. Our excitement about his election faded quickly in the loss of the newborn child of one of my nieces. Two days later, my daughter’s world fell apart. One by one, my young children still living at home came down with a terrible flu-like virus going around. By the time I was able to think, let alone write, I found myself hopelessly behind schedule with NaNoWriMo.

In this season of being thankful for what you have, it has been challenging to find reasons to be grateful, given the tragedies facing my loved ones. It seems trivial in the face of the losses suffered by both my daughter and my niece for me to whine and moan about not being able to finish a speculative novel that’s been percolating in my subconscious from the time I was eight-years-old. It’s just fiction. It can and will wait. People take precedence over projects. At somewhere around 25,000 words in two weeks, I can forgive myself for being human.

As my writer friends have reminded me, there’s always next year! That is something I am thankful for.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Power of Penguins

Penguins are silly looking birds. Flightless waterfowl often lampooned. A tuxedo has been called a “Penguin suit.” Nuns have been called “Penguins.” In “Mary Poppins,” Dick Van Dyke danced with them.

And who will ever forget Berkeley Breathed’s infamous Opus The Penguin from the Bloom County comic strip? He was an insecure, neurotic mess addicted to home shopping channels, 900 numbers and on an eternal quest to find his mother. Documentaries and musicals have starred them. In the animated Madagascar, they stole the show. There are even popular children’s television shows about them, The Penguins of Madagascar and 3-2-1 Penguins!

So when I was talking about the silliness of writers in facing both a deadline and blocked creativity, it only seemed natural for me use penguins to illustrate how to get past the block. Yes, when I reached a block on my NaNoWriMo, I used them.

At this point I have no earthly idea why Birdie is calling, but I really do think it’s time for some fish-slapping penguins to shimmy down a drainpipe. Three of the formally dressed, flightless waterfowl drop down unexpectedly, one is wearing a silly pointed had that looks like something a Catholic Bishop would wear to mass. The three little fellows break into a line dance.“Oh my,” thought Bittsy. “Can they really shake tail feathers? Do penguins even have tail feathers?” 
So the dancing penguins manage a jaunty sashay to the thumpin’ mix before the one in the middle (which inexplicably has a beard and moustache) breaks out what appears to be a herring. He (presumably it’s a he, it is rather difficult to tell, but the beard is rather suggestive of maleness) turns and begins slapping the herring on the floor, much to Bittsy’s dismay. “I’ve just had those floors cleaned,” she protested. “Now they’ll smell of fish for weeks!” 
The penguin merely winked at her and continued a rather lascivious dance with the herring before turning and slapping the penguin with the pointy hat in the face repeatedly. The hat wearing penguin doffed his odd cap and withdrew his own fish, a rainbow trout from the looks of it, and commenced to walloping his compadre with it. The third penguin, too preoccupied shaking his tail feathers to notice the antics of the other two (and yes, they do have tail feathers) did not see the catfish aimed at his face until too late. 
 With a naughty wink and a suggestive hip shimmy, the bearded penguin wielded the herring and the catfish like nunchucks, with surprising skill.
 “Hmm,” said Bittsy. “Ninja penguins. How odd.”

I had no idea that my silly suggestion of fish slapping Ninja Penguins would spark such a surge of equal silliness among my fellow writers. In the online writing group to which I belong, “Penguins!” has become the battle cry for pushing past blocks and finding the joy in writing again.

So I urge you, one and all, when life seems to have you stymied, consider Fish Slapping Ninja Penguins as an answer. A little insanity every now and then can be just what the doctor ordered.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Great Barwick Land Swap

Small town politics have a way of getting murky very quickly.

In a move of questionable legality, (i.e. highly illegal) Barwick City Council has engineered a “land swap” with the Chamber of Commerce. Operating without advice from the city’s legal counsel, two officials from Barwick City Council have approved, signed, and filed a transfer of deed for City property, which houses a building known as the Community House to the Chamber of Commerce in exchange for the property known as the “Community Pool.” Unfortunately, the pool and bath house were bulldozed and filled in this past Summer.

So in an apparent “even exchange of property” the City surrendered a building and several acres of land to a private, civic organization in exchange for a much smaller, vacant lot, and a small check. All of this was done by executive mandate, without due process according to city charter and Georgia Code. The people of the town should have had a say and it should have gone before the Council. It did not.

Now, the Chamber has had a lease on the property for a number of years (of murky legality) and has been responsible for maintaining the Community House at its own expense. They have kept up the building and grounds as a labor of love and out of a sense of civic pride. I do not begrudge them ownership of the building. In fact, I am of the opinion that the Chamber should be the owners of record and should have purchased the building and land in question long before this. But they should have done it within the dictates of the law. They did not.

I am a member of the Chamber of Commerce. I am also a citizen of the town. I begrudge the Chamber the manner in which the property was acquired and the attitude with which certain parties have defended ramrodding this inequitable deal through.

Underhanded, back room dealings are shady, no matter how you cut them. This sale was pushed through without the appropriate measures as dictated by law and without the knowledge of the city’s legal counsel. But the Chamber member responsible, pleased with his back room deal (who wouldn’t be)  and arrogant over its success, commented after the meeting revealing the deal to the population that the deed is filed and if anyone has a problem with it, let them go to the expense of filing suit over it.

It all comes down to money, doesn’t it? People with a measure of power and influence engaging in questionable legal dealings, then defying the outraged citizens to “put their money where their mouth is.”

Right is right. Wrong is wrong. Either something is illegal or it is not. Regardless of the fact that this land deal has been completed and is incapable of being undone now that deeds have been filed, it remains that the two seated members of the City Council who signed the deeds and completed the deal violated a public trust, not to mention the law. When asked, the excuse given at the City Council meeting addressing the issue one official stated that he didn’t read what he was signing. The other refrained from comment. Sounds like grounds for a vote of no confidence for both of them – what do you think? Who wants someone representing the public interest who can’t be bothered to read what they sign? Or who cannot or will not justify his actions?

As for the Chamber of Commerce, most of the members are fine upstanding citizens of the community. Good and honorable men and women who have served on the Council, hold positions of authority and accountability in the community and their church. I’m afraid this deal has revealed a dark and seedy side of the community, blackening the Chamber’s collective eye and adversely affecting its standing in the community and bringing the integrity of its members into question.

As a member, it brings my integrity into question. I don’t know about my fellow Chamber members, but I am outraged by this, as it reflects poorly on all of us. If they are not equally outraged by the manner in which this deal was done, they should be. I have never seen a more stereotypical act of small-town Southern politics – the good ole boy network in action. Those involved should be ashamed of themselves and the citizens of Barwick should hold them accountable.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Vote For Dale

Small town politics, particularly in the South, has been fodder for writers for generations. Why should I be any different?

Almost as soon as we moved into our home, my husband was targeted by the Old Guard in our little town for signing up for public service. Dale, a small-town boy with a lifelong passion for politics, was savvy enough to know that the absolute LAST thing he wanted to do was run for City Council within ten years of moving here. With no family and no ties to the area, we were outsiders. We don’t share the same history and memories as the other three hundred eighty-nine residents of this tiny rural hamlet. Why, we’d be little better than carpet-baggers!

But, five years on, we’ve watched changes come into this sweet little Mayberry-esque town that we’ve grown to love. Not all of them are good changes. In fact, we’ve watched the grocery be replaced by a biker bar a scant block and a half from our home. The sexual predators we left Tampa to escape now count among our next door neighbors. Where I once had the idyllic vision of my children riding bikes to town to purchase an ice cream, I’m now afraid to let them out of the yard. Where I once strolled with my children, I am now afraid to pass, having been accosted by drunks on more than one occasion. Where we used to sit on the front porch late in the evenings and enjoy the quiet of a Summer’s evening, we now shut ourselves tightly in and turn up the TV to drown out the bar noise.  The town has been through three City Clerks and as many Chiefs of Police. Reputable businesses are closing and liquor stores and tattoo parlors are vying for a market share in our town.

The City Council, looking at revenue generated, without looking at the cost in quality of living and declining property values, seems content to approve any vice-based industry that seeks to open here. Indeed, if we were looking to purchase our home today, much as we love it, we’d pass, simply because of what the City Council has allowed the neighborhood to fall into.

My husband has watched and encouraged those who have deeper roots into the community to stand fast. But he can’t take it any longer. I don’t know what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, but this election cycle, when the Old Guard came knocking, my husband agreed to run.

Dale Hicks for Barwick City Council.

  • His platform? To bring the Council into compliance with its Charter under the laws of the State.
  • His vision? A return to the idyllic town we fell in love with and chose for our children to call their Hometown.

I’m not really keen on being a politician’s wife. The demands on one’s time are intrusive. But I support him on his bid for City Council because I want to be able to stay here and raise my family here. If our town continues down the road the current Council is following, I’m afraid of where it might lead. I’m fairly certain it is to a place I do not want to go. If I wanted to raise my children in an environment filled with vice, predators, and fear, I would have stayed in Tampa.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Rose in WinterA Rose in Winter by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is one of my top five favorite Romances of all time, and brother, I've read a LOT of them.

Beautiful Erienne Fleming is sold on the block to cover her family's debts. The stipulation is that she will be wedded to the man wealthy enough to satisfy the notes being held by charming gambler, Christopher Seton, who wants her for himself.

When Erienne is bought by the masked, crippled Lord Saxton, and properly wedded, she finds herself torn between two men: The vexing Seton, who happens to be somehow related to the Saxtons despite his Yankee upbringing, and the tender lover her badly scarred humpback of a husband turns out to be.

That, in itself, would be a compelling enough story for me, but in typical Woodiwiss fashion, there is swashbuckling adventure and enough mystery to move this book from a simple Historical Romance to a Romance Classic and a must-read for any fan or would-be fan of the genre.

Woodiwiss redefined the Historical Romance Genre. The formula followed by today's stars of the genre are only following the pattern set by Woodiwiss.

Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. This one earned a place on my bookshelf nearly thirty years ago and it has become an old friend I turn to again and again.

View all my reviews

Romance Is In The Air

Recently, my mother had a dental emergency and called me to chauffeur her to my dentist's office and wait for her. She pressed a paperback romance into my hand to entertain me while I waited. 

My mother has been a voracious reader of romances for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, she was a charter member of the Harlequin Book Club. Every month the wide, flat cardboard box would arrive and my mother would eagerly tear into it and consume the half-dozen or so books within. Over the last several decades she has purged her library many times over, yet still the paperback romances seem poised to take over the seldom-used rooms of her home that she’s lined with bookshelves and filled with the colorful bodice-rippers. 

As a ‘tween, she indoctrinated me into her world by handing me the innocent romances of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. I learned about sex and relationships by reading Johanna Lindsey and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss novels. When I started writing, it was only natural that my first attempts be romances. I'll never forget the pride with which I brought home my membership card for the Romance Writers of America in 1990.

My first trip to London, I sought out the settings that are clichés of Regency Romances. Regencies still hold a special place in my heart. I still think warmly of my brazen ex-husband opening the door of White’s and walking in, trying to talk our way into the hallowed halls. Yes, I realize it probably set back Anglo-American relations by centuries and reinforced the mannerless American stereotype that Brits seem to find so snarkily amusing. I don’t really care. I stood in the vestibule of White’s! (I even have video of the event to prove it.)

My romance with Romance goes back decades. I am a romantic. I’ve written them. I’ve devoured them. I’ve had to purge my own library many times over to make room for new favorites. My fascination with the genre has earned me the outright scorn and derision of friends and acquaintances, but I don’t care. I have my favorite authors who are like old friends whom I visit when the mood strikes or I’m feeling nostalgic.

A failed marriage, and a divorce, followed by a string of bad relationships with plot lines straight out of any Danielle Steel novel colored my relationship with the genre. (I’m not a Danielle Steel fan, by the way. Quite the contrary, actually.) I clung to my favorite authors, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Julie Garwood, Debbie Macomber, and Jude Deveraux.

I expanded my literary diet to reflect my own changing attitude. I read Science Fiction, Men’s Adventure, Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series. I found snarky and clever mystery authors and put new favorites Charlotte Macleod and Susan Conant up on the shelf among the bodice rippers. Eventually popular fiction by authors like Rebecca Wells and Alice Hoffman fed my need to consume other writer’s words.

But as I stood there, holding the book my mother pressed into my hand, I smiled to myself. I didn’t have to open it to know that the hero was impossibly handsome, larger-than-life and sexy as hell. I knew without reading the blurb on the back that the heroine was feisty, beautiful, young and that she would be drawn to this dangerous man like a moth to flame against her better judgment. Yes, I knew that flame would burn her before it consumed her, tempering her and gentling him in the process.

That’s the formula of Romance Novels. The fun is in seeing how the author interprets the age-old intricacies of the mating dance between men and women. Regardless of the sub-genre, Romance Novels are optimistic tales of two people satisfying that most basic of human needs – the need to be loved. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Around the Writing World in 30 Days

I’m going to attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

It doesn’t have to be a good one, it just has to be a novel with beginning, middle, and end, with characters, conflict, and resolution. Oh, and it has to be from scratch, no cutting and pasting of previous words because that would be cheating.

What madness is this, you ask? November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. 

NaNoWriMo is all the buzz on the writing forums these days as veterans and first-timers are gearing up for the annual challenge. Founded in 1999 by Chris Baty and 20 other “overcaffeinated yahoos,” NaNoWriMo is now run by a non-profit organization called the Office of Letters and Light, whose stated goal is to encourage adults and children to reach their creative potential. Since its inception, NaNoWriMo has grown to over 500 chapters worldwide with more than 200,000 participants last year.

The blogs stress the importance of quantity of words over quality. In a complete break from traditional writing practice, from November 1 through November 30, participants are encouraged to churn out words with abandon, no editing, 30 days of uninhibited writing. All you have to do is tell a story in no less than 50,000 words. That works out to roughly 1600 words per day. Not only does this take discipline, it also takes time. Planning is essential.

Why 50,000 words, you ask? Because that is the magic number for most mass-market paperback novels.

Why is quantity stressed over quality? The idea of pushing volume of words is geared to free the writer creatively from the self-editing that leads to writer’s block. If it doesn’t have to be good, then you aren’t limited by genre or believability. If you get stuck you can always have a group of crazed penguins armed to the teeth fall through the ceiling, slap your main character with a herring, then shimmy back up a rope humming the soundtrack from “Spamalot.” Writers tend to get silly when they get blocked. This allows the silliness to spew forth unchecked.

The idea is that maybe, just maybe, you might have a decent first draft when you’re finished that you can shape and hone into a marketable novel. It’s happened before, roughly 90 times! But the goal isn’t to get your novel published. The goal is to write a novel – good, bad, or indifferent.

If you’ve ever had the idea of writing a novel, I invite you to join me in the attempt. I’m not sure I can complete a novel in 30 days, but I’m willing to try. Who’s with me?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Believe In True Love

I believe in true love.

Even when faced with one failed romantic relationship after another, I believed in true love. Cynics will tell you that there is no such thing, that it’s all hormonal. Anyone who says that has never witnessed it.

My great-grandparents were married in 1906 at the age of 18. They had six children. In the great flu pandemic of 1917-1918, they lost a ten month-old daughter. The loss of a child would be enough to destroy many marriages, but they clung to each other, grieved together and let their unshakeable faith in God carry them through. When the Great Depression hit, they pulled together as a family. Grown children working with their parents, pooling resources so the entire family survived.

When World War II came, again, they pulled together, facing the crisis as a family. My great-grandfather stood in as patriarch for his grandchildren whose own fathers were far from home fighting in places they couldn’t even pronounce. My great-grandmother soothed hurts, made lunches, and oversaw homework while her daughters worked at the mills to keep them going while their husbands were gone.

Many grandparents would have been annoyed to find themselves so inconvenienced. Many times I have heard grandparents complain “I’ve raised my kids. I’ve done my time. I’m not raising my grandkids.” My great-grandparents surely felt the burden, yet they never complained. They did it because it needed to be done. They did it because they loved their children and their grandchildren. Most of all they did it because they loved each other.

Their 50th wedding anniversary came with great fanfare in the midst of Eisenhower’s tenure as president and the prosperous 1950’s. Their marriage, which began when man had taken his first tentative flights on windswept dunes in North Carolina, continued through into the jet age and even into the space age. My great-grandparents celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary the year my frail little great-grandmother finally laid down her burden and went to be with the Lord and the baby she’d lost and mourned for sixty years.

My great-grandfather spoke of their last conversation with a sad smile on his face. He told us that he’d climbed into bed beside her and pulled her into his arms, as much to comfort her as to try to hold on to her for just a little while longer, I suppose. Snuggled together, both frail with their advanced years, they bent their heads together and spoke softly of all they had experienced together in their lives, how their lives had been filled with so much love and joy and how they had faced adversity hand in hand, each finding strength in the other and in their relationship with God.

“I get to go be with my baby now,” she said softly.

He nodded and murmured his agreement. Then he cleared his throat. “You know, if I had it to do all over again, I’d do it just the same,” he said.

She turned her blue eyes up to him and smiled. “I would too,” she said. Closing her eyes, she lay back on her pillow and drifted off into that eternal sleep.

I know that for the rest of his life, he would wake up calling her name, looking for her, missing her. When he passed away peacefully in his sleep seven years later, I have no doubt that he knew he was going to see her again and that was why he had a smile on his face.

You see, I’ve seen true love. I know what it looks like. I know that it’s God’s gift to us. It is without condition, and it is forever. True love is patient, it is polite, it is considerate of the feelings of others. True love is generous, and it puts the needs of others ahead of its own. True love is tender and fierce, protective, supportive and nurturing. True love puts up with a lot knowing that your partner is doing the same.

I also know that you won’t find true love unless and until you are willing to submit yourself to true love and show these traits yourself. Once you open yourself up to it, you see it everywhere and wonder how you could have missed it before.

I know true love exists. I’m one of those who has been blessed to find it. I have no doubt that at the end of my life or his, my husband and I will be there, heads bent together, looking back on our shared adventure willing to do it all over again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Mind of a Writer

I’ve been both blessed and cursed with an interest and the drive to write.

As a child, I read voraciously, often with a flashlight under the covers, well into the wee hours of the morning. One more page always turned into one more chapter. I’d seldom stop before I’d finished the book.  I read about things that interested me:  horses, mysteries, ghosts, pirates, Antebellum South, dogs and space travel. I had a constant narrative running through my head. I would be talking with my friends and mentally add dialog tags to every word. I’d watch events as they unfolded, then mentally re-run them with a slightly different outcome. I suppose that’s why I immediately grasped the concept of parallel worlds existing alongside ours, each slightly different as a universe of infinite possibilities unfolds concurrently.

My children also love to read and spin stories. My son, Liam is the whimsical one. He’s the one with the constant narrative in his head, complete with soundtrack and special effects. What I wouldn’t give for one tiny peek into his mind.

As a writer, that’s what we give others, really – a tiny peek into our minds. We spend our lives looking at a hidden world that exists alongside the concrete world that everyone experiences. We learn to keep seeing that world and to use words to make that world come alive so that others can see it, too. It’s really a very simple concept, but it takes a lifetime to master.

The ability to reveal that world doesn’t automatically make a writer a success, either. There are so many nuances of story craft and the nuts and bolts of spinning marketable prose. Any published writer will tell you that every market is different and each publisher has different subtle wants and needs. It’s frustrating to a writer. The market has changed drastically over the last ten years. The current economy isn’t helping, either.

Writing is a lonely business, and writers are a different breed. We spend so much time in our own minds it’s very easy to become disconnected from our families and friends. I think this is why so many writers slip into depression. Once, when I was having problems with depression, I went unwillingly to see a psychologist. When he learned I was a writer, he researched writers and depression. In the process of helping me, he shared many of his findings with me, and for me, my therapy boiled down to just a few key changes in my life. I needed to make a point to stay connected to the people in my life. I needed to be proactive and not reactive to life’s little roadblocks. Most of all, I needed to give myself permission to write and permission to live.

Writing takes an inordinate amount of time and focus. To non-writers, much of the hardest work of writing looks like slacking and daydreaming. Unless you actually suffer through the process, you don’t realize how exhausting staring off into space can be. I say this with all seriousness. Your mind is racing, exploring every possible avenue of plot thread, chasing down stray subplots and characters that just won’t conform and behave in such a manner as to facilitate your storytelling.

Being married to a writer must be frustrating, the offspring of one even more so, I would imagine. The reasonable assumption when you see someone staring off into space with a furrowed brow, or lying on the couch, eyes closed, is that they aren’t doing anything of great import and not only can, but should be interrupted to save them from their own boredom. 

This is a bad plan when you’re thinking of interrupting a writer. You see, this is what work looks like. In your writer’s mind, he or she is finally unraveling the tangled threads of troublesome dialog that have bogged him or her down for weeks or months, and you come along and interrupt just when it’s starting to make sense and further the plot. The writer’s reaction is annoyance, frustration, or outright anger.

Your reaction? Hurt feelings. All you did was ask a question or try to share something funny in an effort to assuage their boredom.

Let’s look at it this way. Let’s say you’re a teacher. Your loved one comes in while you’re on a roll. Your students are all listening in rapt attention as you’re finally getting through to them about the alchemy of algebraic equations, or the Franco-Prussian war, or some other such nonsense. The students are getting it! Your loved one comes in and completely interrupts your lecture, takes your students attention away from you. You lose your momentum, your train of thought derails. And then they leave. When you look out at your class once more, they are all turned around in their seats talking with one another, playing on their cell phones and you can’t remember what you were telling them.

Or let’s say you’re a carpenter. You’re framing a house. You’ve been behind due to inclement weather and the other contractors are relying on you to get this one last wall framed so they can do the electrical and get the inspections out of the way. You are almost finished and can see the house taking shape. Your loved one comes in for one quick question. You stop what you’re doing to talk with them and when you return to your framing, everything has collapsed and you have to start all over with all of this pre-cut lumber that you know should fit together, but you can’t quite remember exactly how.

Now all of this happens in the mind of the writer. There is no lumber, no students milling around that anyone else can see until whatever the writer was working on is on the page and fit to read. Normal human beings have trouble understanding this, which is why writers seek out other writers for commiseration and support.

For a writer, there isn’t really an option. This isn’t just what we do – it’s who we are. Our minds are different. Writing is a compulsion. We’re programmed from an early age to silently follow the spoken word with “she said tersely,” or some other dialog tag. We watch a sunset and our minds are filled with words, describing that exact shade of melon fading seamlessly into turquoise and navy blue as the glowing star sinks below the horizon to offer warmth and light to the other side of the planet for a few hours.

That colorful individual that all other sane people avoid engaging in conversation is completely fascinating to a writer. His weathered face and toothless smile that flash as he tells outrageous stories of impossible events make him exactly the right character to provide the heroine with the tiny bit of unlikely truth that solves the mystery and sends the murderer to prison for life. I once sat on a bus in New Orleans for three extra stops because I was talking with just such an individual – well, I was listening. He was talking.

I don’t worry about how many words I write or don’t write each day, or how many days I go without putting words on the page. I have the mind of a writer. Even when I took ten years off from it, it was always there in my head. I still followed spoken words with dialog tags. I still studied the faces and actions of my husband and children and mentally selected words to describe what I saw. I don’t know if everyone does this. I’ve asked and received blank looks for my efforts. I no longer care how the mind of a normal person works. Mine is so very interesting, and I have the skills that allow me to share a glimpse of what goes on behind my eyes when I’m staring into space.

Yep. You can keep normal. I’m quite content having the mind of a writer.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Jane Austen

I am a huge fan of Jane Austen. I love her witty heroines and snappy dialog. She was snarky before there was such a word. So while studying a lovely pincushion on a blog, I noticed that the artist had taken a quiz - "Which Jane Austen Heroine Are You?" I must admit, I couldn't resist - I also cheated to be the Heroine I most admired.

Take the Quiz here!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Did You Decide To Try Sewing For the First Time?

This afternoon, while on Facebook, Brewer Quilting and Sewing Supplies asked the question “Why did you decide try sewing for the first time?”

I thought that was a great question. As a sewing instructor, I’m always fascinated by the reasons people have for learning to sew. Some say they want to learn because they want to sew for their children the way their mother sewed for them. Others are inspired to learn the art from watching shows like “Project Runway.” Some want to learn because they have inherited a nice, expensive machine with all the attachments and don’t want to part with it, but they can’t see having something so expensive without knowing how to operate it. Still others want to know how to make curtains or sew pillows to decorate their own homes.

And then there are the lifers like me – the people who can’t remember the first time they picked up needle and thread and discovered the magic of stitching fabric together and getting something entirely new. When I tell people I’ve been sewing for at least forty years, I get a lot of doubtful looks. But it’s the truth. I do NOT recall ever learning to sew.

When I was just a little thing, I would sit playing in the floor underneath my aunt's sewing machine table while she made so many lovely things. To keep me out of *her* projects, she taught me to sew. While she would work on a dance costume for my sister, or a dress for herself, I would practice different types of hand stitches in scrap fabric. I remember some of her more comprehensive lessons in working with commercial patterns and increasingly complex stitches. If I concentrate hard, and really exercise my memory, I can remember sitting on the avocado green carpeting in her family room dutifully threading one needle after another for her. I wasn't even four years old at the time.

I soon graduated to baby clothes, mending, and Barbie clothes, using scrap fabric and trims for some pretty outrageous doll fashions. My sister had received a Singer Child’s Sewing Machine for a gift. A hand crank machine, it was a simple chain-stitch machine. By the time it came to me, it wasn’t “real” enough to suit me.

When I was five years-old my aunt found a toy sewing machine that seemed to fill the bill. Mattel released a sewing “machine” called “Sew Magic.” The set included cartridges of fabric glue, some fabric and some patterns, and a pair of electric “safety scissors” which my aunt immediately talked me out of. I quickly realized that while it was good in theory, the glue cartridges were expensive and impractical, (not to mention messy), and I was better off using needle and thread, and sewing by hand.

And I continued to sew. By the time I was in Junior High School, I was making some of my own clothes. By the time I was in college, I was sewing more of them. Though I had access to my mother’s Singer 403a workhorse machine, I still preferred sewing by hand. It wasn’t until I took up quilting as a young adult that I bought my first REAL machine.

I still have that machine. It’s the one I use the most. It’s the machine that my daughter will remember playing on the floor underneath while the needle, fabric, and a steady beat magically produced dresses with twirly skirts and stuffed toys that just match her room’s décor.

My ever helpful little three year-old wants to cut patterns and pin pieces together and share in the transfiguration of simple fabric into fun pretty clothes and fun toys. So I stop what I’m doing, and thread a blunt tapestry needle and hand it to her along with some loose-weave fabric and teach her the magic of a running stitch. After all, it keeps her busy while I’m working on *my* projects.

So why did *you* decide to try sewing for the first time?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Papa Time

From the time my son, Patrick was a few days old, my husband took him for a walk in the woods. Not even able to focus his eyes, Dale would tuck him under his arm and carry him out into the swamp behind our home. No women allowed. “Only us men,” Dale would say, and once out in the forest, he would whisper to our firstborn all the secrets of the great outdoors.

“Do you hear Mr. Owl?” he would ask. “There’s Mr. Crow.”

Patrick’s first words were a turkey call. His second words were a hoot owl call. He spoke in the shorthand that my husband taught him. On a visit to the zoo, at an exhibit featuring blue herons and snowy egrets, Patrick looked up to me. “Mama, tchk-tchk! Tchk-tchk!” he said with his index finger crooked. “Yes, Patch,” I replied. “Big bird catch-a fish! That’s right! Those are the Great Blue Herons just like we have at home.”

Though I would have liked a walk in the woods with my boys, that was “Papa Time” and my husband jealously guarded it. I’d be rewarded for my patience, though. They would leave hand-in-hand, Patrick’s short legs churning to keep up with my husband’s long stride. My firstborn would return to me with a fistful of blue toadflax, or a perfect pinecone, or a wild persimmon, or some other treasure of the forest. I’m never sure which of the two of them looked more forward to Papa Time, or which one was prouder of the treasure with which Patrick presented me.

Patrick wasn’t even two years-old when Liam was born. Like his older brother, Dale tucked him under his arm and my three boys would walk out into the swamp just before dark. All that ended when we moved to Georgia. Liam wasn’t quite a year old. Our new home in Georgia was surrounded by open farmland and homes. The woods had long been cut down to make way for cotton fields and sorghum. The Papa Time nightly walks in the woods were reduced to waterfall hikes on camping trips and all but faded into memory.

Until tonight.

Tonight, I was left at our campsite standing guard over the two sleeping younger children while Dale started walking into the woods. “Where are you going, Papa?” Patrick asked. With a small gesture, Dale invited him along. Patrick fell into step beside him, his own legs much longer and much more easily keeping pace with his father than they used to.

I watched them disappear into the green woods. For a moment, I could remember my tiny son, his little hand tucked trustingly into his father’s, wandering out into the woods not so many years ago. This time, when they returned, Patrick brought me a handful of baby toads.

As I sit here at the picnic table in the fading light, waiting for the lightning bugs to make their nightly appearance, beside my little pink netbook sits a square plastic container with tiny toads merrily hopping around the little habitat my boys have created for them, and I am content.


Just as I saved the last word, they emerged from the camper with two fishing poles and ventured off into the woods again.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dining Out - HIcks Style

Well, Memorial Weekend is here again, bringing with it my husband’s birthday, Stars and Stripes displayed proudly on the front porch and hot dogs on the grill… oh, and blackberry cobbler!

The upright blackberry bushes that Dale and Patrick rescued from a friend’s farm have taken hold and flourished along the white picket fence in front of our house. We have a bumper crop this year. The trailing vines filled with the sweet dark berries in our pasture have kept the children busy again this year. The trailing vines ripen earlier than the upright bushes along the fence. This bodes well for actually getting enough to use to make cobblers or preserves.

The children have discovered that for the price of a little poking around in the brambles, they can fill their bellies with as many of the ripe little nuggets as they can find. Even my three year-old knows how to tell ripe berries from those that are “not ready yet,” as she turns earnest green eyes up at me and tells me in all seriousness. Though while in the pasture, they have to be mindful of the 1200 pound Irish Setter following them around, nosing them and hunting for his cut of the take. Topper, my elderly Tennessee Walking Horse, loves blackberry picking with the family. He knows there will always be someone willing to dole out a handful of berries to him.

The figs are also ripe, and the children have decimated the first crop with the kind of single-minded determination one would expect from a swarm of locusts. For the first time, we have a substantial crop of plums and peaches… if the children will leave them on the trees long enough to ripen. Dale informed me with a twinkle in his eye that it was doubtful I’d get enough plums to make any jam.

The pears won’t be ready until the children start back to school, thus ensuring that the crop is more than adequate for canning – but I’ll be too busy with the back-to-school bustle to put them up in a timely manner. Topper the horse and Tika the dog appreciate that fact every year.

The muscadine grapes are loaded again, but I doubt that by the time the tiny little grapes ripen that I have enough to put up. Again, the children have figured out how to tell when they get ripe, and we’ve also noticed the clever little Tika cropping grapes from the vine when she thinks no one is looking.

This year we have a single mulberry on the young tree, and one of our young apple trees has finally borne fruit – two tiny green apples growing slowly bigger week by week.

We usually find pecans scattered across the property in November, just in time for pies for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And last of all, the Satsuma orange tree is full. I can only hope the children leave those on the tree until the first frost has the chance to sweeten the fruit – this past year, we ended up with a bumper crop of sour Satsumas picked the day before the freeze that would have performed Nature’s magic and brought out the sweetness of the fruit.

You see, every time my children set foot out the door, they look for something somewhere they can eat. It’s our version of ‘dining out.’ During the summer months, there aren’t a lot of store bought cookies or sweets. My children snack on Nature’s bounty and they wouldn’t have it any other way. When their friends confide that they have no fruit trees or berry bushes, my children feel sorry for them, as though they are somehow deprived. Perhaps, in a way, they are.

My great-uncle Don spoke to me of growing up on the farm he owns and still works to this day. “We always took fresh fruit and fresh baked bread in our lunches at school. The city kids thought we were rich because of that. I guess, looking back, that we were richer than we realized.”

I hope when my children are older, they will feel the same.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tres Chic! Vintage Patterns for Today's Knitter

Recently, I had the opportunity to review a knitting pattern book for Bramcost Publications. As you may or may not know, I've been knitting almost as long as I've been sewing and I love collecting vintage patterns for both endeavors. So, naturally, when Bramcost Publications offered the opportunity, I jumped at it!
It was fascinating to see how differently garments are put together in the 21st Century as compared to the 1930's. Today, the emphasis is on knitting in the round with minimal seaming. Also, modern knitters are accustomed to having all of the pattern changes for sizing done for them.
If you love vintage knitting patterns, then Parisian Fashion Knits is a must-have for your library. The fashions are chic and timeless, and just as stylish for today’s woman as they were for ladies of the 1930’s.
As both an historian and a fashionista, I found a lot to love about this book.  
Page One had me hooked with the deceptively simple diagonal cross rib stitch dress. My hands-down favorite is the Robin Hood inspired “Au Bois,” a gracefully flared skirt and jaunty blouse with pointed cuffs, bowed collar and matching belt. I also love the Art Deco touches using a k1, p1 rib on the front of the Colinette blouse and the architectural elements of the mock pocket flaps of the “Tres Parisian” dress. The instructions are written with the assumption that the reader has a basic understanding of knitting and garment construction.
Overall, I found the patterns straightforward and pleasantly easy to follow. The publisher graciously includes a few pullouts to help modern knitters adjust the pattern for size and fit, along with how to convert a knit pattern to crochet and vice-versa.
I look forward to finishing some of the lovely garments in the book! Look for me to model them. I'll be the one in the Robin Hood hat and chic sweater dress!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When Do Luxuries Become Necessities?

Life has been busy here on the mini-farm. Our central air conditioning went out on us in the beginning of April – again! So, to punish the antique system, I decided to leave it broken until it promised to behave – or until we could afford a new system. Unfortunately, the sticky heat of summer is coming upon us at an alarming rate, while the funds for replacing the system are moving at the rate of continental drift. I fear that being the only one in this staring contest with eyes, I’ll be forced to blink first.

It’s annoying to think how quickly we’ve come to consider air conditioning in the South to be a necessity and not the luxury my grandparents regarded it. I’ve thought a lot about my grandparents and great-grandparents lately and I’ve been grateful for this century plus old home that was built long before the days of air conditioning. With high ceilings and windows poised to catch even the slightest hint of a breeze, my old home has been far more tolerable without air conditioning on these ninety plus degree afternoons than our last home, built in 2003 would have been. And thanks to my friend Renee Stewart, I was able to identify the hidden treasure of the functioning whole-house attic fan that not only vents heat from my prodigious attic, but also sucks in cooler air through the open windows, filling in for absent breezes.

I fell in love with this old house sight unseen. Its wide front porch and high peaked roof reminded me of the charming house on South Fifth street in Easley, South Carolina where my great-grandparents lived until the 1980’s. To me, a house just didn’t feel like a home unless it had uneven floors, large windows with wavy glass, and a bathroom that was obviously tacked on as an afterthought to its construction.

As I bustle around in my large country kitchen with ancient cabinets, washing dishes by hand in my sink under the window, I pause in the evening to catch a hint of the cooling breeze across my face. I can’t help but remember Mama Boley’s kitchen, larger and wider than mine with a lovely walk-in pantry. If I close my eyes I can smell the jasmine from the vine just outside my back door, standing wide open to chase the heat from dinner preparation from the house.

I can’t help but be amazed at how today, we take for granted so many of the little luxuries that amazed her generation. Born in 1888, Annie Pearl Cox and her husband John Patrick McCoy were born into a world without indoor plumbing, without electricity, without airplanes, without automobiles. Granddad said more than once that in his lifetime he’d seen many wonders, from indoor plumbing to men landing on the moon. The things we take for granted today as necessities, were unimaginable wonders to people of their time. And just since my great-grandfather passed away on Father’s Day 1983 at the ripe old age of 94, modern technology has lunged forward at a rate no one could have imagined (though we still have yet to be offered flying cars.)

When my husband and I had children, our experience with the spoiled, technology-addicted youngsters of our acquaintance soured us on the need to keep up with the Joneses, or to provide the latest gadgets for our offspring. By mutual agreement, we decided to keep our lives and the lives of our children simple. Television and the Internet are our modern vices. We were both raised by people impacted by the Great Depression. We both understand how quickly life’s little necessities can be recategorized as luxuries with a change in circumstance. The PS2s, Wiis, i-Pods and Droids that our friends and their children can’t seem to live without have yet to find their way into our lives. Although for the sake of full disclosure, I did go find an inexpensive MP3 player to use at the gym when my ten year-old Sony Discman finally ceased to function.

My children read. My oldest son takes great delight in reading stories to his younger brother and sister. They go outside and get dirty. My children dig up the yard, they exercise their imaginations, they plant trees, flowers, and vegetables, then eagerly wait to show off the fruits of their labors. My children gather eggs in the evening, feed the chickens, the horse, and the dogs. They play on the Internet after chores are done, mostly watching You Tube videos. Noise and restlessness in the house get them kicked out into the yard – on a regular basis. Mama Boley was an advocate of children playing outside in the fresh air and sunshine. She believed that children should run and play and get dirty and I follow her example. My children are happy, creative, self-sufficient, and they don’t feel they’re missing out on anything by not having the latest, coolest gadgets.

So as I sit here and write this, with my windows open, the afternoon sun shining in, a warm breeze stirring the air and the trusty attic fan humming away, I look around. I see the computer and other modern electronics sitting beside large wood frame windows with wavy glass, and I marvel at the melding of old and new and I wonder how my children and my grandchildren will redefine luxuries into necessities. Then I wonder how they will cope when they’re forced to do without their little necessities.