Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Guilt, Part II

Yesterday I wrote about guilt pangs I feel after a shopping trip to Half Price Books or any other big bookstore box store. But I have another reason to feel guilty about the book buying binges I go on every time I’m in the Cities. The truth is, I’m an English major who buys fluffy puppies at the bookstore.

What’s a fluffy puppy when it comes to books? Well, it’s a book that’s not high concept, great literature, or anything more than a thin plot in which lurks hope of a movie contract. It’s the book equivalent to a donut. You know, full of empty calories, fleeting satisfaction, and evokes a mild displeasure in yourself.

Take for example some of the fluffy puppies which have graced my nightstand in the past year: P.S. I Love You, The Nanny Diaries, and my current read du jour: Me and Mr. Darcy.

Since my junior year of high school, I’ve been plowing through a list of 101 Great Books I found on the Princeton Review website back when I was preparing for college. 8 years and an English major later, 37 books remain on the list, but I’m a little exhausted with great literature. If Kafka’s Metamorphosis is sitting on my nightstand next to Me and Mr. Darcy chances are that my fingers are going to tiptoe over to select the latter option.

Is this a bad thing?

Outside of academic circles, few read Dickens, Kafka, Faulkner, et. al. With lessons about life and writing are embedded in all great works of literature, these books are definitely worth the time and patience it takes to truly absorb them. They’re just not always a whole lot of fun and to me, one of the most magical quality of writing and storytelling is its ability to transport us from our mundane lives into fabulous new worlds. When I’m spending most of my reading time mulling over the author’s meaning, the whole magical transportation things just isn’t really happening. Yet on the other hand, the unpolished writing of lots of fluffy puppies can be another point of contention which hampers my absorption into the book’s story.

I really hope I don’t end up writing fluffy puppies. And I certainly don’t harbor of producing great literature that will be read for centuries to come. I want to produce something that is appealing, well written, and interesting. There has to be a balance between great works of literature and the books which sell. But how can I recognize, how can I succeed, at the balance if I don’t have an understanding of one of these opposing poles?

I really have no excuse for buying and subsequently reading fluffy puppies. Other than that they’re fun and fast and when I’m feeling really optimistic, I like to think I might just be learning something.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Guilt Strikes After A Trip to Half-Price Books

Last week, I wrote about the perception of writing being a passive profession. When I was down in the Twin Cities on my last days off, it occurred to me that writing is also a guilty profession. No matter what you’re doing, from working on a project to buying books, there always seems to be something imperfect about our “writer-ly” approaches. It seems being a “writer” involves carrying around a little bag of neuroses and misconceptions at all times.

It probably comes as no surprise that I’m a fan of bookstores. (Honestly, would you trust me as an English major if I wasn’t? Although to be fair, I generally mistrust anyone who’s not a bookstore fan, regardless of their educational background. . . . ) I may have problems maintaining an appropriate wardrobe, but I have no problem buying books and I resist parting with any of my books, even when I’m fairly sure I’ll never look at some of them again. I have yet to move my books out of my parents’ house (we don’t have the room for them) and sometimes I like to go up to my childhood bedroom to admire all the pretty, multicolored volumes lining my bookshelves, and spilling into the “overflow” shelving of my floor. It’s only when I think of how I’ve bought so many of my books that I start feeling those little twinges of guilt in my belly.

As an aspiring novelist, there’s that teeny little part of me that tells me, really, I should only be buying the hardcover, full-priced versions of the books I want to read. After all, if I have a book published, do I want people to wait until they can buy my book for a penny on Amazon or grab a severely discounted copy at Half-Price Books? Publishing a book in this day and age is no guarantee of fame and it’s certainly no guarantee for fortune. E-books have publishers turned all topsy-turvy and there have been some rather startling reports on just how little money is made when you have a moderately successful book published. Indeed, the monetary success of Harry Potter was an anomaly.  (And remember, how none of us waited until the Harry Potter cost a penny: we all “pre-bought” the latest hardcover version before its release date.)

So how do I explain my presence in Half-Price Books last Wednesday? They say in America you vote with your wallet, which really means I should be strolling through independent books stores and not box stores that start with a “B.” I’ll bet you anything that the big box stores aren’t going to be the ones gambling on a first release from an unknown author if I’m published.

Yet as a voracious reader and someone on the cusp of middle class, I simply don’t have the budget to buy all the books I want to read in a year at full price. And living 55 miles outside of town, I just haven’t gotten the whole library thing work very well for me lately.

So the cheaply bought books accumulate on my shelves. Guilty as I may feel about how I got the books, there’s always one saving grace: at least I’m still reading.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Free Falling Fashion

I’ve always had a fleeting interest in fashion. This is not to say that I’m fashion forward. I’m anything but.

But in my elementary school days, I always had a soft spot for fashionista Stacy from the Babysitter Club book series. This can perhaps explain why I’d occasionally run around in a swimsuit and a mini-skirt or a belted over-sized, hand-painted t-shirt with tights, when I was in the 8-11 age range. After suffering a plaid flannel epidemic in my early teen years, my fashion sense calmed down into unadventurous sweaters and jeans trend which continues to this day. Still, I remain drawn to t.v. shows like Project Runway and What Not to Wear like a crow is to shiny objects.

In high school, I did a major project on the evolution of British clothing from 1066-1952. The project forced me to really look at clothing and determine why we wear what we wear (socioeconomic circumstances, style, perceived status, etc.), which, admittedly, is easier to do in the context of historical clothing than it is in this era of readily available fabric and discount fashion. It was a fun project and one that still effects my outlook on life, especially when a wonderful mess of beautiful dresses are being paraded in front of me like at Tuesday’s performance of Wicked.

To me, fashion is a fun, puzzling supplement to life. I have no time (or money) for designer labels, but I still like to ponder whether I’m more of a Dior or a Prada sort of girl. I have to admit that I don’t really understand fashion shoots. Or why models always look angry. When all is said and done, I’m kind of flunking at fashion.

For one thing, buying any sort of clothing tends to be like pulling teeth for me. I’d happily wear my current (teeny) wardrobe until starts to self-destruct before buying a new bit of clothing. When I do finally buy a new shirt, it usually comes off the clearance rack. Oh, how Meryl Strep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada would shutter!

But there’s been one fashion item I’ve never had a problem purchasing: shoes. I have more shoes than I have outfits to go with them.

So what does it mean when my main shoe purchase this autumn will probably look like this? What does it say about me, my environment, my livelihood?

Perhaps these boots are whispering: "High heels look ridiculous where you live. You wear a t-shirt to work every day. Give it up."

It’s either time to get out of the woods, or finally admit that fashion for me will forever stay in my collection of lovely coffee table fashion books.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pounding Pavement Instead Defying Gravity

As soon as we learned the musical, Wicked was returning to Minneapolis for a three week run, my friend Sarah and I knew we were going. The last time Wicked was in town, we missed our chance to go and were instead forced to drive past the Orpheum at the end of work days with eyes that were, well, a bit green with jealousy. So back in May, when the tickets were just coming on sale this time around, I watched my email updates like a hawk and managed to nab front row tickets for this past Tuesday night’s performance.

Even in May, we knew the trip would be a push. To be honest, any sort of travel that doesn’t involve taking an extra day off of work always constitutes a push. But extra days off haven’t been the most feasible this year so on Monday after work, I set off on the 5 ½ hour drive to Sarah’s place, arriving around 11:30 pm. Yawn!

But the trip was well worth it. There was time to catch up with Sarah and get some well needed shopping in. And Wicked, forgive the pun, was wonderful! I’d seen the show a few years ago in London and loved it, but I admit I was a bit apprehensive since it was the touring show and frankly, the last few touring shows we’ve seen haven’t been great. But everything was phenomenal about this production: the costumes, the set, the singing, the acting. It was the kind of show you want to keep going and going.

Now I’m home. And tired. And a little underwhelmed.

A grand total of 11 hours on the road in less than 48 hours seems to have drawn out any sort of creative spark that might have been dwelling inside of me. There’s been a lovely lull in deadlines for the last week and a half and it’s been easy to dive into that lull, to look forward to evenings spent in front of the Netflix du jour instead of pounding away at my laptop. But with a few projects vying for my attention, it’s time to snap out of it. While my body calls for rest and rejuvenation, my life calls for a return to work. Heigh ho, heigh ho. Maybe I should try defying gravity while I’m at it . . . .

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Passive Profession

When you say you’re something like, say, a carpenter, it usually means you spend your time pounding nails, hanging siding, and putting in windows. When you say you’re a writer, it seems people usually don’t know what that means. Thanks to Carrie Bradshaw, people assume you can make a living writing a weekly column about your personal life. But more than that, it seems when you say you’re a writer that people wonder if you’re the kind of writer who actually makes money, or the kind of writer who watches Glee reruns all day, while pondering and hoping to write the next Great American novel.

Like all professions in the arts, calling ourselves “writers” is something a good many of us do. Almost like trying on a shirt for size, we test out the term “writer” for ourselves, seeing if it suits us. It’s not always the most flattering title to bear, especially since the general public often assumes “writers” are a passive bunch who make way more claims than they make dollars.

After all, writers aren’t exactly the most confident bunch, as evidenced by the vast majority of “how to write” books lurking out there. Do carpenters have inspirational desk calendars filled with stories of others who have made a living in the trade? My guess is probably not, yet writers can read dozens how to guides, success stories from other writers, and writing magazine articles, all in the name of getting better acquainted with the skills and lifestyle of writing, of learning how to become a “real” writer. It’s one thing to stay on top of your trade. It’s another to use the “resources” lurking out there as a means to procrastinate from the real work of researching and writing your own work.

When I was in college, I spent a lot of time saying I wanted to be a writer. Finally a professor told me, “Ada, you already are a writer.” But even today, when small percentage of my monthly income does comes from putting words in the right order on the page, I often feel like a fraud when I call myself a writer.

We writers seem to be constantly wondering if we’re the “real deal.” To make matters worse, most of society seems to be wondering the exact same thing about us. There’s really just one solution to this sticky situation: to write.

Being a writer isn’t about pounding nails, it’s about pounding the keyboard. About practicing your craft consistently until you’ve gotten it hone to the point where someone is willing to compensate you for your labor. You don’t wish yourself into the writing profession; you work yourself into the writing profession. It’s hardly passive. When you get right down to it, it’s just more hard work.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Home Place

For whatever reason, when we’re driving home after some evening event, Andy and I frequently have this conversation:

Ada: I always thought I’d end up in a big city, like Chicago, New York, or London.

Andy: Ick! Not me!

In the British Isles, they have a concept called “the home place.” The concept is a central component of modern day Irish dramatist Brian Friel’s play entitled, well, The Home Place, but I’ve also run across the concept in other pieces of literature set in Ireland. The most recent reference of the home place I ran into was in Minnesota author Erin Hart’s mystery Haunted Ground. The “home place” is a reference to a member of the English Ascendancy’s old family home in England. It’s a place often shrouded with mythical symbolism that is only magnified by the person’s geographical distance from the location. It’s something used to define a person, even if it’s been generations since any direct relative lived on the land.

In the States, our sense of home isn’t tied as tightly with tradition as it is overseas, but our sense of home is just as complicated. We are raised on the American dream and a sense that home is something that travels with us, that with the unpacking of a suitcase we can simply will a new place to be our home. But it’s not quite that easy.

While plenty of Americans head overseas to find their roots, few find more than just a pleasant experience and, if they’re lucky, a deeper understanding of who they are. They usually don’t find a newly realized home. And maybe that’s because there seems to be an infantile understanding of home that haunts us well into adulthood.

I have put in time in the big city. I have proven that I am perfectly capable of living in dorms, in cities, in suburbs. But in all those experiences there was a strain of inexplicable homesickness that tinges such experiences. A sense that after all the newness is discovered, that this really isn’t the place I want to spend all my time.

Is northern Minnesota really my home place? It certainly seems to be Andy’s.

In the movie Orange County the main character, Shaun, finally runs into his writer idol who is also a professor at Stanford. After talking for a while, the writer/professor tells Shaun: “You’re a writer. Every good writer has a conflicted relationship with their home.”

We may not know where our home place lies exactly. But we certainly know when we’re not home and from that, through deductive reasoning, we should be able to determine our home place. When feelings of anxiousness or smothered longing are absent, we may find that we’re already home.

Where’s your home place?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Maybe I Don't Get It


We got rain today. A lot of rain. The good soaking kind that forces me to drive to work and which in turn drives people to a museum in droves. For most people the rain was a mild inconvenience. For others, the precipitation came as a relief. “We need the rain so badly,” the latter group said all day. “The fire danger was so high!”

Maybe I don’t get it. And knowing me, that’s probably the case, so let me preface this by saying that I don't mean to be insensitive. I just sometimes wonder what all the worry's about.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been dry around here. The water level in the lake is worryingly low. And frankly the wildfires of 2007 just weren’t quite long enough ago for most people around here.

I didn’t experience the Ham Lake Fire of 2007 first hand. I wasn’t evacuated from my home for 12 days. Although I have plenty of fire memories, I haven’t had any personally traumatic fire experiences.

When it’s dry outside, I notice, kind of like noticing that it’s raining or that the sky is blue. But it’s rare that the dryness of the environment seems truly ominous to me. In fact, the last time the world seems poised for wildfire was the spring of 2007, when my walks through the woods behind my college campus seemed reminiscent of walking through a tinder box. Low and behold, less than a week after a rather creepily crackly and dry walk through woods, the Ham Lake Fire started 100 miles away from where I’d hiked.

When I was in college, I interviewed Senator Mark Dayton (yes, the very same Senator Dayton running for Minnesota Governor) for an article in weekly student newspaper. I asked him the typical college newspaper questions: what did he think about job prospects, health insurance, etc. To one my questions, he responded, “Plan for your future, but don’t worry about it.”

Up here in the woods, we all have sprinkler systems installed on our property and cabins. We try to be environmentally responsible. We hope people will heed the words of Smokey Bear and do their best to prevent wildfires.

And that’s pretty much all we can do. Worrying about the rain won’t make it rain. We simply have to be ready for what could happen, but we can’t devote all of today to worrying about what might happen.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wilderness Experiences


Ever since the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, the term “wilderness” has been one of those buzzwords which can inspire some of the most inane arguments. As the government defines “wilderness,” the wilderness is a place without motors or modern amenities, and a place which is allowed to independently evolve in its natural state. To many people, the term “wilderness” simply means “the woods" and being in the wilderness has more to do with a sense of place in their heart than it has to do with obtaining the appropriate camping permit.

Legally, I live about a mile off from the federally designated wilderness. However, I also live 55 miles away from the nearest town and if I wanted, in less than a day I could be in a world without motors. Technically the cabin’s not in the wilderness, but we’re definitely in the woods. And what a busy little bit of woods it is.

When the decision was made to spend the summer at the cabin, I knew that at age 25, I had succeeded in living the dream that so many people save for retirement. Who doesn’t long for quiet mornings spent sipping coffee on the deck or watching the sun set over a still lake? What I’d forgotten is that everyone has their own idea of what a good time at the lake constitutes. For whatever reason, I didn’t realize a summer spent on a “wilderness” lake would be a busy, daily mash of vacationers.

Just as the term “wilderness” is debated, what people deem wilderness experiences varies drastically. Simply comparing the rhetoric of Conservationists with Common Sense to that of the Friends of the Boundary Waters reveals that common ground in a common ground isn’t that easy to achieve. While Andy and I think nothing of motoring down the lake a bit to fish for an hour or two in the evening, we stand on our deck with our jaws hanging open whenever -- insert one of the options: a water skier, speed boat, pontoon boat, snorkeler, jet ski -- passes by on the lake. When you’re raised in the old school wilderness with motor boats and canoes, even kayaks are viewed with mild skepticism.

Most people aren't set on ruining your personal wilderness experience. And when your livelihood is tied with people having and repeating wilderness experiences, it seems best to reserve some judgment. Sure we can raise our eyebrows, sigh, and wonder what the heck “they’re doing now.” But if they’re not harming the environment (too much) and are attempting to obey laws, we have to realize that their wilderness experience just isn’t ours. That, and the fact that Labor Day is only a couple weeks off . . .  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Next Project

Just when we'd hit the home stretch with the shed building project, a big load of this winter's fuel arrived. I guess we know what the next project is . . . .




Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Making the Grade

It seems like a no-brainer, homeschooled girl that I am, that I would be attracted to the whole concept of freelancing, work at home, self-employment, etc., etc. But this week, after receiving a couple complimentary responses to some work I’d submitted, I realized that freelance writing appeals to another facet of my personality. Not the independent, self-motivated portion of my personality. Rather, the codependent “teacher’s pet” aspect.

If there was ever someone motivated by a nice “A” on her schoolwork, it would be me. I’ve always shrunk away from the “teacher’s pet” label when it’s been bestowed on me (really, it's not ever meant as a compliment, is it?) but there’s no denying that I’m motivated by what people think of me, and even more than that, I’m highly motivated by people thinking well of my writing. It just feels really good when someone has something nice to say about something you’ve worked and worried at.

I stumbled upon this quote in Writer’s Digest last winter and it does a pretty job of summing up how merging teacher pet tendencies and a penchant for writing can lead to a successful freelance writing career: “There’s really a shortage of good freelance writers . . . . There are a lot of talented people who are very erratic, so either they don’t turn it in or they turn it in and it’s rotten; it’s amazing. Somebody who’s even maybe not all that terrific but who is dependable, who will turn in a publishable piece more or less on time, can really do very well.” It’s not so much about what you crank out, but about meeting guidelines and deadlines, about giving people what they want and what they asked for! Sounding a little like school work?

Really, freelancing writing is rife with school work analogies. After all, you’re given an assignment, which you then hem and haw about, put off, and finally buckle down and tackle. In the end, you turn in what you produced and hope you haven’t missed the mark too much. The only real difference is that in freelance writing, you’re awarded not with an A, but another assignment.

We don’t write because we want to get “A”s on everything we do for the rest of our lives. C. Hope Clark just wrote a great blog about how validation of our writing both helps and hinders the creative process. But we do have to seek out some sort of validation for our writing, at least if we want to make a business of it. In freelance writing our success is dependent on at least meeting, if not trying to exceed, people’s expectations of what we can do. An inclination towards being the teacher’s pet can only help with “make the grade.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ms. Frizzle


Remember Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame? Known for her crazy school field trips and her trippy, subject appropriate dresses, Ms. Frizzle notoriously sported a frizzy mane, regardless of if she and her class were cruising through outer space or the human immune system. She was a kooky, self-assured character: someone you’d love as a teacher when you were 9 years old and someone who’d garner your fear and mistrust when you were 19 years old.Who really wants to be like that crazy, fashion-unconscious elementary school teacher?

It’s been years since I’ve read a Magic School Bus book, but every once in a while I think of Ms. Frizzle. Usually she comes to mind when the humidity outside is about 90% and my hair is getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

Since my teenage years, I’ve been fighting an often losing battle with my frizzy hair. Over time I’ve assembled quite the arsenal of hair products. On any given morning I shampoo my hair, smear it with conditioner, spray it with some sort of leave-in conditioner, and give it a final layer of hair spray. When I find a hair product that seems to tame the underlying frizz while allowing my hair to keep its natural wave, I’m tempted to head straight back to the store and buy the whole shelf.

Keep in mind that I'm the girl who has to be dragged to the store to buy new socks. I will literally scrunch up a holey sock in my toes and slip on my shoes to minimize the amount of bare skin inside my shoe. While my closet remains in a perpetually stunted and tattered state, I have no problem shelling out money for hair products. At some point in time, a subconscious decision was made that hair trumps style.

But if we’re to consciously think about the products we’re buying with a critical environmental and economic eye, well, then the oodles of plastic and metal spray bottles under the bathroom sink really should go. It’s great if I find a shampoo/body soap bar to use in lieu of bottled shampoo, but it’s pretty much just a drop in the ocean if I won't get rid of any of my other hair products. While I know there are plenty of natural conditioners out there, I just think mayonnaise belongs on sandwiches, not my head, and after an awful food poisoning incident in Paris involving mayonnaise on a baguette, I’m not too keen on mayonnaise on sandwiches either. Hair products are one thing that I really can’t find a great, local alternative to the corporately produced products I currently use.

And my conditioner? You’re going to have pry it out of my dead fingers. Still don’t want to be Ms. Frizzle.

Let the local living hypocrisy begin.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Days Off Are Good

Here’s a newsflash for you: days off are good. Alright, not exactly rocket science, but every once in a while, it seems we all need a reminder of the fact. For whatever reason, we like to forget that recharging isn’t an option luxury, it’s a necessary component of everyday life, especially if we’re planning to hang onto our sanity for too terribly long.

Lately days off haven’t been happening around here. As a result, crankiness abounded and everything started to seem like a lot of work. So on Wednesday, after I completed the last phone interview necessary for the August batch of articles, Andy and I decided to take a hike.

Last year, the Forest Service completed a new 3-mile loop trail in the area called the Centennial Trail (last year was the Superior National Forest’s centennial) which follows an abandoned railroad bed from the 1890s and goes past several test pits of an abandoned mine from the same era. In addition, the trail offers a snapshot of the forest fire/blowdown events of the last decade. The interpretative trail is pretty much in our backyard and despite sending several inquiring visitors to our respected work places to go hike the new path, neither Andy nor I had actually hiked the entire trail.


The trail itself isn’t terribly difficult, but it’s awfully interesting. Along the way, there are 14 markers along the pathway which point out unique historical and natural history factoids about this path which goes under where a wooden rail trestle once stood and passes through a 120 year old rock cut. This is the corner of our woods that was, more than a century before, a bustling town of laborers, complete with a brothel. Now, looking at the pathway through scrubby brush, it’s hard to imagine the blind optimism that prompted prospectors to stomach the expense of building a railroad here which would remove only a single load of minerals during its entire life.

Andy peers down into one of the test pits along the trail, where mineral prospectors searched for minerals in the soil. They found iron ore . . .  just not quite as much as they found farther west in the state, on the Iron Range.
The world is filled with all sorts of stories like the story of the Paulson Mine that we learned about on the Centennial Trail on Wednesday. But often, we get so swept up in our own stories that we forget that our lives are drastically enriched, and dare I say, improved by the stories of others. Yesterday – my Monday – I felt inspired and refreshed. In this world of deadlines, lunch breaks, and salaries, we can forget, especially if we’re writers, that the most important thing we can do is keep our ears, eyes, and hearts open to new stories and experiences. If we can remember to do that, every day has the potential to feel like a day off.
Centennial Trail overlook, looking towards Gunflint Lake and showing burn from the Ham Lake Fire and blowdown from 1999.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Standing Out

The other night, Andy and I motored down to the north bay to do a little fishing. Our true motivation wasn’t fish but to take in a still, warm summer evening in a quiet bay removed from the rest of the lake’s evening anglers. As we headed down the lake, this island, with its single bright tree, caught my eye. "That," I thought, as I tried to take a non-blurry picture as we cruised by, "is what I want to be."

There are always plenty of doubts to tangle with whatever you do in life and if you’re setting out as a writer, it seems you’re especially susceptible to doubting whether or not you have what it takes to really, truly stand out. Imagination/muse, whatever it is that keeps the words sprinkled across the page in a somewhat logically manner, is a fickle utensil to base a whole career around. And imagination has a sneaking sort of way of ending up not quite as original as you thought it might be.

Often it seems as though my imagination is little more than a parrot. Like any writer at any point in time, dealing with the seven original plots this entire world offers can seem a little stifling. Gore Vidal said that “each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. . . . I have 10 or so and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” 7 basic plots? Lucky to have 10 unique characters? That seems like a pretty limited toolbox to be playing with. As the number of aspiring novelists rises, it’s easy to feel lost in a sea of aspiration instead of inspiration.

On the other hand, for centuries writers have scratched out a life for themselves with only a pad of paper and a pencil (or a laptop). They probably didn’t spend too much time worried about how original their stories were. Instead they wrote what amused them. More than that, they met deadlines, negotiated contracts, and let go of projects that weren’t succeeding. Does perseverance trump skill/imagination?

It’s hard to say, but I do know to keep going. To keep imagining, writing, revising and polishing until some bit of prose turns into a gold flash on an evergreen island.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Something in the Air

Lately, there’s been something in the air. At first, as a series of blustery days churned up the lakes, riled the trees, and brought in cooler air, I assumed that strange buzz in the atmosphere was simply autumn’s arrival. But the fact that temperature inside my work place today reached 91.1 degrees today pretty much debunked that theory.

And there’s still something in the air. A sense of energy. And even more than a sense of energy, some sort of urgency. Something that prompts me to keep going even when my mind tells me the day is done. Something that has me reaching for the “get some zzzs” herbal tea on an 85 degree evening.

Maybe it’s the result of the solar storms last week that painted the night sky in lovely shades of northern lights.
 

Or maybe it has to do with planet alignment. Whatever it is, the last week I find my days starting strong, only to spend most of the work day cranky yet after heading home and making supper, I am struck by a sudden urge to “go” just when it really should be time to turn out the lights. Andy calls it the “summer doldrums.” It doesn’t seem like doldrums to me exactly (at least not early in the morning or late at night) but it definitely feels unsettled.

Part of the unsettledness is perfectly logical. The first half of the month is always more frantic than the second half as I pulled together the month’s allotment of freelance articles. Once we hit the 15th of the month, things slow down, or at least, the manner in which things unfold is based slightly more on my whims.

Tori over at Rabid Ink wrote an interesting post on working to relax and it strikes me that what she writes about might be part of what’s going on around here as of late. This summer has been a juggling act of a wide variety of projects and it’s easy to view any sort of free time as procrastination. Instead of taking a load off at the end of the day, I find it more comforting to sit at the computer and attempt to tap out a few sentences, paragraphs. Keep that up for too long and there’s bound to be a strange sense of energy in the air that’s morphed out of my control.

So I’m giving into the summer doldrums, the solar storms, the planets, visit from muse, whatever this disturbance is. I will work on freelance assignments by morning and type out commentaries in the evening hours while simultaneously blogging, scouring Writer’s Digest and Fund for Writers for ways to hone my writing craft and improve my platform, and crafting editorial calendars. It seems silly to sit passively in befuddlement when something beyond me seems to be prompting: go, go, go. Someday soon, I know I'll wake up and find whatever it was has disappeared and it'll be same ol', same ol'. But until then, I might as well get something done.

Have the summer “doldrums” or some other strange force hit where you’re at? What do you do to manage it?

Monday, August 9, 2010

What to do about coffee?

At the cabin, there are a few things that cause us to drop everything and make the 60 mile trip into town, regardless of convenience. Number one is running out of gas. Number two is running out of toothpaste. And number three? Running out of coffee.

Every morning I wake up to the sound of Andy grinding coffee beans. Although our intake of coffee declines slightly in the warm summer months, it’s still part of the everyday routine. And that’s where the conundrum comes in.

If we’re to focus on living locally and feeding our bodies with foods naturally grown in our home range, turning a blind eye to our favorite breakfast beverage is a huge oversight. Feel good statements on the coffee bags like “organic” or “fair trade” don’t erase the fact that every ground coffee bean that ends up in our filters has traveled thousands of miles before reaching our breakfast table. Sure Kona coffee from Hawaii is “U.S. grown coffee” but Hawaii isn’t exactly in my northern Minnesota backyard, now is it?

Since our town is teeny, we’ve been spared the arrival of commercialized coffee. The coffeehouse in town is no Starbucks or Caribou Coffee, it’s a locally owned and operated business which hires local high school kids during summer months and supports a local family. When we grab a latte in town, we’re not supporting “the man,” we’re supporting neighbors.

Even I, who am more of a coffee sipper rather than a coffee drinker, foresee problems in swearing off coffee for good. Caffeine is such integral part of 21st century life that to do away with coffee would probably just mean the emergence of another environmentally and nutritionally worse alternative. If we do some research about where we invest our coffee dollar, we can insure that we support worthy coffee plantations and small business.

Is that good enough? How effective can local living be if we start down the slippery slope of making caveats?

It probably behooves us to remember that when coffee, tea, and spices emerged into Western society, they were considered luxuries. We often forget that stocking up on coffee wasn’t always as easy as hopping in an automobile, turning the key in the ignition and driving 60 miles. It used to be journey that used to involve gangplanks and white handkerchiefs being fluttered in farewell as a three-masted tea clipper pulled out of the harbor on the start of a multi-month trip. If we can remember that every time the coffee grinder roars we are beginning our mornings with the epitome of a “treat” we can succeed not in living locally, but living life a little more mindfully. Everything in moderation, right?

Friday, August 6, 2010

In Which Ada Becomes Trapped in a Crawl Space


It’s been one of those weeks. You know, where there’s so much going on and half of the stuff going on is stuff that needs to get done and the other stuff just looks really fun so you start getting up way too early to get all your work done and end up feeling like headache-y mess by the time 9 p.m. rolls around. It’s been kind of like that.

It’s been one of those weeks when you realize you’re probably so sluggish and cranky because you haven’t actually eaten anything in six hours. Where you start looking forward to a return to work because you need some peace and quiet after your days “off.” It’s been one of those weeks when it’s hard to look at your life with any sort of perspective.

After getting a large freelance project out the door yesterday morning, I felt better suited for a nap than a day at work. But since I innocently skipped across the magical bridge to adulthood land a few years back, I had no choice in the matter. Off to work I went.

Luckily, we were too busy at work for me to dwell on my sleep deprivation and before I knew, the day had slipped by. At closing time, I took down the bird feeders and brought them to the building’s crawl space, where we store them overnight to avoid tempting the neighborhood black bears. I lifted the latch on the outside of the crawl space’s door and stepped into the small, low space to set down the bird feeders.

Then the big gust of wind came. In a split second the crawl space door slammed shut. I pressed against the door. It had latched.

And I panicked. The pity steadily overcame the panic. I was so tired and hungry and the crawl space was dark, damp, smelly and the only thing to eat were some suet cakes and bird seed. I had to use the bathroom. I didn’t want to spend the next two hours it would take for Andy to think to come look for me with the mice in the crawl space of a historic lodge on the edge of the Boundary Waters.

I knocked lightly on the door, knowing no one was near enough to hear such a feeble declaration of my predicament. There was a thumb-sized peephole directly beneath the metal lever which had fallen in the latch. I wiggled my fingers through the hole, trying to push the lever up and out of the latch. Then I tried kicking. I kicked one, twice, and on the third time the door sprung open and I emerged into the sunlight. The whole ordeal took about 30 seconds, but it was just enough to time to make me realize that I’d rather be out in the daylight having “one of those weeks” than trapped in a dingy crawl space.

It all reminded me of how Jimi Hendrix sang: “I used to live in a room full of mirrors, all I seen was me. Well I can’t stand it no more, so I smash the mirror and set me free.” It wasn’t really that dramatic, but it kind of felt like it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Baby Loon Grows Up

We've been having fun watching the little loon in the bay grow up. If only we could insure he heads off to a nice clean Gulf of Mexico this fall!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting Your Feet Wet

Over these days off our friend Andrew is up for some canoeing, bbqing, and general Northwoods hanging out. This morning, Andy and Andrew decided to go down to fish lake trout in a nearby lake. Although I had plenty of work to get done at home, I decided to tag along.

Once we got to the canoe launch, I decided I didn’t want to get my feet wet. Although I had perfectly fine water proof sandals on, the thought of plunging my feet into mucky, cool water just didn’t sound pleasant. So I perched precariously on a small rock and tiptoed into the canoe while Andy and Andrew rolled their eyes.

The whole process reminded me of what I do every time I get a new freelance assignment. I’m always hot to trot with a new assignment, but when it comes to that initial phone call I hem and haw. I think of perfectly legitimate reasons to procrastinate the start of the project. I do whatever I can to put it off. I’m happy to do the assignment once I have all the material, it’s that first hurtle which poses the biggest risk to my success.

Back on the lake this morning, we paddled down to the east end of the lake and portaged into a designated trout lake. We set our lines and trolled down the lake. I succeeded only in hooking Andy’s line.

With no fish biting, we decided to head back home for the afternoon. At the portage landing, a swim seemed in order. So I stripped down to my swimsuit and jumped right in. Now how hard was that?

On the way back, it took all three of us paddling against the strong west wind to get us back to the car. As we cursed the wind and struggled to keep the canoe on course, I never once thought about my wet feet. If you’re willing to jump in, it seems the stuff that’s really hard isn’t so bad at all.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Why We Garden

I started dreaming of a garden when I lived in a 12 by 20 shack. Outside snow covered the ground. When I hunched over my desk, burrowing into my layers of wool and down, I sometimes wondered if the spot beneath the bird feeder might be a little too shady a spot for a garden when the snow all melted. At night under the sloping ceiling of our loft bedroom, I sketched diagrams of imagined gardens. I checked out gardening books from the library. 

To be truthful, I really wanted flowers. While the Christmas cactus sat stagnantly on a bathroom shelf, the vine-y houseplant beside the cactus faithfully produced new leaves with a methodical rhythm. The house plants stood as a reminder of green growth, but in a snow white world, I dreamed of cascading, colorful blossoms or pretty nosegay for the kitchen table.
Meanwhile, Andy dreamed of garden vegetables. It's easy to grow tired of baby carrots in the dead of winter, when almost all the other produce on the grocery shelves appear to have barely survived some sort of vegetable warfare. 

Of course in northern Minnesota, gardening can only be viewed as an act of optimism. Even after we moved out of the Shack for the summer, the new gardens we had an opportunity to plant were shady and plagued with somewhat questionable soil. Weather always poses a problem: too hot, too cold, too dry, too windy, too wet. But we were curious to see what we could coax into growing. While the zucchini have had an abysmal go of it (who has trouble growing zucchini?!), we’ve managed to get some beautiful tomatoes and peppers from the pots on the deck. Will wonders never cease?

In this day and age of big corporation, when every documentary on big business tells you to vote with your wallet when it comes to shaping your life and country, it seems silly not to attempt to put a very small portion of food on your own table. Our gardens might not be the most fruitful and certainly they could benefit from us spending just a lot more time on them, but even gathering a small amount of green beans from the garden every other morning or so can make dinner a lot more exciting. What comes from the garden is so much better than what we can get in the store, especially when you live in a rural place and “fresh” food has spent quite a long time being “fresh” before it ever gets to the store shelf, let alone your refrigerator. Not only is gardening pretty good for the planet, it also makes our stomachs and hearts extremely happy.

So we garden for color, for hope, for food. Throwing fresh arugula into a salad, tossing fresh basil with pasta and grilled garden veggies, eating that first steamed green bean of the season, it seemed worth the bother.

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