Why Do We Make Scrooges of Ourselves?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I have to admit that I generally enjoy the holidays . . . a lot. I like the music. I like the decorations. I like the gift exchanges. With winter's very apparent arrival in the Northland, it's a little hard to believe that Christmas is still nearly a month away.

Yet it seems we're all busily preparing for the holiday season: figuring out holiday budgets, planning the Christmas cookie bakeathon, pulling out the boxes of decorations. There's a little more money this year nationally and as a whole, that seems to make us all a little more panicked. Retailers are busily shoving their wares down our throats. Hand-in-hand with "making up" for the recent Christmases past, is a general "scrooge"iness. When we pause from our merry-making, we are forced to grapple with what this fleeting holiday madness is really all about.

Over the last couple weeks, many, many mommy blogs have discussed family holiday decoration projects. And there's a trend among these holiday decorating events: that they did not go as well as imagined, that some of that special holiday magic just didn't mix well with reality. Sure the decorating was funny and happy overall, but there were also tears involved, as well as shouting, running noses and basically, all things not Norman Rockwell. This morning on MPR, Peter Smith complained about the prevalence of carbohydrates over the holiday season. For it only being November 30th, it seems we already fostering some pretty hefty grudges against Holiday Season 2010.

So why do we make this time of year so stressful?

It seems our very intent of making the holidays special is what causes so much of our despair. 

We want our holiday traditions to be perfect and charming and meaningful, but often don't deal well with misplaced expectations.The belief that we should have special (fattening) foods this time of year causes dietary nightmares. We force ourselves into family social gatherings that never happen any time of year and then wonder why they didn't go so well. We worry about money. We worry about the weather. We worry, worry, worry.

Maybe this year it's time to stop all of this. If we could learn to stop at what truly makes us happy this holiday season (maybe don't eat that last Christmas cookie) and to deal with what's in our control, we might fare a little better.  And I'm not sure making the holiday season special is really something we're meant to control. It seems like the holidays are meant to be a little more organic than that.

The holiday magic will come, or it won't.  The Advent season is about leaving our hearts open, letting the holiday magic creep in when we least expect it. 
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This Thanksgiving I Knit A Sock

Monday, November 29, 2010
I packed up the Corolla on Wednesday morning and poked my way down the snow-packed Gunflint Trail to start in on the Thanksgiving festivities. I packed up enough clothes for four nights away from the cabin and threw in a bag of knitting that looked like this:

My mother coordinates the annual community Thanksgiving dinner in town, so this is always a busy time of year. I'm just one of many, many volunteers who help to bake pies, roast turkeys, pick up various supplies, set tables, help cook, deliver meals and etc, etc. Somehow I ended up on sweet potato this year which went really well on Wednesday when we were peeling, chopping and parboiling the potatoes, but got a little frantic on Thursday morning.

For the dinner we make a sweet potato recipe ala Better Homes and Gardens circa early 1970s. It involves a syrup of butter, brown sugar and ginger which is added to the sweet potatoes along with peaches and cashews and cooked in a roaster for several hours. I went about making the syrup and kept cooking and cooking the syrup, wanting the sugar granules to completely dissolve, but in actuality making caramel. When I poured the "syrup" over the roasting pan full of cold potatoes, the syrup immediately set up into caramel. I know that "caramelizing" food is seen in a positive light these days, but hunks of caramel mixed in with sweet potatoes was really not what I was hoping for. The roasting pan of sweet potatoes was heaped so full and every time I tried to stir the concoction, bits of peach and potato fell onto the floor. By the time dinner was served at 1:00, the floor around the sweet potato operation was a sticky mess, but the caramel chunks had all dissolved, the potatoes had cooked beautifully, and my folly was forgotten. Whew!

We fed approximately 140 people and by 5:00 all the dishes were washed, the leftovers packed and the tables cleaned up. It was time to put our feet and get a little knitting done before collapsing into bed.

On Friday we set off to the Cities -- clickety clack, clickety clack go the knitting needles on the five hour drive-- to spend time with Andy's family. Time spent with family is often low-key and low-energy and by the time we were driving home from the visit yesterday morning, I had a sock that looks like this:

I know spending an entire long weekend knitting a sock doesn't sound especially impressive. Yet I came home with a bunch of fiction and essay ideas scribbled on a Caribou coffee napkin which I'd stuffed into my knitting bag.

People often stress the need for quiet time for the creative process, but, good Midwestern girl that I am, I sometimes struggle with confusing quiet time with a waste of time. And still, I'm continually frustrated by my lack of fiction ideas.

It's a funny thing about fiction ideas. You don't seem to get any unless you have time to spend sitting around, maybe knitting a sock, thinking about nothing in particular. When you're constantly thinking about what you should be doing or what happens next, your mind whirs past the "what if?" thoughts necessary for spawning fiction writing.

It's a good thing to have time to sit and knit socks.

I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving filled with just a touch of drama and lots of quiet, thoughtful time before the holiday season is truly upon us. 
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The Northwoods Puritan

Thursday, November 25, 2010
When I was little, we often checked out holiday appropriate picture books from the library. Thanksgiving is a holiday starved for good children's literature, but I do vividly remember one such book. It was called, "Life In The Day of the Pilgrim," or something like that and it basically involved a first Thanksgiving reenactment which had been photographed and turned into a picture book.

By far my favorite part of the whole book was the two-page spread where they showed a young pilgrim girl getting dressed for the day. (Don't worry, they started with their first layer of underclothes on.) Getting dressed when you were a Puritan was a pretty complex process: there were layers upon layers of underclothes, various stockings, overdresses, bonnets, etc. etc. There were at least 14 steps involved in going from your bedclothes to being dressed for the day.

Because I was a really cool young child I liked the idea of having such a methodical dressing routine. When getting ready for Sunday School (the only time I routinely wore a dress and slip as a child) I liked to lay out my tights, slip, dress and shoes and pretend I was Puritan donning my daily layers of clothing. Since getting dressed for church involved only about 1/4 of the clothes necessary for a Puritan, it wasn't a terrible convincing ritual, but at least I was blessed with a good imagination.

Then, the other night, I laid out everything I typically have on when I venture outside on winter days. I'm basically a Northwoods Puritan!

Wherever you are this Thanksgiving, be safe and be happy. Happy Thanksgiving!
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Wordless Wednesday: The Icebox

Wednesday, November 24, 2010
It seems like the big excitement (??) around here lately has been the acquisition of new appliances.

Now we have an icebox inside:

And one outside too:

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The Golden Key

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I went to a writing class this weekend. I thought I would learn a lot. I didn’t learn too much. (On a happier note, I did get blog material for two whole posts!)

I am not sure why I signed up for the course. I bumped into the listing while I was doing research for something else. The course title struck a chord and after debating for a week or so, I signed up for the class.

But there’s another reason I signed up for the course. Because I felt like I should. Because I didn’t want to miss anything. And maybe, just maybe, I felt in need of some validation.

Writers have a thin line to straddle. In one ear we’re told to learn as much as we can about our craft, to stay on top of current publishing trends, to be “in the know” about all things writer. Being “in the know” about the (volatile) writing world isn’t often encouraging and it’s easy to feel inadequate and ill-informed. But being constantly afraid of the world we wish to exist in doesn’t do us much good. If we assume we’ll know how to write after reading just one more writing how to book, we never get anything done.

On the drive home on Sunday night I told Andy, “Sometimes it feels like I’m waiting for someone to give me the magic golden key to become a writer.”

Yet, there’s a golden key already waiting within my grasp: trust. 

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Transformative Experiences That End with Frozen Pizza

Monday, November 22, 2010
I had a writing class yesterday. It was the first class I'd had since my college days. It may be the last writing class I'll have for a while.

The instructor had no specific structure for the class, instead wanted to shape the class around the class members' hopes and desires for the class. ( But, oh, I do like my structure.) With 12 different people in the class at very different stages in their writing and with half the class focused on "looking for inspiration to write," it proved that the class had no common goal. I wanted to hone a skill that I use to support myself while it seemed like the rest of the class was searching for some sort "transformative" experience.
When the class started out with a sweetgrass smudge burning ceremony, I thought I might have made a terrible, terrible mistake in signing up for the class. I was sitting in a room full of people who wanted to talk about totem spirits and the souls of rocks, who were so busy looking for inspiration to write, that they didn't hardly write at all. I'm not trying to bash thoughtful (and slightly holistic) movements through the world, I'm just trying to explain that there was dissonance between what I'd hoped for and what I was getting. I had hoped the day would bring several practical writing exercises, a chance for feedback and growth, and some insight into how to look at things a little differently. Instead, we spent a good two hours talking about dramatic structure (which the instructor acknowledged would be redundant for any English majors in the room), then we each wrote a 200 word story, discussed each person's little piece as a group and that was the eight hour class.

I felt a little letdown. I wondered if there really was a reason why I'd spend eight hours in town on a snowy Sunday afternoon when I could been at home, blogging, sending out query letters, and searching for an agent for my novel.

But another local in the class, who I've bumped into a couple times back when we were going down to trivia every Thursday night last winter, stopped me at the end of the class. It turns out we were both homeschooled for the majority of our elementary and secondary school days and now we both freelance --  he in photography, me in writing --  honestly, not just because we are social awkward and afraid of actually interacting with people.

"Hey, if you ever want to get together this winter and going skiing or snowshoeing or skating, let me know," he said."I could use someone to commiserate about the freelance life with." 

We both have wonderful significant others who both work out of the home and who support us in every way possible, but sometimes it's hard to explain how the walls of the cabin start to move closer and closer together during the cold, dark winter days when you work from home all day.

"That would be great," I said.

On the way out of town, Andy stopped to get gas. I ran inside to grab some (I'd somehow neglected to drink any coffee yesterday morning and that was just not helping matters.)  And came out with a frozen pizza. Andy had eaten all the leftovers in the fridge the night before and I was in no mood for cooking. Especially since the snowy weather was going to make our hour-long trip back to the cabin even longer. 
 Maybe my totem spirit is Italian food. . . . .

This morning there was email waiting in my inbox from my fellow freelancer, subject line: "social retards."

Maybe I didn't get what I was looking for yesterday. But I did get what I needed.
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Good-bye Princess Dreams OR: "I went to England and all I got was a toaster."

Friday, November 19, 2010
I never wanted to be a princess. But that doesn't mean I didn't want a crack at being queen.

This week, a world full of young ladies heaved a sad sigh as Prince William verified that he had indeed proposed to longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton and that she accepted.

Will and Kate (Photo courtesy of Google Images)

I think every girl born in the Western World  in 1980s had some wild hopes of a chance meeting with Prince William and ending up Queen of England. Julia Stiles' 2004 film The Prince and Me (which involves a Wisconsin girl marrying the Prince of Denmark) did little to expel these delusional daydreams. It could happen, we thought. It really could. I mean what does Kate Middleton have that I don't have?

Okay, so maybe the fact that Kate and I are both commoners is the only thing we have in common. . . .

Upon hearing the disheartening news, I proposed to my friend Donna that we go storm Buckingham Palace.  (This is the only kind of proposal the two of us have been getting lately.)   "I'm in!" she responded quickly. That's about where the scheming stopped. Which is good because that plan really hinged on Donna and I presenting ourselves as two crazy Minnesota girls who the royal family and the entire U.K. population would look down upon in disdain.  

Andy asked what the appeal was with Prince William anyway. I'm not sure anymore. He was so cute a decade ago, but now he's balding and looks chronically tired. Being prince is a lot of work. And I'm sure Kate's not in for a cakewalk either.  

(Notice how Prince Harry, who is actually closer in age to me, handily escaped the whole "heartthrob" thing. Sorry Harry. We still seem to have some societal prejudices against the ginger-haired.)

But I can tell you one thing that's part of the appeal: it's big and blue and has diamonds all around it. 
Princess Di's engagement ring (Photo courtesy of Google Images)
Now normally, I prefer emerald, but there are circumstances where I would compromise on sapphire.

I can also tell you that I lived in London for six months and my path never once crossed with royalty. If that's not a sign that I wasn't meant to be a princess, I don't know what is. 

But I did come back from the U.K. with an amazing toaster which has a U.K. plug and therefore is basically useless on this side of the pond. (If you've ever go to London, the Octopus stores -- they have one in Covent Garden --  have a great selection of perfectly whimsical household wares.) I knew the toaster would be no good for my life in the States. However I planned to display it as a focal point in my kitchen. But I've had the toaster for nearly three years now and I have yet to have a kitchen to display it in.

Ladies, it's time to hang up the princess dreams. We all know we were delusional all along. It's time to focus on more realistic dreams and problems. Like the day my toaster gets to be displayed on a shelf in my very own kitchen.
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Unfurling, slowly

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Christmas cactus under the living room window formed teeny tiny buds towards the end of October and over the last few weeks we’ve watched the buds grow and grow until finally it burst into bloom last week. Now the African violet on my desk is following suit, shooting up little bitty buds that slowly turn purple and carefully lift a petal one at a time. I’ve been feeling less the Christmas cactus in its current state of bloom and more the tightly closed buds on the African violet waiting to burst free. 

I think every writer’s been here.

These dark moments when the doubt demons flare up. When there never seems to be time for the creative writing – all the “good” time gets allotted to things with deadlines. When you wonder if you’re ever really going to make it as a writer. And when that fleeting thought that maybe your mother was right and you really should have tried for law school after all passes through your brain with uncomfortable frequency.  

I don’t think this feeling of general discomfit is limited to writers. Although the nags and worries might be slightly different, this is unease is just what the middle of November brings

Don’t get me wrong, the snow was (still is) pretty. But after too much time penned up in your home office, when the temperature won’t break above freezing and the skies have been grey for a week straight and the days keep getting shorter and shorter,  it’s easy to get down into a “this might be the beginning of seasonal affective disorder" funk.

I ran into an acquaintance earlier this week who's been running a seasonal business for a long time: she’s used to the whole “winters off” concept and winding her way carefully through these short, grey days.

“Are you going nuts yet?” she asked. Then she reminded me of the value of this quiet winter time. This is meant to be the time for germinating ideas and allowing fleeting thoughts to percolate and grow in an organic setting. But I’m the kind of girl who loves the idea of whole, organic foods, but when given the choice between fresh squeezed guava juice and a diet Pepsi is going to shyly reach for the pop. Sometimes I don’t want percolation. Sometimes I want instant gratification.

But the middle of November is not about instant gratification. It’s about the gathering up the little light you have and slowly, slowly forcing your petals to unfurl.

Andy stumbled across this Stephen King quote the other day: “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

We don’t actually have a light bill, but I’ve seen a typical utilities bill around here. And I have to say I have received several checks for my writing that could cover the light bill. Is that talent? Well, if it’s good enough for Stephen King, it’s good enough for me.

So I’ll keep at it. If Stephen King’s to be believed, this writing business is a good way to have “light.”
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Wordless Wednesday: Home is where the mail is?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010
We've been at the cabin for six months now and preparing to hole up for the winter.
We just needed one more thing to make it feel like home . . .

A mailbox. We'd been putting off the mailbox for a while (we've picked up our mail in town until now), but luckily our hands were forced a little when I won an autumn contest over at Jenn's Rook No. 17 and needed a place for the prize (a magazine subscription) to be sent to. (Thanks Jenn!)

Ah. Home sweet home.
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Speaking of Christmas Carols . . .

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
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Cue the Christmas Carols

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

We got snow this weekend. Around noon on Saturday, the fluffy white stuff started fluttering down. By Monday morning, a good five inches had come down. Some of the snow trickled away yesterday afternoon as temps got above freezing (although only to about 35 F) but it's still looking like a winter wonderland out there.

It should be mentioned that the Corolla's brakes have been making a God-awful noise as of late. The kind of noise that makes you avoid braking whenever possible, the kind of noise that causes pedestrians to give you quizzical looks when you pull up to a stop sign. So I've been trying to keep the old girl off the road until we can her in to have her brakes replaced. I'm also a reluctant winter driver. I start to scheme about how to drastically reduce my driving when I see that first snowflake fall from the heavens. So when book club today was hosted by my closest neighbor (who is about my age and lives just over yonder with her husband and their baby), I wondered if I really had to drive over there. After all, our road hadn't been plowed . . .

"Just walk over the powerline," Andy said when I mentioned it. Of course! The idea of it dawned on me with  forehead smacking obviousness. The shortest distant between two places is a straight line and let me tell you, the road between my house and the neighbor's house is not straight at all. It is one twisty-turvy mess. So this morning, with a batch of hot white chocolate scones in a basket in my backpack, I set off down the powerline.

The walk was easy, except for one tricky part where I had to scramble up a cliff and the views were spectacular. I felt a little like a character from fairy tale. Or at the very least, like Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie fame.

25 minutes later (I stopped to take pictures) I emerged behind the neighbor's cabin. I felt slightly exhilarated. I will not be isolated at the end of the earth this winter! I am a mere 20 minute trek away from people my own age. I thought about bursting into the cabin yelling, "Now I can come rile up your baby and hand him back when he gets tried, cranky, and stops making that cute cooing noise, all the time! Isn't this great news!?!"

Of course, I don't plan to play the "bad auntie" card too often. But it's good to know we're never quite as isolated as we might think. And of course, once the lake freezes over, it becomes even more straight forward to move around this quiet corner of the world.

Cue the Christmas carols. The snow has come, winter is upon us, and all is well. (Well, unless you're the Corolla.) 
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Minimize Harm

Monday, November 15, 2010
Minimize harm.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s bullet point number two in the journalistic code of ethics. It’s a commitment journalists at every level are supposed to take with them whenever they report a story. While lots of journalism is bound to cause discomfort, no reporting should go so far as to cause actual harm.

On Friday, we did something that got me thinking about that commitment. We watched The Lovely Bones. And it got me thinking that maybe that commitment should extend even to those who write things that aren’t true, aka, fiction.

I know that this book was a bestseller, so there are obviously a lot of people who feel differently about the book, who weren’t revolted. (Also, I have not read the book so what I say below is based solely on my impressions of the movie. So no offense meant Alice Sebold.) Frankly, I avoided reading the book. I knew it wouldn’t be my cup of tea.

I am a person who has led an immensely blessed life free of “yuckiness.” However, in my last two years of college, I mentored in a class called “Human Violence and Dignity.” I have held a bullet-torn textbook which helped save the life of woman whose boyfriend shot her in the head. I have sat in a classroom while a mother spoke of her daughter who was raped and murdered. As I watched The Lovely Bones’s story unfold, I just couldn’t figure out how this story wouldn’t be harmful to someone who actually has been a victim of violence. The concept of a dead child somehow guiding earthly actions from a limbo area between heaven and life just doesn’t seem really helpful to the healing process to me.

And I’m not just talking about The Lovely Bones here.

At my last book club meeting, one of the ladies talked about an author whose books she had been loving. She was cruising through the books. Until she came to the author’s latest work which contained graphic descriptions of torture methods.

“Every day I pray I will forget the images of things I read in this book,” she said.

These books are exposing things that we don’t like to talk about. Torture and violence are appalling realities in our world. Maybe these books caused someone sitting on their couch to get up and do something about changing torture policies or preventing violence in their community. Those are some really great outcomes from literature that gave me and my fellow book club member nightmares.

So where’s the line? Obviously we’re dealing with subjective material here. What is awful to me might be something you wouldn’t even sneeze at.

I mean, no way in heck am I going to go out and watch a gory horror movie. But some people love them. But then again, gory horror movies are meant as entertainment, not really as a form of truth. Horror films don’t take bits of truth from this life and mix them up with little bits of make-believe like The Lovely Bones or many, many other novels do. Therefore, sensationalizing shocking writing meant only for a “thrill” is exempt from this discussion.

But when it comes to a fictionalized story of something that might be true should that affect how we write? Do we have a commitment to minimize harm when dealing with material with a greater potential to disturb?

I’m not advocating censorship here. I believe in the freedom of speech as much as I believe in the journalistic code of ethics. I also believe in sensitivity: having a right doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember as a writer in situation like these is another thing I heard a lot in my budding collegiate journalism career: your words have power. . . . Use that power wisely.
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Time For Ridiculous Adventures

Sunday, November 14, 2010
It's not secret that motivation flagged a bit at the start of the month. When faced with the dichotomy of transcribing interviews (for which I get paid) or blogging (for which I do not), I opted for blogging. I lounged on the couch, pretending to write a synopsis of the novel. I thought about querying some freelance gigs.

Last week, things were different. (Amazing what a looming credit card bill can do to you get plunked down at the computer churning out work, isn't it?) The butt stayed in the chair and work was completed, some of it before deadline, even. Luckily, the Friday before last, Andy and I had one last day of glorious and slightly ridiculous adventures, the memories of get me through these dark times of actual hard work.

It started off innocently enough as we set out to set up the deer stand. But we got distracted by the large white pine that had fallen down a couple weeks back and had yet to be removed  Andy decided he needed a new splitting block so he sawed off an 18 inch tall chunk from the fallen tree. Getting the hunk of tree trunk into the back of the truck was a mind over matter affair: the tree was at least two feet across at its widest point. It was probably about 300 years old when it fell, about its base had been rotting away for some time before the wind finally got it.

The chainsaw looks teeny compared with the size of the log!
Moving on . . . We bumped down the road and set up the deer stand. The stand was up in a matter of minutes, but there was still a fair amount of crashing around in the woods as we established a back route to the stand that didn't involve tromping down the deer trail that the stand overlooks.

We ran home to grab some lunch, where we both noticed that the Jack O' Lantern was no longer looking its best. In fact, the inside was completely black and icky  So Andy proposed we take the pumpkin with us to the shooting range.

Andy transforms a pumpkin into a target
Least this seem a frivolous waste of time and pumpkin, it was the day before deer opener --so Andy was sighting in his rifle --and the pumpkin came home with us and is now on the top of our compost heap.

After picking up and stocking a truck load of firewood, the day of ridiculous adventures ended with a campfire on the beach near the cabin. It was a perfect autumn day. 

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It Happened . . . .

Friday, November 12, 2010

This morning both Andy and I woke up ready to go. This is a pretty rare occurrence. While Andy I frequently evoke comparisons to the waking dead until about 2 in the afternoon. This harkens back to the whole early bird, night owl dilemma. Frankly, when I’m chipper at 6:30 in the morning, Andy knows it’s no normal day.  

 As Andy headed out the door, I wished him luck and yelled after him, “You better get a deer. We can’t afford to buy any meat from the grocery store.” While I don’t get a lot of things about hunting (and have issues with bear and moose seasons), I do get the whole “stocking the larder” concept that ties in with deer season.  And our larder could use some stocking. One cannot live through a winter on blueberries alone.

When Andy came home two hours earlier than I’d expected, I figured something had happened.

“Did you get a deer?” I asked.

In response Andy waggled his fingers at me. There was a little bit of blood on his fingertips. It seemed one of two things could have happened: either he’d gotten a deer or he needed a drive down to the emergency room.

“You got a deer?” I said, hopefully. I hoped this was the option we were going with mainly because it was 8:30 in the morning and I hadn’t managed to get dressed yet. (I might add that I had gotten an hour of work done.) And I really needed to shower.

Indeed he had.

I felt glad for him. And I felt worried.

I did not grow up in a hunting family. My grampa hunts. My uncle hunts. My family eats Sloppy Toes (sloppy joes made with crumbled tofu). I really like tofu. I have no clue if I like venison.  

Until this very day, I’ve been removed from the deep-rooted deer hunting traditions that so many of my peers share. One of my all-time favorite examples of deer hunting tradition comes from my friend Betsy. Betsy’s extended family always goes hunting up at their cabin in northern Wisconsin. The women stay at the cabin in the day while the men are out hunting and the first night of deer season they always served ham and cheese casserole.  That is, until the year Betsy’s mom made dinner the first night of deer season and served . . . . . tator tot casserole!!!  An uproar broke out. “But we always have ham and cheese casserole,” they said. You just don’t mess with the traditions that surround deer hunting. Except, I've never had any traditions to mess with.

Last year we gathered everything we needed in the advent of a deer. A meat grinder to attach to the stand mixer. A sausage stuffer. A jerky gun and a dehydrator. But there wasn’t a deer last year and I got to prolong becoming a true woodland housewife for another season.

Now, well, here’s hoping I like venison. I better. Andy’s out hunting again right now. There’ll be no going hungry this winter.

Watch this space for tasty venison recipes . . . coming soon!
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Wordless Wednesday: Bless This Mess

Wednesday, November 10, 2010
They say you have to give up on some things to be a successful writer. I have chosen to give up housekeeping.

The advent of working from home this winter has not only lead to major procrastination issues but two computers and one very crowded desk.

Who doesn't use plastic bins as their filing cabinets?

Not enough work space? Just utilize your extra bed!

All I have to say for myself is please . . . bless this mess!
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The Flip Side of the Freelance Coin

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We writers are pretty good at telling anyone who’ll listen how hard things are for us. The publishing industry’s a mess, now everyone under the sun wants to be a novelist, and writing's just never been the most efficient way to make a buck. Times are tough right now. Now just the typical writing life toughness, but tough all around. Jobs are hard to come by, uncertainty prevails.

I’m starting to wonder just how hard everyone else thinks writers have it. After all, spending your day at home (in my case, gazing out over a wilderness lake), doing what you love and managing to make enough money to guarantee Christmas presents for everyone, just doesn’t sound that rough. Kind of sounds like living the dream to a lot of people. So why are writers so sure they’re stuck in some sort of singular struggle that no one else can identify with? I’m not sure. I suppose like anyone in any other pursuit in life, we feel that the road ahead of us is too tumultuous to trust, that progress is harder to come by then we first assumed, and that a lot hard work (especially when it involves writing about topics you’re not especially interested in) isn’t as much fun as they made it sound in Fame. You know: “It’s going to take hard work, hard work . . . .”  

With the fallow economy, most people feel stuck in dead end jobs and most people are too afraid of losing their jobs to make too much of fuss about it. So why are freelance writers seemingly more likely to complain about their profession while simultaneously expecting the non-writers to bend over backwards for them? Sometimes we forget that asking for an interview is a question, not a command.

This past summer at my work, I had a chance to be on the flip side of the freelance coin. At least five writers (who identified themselves as such) walked through the museum’s doors this season. Just two of them were actually working on assignments.

One blogger called up and kept a volunteer on the phone for a good 20 minutes after the volunteer repeatedly said she was too busy to talk.

Another writer who came in declared he would write an article about the site, bought a general history book on the area, and forced a business card into my hand when I gave him his receipt because “The IRS can’t question the tax write-off if you can prove you gave everyone your business card at the time of purchase.” Now I get writing off your home office and office supplies on your tax returns, but writing off the books you bought on vacation because you might write an article that uses a bit of research from the book made me uneasy. Where’s the line between freelancing and freeloading?

Late in the season, another writer came in, also with the idea of writing an article about the site. By this time in the season, most regional publications interested in the story had already run stories about it. It worried me that all these writers were going to query the story  when they hadn’t even paid attention to the most likely publications for such a piece: they had no idea that not only was their idea not unique, it had already been done multiple times.

It made me think just how important it is to remember that freelance writing is a profession. A profession that we chose. A profession that millions of other people have chosen as well. When we writers are just one in a million, we can’t afford to treat this life not as a profession: we have to do our research, be polite, and stop expecting the stars to align in our favor just because we made the choice to be a writer.  
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Getting A Thrill

Monday, November 8, 2010
”Some people get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still.” -- Stephen Sondheim (Gypsy)

I was listening to NPR’s Fresh Air this weekend and Terry Gross had musical composer Stephen Sondheim on discussing his work. In high school I always assumed I’d like Stephen Sondheim’s work a lot, since “Send in the Clowns” is one of my favorite songs, but an Introduction to Theatre class in college that featured a lot of Stephen Sondheim quickly squelched that thought. After watching Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods and A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum I’d had enough Sondheim to last me a long time.

Still, my curiosity was piqued when I heard him on Fresh Air. I’m not sure Terry’s interview changed my feelings for the man. (I simply don’t care for his musical sensibilities and he probably wouldn’t care for mine.) Yet, I found myself particularly interested when they got around to discussing the above line from Gypsy.

Because there’s been a fair amount of sitting still in the weeks since the museum closed and I do like my knitting.

What struck me about the lyrics of “Some People” was how it once again enforces the rather American notion that we can’t find true happiness unless we leave everything we know behind us and stick it to someone (preferably "the man"). As a person who lives within an hour of her childhood home, I find this a somewhat trying notion. I get the whole following your dreams thing, but I’m still uncertain why all dreams lead to L.A. or NYC.

But I do understand the fear of falling into the trap of “same ol’, same ol’.” Despite my claims of being a self starter and an independent worker, I’ve proven to be easily distracted. My days seem longer now that I’m not working out of the home, but time as a whole seems to have sped up. It’s easy to schedule things in the middle of the day that interrupt the flow of the entire day.

It’s not to say that things haven’t gotten done. My first novel query came back with a response that the person was no longer working as a literary agent. (Ha, there’s a likely story, I thought, but I do know for a fact that he just hung up his literary hat this past week.)  I’ve been reading a lot of good books. And let me tell you about the socks I’ve been knitting . . . .

However, knitting socks (despite the thrill) doesn’t get any bill paid. It’s time to start getting a thrill from getting some work done.

What do you get a thrill out of?
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Movin' to Canada

Thursday, November 4, 2010
No Kim and Lisa, don’t get excited. I am not, in actuality, moving to Canada. Instead, I’m invoking the time worn phrase muttered so frequently over the years in the days following an election that hasn't gone in your favor. You know, when you mutter under your breath “if things don’t shape up in this country, I’m moving to Canada.”

Not to turn this blog into a running commentary on my political beliefs, but let’s just say yesterday’s election was a disappointment. The likely recount of the Minnesota governor’s race likely  is a frustration. I don’t care which side of the political fence you sit on, or even if you sit on the fence, after the eight month long recount in Minnesota for the 2008 U.S. Senate seat, Minnesotans just aren't getting excited about recounts anymore. “How long is this going to take,” we all groan.

As an aside on the whole “let have a recount” mentality, Anne Lamott writes that the counterpart to faith is certainty. It makes me wonder: if we weren’t so certain that something terrible had happened during the voting process, if we had faith that things went all right the first go round, just what sort of state would this country be in? What would happen if we could remove just a teeny weeny bit the hysteria that seems to be dictating our actions as a nation?

Anyway, back to the whole Canada issue . . . .

I got to thinking . . . . Canada really isn’t that far off. In fact, the lake I worked on all summer is an international lake: the Canadian border runs smack dab down the middle of the lake. I’ve spent the last year pretty much in spitting distance from Canada. I mean, I could set up camp on the north side of the lake and just motor on down to the museum every morning next summer. It would be like nothing had changed at all . . . .

But isn’t that part of the whole problem?

If we keep calling for change but instead opt for the path of least resistance over and over again for ourselves, then we’re not really changing anything. “Watching our backs” doesn’t do anyone much good. Setting up camp in Canada might make me feel better about myself, but no one likes a quitter.

I don’t know what needs to happen to get the country “back on track.” I don’t know that anyone does. But I do know that getting up and fighting for what we believe to be true is the only way to actually change things. And I know that change can be slow and ugly and demand a lot of hard work. And I know what’s good change for one person is bad for another. We’re not all ever going to be on the same page. That’s just not what democracy is about. Democracy is about sticking around, about not only believing that things will get better, but working to make things better.  

So I guess that means moving to Canada is O-U-T.

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Last but not least, thank you Representative Oberstar so much for your 35 years of service in Congress. I literally don’t know a MN Eighth Congressional District without you and as we push off into these uncertain times, I can say one thing for certain: we’ll miss you.
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Wordless Wednesday: Dwell in Possibility

Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Emily Dickinson said to "Dwell in possibility."

And when the outside world looks like this,
or this,
it's good to know that inside, it's possible for things to still be blooming.
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Crying Over A Lost Ballot

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I’ve been voting since the Kerry/Bush days, which means I’ve voted in the past three elections, plus one special election as well as this year’s contest. Hmmm, that doesn’t sound quite as impressive as I might have liked. . . . The point is, I take voting seriously.

By the time I reached voting age, mail-in ballots had become standard practice. Over the last six years, I’ve grown accustomed to tracking down another registered MN voter to glance over my blank ballot and then sign the ballot’s envelope before mailing it off to the courthouse after I've voted. While I spend a fair amount pondering who to vote for, the actual voting has always been a pretty painless, no-brainer process.

So on Thursday evening, I decided the time had come to cast my vote. I’d heard enough of the 20+ debates with the three gubernatorial candidates to feel I'd reached an informed decision. I went to my desk to grab my ballot and black ink pen and I couldn’t find my ballot.

Frantic searching ensues.  

Two phone calls to various parental units later and I still hadn’t unearthed the ballot. Andy had gotten in on the search and he couldn’t find it either. Then the tears started.

They say not to cry over spilt milk, but they didn’t mention anything about lost ballots. Normally, I probably wouldn’t cry over a lost ballot. But the missing ballot was the culmination of a frustrating week spent running around, laboring over tasks in a 53 F degree stone building and losing plenty of other things beside the ballot. On Thursday night, the missing ballot was the last straw. The last thing I needed was to have to drive 55 miles into town on Tuesday to vote just because I’d lost my ballot.

Things often look better in the morning and on Friday morning I discovered my ballot hiding in the depths of my computer bag. I grabbed my black pen and filled in all the appropriate bubbles. Andy signed the envelope and my ballot went off with the mail.

Now, was that really worth crying about?

I’m inclined to think it was. While it’s great to live in a country where we can decide whether or not we’re going vote, I do feel that choosing not to vote is not a real great decision. Voting is an integral part of being a citizen of the United States. And after an election season as zoo-ey as this one has been, I felt it was important to cast my vote and do my part in “getting it over with.”

Do I care who you vote for this election season? Of course I do. But the choice that is most important every election is not the choice you’ll mark on the ballot, but the choice you’ll make to mark the ballot. No matter how long your “to-do” list is today, make sure voting’s at the top of that list.
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I say: "NaNO(!!!)wrimo"

Monday, November 1, 2010
Shhh! Can you hear that? That faint clickety-clack you hear comes from a flurry of writes attacking their keyboards in the attempt to get a 50,000 novel out of their brains on into a Word file before the clock hits 00:00 on December 1st.

It’s November 1st, which means it’s the big kickoff day of National Novel Writing Month. Affectionately known as NaNoWriMo, this event has been going on since 1999. I first heard about it in 2001, when my literary ambitions began in earnest and with every passing year the event has picked up steam (and caused literary agents increasingly large amounts of hell in the first couple weeks of December.)

I thought about participating in 2001 when I first stumbled upon the phenomenon and in early 2002, I did participate in ivillage’s The Writing Life board equivalent of the event called WriLiMarCha (Writing Life Marathon Challenge). With WriLiMarCha, I got to about 11,000 words written in the course of 15 days. My sophomore year of college I had a crazy idea to do NaNoWriMo and my schoolwork and my extracurricular activities. That lasted about two evenings.

I have never completed a 50,000 word novel in 30 days and as time has gone on, I’ve come to believe I never will. I have my reasons for not participating in NaNoWriMo each year, not least of which is my belief that NaNoWriMo is crazy. And not in the normal, (healthy?) “writer slightly off their rocker” way but in “that’s truly insane” way. To completely NaNoWriMo on schedule, writers are signing themselves up for churning out an average 1666.66667 words a day, every day, for 30 days straight.

I’m not saying this is impossible. Obviously it’s not, because tons of people do complete (albeit it in a sleep deprived, coffee driven way) this seemingly impossible goal every year. My chief qualm with NaNoWriMo is not “how?” but “why?!”

Lots of people already have a novel (or two) tucked away in a drawer. When this month draws to a close, a lot more people will join the drawer-hiding-novel ranks. Although truthfully, successful NaNoWriMo participants won’t really have a novel to tuck in their drawer. Rather, they’ll have a 50,000 word fiction something in their drawer.

Opinions are mixed on what should be considered a novel’s average length, but it’s usually considered somewhere between 80,000 – 120,000 words. However there’s a pretty firm consensus that 50,000 words is not a novel. That’s a novella. (If you consider that 250 words is considered the standard page length, 50,000 words only gets you 200 pages.) Unless you're Steve Martin, most works of published longer fiction  are more than 200 pages. I have a hard time seeing the point in spending a month slaving over 50,000 words of rough, unedited prose which you’ll need to edit within an inch of its life, not to mention add 30,000 words of text to, before a literary agent will consider it a novel.

To me NaNoWriMo strikes a certain martyr-istic chord. And I’m just not going for St. Ada . (There already is one.) I like to incorporate my writing into a life. A life that involves eating, sleeping, blogging, exercising, and spending time with my family.

I’d rather work in a steady, slightly less manic way. And I’m not saying the five years it has taken me to get my current novel from idea to query-able piece of fiction was a great timeline to follow. I’ll probably try to expedite the writing process of my next novel a little bit in comparison. Still, I’m going to give myself a little more than a month to get that next rough draft done.

This November, I won’t be writing a novel. Instead, I’ll be writing a synopsis of my novel du jour and sending out queries. But good luck to all you crazy NaNo-ers out there. God love ya.
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