Bare Necessities

Tuesday, July 31, 2012
And don't spend your time lookin' around 
For something you want that can't be found 
When you find out you can live without it 
And go along not thinkin' about it 
I'll tell you something true . . . 
The bare necessities of life will come to you

"Bare Necessities" The Jungle Book

The other day, as I was doing the weekly closeout at the work, I indulged myself in a little Pandora listening. The station I listen to has slowly evolved into a somewhat terrifying blend of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Glee soundtracks, Disney, and 80s rock, so it was really no surprise when the Jungle Book classic "Bare Necessities" queued up after "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." It's one of those songs that's instantly recognizable but which, if I try to sing along, I quickly find I know hardly any of the words beyond the chorus.

But this time, for whatever reason, I really listened to the lyrics. (Maybe because it was the end of the week and the closeout was not without its frustrating moments.) And I was struck by the lines I quoted at the top of the post.

For a while now, I've been pretty convinced that we make our own happiness and that we have to find the goodness in all that surrounds us, rather than living our lives on a quest towards "happiness." "Happiness," and whatever we may imagine it to be in all of its "air quote" deserving glory, is pretty much just another pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But while we're all susceptible to some "black dog days" every now and then, I think for most of us, a simple inventory of our lives and all that fills them is enough for us to feel happiness, or at the very least a sense of well-being and gratitude.
"It's so true," I thought as I listened to Baloo and Mowgli belt it out. "It really does all boil down to the bare necessities." 

You see, Andy and I have been trying to live a little more simply this year. Not that we were living so large and extravagantly before.

But with some large financial goals looming (hello you beautiful Emerald Isle, you) and rising grocery prices, we've been carefully keeping our discretionary spending in check. Our spending hasn't extended far beyond the bare necessities: groceries, gas, rent, et. al. We haven't gone out to eat in nearly two months and I haven't bought myself so much as a skein of yarn or book in months.

And you know what?

As extreme and "no fun" as it sounds, we haven't exactly been feeling deprived. We've been eating a ton of delicious home-cooked meals (many of them featuring produce from our garden), I have a stack of borrowed books so high it'll take me until winter to get through them all,  and enough yarn on hand to, well, open an Etsy shop. Besides, it's kind of fun to sock the money away, rather than frittering it away on meals out that neither our wallets or our waistlines need.

It's satisfying, really, living with the bare necessities. (Keeping in mind of course, we're not exactly roughing it here.) This morning, it felt wonderful to can four pints of blueberry pie fillings, knowing every single berry I canned had been picked by my own little hands. And there's no greater thrill than looking out the window when you're washing up the supper dishes to find a big bunch of tomatoes ripening up in the shade of the bushy plants. Granted, living with the bare necessities requires more effort and labor, but the extra effort has also comes with richer rewards - like a fatter bank account and rows and rows of home-canned goodness and a garden bursting with produce.
When you strip it all down to the bare necessities, you find there's very little you really need, because, when you think of it, actually, you already have quite a bit.

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Knit Happens: An Announcement

Sunday, July 29, 2012
Announcing the opening of my Etsy shop: Yes Sir, Yes Sir! Handsome Handknits for Everyday Living.

Right now the shop offers a selection of handknit coffee cozies - an ecofriendly way to keep your warm beverage of choice hot and your fingers cool. In the near future, I'll be adding mittens, headbands, and hopefully some more housewares such as oven mitts, wash clothes. I'll keep you posted here about additions to the shop, but in the meantime, be sure to check back at Yes Sir, Yes Sir! often.

Right now, I'm offering a special to celebrate the shop's opening. Just enter the coupon code "OPENINGSPECIAL" at checkout to receive free shipping.

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The Chaperone: a book review

Wednesday, July 25, 2012
During the summer months, when I sit down with a book or movie, I want a good escape. After my daily dealings with modern humankind's peculiarities, I don't want my entertainment to mimic everyday reality; I want to go far, far away. A set of different worlds is best (here's looking at you Game of Thrones), but I'll settle for a different time period too. With Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone, I did the latter.

Set in the early 1920s, main character Cora is a 36-year-old Wichita housewife who makes the unexpected decision to accompany 15-year-old Louise Brooks on a summer trip to New York City, where Louise is enrolled in the prestigious Denishawn dance school. Cora's fussy, old-fashioned morals come in direct conflict with Louise's loose flapper lifestyle. By the end of the summer, Cora has found (mostly unsatisfying) answers to her questions about her concealed past and Louise has been accepted into the Denishawn dance troupe, successfully launching her career in dance and film. While I'd never heard of Louise Brooks before, she actually was a real Hollywood silent film star . . . the book's historical fiction.

If you read the back cover of the book, you're lead to believe the book deals mostly with that fateful summer for Louise and Cora. What I didn't realize was that the book basically chronicles Cora's life in its entirety.  After spending much of her childhood and young adult life trying to conform to stuffy Midwestern standards, Cora's trip to New York prompts her to listen closely to her heart. She ends up living an entirely unconventional life, advocating for things as taboo at the time as birth control. While the ending dragged a bit (Cora lives forever) and at times Moriarty pushes the tale to the very limits of believability, I always found Cora's character so interesting and engaging that I was more than willing to suspend disbelief for a while . . . just for her. 

I tend to give hyped up fiction the side-eye (USA Today called The Chaperone its Hot Fiction Pick of the Summer) and after a very slow first chapter, I wondered if my cynicism wasn't somewhat accurate. But as Moriarty delved deeper into Cora's mysterious childhood, I found my fascination with the plot growing and growing, until I was dealing with a full-out pageturner. Perhaps Moriarty resolves some of the fascinating plot devices too early in the book for The Chaperone to really grip readers until the very last page, but I still found this a lovely and satisfying summer escape.

You can join the discussion about The Chaperone over at the Blogher Book Club.

Disclosure: I participated in this review for the BlogHer Book Club. I was compensated for my time and received a complimentary copy of the book. However, all opinions expressed in the review are my own.
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Lazy, Hazy, Crazy

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I've been averaging one post a WEEK around these parts lately. What is up with that?! I'd blame the usual summer craziness for that little trend, but honestly, in years past I've managed way more posts during this time of year so I'm really not sure why gives. I think in this particular instance, laziness, not craziness, is the true culprit. Like most things in life, it all boils down to priorities.

It's not that I've meant to neglect this little blog. Every day I think of things to post about, but somehow, right about the time that I think I'll sit down and actually write that post, something else calls my name and suddenly it's bedtime and another day has come and gone sans post. C'est la vie.

Our weather has finally cooled off a bit (not that it was anywhere as hot as elsewhere in the country, but 90+ degrees is HOT for almost Canada northern Minnesota) and we're enjoying temperatures in the 70s and low 80s. It's nice to feel human again  and also have the energy to actually do something in the evening. Andy and I have been trying to get out and fish before sunset: the fishing's great . . . the catching, not so much.

Also, remember earlier in the summer when I was all "meh, blueberries?" Yeah, scratch that.

Have now picked five gallons of berries and am planning to head out to pick my sixth (and final . . . I swear) gallon this afternoon yet. That is, if I can get my arse off this chair.

So what does one do with six gallons of blueberries? Two gallons stay in the freezer to be used in muffins, pancakes, fruit salads, et al. throughout the year. Another gallon is given away. Then I've made two different batches of blueberry infused vinegar (including Paula's recipe and another one which uses basil and lemon zest from the Ball Canning cookbook) and a big batch of blueberry butter.
Butter is a term for fruit that's been cooked down slowly to a spreadable consistency over low heat. The spread uses half as much sugar as blueberry jam, resulting in a soft spread that purplier and more berryful (yes, neither of those are "real" world . . . just doing my part to keep the English language alive) than jam. I used Marisa McClellan's slow cooker recipe from Food in Jars, which is seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemon zest. Basically, it's like eating blueberry pie on toast.

The garden's starting to churn out produce lately and it's happy coincidence that berry season is drawing to a close just as the garden kicks it into high gear. (Because really, I can only do so much.) Just look at the haul we made last night: 
I foresee many a stir-fry
Have you ever seen such beautiful kohlrabi, broccoli, and kale? Oh, and there are green beans in the bottom of the purple container too. I went grocery shopping yesterday and I just love when we hit that time in the season when I can walk down the produce aisle going:  "Oh, we've already got some. Tell 'em we've already got some!" (Name that movie.)

I wasn't sure how I felt about kale, but luckily - considering the quantity it's producing - both Andy and I have found it pretty darn delicious and it's the first ingredient I've found that really pairs well with the venison chorizo we made last November.

So that's life around these parts: living locally and deliciously.

How are you spending the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer?
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The Freelance Writing Trenches: Writers Behaving Badly

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Jo Seated on the Old Sofa from "The Most Beloved American Writer"
I stumbled upon a travel article about the region where I live last week. I'd been keeping my eyes out for the article, since early this spring, before we'd even opened for the season, the writer had made a special visit to my work place for the article.

Because my work place is a fairly new travel destination, we often get freelance writers in and I've learned that the way I would do things if  I was writing the article and the way other writers approach the assignment can be drastically different. On at least two occasions, there have been writers who wrote articles about the place without even bothering to talk to anyone connected with it; the articles were basically 500-800 word laundry lists of what the museum contains. An article without quotes? Boring!

But I digress . . .

So the other day, I read this article that I knew was coming out and my jaw dropped. No mention of my work place, while sources who had ferried around the author (and family) for three days, were hardly mentioned. The author confused recent wildfire incidents. I felt a twinge of disappointment, then of annoyance, and finally, anger. In writing the article, the author had broken just about every unspoken rule of the freelance writer. 

Don't want to be a writer behaving badly? Just follow these three rules:

Rule #1 - Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say:

From the get-go, the author lead sources to believe the article would be published in a very well-known national publication. While not technically untrue, the article was actually destined for the website of a specialty spin-off of the well-known national magazine. Would sources have bent so far backwards for the author if they'd known the article wouldn't even be published in print? Probably not.

As a freelance writer, you don't always know what the fate of your article will be. Once you submit your article, the article's fate is in the hands of your editor who may print the article in another issue than previously agreed upon or the article may never be published at all. If you're writing on speculation, you don't even know if your article will ever be published. But if you are gracious and kind and a good steward of your source's time, they'll be happy to talk with you for an hour or so even if you aren't sure where the article will end up.

And you owe it to your sources to be honest about what you do know about the article's fate. The only thing you achieve by making grandiose promises you can't deliver on are bad feelings. While I'm not upset that my work place didn't get a shout-out in the article (hey, I get word constraints), I did find it odd that the entire area where I live only got about three teensy, weensy paragraphs in the article which were half filled with incorrect information. I do find it rude when you accept a three-night complimentary stay at local lodging and then hardly eek out three paragraphs about that location. 

Which brings us to rule #2  . . .

Rule #2 - There's No Such Thing As a Free Lunch Vacation:

As a freelance writer, you will get free things. I just finished reading a complimentary copy of a great book that I'll blog about later this week. I have no problem with receiving free items for review purposes, especially since most reviewers have disclosure policies they use when reviewing free product.

But size does matter.

If you are a travel writer, you may accept discounts, but you should not accept free lodging, meals, tours, etc. etc. If you want to write unbiased copy for masses, you've got to pay, just like the masses do. You can absolutely can not be in debt to your source. If you're working for a large publication, they'll be reimbursing your travel expenses anyway. That's what makes the travel writing gig so sweet.

Rule #3 -You're Not That Smart . . . Fact Check:

Confusing the locations of our many, (extremely) well publicized wildfire incidents is just plain sloppy. I suspect the author didn't send a draft out to the article to sources to fact check because the author knew sources might not be too pleased by the pithy coverage offered in the article. However, a simply Google search would have quickly pointed out the author's errors.

By the way, you certainly are not obligated to send sources a draft of your article. After all, you're supposed to have gotten the facts right the first go around. But having sources look over an article for accuracy is a great way to nip mistakes in the bud and save you the shame of the publication printing a correction to your article.

Moral of the story: be straight with your sources, don't take free things, and fact check your article. If you don't, you make the rest of us writers look bad. Don't be a writer behaving badly. Don't spoil everyone else's fun.

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Searching for 'Whelmed'

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Chastity: I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?
Bianca: I think you can in Europe.
- 10 Things I Hate About You 

I've been on the lookout for "whelmed" lately. I'm trying to prove that you don't have to go to Europe to find it. On the other hand, a little European adventure right about now might be the perfect escape . . . .

The thing is, I've been feeling a little overwhelmed lately. While I know this is always the busiest time of the year in our household, I seemed blessed with seasonal amnesia and over the course of winter, I forget just how manic things can get at high summer. These days, just when I feel like I've gotten my arms wrapped around everything again, another shoe drops.

Bars need to be made for the neighborhood potluck (which I didn't attend because by this time in the summer I hate all people . . .joking . . . erm) . . .

Or the garden suddenly looks awfully thirsty . . .
Or I have a board meeting on my day off, followed by an interview for a freelance article, which means I don't get to town on my day off to do laundry and pick up groceries until after 4 in the afternoon.

Too many of the brief hours I spend in bed each night have been spent tossing and turning - worrying about how I'm going to get everything done the next day. On Monday morning, I realized enough was enough. I emailed one of my freelance editors and asked him to reassign one of my articles for the month. I've been a  reliable, hard working freelancer for this company on a monthly basis for nearly three full years, but I needed a (temporary) break.  I needed to go find whelmed.

Where does one find whelmed?

The berry patch is a good place to started. I picked my first two quarts of the season yesterday morning. Then yesterday afternoon, as though I hadn't proven my hunter-gather skills enough, Andy and I went out in the boat and I ended up landing a 21-inch whitefish. (Not what we were fishing for, but a welcome surprise.)
(My mom said she just loves dead fish pictures [sarcasm], so the photo above is for her. Forgive the crazy eyes and dopey, tourist-y hat. I'm trying to avoid sunburn this summer, which explains the hat, if not the eyes.) 

I think we can all agree that the last thing I need is another proverbial fish to fry, but an actual, physical fish to fry was pretty darn tasty and helpful in my quest for "life balance."

After a tasty dinner of fish, Andy headed off for training, I spent some quality time with the garden, fertilizing and watering at my own pace, enjoying the twilight and letting tomorrow worry about itself.

Where do you do to find "whelmed"

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Heat, Holidays, and The Week That Was

Friday, July 6, 2012
I've been feeling stretched thin lately and as a result, not only are blog posts far and few between - I also haven't been taking much for pictures. When I plugged in my camera this morning to see what I had at my disposal if I were to actually write a post, I was a little surprised by the lack of pictures at my disposal to illustrate my points.

Let's see. . . . There's this picture of a tadpole which is totally unrelated to anything I'd planned to write about . . . .

I have a 12-year-old volunteer at work. He's volunteering through a community program which will award him with some sort of cultural/learning prize (a ski pass, art classes, or music lessons, etc.) if he volunteers so many hours at a non-profit organization in the community this summer. One thing he loves to do is take pictures on the museum grounds (which we can then use for promotion purposes) and he's a little obsessed with the tadpoles in the ditch beside the driveway. It's hard to tell in the above picture, but those guys are huge. I think they just might be bullfrog tadpoles because I always hear a bullfrog twanging away on his banjo whenever I walk up the driveway.

On Tuesday, Andy and I headed out a little canoeing adventure. Some friends were spending a couple nights in the Boundary Waters, so we paddled out to spend the day with them. Despite the picture below, we did not catch a single fish and instead spent most of the day lounging around the campsite as the temperature climbed higher and higher. It's been consistently in the upper 80s and even in the 90s these last few days. Not nearly as hot as elsewhere in the country, but enough to make these northern Minnesotans feel like death warmed over.
Did everyone have a good Fourth of July? We had a less than celebratory day since we both worked and honestly, the Fourth of July celebration in town just isn't worth the two-hour round trip drive. The parade is so small it goes around the block (yes, block is singular) twice to make it last nearly 10 minutes. The fireworks are usually also a rather pithy affair. So instead we stayed home and watched Mother Nature's own fireworks - we had quite the doozy of thunderstorm roll in in the late afternoon.

Remember Slug watch(!)? We've been having problems with some of our potato plants being cut off at the base. Last night, Andy and I headed out with flashlights to see if we could find the nocturnal pest that's been after our potatoes. I knew slugs were a risk when we planted the potatoes in straw, but I naively hoped  we'd dodge that bullet. Ah well, hopefully we've caught it soon enough to save at least a few of the plants.

What's new in your neck of the woods?

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Blueberry Bulletin

Monday, July 2, 2012
When that whole made season comes around . . .

Ladies and gentlemen, can I please have your attention. I've just been handed an urgent and horrifying news story. I need all of you, to stop what you're doing and listen. . . . 

Ripe blueberries!

Considering how very early the ice went out this spring, I wasn't exactly surprised to learn a couple weekends ago that people were already finding ripe blueberries on the trails around these parts. But just because I wasn't surprised doesn't mean that it isn't crazy early for there to be ripe blueberries in northern Minnesota. Usually I figure on picking my first quart or two of blueberries around July 20.

If you're a long time reader of this blog, you know in the past years I've moved up the ranks as a berry-picking fanatic blueberry picker. You know you're a true berry picker when you measure your berries in gallons rather than cups, pints, or quarts. Over the last two summers, I've picked approximately 7 gallons of berries each year.

Honestly, I'm not feeling quite up to the challenge this year. Seven gallons of berries a year is a lot, you guys and I'm struggling to wrap my head around the idea that berry season is already upon us. (Is it just me or did June absolutely whooooosh by?!)

Maybe it's because I know the picking will likely be the hardest it's been in years. Between the super early/really dry spring, followed by a gully-washing start to the summer, the poor berry bushes don't know which end's up. As a result, the fruit set is spotty this year. While I'm sure there are plenty of patches loaded with berries, I'll have to scramble up granite cliff faces and over pokey, burnt trees to access them. Just thinking about it makes me feel a little tired. *yawn*

Granted, we hardly need 7 gallons of blueberries. We still have about a cup of frozen berries in the freezer, plenty of dried berries to zip up oatmeal and granola bars, and one quart jar of pie filling left over from last year. Of the 7 gallons I picked last year, a good 2.5+ gallons were given out to family members and friends.

After all, this is supposed to be fun, a pleasant pastime if you will. But in the past few summers, I've attacked the berry patches with such aggressive determination that it's started to feel like summer labor.  So this year, I think I'll take it easy when it comes to berry picking. I'll do it as long as I'm having fun. I'll be less motivated by quantity.

That said, something tells me I'll lose my current berry picking ennui once the humidity cracks and temperatures dip below the low 90s and high 80s.

Watch berries, here I come!

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