Saturday, June 04, 2005

How to Relax on a Friday night with the Family

1. Get a friend who is a wonderful cook to invite your clan over for dinner.
2. Let the Dad's take charge of feeding the sprogs.
3. Take your lovely plate of food and glass of wine onto a nice deck with a view.
4. Purchase, rather than make, your contribution to the meal.

All four of the above took place yesterday evening and what a nice evening it was for me! Sarah made Beer-Can Chicken, Deviled Potatoes, and a lovely Arugula salad (picked moments before from her copious garden). There was a good bottle of Sangiovese that I seemed to be the only one consuming (everyone else was in a Bell's Oberon mood).

This was my dinner and my view.
And just inside the sliding glass doors there was this dining chaos that I didn't have to deal with:

The kid's table (from left going clockwise): Fiona, Ian, Brian, Kevin, Mike, Maeve, Nicholaus
And hovering just out of photo range were (the other) Brian and Sarah. Eventually, I lured Sarah out to the peace of the deck and we let the Dad's do things like chicken-containment, hotdog holding, and fork-technique lessons, though I did miss seeing Maeve prove her adventurous 3-year-old palate when she ate her arugula salad.

After dinner we went down to the backyard for dessert and kid playtime and we managed to demolish the box of cakes I bought at Shatila bakery.

Ian gave the double chocolate cake his full-face-stamp of approval.
Thanks to a sharp knife and a little sneaky slicing, I managed to taste quite a few of the variety of cakes. My favorite was the least visually impressive: the coconut cake. Just plain moist cake, white not-too-sweet frosting and loads of unsweetened coconut.

Some weekend soon, I'll need to reciprocate and do the hosting so Sarah can enjoy the experience of ending a Friday relaxed well-fed, and with a tired kid who is more than willing to go to bed.

Friday, June 03, 2005

A more gratifying trip to Dearborn

I took the kids and my mom to Dearborn today to visit Greenfield Village. Despite the fact that I didn't get to gorge on my beloved Sheik Mashi at Cedarland, it was still gratifying because I managed to fulfill two obsessions on one trip (and did not have to do endless train-related stuff). Of course, we did have to go on one trip round the Village by old steam engine, but instead of spending hours in the Roundhouse, we saw some other parts of the village including the beautiful new facilities for the craftworks: printing, pottery, tin punching, glass blowing, wool carding and weaving. It was the last two that I was most interested in, though Ian was really fascinated by the pottery works and had to be pried away from watching the master potter at his wheel.

In the Carding Works, we watched how they took this stinky fleece:

and ran it through this carding machine (they also showed us the old fashioned way to hand card. All I gotta say is those frontier women sure had strong forearms.):

And out came soft fluffy roving that could be spun into yarn like this:

They didn't actually have anyone spinning while I was there though I did spot a number of drop spindles. But I didn't really feel the need to watch spinning since I can go visit Lynne-the-intrepid-spinner any time and she often gives me nice snacks too. I didn't take any impressive photos of the weaving but the interpreter did a great demonstration of the 4 different machines (starting in the late 1600's).

And when we were done visiting the craftworks, I rewarded the kids for surprisingly good behavior by taking them to Shatila bakery for ice cream. Saveur magazine listed Shatila as one of the 12 best places to go for ice cream in the US. Pretty impressive, eh? Here was our line up (from front to back): Pistachio, Apricot and Lemon.

Other than the rather lurid color of the lemon ice cream, I heap praise upon them. The lemon really was extraordinary--sour and creamy at the same time, refreshing, but with a kick of richness. The pistachio was jam-packed with nuts and didn't have the excessive, cloying almond-extract taste that some pistachio ice creams rely upon. The apricot was supremely floral with chunks of dried apricots adding a deeper punch. I can't wait to go back and try the Mango, Rosewater and Cantaloupe flavors. And by the looks of it, Fiona can't wait to go back either:

That's my girl! A dedicated bowl licker!
I also couldn't resist leaving without a little something. Or a lot of somethings...

Left row (from front to back): coconut cake, chocolate mousse cake, cheesecake, and two double chocolate slices. Right row (from front to back): casino cake, strawberry chocolate cake, vanilla pistachio cake and chocolate roll.

Can you believe this whole box of goodies cost $7? That's less that $1 a piece! I don't actually know what the Casino cake is (front row right), but since it looks like a pressed strawberry roll on top of something insanely creamy and some yellow cake, how bad can it be? I've never actually tried their French-style pastries before because I always buy a big tray of baklava and mamoul. They have fabulous mamoul--try the date-filled kind. Wait, no, try the walnut, or the pistachio. Oh hell, try them all. But the cakes I bought today remind me of my sorely missed Swedish Bakery in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood (rather than the wall of middle eastern filo-based treats at Shatila, the Swedish Bakery has an equivalent wall of Scandinavian style cookies and breads). I'll be sure to report back whether they measure up to the Swedish Bakery's high standards of sin.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


I have two intense kids. This became immediately apparent when, 20 minutes after they came home and Brian retired upstairs for a well-deserved nap, they had me running around trying to satisfy their many needs. I had to stop while filling drinks orders and take a deep breath and reassert control over the landscape. One thing to work on with the kids this summer is patience--theirs, not mine.

I'm pleased with the results of the writing weekend; the scene map did not get finished, nor did the character definitions, but I think they are the kind of thing I could work on in the odd hour without needing to be in touch with the creative muse. They are homework, and one doesn't need inspiration or excessive quantities of caffeine to accomplish them.

My next task is to hit up the two grannies for regular writing time. My mom isn't working this summer (though she seems to have a tennis game scheduled every other day) so I'm going to suggest a regular morning date with her grandchildren. Depending on her response, I will then approach Granny Kathy with the suggestion too and see how much writing time I can guilt them into providing me.

Round 2 of Greek composition grading is about to begin. Comp grading seriously cuts into my fiction reading time, so I am making sure to really enjoy my time with a novel before I have to ration fiction-time to the hour or so before bed. I'm on a Shields kick after loving The Stone Diaries. I'm about 1/3 of the way through her last novel, Unless. So far, what I most admire about this book is Shields' ability to avoid sentimentality; it reminds me a little of Atwood, but is less acidic and more sympathetic, yet still very sharp. This story could easily slide into mush territory due to the subject matter (lost daughter told from the mother's perspective), but at least once on each page (and sometimes more often) she has her narrator make some observation that pulls it back from the edge.

Here is an example from Page 47, at the end of the chapter titled "Wherein":
I want. I want. I want.
I don't actually say these last words; I just bump along on their short, stubbed feet, their little dead declarative syllables--while buttoning up my coat and making my way home.

A more sentimental writer would have ended the chapter with "I want. I want. I want." And it would have been a pretty damn good way to end the chapter too, but that isn't Shields--she pulls you back into her character's self-consciousness about her own tendency to dramatize the situation and has her comment on it.

And for those of you wondering about the office color--I bought a gallon of blue. The peach was fine, really nothing wrong with it, but it didn't feel right for the space. And it occurred to me that I have wanted a blue room since I was 7 years old and my father vetoed the idea and made me paint my North-facing bedroom yellow. Yup, yet another pathetic little grudge I hold. So
finally I'll get to satisfy my little 7 year-old self and have a blue-room of my very own.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Even more structure

I'm on a structure kick right now. Rosina Lippi had a perfectly timely entry on her Storytelling blog about documenting all the scenes in the novel she is currently working on, Queen of Swords. So I have set myself two projects to begin (and probably not finish) before the rugrats return this afternoon:

1) I will go through my Strange Animal manuscript and document all the scenes with the point of view and current or anticipated length. I'll be doing it on an Excel spreadsheet rather than fiddling with the formatting of my Word document (I'm pretty sure the way Lippi is doing it would facilitate moving back and forth from scene map to text more easily, but I've had some bad experiences with the formatting function in Word and don't want to spend a ton of time undoing autoformatting gone awry).

2) I will set myself some homework and document all the scenes in a model book, in this case Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries. I chose this book mainly because it follows a woman from before her birth to her death which is what I'm doing with Gert. Shields makes some wonderful surprising detours (like following Magnus Flett to the Orkney Islands--who saw that coming when his character first appeared in the novel?) which could have back fired into irrelevant digressions and instead help the story to transcend the anticipated linear structure. She never forgets that she is writing fiction, not biography, and thus these imaginative flights enhance her project.

Time to make more coffee and start some fun data entry.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Writing Life

Oh man, this is bliss. Of course I miss the kids, but a couple of phone calls have assured me that they are alive (and stuffed with cookies and lemonade) and it is probably a good thing to miss them. I probably haven't missed them enough in their short lives.

Yesterday I managed to re-organize the entire novel into a chapter structure that I think works far better than the old structure. I also went through the entire thing and cut the stuff that was crap (it's amazing how much more obvious it is to discern what is crap and what is good writing when you haven't seen it for a few years) and transferred the stuff that was decent into the new chapter structure.

The re-structuring is a major accomplishment because it means I can now work on parts of the book more easily for shorter periods of time (say, when I have a few hours free rather than a whole long weekend) and have a sense of where they fit into the whole. Turns out, I'm a writer who needs structure.

Today I revisited the pleasures of writing long-hand. I went out to lunch and brought a pad and paper and while eating I started defining the cast of characters. Up till now, people sort of floated in and out of the narrative. Now I'm deciding how much they should be in there, who will remain minor, who will be one of those vivid, briefly appearing characters, and who will be a main player. I feel like a manager picking a baseball team. I also wrote two short scenes. And writing long hand felt really good; I'm just hoping that I can read my own handwriting when it comes time to put it into the computer.

The progress on my office continues, though I'm having doubts about the color. I primed, painted the ceiling and got the first coat of color on. Sarah drove by and peeked in the window and thought it was a good color; Tracy stopped by and didn't like it. I am having fears that it is a shade too close to creamsicle. I never liked creamsicles and don't particularly want to feel surrounded by one in my office... Thankfully paint is cheap (even cheaper right now since Lowe's has it on sale) so for $15 I can change my mind. I may go with blue instead, though I'll probably wait till Brian gets home and listen to his opinion for once.