July 7, 2014

Summer camp, Day 7

Well, here we are. Day 6 has turned into Day 7, and I’m still at just 33 words. It turns out there are rather a lot of other things I’d like to write about at the moment other than my novel.

Like how much that episode of Endeavour freaked me out, for one -- or how I was comforted, saddened and sobered, all at once, by the words of Indra K. Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, as she spoke of women trying to have it all. Or the crazy nocturnal birds outside my window right now, at nearly 1 a.m., tweeting softly away.

July 6, 2014

On writing for summer camp

Well, here I sit, ready to catch up on my word counts for Camp NaNoWriMo -- and since it’s the 6th of July, and I’ve written hardly anything, I now have three thousand words to write.

Three. Thousand. Words. That’s like a college essay. You should need to have done some research, or have an outline, or a vague sense of something you want to argue for, for that much wordage. Let’s say I can type 60 words a minute -- which I can, though that’s more of if I’m typing up notes, not really when I’m writing from scratch -- that would be …. hmmmmmmm … 60 times 60 is 3,600. So that an hour if I’m speed writing. OK, maybe this isn’t so bad. And really, I have written 33 words already, from those few moments Friday when I managed to put ass to chair, as the saying goes -- so I really only need to write 2,967 words of my novel today.

In short, this is how my now-annual project to write just 500 words a day -- a measly 500 words a day, about 15,000 words for the entire month -- becomes untenable. There’s always an excuse. On July 1, we had a friend staying over. On July 2, I was happily exhausted and looking forward to devoting more time on July 3, my first day of the weekend, to the exercise. July 4: Holiday! No writing. Except for a few words here and there. (Even though we went nowhere, did nothing.) July 5: Went somewhere! Did something! And a tablet and keyboard are harder to lug around than a book for downtime. Besides, who can really write in 2-minute increments anyway, what with all the interruptions that take place while thousands of San Franciscans try to find their seats for an evening of free opera in the chilly, waterfront ballpark? No one, that’s who. Thus went my first five days of writing.

But here’s the deal: It’s Day 6, and I’m starting. For real. And thus, by Day 16, when I start my personal essay writing class (hooray!), I’ll be all in the groove, ready to devote time to being in this chair and to bettering my skills. Plus, Camp NaNoWriMo, with its adjustable word counts and fun prompts, is a pretty cool program.

Between here and there, I need to get through some busy days at work, attend a wedding reception and visit with some family. May the spirit of flexible writing be with me as I work to overcome such obstacles.

April 7, 2014

Back to the flowering homestead

We got home from our vacation to Japan this weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised to find not only that our grass hadn't grown that long (even with the recent rains!) -- but also that the entire backyard seems to be in bloom! The lemon tree is still in bud, the apple tree has fresh blossoms, the bon bons have gone crazy and even our kale bolts have a bit of flower on them.

I had just been reading a story recommending planting blossoming plants, including sages, to help out the bee population -- so I wasn't surprised to find a handful of buzzers humming around our blooming sage. And seriously, since when does moss bloom? Love it!

The amazing flowering moss that lines our stepping stone walkway.

Spring has sprung here in Oakland, and I'm so happy about it. Here's to warmer weather, longer days and lots of relaxing in the sun in our backyard.

*More to come! But millions of thanks for now to Lea, Rob and Elle for being amazing hosts and getting our trip kicked off.

February 18, 2014

New is hard. Is it better?

As we continue to settle in to our new home in Oakland, I can’t help looking at every other meadow and wondering if it might be greener.

I thought a lot about this on my drive home tonight -- and about how change tends to break open pieces of life that we had taken for granted, even the parts that weren’t meant to change. Even harder than change, really, is that side effect -- of having what we had taken to be the reality of our lives shown, in a new light, as something quite different.

There were a lot of pastures to look at as I rode through the East Bay towns of Fremont, Newark, Union City. In the morning, it’s easy to look at these suburbs wholesale as places of endless potential. When the sun is coming up and the streets are empty except for the hundreds of cars in commute mode, there’s a blank canvas over each house, corner store and park on which you can paint all manner of happy stories.

At night, however, more people are out and about -- and I have more time and brain space to observe them. It’s clearer then that there are still neighborhoods with poverty, with hard knocks, with people just trying to make ends meet -- even close to large, gated communities. Some cars are old, dented, missing pieces and parts. Some homes have messy yards, falling-down fences. 

In short, there’s a range -- just like there is in Oakland. 

At first, as always, the temptation is to harken back to San Francisco and to muse that things are so different there. But it’s not true. San Francisco is an incredibly beautiful city, but it’s still got its struggles. Over time, living there -- right or wrong -- I took in those things that were uncomfortable and grew accustomed to them: the trash that always seemed to gather on a sidewalk where I ran, the graffiti that often appeared on the street just outside our apartment, the heartache at seeing the homeless camped in doorways at night.

Is San Francisco a greener pasture than Oakland? Is homeownership a greener pasture than renting? Is not commuting a better life than commuting? Is it better to keep what you have or to strive for more?

I was probably spurred on in my brooding tonight by an NPR interview with Meg Wolitzer, who was discussing her book “The Interestings,” a novel that begins at a summer camp and follows the characters as they grow older. In the interview, “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross asked Wolitzer if she sees “adult selves as being finalized with no chance for reinvention?”

Part of Wolitzer’s answer hit home:
I think that it's harder and harder to change in all kinds of ways as we get older, at least it is for me. Comfort and familiarity become so important in your life, I think, and the idea of really reinventing yourself, I mean - but I think - is tough.
Change is hard. New is hard. I think I’m still a young woman, but I do love comfort and familiarity, as much as I hate to admit it.

Bits and pieces of my “new” are becoming comfortable, like the window next to my spot on the couch, with its view right into a big, old rhododendron bush. At night, the light from my lamp shines just so into the leaves and blossoms, and I feel at home. But much of living here is still new, with routines and habits still to be worked out.

Is the pasture green here? Is it greener than before?

Ask me again when it’s a little more familiar.

February 17, 2014

A (somewhat belated) Happy Valentine's Day to You

It was a little late, but I got into the full-blown Valentine's spirit this weekend.

While Vivek went to pick up our Chinese take-out Saturday night, I whisked our Christmas decorations into the spare room (shhhh! don't tell) and whipped up a quick string of construction paper hearts on kitchen twine to hang across our fireplace. A vase full of tulips on top the mantel, courtesy of a friend who'd visited earlier in the day, completed the simple but oh-so-festive look.

Then, tonight (it's still Valentine's weekend, right?) -- I finally made my pink-frosted cake.

At some point when I was young, my mom made a pink-frosted cake at Valentine's Day in the shape of a heart, complete with gummy heart candies on top. With so much chocolate candy around, I kind of doubt I appreciated that cake as I should have then -- but man, have I been wanting one lately!

I needed, however, to make some alterations. I'm not likely to use food coloring for much else, so I set on strawberries, hoping they'd provide the right shade of pink. And my doctor's been after me to cut back on sugary candy (I have a weakness for things like gummy hearts, orange slices and red licorice), so I decided to skip the extra sweets on top. (Why I was concerned about the candy garnish and not the 16 ounces of sugar that go into the frosting anyway is beyond me.) Finally, if I'd made the cake in time for the Big Day, I might have gone to the trouble of creating the heart shape. But as I only got to baking in time for President's day, I decided on a straight-up layer cake.

Baking the cake was easy (nothing beats a boxed yellow cake, right?) -- so I just needed to figure out how to get my strawberries into the icing. I found a few recipes for strawberry buttercream frosting that called for syrup, but I was determined to use real strawberries -- and I found one recipe using real strawberries, but the ratios looked off. So I decided to wing it.

The result? Pretty tasty cake, if I must say so. It does have a rustic look, since I used the full puree, seeds and all. But the fresh strawberry taste -- even with just a handful of strawberries mixed in -- makes for one sweet treat.

Pink frosting on a yellow cake with pink tea towel and red kettle nearby.
Turns out you only need a few strawberries to pull this together. (I froze the puree I couldn't use tonight.) And while I think this recipe's probably adaptable to whatever's in your fridge, I'll note that I used full-fat milk and real Clover butter.

Happy Valentine's Day!


Strawberry Buttercream Frosting
(frosts one layer cake)

1 lb. confectioner's sugar
1 stick of butter, softened (1/2 c.)
4-5 large strawberries (enough to make 3 T. puree)
a few drops of milk

Cream together the sugar and butter. While the mixer's running, cap and puree the strawberries.

Add the strawberry puree to the butter-sugar mixture 1/2 tablespoon at a time and mix until well blended. Add puree until the icing seems just about ready to spread, and then add a few drops of milk to smooth it out.