The Writer’s Brush

Have you ever been immersed in a book and suddenly been struck by the knowledge that the writing isn’t just good, it’s great?

Of course you have. But what exactly is it about the writing that gets to you? What hits you over the head and makes you say, “Wow”? Is it what the writer has to say, or how they say it?

To my mind, great writing requires both. It not only has to impart something worth saying, but it has to say it in a particularly artful way. I came across an example of this today while reading “One-Eyed Cat,” by Paula Fox.

This book is an example of how characters, setting, mood, plot, and theme all come together delicately yet quite powerfully. The author has something to say to young adult readers, and she says it with finesse. I couldn’t help but think “Wow” to myself several times while reading. Here’s an example of what I mean:

 “The stillness was deep as though the earth itself had drawn in its breath. The only thing moving was a wasp near the roof of the outhouse. Ned watched it as its circles grew smaller and smaller until, all at once, it disappeared. Probably its nest was there just under the roof. Maybe there were snakes in back of the outhouse where the tangled grass grew thick. He suddenly recalled how Janet had flung her whole self against Billy, how the snake had flown out of his hands. A thought was buzzing and circling inside his head, a thought that stung like a wasp could sting.”

With those few sentences, the author creates a silence, then fills it with small terrors. She has not only created a mood, she’s put us right inside of Ned’s head and made us feel the sting of the painful thought that Ned can’t just swat away. That sting is the tangible representation of the book’s central theme.

After that paragraph, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I was in Ned’s head and I wanted to know how things would turn out. The theme was what hooked me, and the writing style made me a very willing catch.

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And here’s another analogy: great writing is like great painting. The subject is important, but so is the execution. A splash of blue color on canvas is just that, unless it happens to be as majestically painted as Starry Night. A face could be quite boring unless it’s captured the mystery of the Mona Lisa or the terror of The Scream.

Great writing requires a solid subject and an artistic brush.

What examples of great writing have you read lately?

Four Reasons to Buy Songs for the Seasons

Three months ago, just after a month-long blogging challenge called NanoPoblano, I took a break from blogging to write some songs. Children’s songs, specifically. The holidays were fast approaching and I have 2 two-year-old grandsons. My big present to each of them was the gift of music.

Henry likes weed whackers and leaf blowers, while Porter is a little obsessed with Curious George and trains. I decided to start with a song about weed whackers.

After finishing the Weed Whacker Wiggle, I tackled leaf blowers, and came up with Blow the Leaves. Those two garden tools (one used in summer, the other in fall) inspired me to write Mud Makes a Mess and Gonna Build a Snowman for the other two seasons.

With the help of my husband and musical partner, we recorded the songs, had them professionally mastered, created an album called Songs for the Seasons, and uploaded them to CDBaby, where you can download all four songs for $4, or individual songs for 99 cents each.

Here are four reasons that I think it’s worth your while to buy this music:

  1. Spring
  2. Summer
  3. Fall
  4. Winter

Other reasons you might want to download the songs:

  • Mud Makes a Mess mentions a worm (bound to make kids squirm).
  • Weed Whacker Wiggle brings out the giggles.
  • Blow the Leaves will interest anyone who either likes or hates leaf blowers.
  • Gonna Build a Snowman has a moral to the story and includes some awesome harmonies.
  • We’d really appreciate some reviews!

Here’s the link where you can listen to clips and decide if you want to buy the downloads:

http://store.cdbaby.com/cd/pacificbuffalo4

What’s your favorite season?

My Carb-less Day

My cholesterol is high. Well, at least that’s what the doctor says. Do I believe her? Well, yes … and no. I read the lab test results, and I looked at the chart. I can see that my numbers are higher than they should be. But it’s complicated. My good (HDL) cholesterol is very, very good, while my lousy (LDL) cholesterol is quite bad. My triglycerides were very bad the first time I had the test, but now (only one month later) they’re fine. So what’s going on?

I’ve tried figuring all of this out via the internet, but the answers are either conflicting or lacking, especially in regard to medical research of the female variety. I’ve decided not to panic, but to make some changes and get re-checked in six months.

I already eat ground flax seed every day to boost my Omega 3’s and reduce cholesterol. (I know salmon’s supposed to be even better for that, but I’m allergic to fish, so no salmon for me.) I’ve cut down on dairy, I no longer use half-and-half, and I rarely have bacon, eggs, beef, or pork.  I guess you could say my diet is Mediterranean, for the most part, but I probably do eat too many carbs.

One thing I read on the internet (and for some reason I believe it) is that cutting down on carbs can reduce cholesterol. So yesterday, I decided to try going a whole day without a single carb. And I’m not even Catholic.

It wasn’t that hard, because I knew I was only going to try it for 24 hours.

My food intake consisted of: coffee (with unsweetened soy milk), a smoothie (banana, orange juice, mango chunks, ice, soy milk), three hard-boiled eggs (I know, I know … cholesterol!), an avocado, an orange, a few berries, an apple, and lots of natural, unsalted, unsugared peanut butter on that apple. (I despise plain apples.) Also, a tiny bit of cheese, and a cup of green tea (without my usual honey).

No wine. No crackers. NO CARBS. (Except the sugar that was in the fruit. Oh well.)

I was pretty proud of myself. But then this morning happened.

I had: coffee, toast with peanut butter and jelly. And a snack: crackers with avocado.

But later, I wasn’t even hungry for lunch, and my dinner was a handful of black olives, a cup of green tea, half of an apple, and lots of peanut butter on that apple.

I’ve learned that giving up carbs yesterday wasn’t that hard, and it seems to have carried over a bit into today. I’ll let you know in six months how this is working out.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll have just a tiny bit of spaghetti tomorrow.

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Was I Loco to Relocate?

via Daily Prompt: Relocate

The year that I decided to relocate (2003) was, for me, the Year of the Butterfly Effect. Looking back on that year, it was as if a tiny butterfly had landed squarely in the middle of my life (in the middle of a parking lot, actually) and triggered a life-altering sequence of events. I didn’t notice the butterfly at the time. Butterflies are like that. You don’t always see them, except out of the corner of your eye.

My butterfly was actually a tiny change in water temperature.

It was a frigid February morning in upstate New York, one of many I’d had to endure that winter. I was standing perfectly still on a sheet of thin ice in a parking lot, about to open my car door. The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on my back. My head had bounced a little as I landed. The ice under my boots must have started to melt just as I moved to open my car door. As I struggled to my feet, I heard myself declare, “That’s it, I’m moving.”

The early 2000s had been difficult. First there was 9/11. Then my ten-year destructive relationship had ended (again). Someone had tried to sue me. (They lost the case but I’d had to pay a lawyer). My roof was leaking. My fence had been blown down by high winds. A person I’d confided in (whined to?) suddenly had become less supportive. And to top it all off, it had been a record-breakingly cold winter.

I needed a change — some sunshine, a better-paying job, a fresh start. I thought moving to a warmer climate might solve everything. Hitting my head on a solid sheet of ice was just the incentive I needed to get moving.

I thought about where I might want to live. I was open to pretty much any warm state in the continental U.S. except Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and all of the midwest. Not too picky, huh?

In March, I went to the library and borrowed videos on Florida, Arizona, and Virginia. After deciding that Florida was too flat, I applied on line for jobs in Arizona and Virginia. In April, I interviewed in both places and received two good offers: one in Arizona and one in Virginia. I couldn’t decide between the two. Virginia was lovely, and closer to most of my immediate family, but my brother lived in Arizona. He called me one morning and asked, “Why don’t you move out here where you’ll already know someone?” It was the gentle nudge of a butterfly wing. I decided to take the job in Arizona.

In May, I put my house on the market and discovered that the roof wasn’t the only thing leaking — there also was a leaking oil tank buried under my front yard. I’d had no idea it was there, but I gladly paid for removal and cleanup. I had to make other repairs to my house as well. Somehow, I managed to sell the house quickly, said goodbye to my family, and drove myself, my dog, and my cat 2,000 miles across the country. I started my new job, and my new life, in July, 2003.

In many ways I’m happier now, but being far away from family all these years has been tough. I often ask myself if my decision to move, made under the duress of a few bad years, was the right one. But perhaps there’s no such thing as a right or wrong decision, only good or bad outcomes, which often are beyond our control. We can’t predict the factors that will affect the outcomes. Only later can we say “Oh, that caused that to happen, which caused that, which caused that … etc.”  Being in the moment, we can only try to do our best with the limited information that we have — and hope it all turns out alright.

So, was I loco to relocate? Not at all. Looking back, I know I needed that change, and I needed it badly. It wasn’t just the Butterfly Effect at work. I was thinking things through and agonizing over what to do. It was me. I was the butterfly. But I won’t lie. I still feel the pangs of remorse from time to time, and I think about moving back there. So what’s stopping me? Those long, dark winters, for one …

Instead of relocating, maybe I should just become a snow bird, with residences in two states. Lots of people out here in Tucson (the land of the loco weed) do just that, because it’s getting too hot here in the summers. It’s something to consider. Guess I’ll have to start writing that best-selling novel if I want that to happen.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep my eyes open for butterflies, especially monarchs. They’re good at finding their way home.

Rapping It Up

Day 30 of the Nano Poblano (a.k.a. NaBloPoMo — National Blog Posting Month) challenge is finally here! Thanks for reading, thanks for writing, and thanks to the “cheer peppers” who made it all happen and cheered us on by “liking” our posts. I read the posts of my fellow bloggers religiously and learned so much from all of you.

I’m proud of myself for sticking with it, even though some days were a little rough. Somehow, I managed to eke out 30 different pieces, including:

  • two posts made within 15 minutes of midnight
  • one post consisting of only one sentence
  • two posts that were nothing but questions
  • one that included a video of me singing and playing guitar
  • a poem made up of 14 shorter haiku poems
  • many other posts, some with a bit of history, some just plain silly
  • no cat photos, and only one post with pictures of what I had for lunch

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed NanoPoblano, I’m looking forward to a little down time in December. (Did I just say down time in December?) This year, for the first time since I was a kid, I couldn’t wait for December to get here. I mean, I literally couldn’t wait. As soon as I returned home from New York yesterday, I changed both of my wall calendars to December without realizing that I was two days early.

There’s one thing I meant to post this month and didn’t. It’s a little embarrassing, but here goes: I don’t know how to rap. I don’t know much about it and I think I might be terrible at it. I’d like to learn, though, so that maybe I can use it in my songwriting projects. But how do you learn to rap? The same way you can learn almost anything these days: YouTube! I watched a few videos and I learned that some rappers (I think it’s called freestyle?) compose on the spot by thinking ahead to the end of the phrase before mentally writing the first line. I decided to try it, so I looked around the room for inspiration. I was in the kitchen. On the table was a glass, some cheese and crackers on a plate, and a vase of flowers. I grabbed my pad and pencil, and here’s the result. I may not win a Grammy, but if I make you smile it’s all worth it.

I had no support, I had no backers,
all I had going were these tasty crackers

I needed a genie to grant me three wishes
instead of all these glasses and dirty dishes

I wanted to be strong, I wanted magic powers
or maybe just a bunch of beautiful flowers

I had me some treble, I had me some bass
but I needed something else, like a flower vase

I asked that genie, pretty pretty please
can you bring me some money, or maybe just some cheese?

And on that note, I’m rapping up this edition of loristory. Happy December!

Featured image photo by Anita Peeples

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I Brake for Poetry

Can you think of a more boring and uncomfortable place to spend a couple of hours than an auto repair shop waiting room? The room smells like rubber and fumes. The coffee tastes like rubber and fumes. The television, usually set to the news channel I love to hate, makes me fume. To my mind, there’s nothing pleasant about an auto repair shop waiting room … but wait. Could it be an opportunity for creativity?

I wondered that one Saturday afternoon in 2011, while sitting on a hard plastic chair in a Brake Master’s waiting room, sandwiched between the coffee pot and a rubber tire display. Desperate to escape this situation but unable to do so, since my only method of transportation was currently up on a lift, I did something rarely done in an auto repair shop waiting room: I wrote poetry.

Specifically, I challenged myself to write three-line poems about random objects that I saw while sitting there. Here’s what I came up with. They might not be very good, but they passed the time. You might want to try this method of escape next time you’re in an uncomfortable situation. (Brake) drum roll, please!

FLOOR
I walk through life as if there is a floor
and a ceiling
and something of substance in between.

TELEVISION
The woman in the box prattles on, oblivious
thinking she's all that matters in this room
I accept this, knowing it is true.

FAN
Fans are useful in the tropics
where orchids spring from steamy earth
and bodies cling to gauzy shirts.

SANDALS
She slipped off her sandals and left them by the door
hoping they'd still be there when it was time to leave the cage.
You never knew about a hungry lion.

COFFEE POT
If a kitchen had a double agent, it would be the coffee pot
keeping things lively
while watching your every morning move.

BATHROOM
Bathrooms should be outrageous spaces.
A woman I know has the best one.
It's purple and is decorated with boobs.

MAGAZINE
The glossy magazine calls to me
with parted lips and false eyelashes
but I resist and choose reality, reluctantly.

CHAIR
I sit here and await the verdict
when all I asked for was an oil change
and some honesty.

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Life Imitates Art Garfunkel

It’s Tuesday, 11:30 p.m., Day 28 of the November Nano Poblano blog challenge, and I have to get to sleep soon.

I’m flying out in the morning, early. My alarm is set for Wednesday morning, 3:00 a.m.

I’m reminded of two songs:

“But the dawn is breaking, it’s early morn, the taxi’s waiting, he’s blowing his horn” — John Denver, Leaving On A Jet Plane

“The morning is just a few hours away” — Simon and Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

Aristotle thought that art imitates life, and Oscar Wilde once said that life imitates art … but it seems that my life imitates Art Garfunkel.

Gee, I hope so. I’d love to sing like that some day.

In Carnegie Hall.

While standing next to Paul Simon.

But I’d stay friends with him until we were old.

Old friends.

Now, if I were flying to Denver, that would be like life imitating Art Garfunkel imitating John Denver. I’d like to see that.

Country Roads, bring me home across the 59th Street Bridge Over Troubled Water, to Scarborough Fair.

Bite Bite Bite

I was wandering alone in Florence (Italy) recently. It was the last day of my vacation, and I decided to get as much as I could out of it. Lunch at a sidewalk cafe seemed just the ticket. After a quick glance at the menu, I took a seat and ordered lunch #5. A nice little bite to eat and I’d quickly be on my way to the cathedral a few blocks over, right? Ma, no!

The primo piatto (first plate) was pasta.

Delizioso.

Next, the secondo piatto (second plate) appeared.

Dio mio. I managed to eat most of it.

And then … dolce (dessert). And not just any dessert, but my absolute favorite dessert, tiramisu. And this tiramisu was out-of-this-world good.

I enjoyed every last bite.

P.S. Today’s post was brought to you thanks to today’s Daily Post prompt, which is the word “bite.”

On this 27th day of the November daily blog challenge otherwise known as Nano Poblano, I found myself coming up blank. I’ve already used songs, haiku, personal confessions, humor, autobiography (disguised as fiction), history, and photography. What else was left? I don’t have a cat, so a cute kitty meme just wasn’t possible. I had no other choice but to post photos of what I had for lunch!

In Sync Saturday

I’ve heard people say that there are no coincidences. I take that to mean that they believe in a grand plan, where whatever happens to us happens for a reason. Or that we’re reliving the same events over and over. Or that the universe serves up whatever we imagine. Or something like that. I’m not really sure what I think about all of that. I do know one thing for sure: life is a mystery, and our tiny brains aren’t very well-equipped to understand it. When I meditate, I feel a connection to something, or maybe it’s a biochemical reaction to getting more oxygen to my brain. I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure. That really bugs me. I want to know why we’re here and what it all means. But for now, I’ll have to be satisfied with just scratching my head in wonder at all of the weird coincidences and synchronicities that keep happening all around me.

For example, after posting my last blog post about Lena Spencer and her coffee house, I googled Ms. Spencer and learned that she was the daughter of Italian immigrants from Avellino. I have an AMAZING coincidental story about my Uncle Frank that I’ll tell you sometime (if I haven’t already, haha) having to do with Avellino.

But the reason I’ve been thinking about synchronicity today is the coincidences that my mother and I have been experiencing when working on crossword puzzles. That’s something we do when I visit her. And several words in our puzzles have been popping up here and there in our real lives — on TV, especially. Here are a few strange, coincidental examples:

1) Crossword clue: a staple of Southern cooking

Answer: OKRA

We happened to see it on the menu while out to dinner the same day that I was working on the puzzle. How often do you see OKRA on the menu?

2) Crossword clue: Actor “Pat” in Karate Kid

Answer: MORITA

We were watching an artist paint a picture of some dolphins, and out of the blue he mentioned that he knew “the actor Pat Morita from Karate Kid.” I think they had some sort of a dolphin connection. About an hour later I picked up my crossword puzzle and the word I needed was MORITA.

3). Crossword clue: Cheese named after Italian word for “sheep”

Answer: PECORINO

The day before that puzzle came into my life, Mom and I were watching the Travel Channel (we actually do more than just watch TV, believe me!) and the host of the show just happened to mention that Pecorino is the Italian word for “sheep,” a fact I filed away for future reference without realizing that it would someday find its way into a blog post.

4) Crossword clue: The Green Violinist painter

Answer: CHAGALL

Mom heard his name on TV just the other day.

5) Crossword clue: _______ Dhabi

Answer: ABU

It must have been in the news, because Mom remembers hearing it somewhere recently, just before doing her daily puzzle.

I’m going out with my sisters tonight. I wonder what other coincidences will befall me while we’re out . Oh, I just remembered … the name of the band we’re going to hear is Georgie WONDERS Orchestra!