Second Chances for the Beans, the Squash, and Me

I tend my garden every day; weeds offend me—deeply—as do dead leaves and dying flowerheads. I find it easier to keep on top of problems, like squash bugs and hornworms, than deal with them once they’ve taken over. Not everyone can devote the time or energy required to tend their garden this way, and I know how fortunate I am. My tending tendencies are also temperamental. I cannot let things slide.

Here in rural Virginia, most folks grow the same thing--tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, and watermelon—and do it by throwing seeds on the ground and walking away. In a typical year, casual gardening works remarkably well. This summer has been relentlessly hot and humid, with inconsistent rain, and even my garden, coddled and spoiled, has stumbled.

Case in point: after a strong start, my zucchini and yellow crookneck squash shriveled up and died, almost overnight. Summer without squash? Impossible! Not to be defeated, I planted more yellow squash in a different spot about six weeks ago, and I’m pleased to report they are doing beautifully.

The bean season was too short, undoubtedly due to the weather, so I replanted both purple French velour and Algarve beans at the same time as the squash. As the tomato plants become straggly and the rest of the garden winds down, it’s refreshing to see bright green leaves and colorful blossoms again.

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If you’ve been following along, you might recall that I was awaiting news from my publisher about my next book. Well, like the squash and the beans, I’ve been granted my second chance, not for one more book, but for two! Stories We Never Told will be published early in 2020, and the next one…Never mind. I can’t think that far in advance; I have a book to write!

That’s my life for now: making my daily count of one thousand words and tending my garden. (And cooking and storing the harvest, of course.) My garden and I are in stride, making the most of our second chances, approaching the next season with renewed vitality. Getting a first draft down is daunting business. I am hypercritical of everything and yet must stop myself from fixing things. Essentially, I tell myself to shut-up every few minutes. But like most endeavors, if you keep at it, you will get there. So I write, and put my faith in eventual magic.

Winter is coming, but not quite yet. The squash, the beans, and I have work to do.

 

The Real Feel

Gardeners, like farmers, talk a great deal about the weather, so I’m sure I mentioned our wet spring, the four wettest on record, if you must know. After that deluge, however, the weather gods have kept the faucet firmly in the OFF position. We’ve had less than an inch of rain in a month!

And it’s been hot. Too hot to hang out in the garden, except very early in the morning. This makes me grumpy, especially since watering a gigantic garden isn’t exactly inspiring work. Holding a hose and sweating like a prize fighter is nearly as glamorous as it sounds.

But, as always, I try to find the silver lining. For example, the lawn might be crunchy but at least it doesn’t need mowing. The crops of beans, berries, and carrots are much smaller than usual, but the tomatoes and peppers are absolutely loving the drought. I’ve got dry-farmed tomatoes!

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Sunflowers are stoic, too, and the bees appreciate it.

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The dozen small fruit trees that comprise our orchard were looking decidedly droopy, so I lugged a five-gallon bucketful for each tree from the far side of the house. Two buckets at a time equals eighty pounds each trip. Yesterday I did the same for the berries. Brightside thinking: that’s my upper body workout for the week.

As I wait to hear whether my publisher wants my next book, I’m doing my level best to apply the same bucket-half-full (pun-intended) outlook to my writing life. I tell myself I’ve had a good run during a difficult era, that I’ve already achieved far more than I ever expected. (Note: My expectations are as low as my ambition is high. Makes for interesting arguments with myself.) I’ve been thinking I could take up painting or return to playing guitar. I could try a new sport—suggest one for me! Or I could figure out how to relax and do less. (Cue laughter.) And, yes, I know I am beyond fortunate to have such choices, I really do.

 

Even when the skies look like this, it might not rain. And whether that’s a good thing or not depends on whether you are a tomato or a green bean. Vegetables have no choice in their requirements, but people often do. As I wait for news and rain, I experiment with frames of reference, different ways to spin the uncertainty. Maybe it’s just self-protection, a way of souring the grapes dangling out of reach. I’m good with that, with whatever reframing keeps me sane and content as I anticipate whatever may fall from the sky, or fail to.

A rain dance that doesn’t bring rain is still a dance, and the real feel is what matters.     

 

Salad Days

My garden is taking care of myself right now—aside from daily weeding—so I thought we could move indoors and spend a little time in the kitchen. After the garden, it’s my favorite place.

We eat a lot of salad, my husband and I, to take advantage of the picked-that-day freshness of our garden bounty. (Browse my Instagram feed for a sampling.) I make the usual spinach or kale concoctions, and all manner of slaw, and I adore roasted vegetable salads. But today I’m here to talk lettuce.

If you have your own garden, visit a farmer’s market, or have a generous gardening neighbor, you know how tender homegrown lettuce can be. I don’t know what commercial growers do to achieve such robust leaves, but the lettuce from my garden is delicate and, for the cook, a bit fussy. Pour a vinaigrette over those tissue-thin leaves and you end up with a soggy clump. Yuck.

I’m here to help. In fact, this technique isn’t just for garden lettuce; it will work for any salad. I’ve been doing something like this for a while, but I’m happy to give credit where credit is due: Joshua MacFadden’s Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables.

Start with clean, dry lettuce in a large bowl. My lightweight stainless bowl is a workhorse. Sprinkle vinegar on the leaves—just a little—and toss gently. WITH YOUR HANDS. The lettuce is tender, remember? It needs your loving touch.

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That’s little gem lettuce, a mini-Romaine. Romaine is sturdier than leaf lettuce, but these homegrown heads are nothing like supermarket Romaine.

Back to the bowl. Taste a leaf to see if you can taste the vinegar. Next, season with salt and pepper. Go easy! Toss again with your hands and taste. The beauty in this technique is that the vinegar helps the salt and pepper stick to the leaves.

Add oil. Again, be sparing. Oil is heavy and will crush your leaves if you overdo it. Toss one more time with your hands. Taste and adjust. Ta-da!

If the finished salad will contain herbs or thinly sliced radishes—anything lightweight—I add them before I dress the leaves, but weightier ingredients go on top afterward.

Here I’ve garnished with toasted pistachios and avocado, and served the salad with an artichoke and chard frittata, made with eggs from my neighbor. Delicious lunch! Should I do a frittata tutorial next time? Let me know what other yard-to-table mysteries I might be able to solve. In the meantime, enjoy your salad days!

The Calm Before the Tomatoes

Now that Buddy’s back on his favorite plum tree, serenading us every dawn, summer is officially in full swing. And, boy oh boy, did the weather gods get the memo. We’ve been in monsoon mode since mid-April, a time when the norm is 75 degrees and crisp spring air. It’s sticky and icky.

Luckily, my constant presence is not required in the garden this time of year. Sure, I potter around, pulling the odd weed, harvesting a few sugar snap peas, lettuces, and the last of the asparagus. But most of the plants are in growth mode and all I need to do is stand to the side and admire them.

 Little gem lettuces

Little gem lettuces

 Beets

Beets

 sugar snap pea blossoms

sugar snap pea blossoms

In a month’s time, I will be inundated with produce and my kitchen will resemble a factory. I’ll be cleaning, chopping, freezing, blanching, canning and jamming! But not yet.

Because art imitates life, my writing is in much the same place as my garden. I’ve dealt with the copyedits and proofreading of True Places, my next book, and am awaiting the final cover. (!!!!) Since, well, forever, I’ve been working on What Comes Next—two projects in fact, to be submitted together, like a twofer. One of the proposals, a story of obsession and fraud, is pretty much good to go. The other, an immigrant/ WWII story, is almost there. Once my agent submits the proposals, there will be nothing to do but wait for what we hope will be a green light on one or both projects. And then I will, you know, have to write a book or two.

Any bets I hear from my editor when my garden is generating 20 pounds of produce a day? 

Good thing I love my work, both in the garden and at my desk. In the meantime, I have reading to catch up on, and daydreaming, too. Isn’t that what summer has always been for? Long, carefree days when your bathing suit never dried, you ate lunch in a treehouse and stayed up late playing tag and chasing fireflies until, at last, you were called inside by your exhausted parents. 

What are you looking forward to this summer? Homegrown tomatoes? The beach? Freeze tag?

The Return of Buddy the Bunting

Spring: it’s here for reals. I have so much to say—things are happening in every corner of my world—but today I’m going to skip over new beginnings and emerging seedlings and bulbs I’d forgotten I’d planted (what a surprise, though!). Instead, I’d like to talk about a returning friend: Buddy the Indigo Bunting.

Every morning last summer, this darling turquoise bird sang from the top of the plum tree. Mind you, we only planted the orchard a couple years ago so this is not a great height, but his song was bright and lively and, as the days and weeks passed, utterly familiar. We would awake and listen for him. He never failed us, repeating his sweet phrase dozens of times before flying off to get some coffee. We are prone to naming and dubbed him Buddy

One morning in late September, we listened for him and heard only silence. It was inevitable, and the way of all things, especially birds with intelligent ideas about where to spend winter, but his absence made us wistful. As the months passed, we would wonder aloud how Buddy was faring. Did the long migration exhaust him? Did he end up in Costa Rica, Belize, or Jamaica, and was he remembering to apply sunscreen? I swear I thought about Buddy when the hurricanes blew through. I know, I know.

We returned from Portugal, the days warmed, and our expectations—and fears—grew. A lot could befall a small bird over the course of several months. As I tilled the garden, I listened for his call. The phoebes were here, and the nuthatches and chipping sparrows and cardinals. Where was Buddy?

One morning, I caught my husband refreshing his memory of Buddy’s song on the computer. He thought he might have heard him that morning. Sure enough, the next day the unmistakable song rang from the woods behind our house. A moment later, a turquoise flash appeared on a small tree nearby.

I ran into the garage where my husband was tinkering. “Buddy’s here!”

We watched him together. We might have jumped up and down. “Hey, Buddy!” my husband called. “Welcome back!”

I’m not even slightly embarrassed at the extent of our joy and relief. To me, this is what it means to live in a beautiful, relatively unspoiled place. We know our neighbors even if they are birds.

Within a few days, Buddy had taken his usual spot in the orchard for his morning song.

It’s the little things. Sometimes the little thing is a bird, and the knowledge that he remembered where he belonged.

The Skinny on FALLOUT GIRL: Interview with Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Book slumps are real, amiright? Well, I'm here to say that FALLOUT GIRL by Katie Rose Guest Pryal got me out of a recent one. Even better, I have Katie here to chat about her newest novel in the Hollywood Lights series, out May 7. That's a week from today, people! 

Katie is impressive; she's a novelist, an essayist and a lawyerperson. She also has a wry sense of humor and plays a mean game of tennis--my kind of person. She's one of my Tall Poppy Writer sisters, too, which means I love her even when her Thanksgiving turkey is dry and the stuffing is bland. 

Back to FALLOUT GIRL. First, look at this stunning cover.

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Personally, I think that dress should come with the book. Sigh. Here's a quote about the book from me, plus what it's about. 

“Fallout Girl is a love story wrapped inside a heart-rending struggle for personal freedom.” —Sonja Yoerg

Fractured family, deadly secrets, and a woman on the run in L.A.

The day she buries her mother, Miranda George jumps on a plane from North Carolina, telling no one where she’s heading. She wants to disappear and start over. She arrives on the Los Angeles doorstep of college friend Daphne Saito, and even though Miranda hasn’t seen Daphne in years, Daphne welcomes Miranda into her home and her makeshift L.A. family.

The problem is, Miranda is on the run from family. All family. Family, in Miranda’s experience, can get you killed. 

Miranda takes off again, but this time her plan is much more sinister. She certainly doesn’t expect her friends to track her down. When they bring her back from the edge, the question remains: will Miranda be able to save herself and her newfound friendships? Or will she remain strangled by the past? 

If it sounds great, that's because it is. Let's chat with Katie, okay?

Sonja: I found it so refreshing to read about young people—well, younger than me, anyway. What attracts you to characters in their 20s? Do you see it as a particularly rich developmental period, or do you simply enjoy revisiting a time when you didn't have a long to-do list and could take off across the desert on your motorcycle?

Katie: It’s true—the main characters of my Hollywood Lights novels are in their mid-to-late twenties. They’re just on the cusp of figuring things out: who they are, what they believe in, what kind of people they want to be. And I think those questions right there are what draws me to this time period in a person’s life. Even though I’m in my forties now, I remember my thirtieth birthday so clearly, and the first year after. Everything suddenly felt so easy. I met the man who became my husband then, and it was so obvious that he was the right person for me. We married when I was thirty-one. Simple. But before that, in my twenties? My head was full of question marks. 

Those question marks make for great stories. In many ways, yes, a young person is free. But in other ways, a young person is a captive to those uncertainties. Well, unless a person doesn’t have any self-awareness, but people without self-awareness are kind of boring, so I don’t write about them.

Sonja: "My head was full of question marks." SO TRUE. Katie, FALLOUT GIRL takes place in a short period of time—only two weeks or so. Do you tend to tell your stories in short time-frames? 

Katie: I see this question as related to the age question, actually. I’ve read a couple of books recently that were “big” stories, crossing entire lifetimes. I just finished FIREFLY LANE by Kristin Hannah, for example, that begins when the protagonists are young teens and follows them into adulthood. The books I write are far more compressed in time. My first novel, ENTANGLEMENT, took place across precisely one year. My second novel, CHASING CHAOS, took place across four days. Compared to CHASING CHAOS, this book, which covers fourteen days or so, really takes its time.

I think I’m attracted to stories with compressed timelines because it gives me the opportunity to really examine my characters closely—their motivations, their weaknesses, their flaws, and their beauty. Compressed timelines put characters under a microscope. Of course, you have to pick a very particular time in the characters’ lives—an intense time—or else the story will be boring. (See above for how I feel about boring!)

Sonja: I like compressed timelines for the same reason. So, tell me, even though you live in North Carolina, you've chosen LA as the setting for the Hollywood Lights series. What's up with that? What is it about LA that makes it the right setting? 

Katie: I lived in Los Angeles after college for a very brief period, but the city stuck with me long after I left. I wrote the first book in the Hollywood Lights series, ENTANGLEMENT, a long time ago, back when my time in L.A. didn’t seem like a distant memory, but rather something more recent. My publisher thought that ENTANGLEMENT would make a good start to a series, so I wrote a second book, and then a third, and and now, years later, I’m finishing up the series (Book 6, in progress, will be the last). The stories all feature different main characters, and they all stand alone. I call them “linked novels,” a more accurate descriptor than the word “series,” which implies that you have to read them in order to understand what is going on. 

I never intended to spend so many pages in L.A., but now that I have, I’m glad I did. Los Angeles, and the various neighborhoods and landmarks, the way people live there, the geography and architecture—the city is a character itself. One of my early readers is a long-time Los Angeles resident, so she helps me make sure that I get all of the details right.

Also, my next series is set in North Carolina. So for all of my North Carolina readers: I’m coming home. 

Sonja: Yay, for coming home! My next book is my first set in Virginia where I now live, so can relate. Thanks for spending some time with us, Katie, and for providing a copy of FALLOUT GIRL for me to give away on my Facebook page. For more about Katie and her book, keep reading!

Katie is a novelist, essayist, and erstwhile law professor in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Hollywood Lights Series, which includes ENTANGLEMENT, LOVE AND ENTROPY, CHASING CHAOS, HOW TO STAY, and FALLOUT GIRL (2018). She also writes nonfiction, including LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION.

As a journalist, Katie has contributed to QUARTZ, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE (late, great) TOAST, DAME MAGAZINE, PASTE MAGAZINE, and more. She earned her master's degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. She lives in Chapel Hill where she works as an editor and teaches creative writing. She is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers (tallpoppies.org). You can connect with Katie on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter at @krgpryal, on her blog at katieroseguestpryal.com, and through her e-letter at pryalnews.com.

“A dangerous, sexy, motorcycle ride of a story, which pulls off the feat of being both humorous and heartbreaking at the same time.” —Sandra Block, author of the Zoe Goldman series

That's a wrap. Head over to my Facebook page and see if you might win a copy. Good luck!

Another Row of Peas

If you’ve been following this blog, you might remember that back in December I was hoping for a cold, snowy winter to provide atmosphere for the extremely snowy book I was writing. Can I have backsies? Please?

We haven’t had much snow (*cue the groans from the Northeast) but we sure have been freezing our bahonkas off. And the wind! The other day I saw a bluebird get blown off a branch. Today it is gray, gray, gray. If the sun is shining where you live, I’m happy for you. More or less.

Sigh.

At times like these, my garden is a source of inspiration. Let’s have a look.

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Okay, maybe not so much.

I did, however, plant the first crops a few days ago—while wearing a parka. This hallowed spot contains sugar snap peas, turnips, scallions, and beets. It’s too early for beets but then again, with a snow squall forecast for today, it was probably too early for everything.

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I planted onion sets, too. Hard to believe these tiny guys will become four-inch whoppers.

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But here’s the thing. Spring is dragging her heels but she is nevertheless on her way. If those seeds don’t come up, I’ll plant some more. In the garden, there are almost always second chances. Whether you decide to take them is up to you.

I’ve been thinking about that, about opportunities I don’t necessarily want to take. The book I’ve been working on, The Snow Cave, was my first attempt at a novel and I’d shelved it for five years. The revision has been humming along nicely, thank you very much. But now circumstances dictate I leave that project for now and start work on a different book. I must till the ground again and sow another row of peas. (You: What circumstances? Why would you stop work on a project you love? Me: PUBLISHING.)

It’s fine. It really is. Because no matter what I’m working on, some days the sun shines and some days it snows and some days, like today, it’s gray, gray, gray. That’s why we have memories, and faith.

If you believe in spring, your bootstraps will be close at hand.

Practical Daydreaming

Although it is the middle of winter, I have been gardening. I may not have been digging in the frozen earth or even pruning last year’s spent growth (too soon for that) but I have been gardening nevertheless. Last week, I ordered seeds. Yes, that is gardening. In fact, it’s one of best parts of having a garden, a forward-looking exercise, a sketch of the design for warmer days. It’s a kind of practical daydreaming.

You might wonder why I would order seeds in February since they will be available in a month’s time in every home supply and grocery store. The answer is: choice. I don’t want garden-variety varieties! I don’t want Kentucky Wonder beans (although they’re a good variety). I want French purple velour beans for their tender little pods and magnificent color. I want Algarve beans because they taste amazing and keep going and going and going all summer long. I don’t want cantaloupe. I want Charentais melon because they taste like sunshine.

Here’s last year’s seed haul. I may have gone overboard.

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The other sort of gardening I’ve been doing is planning: when to plant what and where to plant it. The logistics are considerable because I employ a rotation system. I know, I know. Garden geek. (If you are one, too, read about it here.) And this year planning is more complicated because we’ll be hiking in Portugal for a month this spring, which means putting early crops in before we go (peas, radishes, potatoes (Yukon, red and purple!), turnips, onions, and more) and abandoning them. If I think about it too much, I might not leave. My babies…

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For me, writing follows much the same course. Even when I’m not typing words into Scrivener, I’m planning, thinking, planting a seed. Writing happens via a keyboard but it also happens on the sly. I’ve learned that some of my best work occurs ex camera, at the edges of my consciousness. If you want to see a faint star, you should not look at it directly. (There is a perfectly good biological reason for this having to do with rod vs cone vision but I’m not going there today.) Writing, good, deep writing, is easier caught off guard, when you are looking the other way.

I try not to worry about whether I’m writing enough. Like my garden, spring will come and summer will follow. In the meantime, I can daydream. That’s how gardens, and stories, happen.

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Surviving the Deep Freeze

It’s 32 degrees and sunny this morning in my corner of Virginia. Compared to the bitter cold of late December and early January (the dreaded bomb cyclone), it feels positively balmy. In an earlier post I wrote about how I’ve been hoping for a wintery winter to provide atmosphere for my work-in-progress, The Snow Cave, so perhaps the cyclone was my doing. Sorry about that.

Like most people (but, sadly, not all), I was snug in my heated home and car, and could bundle up when I had to go out. Wild animals had no such luxury and I thought of them often. I also worried about our bees. We have two hives: Bees and More Bees.

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We did everything we could to help them through the cold. My husband had already installed a wind break and encased the hives in foam insulation. We left them with plenty of honey and gave them sugar cakes just in case. But, in the end, it was down to them.

The population is about 60,000 bees during the summer but drops to less than 30,000 in the fall, losing more numbers over the winter. The overwintering bees form a ball around the queen and vibrate to keep the core at 80 degrees. That’s a lot of buzzing! Imagine how hard it must be to keep the queen that warm when the temperature drops below freezing, even below zero, and stays there.

The bees don’t leave the hive when it’s that cold--they can’t fly below 50 degrees—so we had to wait for a warm day to know how they had fared. At long last a warm front blew in. The first afternoon the temperature reached 55, bees from Bees crawled out of the opening, one by one, and took off. Unfortunately, none emerged from More Bees. I know they are only insects but we do become attached to them. They are fascinating, important creatures and we were sad to lose the colony. (We ordered a replacement colony on-line. They arrive in the mail!)

As we watched the bees from Bees returning to the hive, we noticed their pollen sacs were full. You can see the full sacs on this girl, harvesting pollen in the garden last summer.

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But where were the bees finding flowers in the dead of winter? Something must have been blooming and those clever bees discovered it. As we pondered this mystery, we remembered our tiny lemon tree in the greenhouse was flowering and moved it outside. Within a half-hour, bees from Bees had found it. Amazing!

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The loss of one colony made it clear just how dicey the whole endeavor is and sharpened my appreciation for the endurance of the other. Isn’t that how it often goes, though? A blow to the ego, a lost love, a broken friendship, and a bomb cyclone have pretty much the same effect: the next upswing seems that much sweeter. This isn’t news and it isn’t deep but somehow it’s something I need to remind myself of again and again.

We’re heading toward spring, Bees! Hang in there.

A New Year, A New Page

Beginnings. How many times in one short life can we begin yet again? I hope the answer is “as many times as you dare” because this new year brings a very concrete new start for me: I have a new publisher! Here is the announcement in Publishers Marketplace, the rag of record for the publishing industry.

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The backdrop is the view of the Blue Ridge from my house, taken last summer when the tickweed was rioting in splendor across the fields. As the announcement says, the book is set in the Blue Ridge (and in Charlottesville) which means I wrote it while looking at the landscape to which my characters, particularly a girl named Iris, belong. And I do mean belong. TRUE PLACES is very much about our connection (and disconnection) with nature, so the setting, that glorious wilderness beyond my window, was at the center of the story’s creation.

My new publisher is very excited about this book, which is nice of them, don’t you think? And it makes me hopeful. As cynical as I can be about publishing, a shiny new book deal is a beautiful thing. All writers want, after all, is to put our stories in the hands of readers. That’s it.

Oh, and a nod from Reese or Oprah.

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And a movie deal.

Just kidding! But not really. A girl can dream. A girl should dream. Even a fifty-eight-year old woman who is still a girl inside should absolutely dream and begin again and again and again as many times as she damn well pleases.

New year, new publisher, new book, new hope. New page.

A Mind of Winter

I suspect I’m an outlier but I’m hoping for lots of snow this winter. I’ve always been a fan of the stuff. Born in a snowbank in Vermont in the last days of December, I learned to ski at the same time I learned to walk. To this day my favorite sport is cross-country skiing. I even enjoy shoveling. Go ahead. Say it. Weirdo.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I was delighted at the early snow we had of a couple weeks ago.

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See what a little dusting of white does to the world? I adore the way the house is brighter inside because of the reflection off the snow. My beloved garden was graced with a snowy meringue. The plants growing under the row cover don’t mind the snow, either. In fact, it’s insulation!

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This winter I have even more reason to wish for snow; the book I’m working on is called The Snow Cave. Set in Squaw Valley, California, and Germany, the story is loosely based on my father’s life. Loosely. My father was a mountain climber, tennis pro and ski instructor, so it’s clear from where my love of mountains and snow derives. Here he is in his wintery element.

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In addition to the snow cave in the title, themes connected to snow (cold and purity and fresh starts) are central to the story. That’s why I’d appreciate some snow around for atmosphere. I’m a visual person and there’s nothing like being immersed (not literally in this case—my poor laptop!) in what I’m writing about. When I was drafting Middle of Somewhere, a thunderstorm happened to come along as I was writing a pivotal storm scene. Talk about summoning the muse. If I can’t get Mother Nature to bend to my will, I resort to Google, of course. Google Images: the next best thing to being there.

If you’re a writer, do your surroundings help you write certain scenes? Do you use music as a muse? (I confess I need silence myself.)

Oh, about the title of this post. It’s the first line of Wallace Stevens’ poem, The Snow Man. You can read it here and see why I thought of it today. Our imaginations need springboards, or surfaces to grow on. Inspiration can be found anywhere but my favorite place to look is outside.

Wishing all you a happy, healthy, productive New Year!

Canna from Heaven

Two years ago, we bought a dozen fruit trees and a passel of berry bushes from a nursery near Charlottesville. As we were leaving, a woman I’d been chatting with (I chat with everyone—yes, I’m the one who strikes up a conversation with you at the grocery store, on the airplane, in the parking lot) handed me a root.

“Thanks.” I turned it over, hoping for a label.

“Do you like cannas?”

“Sure. I mean, what’s a canna?”

“Keep it cool now and stick in the ground in the spring. You’ll see.”

Turns out she was one of the owners, and this root was a door prize. And on the way home I realized I actually had heard of cannas but had gotten confused by her strong Southern intonation. I thought she was giving me something with a lot more than two syllables.

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I did as she suggested, pointing it pointy side up about four inches deep. In a couple months, a small blade of green poked out of the ground. By midsummer, it bloomed, a showy red that attracted hummingbirds like pigs to poop. I dug up the roots (corms, technically) in the fall, a huge tangled mass of them, brushed off the dirt, wrapped them in burlap and stored them in a box in the greenhouse.

Now, let me confess that I do not, as a rule, go to so much trouble for a flower. I don’t have the time or patience for fussy plants. My job, as I see it, is to provide the right setting, a lot of compost, and a sincere wish of good luck. True, I lavish care on my edible charges but that’s different. That’s food. But a flower? Don’t get me wrong, I adore flowers and understand well the role flowers play as companions to vegetables. But digging up and overwintering roots?

I guess I’m making an exception. The cannas were a gift and it seems wrong not to care for them. And look how beautiful they are! Georgia O’Keefe admired them, too, as you can see.

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Here is the second season haul. This winter, they are hanging out with the sweet potatoes and winter squash in the root cellar fridge, waiting for spring.

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I have enough to give some away! Maybe that’s reason enough to do the extra work, to make an exception. In fact, a canna root might just be the perfect gift: given casually and without expectation of reciprocation, full of latent beauty, and, the kicker, capable of replicating indefinitely. May all your gifts this holiday season live up to the humble corm!

We planted a new flower bed near the house and have left a space for the cannas. I’ll be sure to post a photo when they are in full bloom next summer. In the meantime, happiest of holidays to you and yours. May all the gifts of the season bloom in your hearts and in your homes.

 

Bloodlands and Stick Season

Writers gotta write but they also do a gaboonload of reading. We read books our friends have written because we love them. We read books for blurbs because everyone needs blurbs. We read within our genre to scope out the competition and outside of our genre for fresh ideas and for fun. And we read for research. 

I'm working on a story partially set during World War II: in Germany and on the Russian Front. My research reading has included novels (Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum is my hands-down favorite), firsthand accounts by German soldiers, on-line war history forums and straight-up history books. I can't get enough of the history. Just when it seems everything about WWII has been written, someone finds another angle.

For the last few weeks, I've been making my way through Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, written by Timothy Snyder in 2010. 

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The book is brilliant and absolutely devastating. I have to ration how much I read at a sitting and I can't read it at night for fear of nightmares. But I must read it.

Snyder chronicles the policies and actions of Hitler and Stalin that led to 14 million people killed between Berlin and Moscow. Part of this was, of course, the Holocaust and it is a central piece of this history. I did not know, for instance, that most Jews and other targeted groups were not taken to camps but rather killed where they lived. And before Hitler unleashed his evil, Stalin had already killed and deliberately starved millions. The scale of the brutality and the personal stories Snyder includes are harrowing. Like I said, I can only stomach small doses.

The antidote to such reading, to such truths, is found outside. For me, a ten-minute walk in the woods reminds me of the world beyond the influence of men and war (at least for now). I find it hard to express without sounding vapid or melodramatic but nature, and particularly woods, calm me so profoundly and rapidly I suspect magic.

But I don't believe in magic. I believe in trees. Even when they have dropped their leaves to the ground, I believe in them more than I believe in goodness. 

These are my woods. It's officially stick season. 

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I hope you have something akin to these, a place of respite. I hope you seek it out when, as Wordsworth said, "the world is too much with us."

As for Bloodlands, I cannot recommend it more highly: it is brave and scholarly and eloquent. If you do pick it up, remember to also put it down. Go outside. Find sun and earth and air. Stand amid fallen leaves and the stillness of bare trees. Embrace stick season.

 

Sowing the Blank Page

The blank page. The cursor blinking, counting seconds, heartbeats. It’s intimidating as hell to stare down that white sheet and find the word with which to begin. Then the next one and the one after that.

I’d like to tell you it gets easier once you’ve written a book, or four, but it doesn’t. If anything, it gets worse. Take the book I’m working on now. (I’m the Henny Youngman of writing. Take my book—please!) I am stalling so badly on writing it that I’ve actually created a synopsis. I hate synopses! We all do. But even a synopsis is less terrifying than that empty page.

Writing must be the one profession in which the more you do it, the less you believe that you can. We’re a strange bunch but try to love us anyway.

To get myself going on this book, I’ve tried all sorts of tactics. Watching Chef’s Table isn’t working, nor is drinking wine. Not even cleaning out the closets is resulting in words on the page. So curious.

Yesterday, I was looking for a photo on my phone and happened upon this one:

That’s my vegetable garden before it had vegetables. South-facing and gently sloped, it was, before my beloved took the rototiller to it, simply part of a field. We added truckloads of compost, creating a blank canvas, and encircled it in electric fencing, to keep deer and groundhogs and rabbits from raiding it. A few months later, it looked like this:

These photos gave me an idea. What if I considered the blank page as a freshly dug plot, empty but overflowing with potential? The earth, the unplanted earth, is not blank. It is moist and rich with nutrients and life. (And weeds, sure, but I know how to pull weeds.) Tomorrow I’m going to open that word document and take a new look at the blank page. It’s not empty. It just hasn’t been planted yet. If I set down the words and tend to them, they will grow; it is the nature of both seeds and stories. So much of what they become is already present—in the soil, in the case of the garden, and in the writer, in the case of the story. The page is not blank. It is simply waiting, like a field looking toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, patient under the sun.

Earth & Ink: A new blog post series

Gardening and writing. Writing and gardening. It’s what I do and what I have done for most of my life. I’ve had many other pastimes and a couple other careers, but the common thread has been growing things and making words fit my thoughts. 

Have you ever heard authors say they don’t understand their books until at least the first draft is complete? The same is true about understanding ourselves, I think. The first draft of my self was written a long while ago and I’ve been undertaking extensive revisions since. Looking back at the process, my attachment to gardening and writing reveals something deeper about me, as any decent theme should. I’m on a quest for two things: patience and humility. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll agree I still have a ways to go. Okay, so I’m a work-in-progress!

That’s the scaffolding for these new posts. In truth, I will be light on philosophy and heavy on news from my vegetable garden, orchard and berry patch and how I’m using the bounty in my kitchen. We will talk FOOD. Beautiful food. 

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And miracles. I know, that’s a big word. But tell me something, what else would you call it when you start with this…

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(The seed. The object in the middle. I would like to grow money, but alas, I’m not that clever. If you are wondering about the rubber chicken, well, it’s the world’s smallest rubber chicken! It speaks for itself. Well, not literally. That would be a teensy bit worrisome. Even as the world’s smallest mute rubber chicken, it blows my mind every time I see it. Just to be clear, I am also not growing rubber chickens.)

…becomes this?

That’s a kohrabi, by the way. Normally green, I grow the purple variety. I’m all about eating all the purple things but perhaps we’ll talk about that more another time. I know you are still wondering about the world’s smallest rubber chicken and quite possibly are overwhelmed. I know I am and I’ve had it for years.

Until next time, then. Grow yourself. Eat well. Use your words and use them like the miracles they are.

CLEVER AS A FOX now on Kindle!

Remember that scene in The Jerk when Steve Martin runs around screaming his head off, saying "The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!" That's how I feel today.

In 2001, a very long time ago, I published my first book, an intellectual history of the study of animal intelligence, CLEVER AS A FOX. It went out of print a while ago but today it has new life as a digital book. It even got a new cover to celebrate the occasion.

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Here is the preface to the new edition:

"Seventeen years have passed since this book was first published during which my daughters became adults and I became a novelist. The former event was predictable but nevertheless stupefying; the latter so unlikely I would have laughed aloud had anyone suggested it. I was tempted to revise this book with a novelist’s ear but resisted. I considered updating it but resisted that, too. As an intellectual history, the reasoning should hold. For recent books on animal intelligence, I recommend Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise."

And the description, so you can see if it might be up your alley:

"A lively, insightful look at the world of animal intelligence.
Recent evidence has dismissed the belief that animals are simply reflex machines, acting without thought or real consciousness. In response, there has been a rush to examine animal intelligence. Yet what, precisely, is intelligence? Is it the ability to learn, the ability to remember, or the ability to survive? What separates instinct from intelligence? Why are dolphins smarter than eagles and bees smarter than worms? Are cats smarter than dogs? 
Clever as a Fox explores the often-misconstrued world of animal intelligence. From B.F. Skinner's behaviorism to evolutionary biology, Sonja Yoerg examines the ways we have come to view motivation and intelligence in animals. By evaluating our complex relationships to animals-why we eat some animals while pampering others is often predicated on a commensurate belief in intelligence, Yoerg offers us a better understanding of our own way of thinking. Entertaining, and scrupulously researched, Clever as a Fox will challenge your previously held notions about animals and the measure of intelligence, both theirs and ours."

The book has its own page on this website, as well, to show off the nice things people have said about it. Take a look!

If you have friends who love to read about animals and psychology, be sure to spread the word, okay? Thank you! 

Stars upon Thars

That's from Dr. Suess's The Sneetches. "Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars." In case you don't know the story, a few Sneetches had stars, making them special, and the rest of the Sneetches coveted them. Along came a machine that slapped stars on bellies and soon all the Sneetches were sporting stars. Not so special anymore. In fact, not having a star became the next rage, sending all the Sneetches to queue in front of the star-removal machine. Once no one had stars, they soon became the rage again. The poor Sneetches went crazy getting stars removed and attached in their desperation to be unique. 

Although I'm not desperate to be unique, I do agree with the Sneetches that it's nice to be singled out, especially if, unlike the Sneetches, you've actually done something to earn it. I'm here to tell you a received a star recently. A couple of them, in fact. And although I am not a Sneetch, I do feel a bit special. As an author, receiving praise and a modicum of acclaim is such a crap shoot but also, I admit, a great deal of fun. Will you forgive me for telling you about my stars? 

ALL THE BEST PEOPLE was reviewed by the Historical Novel Society and chosen as an editor's pick! These folks are serious historians so it's like getting an A on the history part of my novel. They praised the characters, too, and lots of other things. Yay! 

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If you'd like to read the full review, it's here

That review made my week and I'd have been happy to leave it at that, but then I was struck by lightning! 

Not really, although this was possibly less likely. Travel and Leisure magazine did a round-up of the best book in every state. Not the best book written this year in every state, but the BEST BOOK EVER. Picks included previously unknown titles such as Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Oklahoma), King's THE SHINING (Colorado), Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (New York), Twain's HUCK FINN (Missouri), and Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER. These books are so famous I feel silly including the author and the state. Now you can readily see why I'm incredulous that Travel and Leisure chose my book for my home state of Vermont! 

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The full list is here. Amazing, isn't it?

Those are my stars. For a little while, I'm going to be wearing them both on my belly. I hope you have done  something to be proud of recently, regardless of whether you get the recognition you deserve. And if you do get a star, I hope you wear it proudly! Life can be tough, and far from fair, so let's celebrate when we get lucky, as I have.  Cheers!

Summer Sale: HOUSE BROKEN e-book is $1.99!

Here's the first chapter. See how you like it. 

Chapter One

Geneva

Dr. Geneva Novak stared at the x-ray clipped to the light box on the wall. She tilted her head sideways and squinted at the contents of the dog’s stomach. The iPod was obvious—it faced her—but the object protruding from the large blurry mass stumped her. Rectangular, with two bright white bars. Only metal lit up like that.

She clenched her jaw. This would be the third time she would have to operate on Zeke to remove things he’d swallowed, things his owner shouldn’t have left lying around. After the second incident, she had talked to the owner at length about how to protect his dog. She recommended he walk Zeke daily, so the dog wouldn’t turn to mischief out of boredom, and suggested he either keep his apartment orderly or confine the dog when he left the house. Nearly all dogs come to love their crates, she reassured him. Geneva had written down the instructions and told him he could call her anytime for help. But when Zeke’s owner brought him in this morning, he confessed he hadn’t followed through on anything. And the outcome was illuminated in black and white on the wall.

Eyes still on the x-ray, she pulled a hair band from the pocket of her lab coat and secured her dark hair into a tidy bun that would fit under her scrubs cap. Her cell phone, abandoned on the desk behind her, warbled. She touched the icon. A message from Dublin. It’s Mom, it read. Call me.

Geneva sighed. “It’s always Mom.”

Holding it by the edges as if it were rigged to explode, she placed the phone on the corner of her desk, and took a step back. Her mother, represented by three letters on a tiny screen, had intruded the sanctity of her workplace and unbalanced her. Exhaling completely, she pulled her broad shoulders down and back, a habit from her yoga days that helped her focus.

She didn’t have to call Dublin, not right away. For all he knew she could be in surgery or have back-to-back appointments all afternoon. She might have left her phone on the kitchen counter this morning, or the battery might have died. Whatever had happened—whatever her mother, Helen, had done this time—could wait, ideally forever. Geneva had Zeke to take care of and another surgery after that. Helen was better off in Dublin’s hands in any case. Hadn’t he been dealing with her for years? And what could Geneva do from 500 miles away?

Down the hall in the treatment room, a dog barked, setting off several others. Rosa, an intern from Marin High School, appeared in the office doorway, clutching a stack of files to her chest. She rocked on the toes of her red sneakers and grinned at Geneva.

“Zeke’s almost done with his fluids, Dr. Novak. He’ll be ready for surgery in about ten minutes.”

“That’s great. Thanks.” She turned toward the image of the mysterious object imprisoned in Zeke’s ribcage. “Hold on a minute, Rosa. If Zeke’s owner is still here, can you ask him if he’s also missing a charger?”

“Are you serious?”

“Bull Terriers are notorious for their dietary indiscretion.” She noted Rosa’s blank expression. “They’ll eat anything. Still, Zeke’s taste for electronics has less to do with genetics than boredom. Zeke was made a geek, not born one.”

Rosa laughed, tossed her braid off her shoulder and disappeared.

The call to her brother would have to wait. She took a last look at the x-ray, flicked off the light box and went to change into scrubs.

 

At three o’clock Geneva finally unpacked her lunch. Her cell phone vibrated under the paper bag. Dublin again. She couldn’t avoid this any longer.

“Hi. I was going to call you.”

“Yeah? You got my message? Good. Listen, I know you’re slammed at work. When aren’t you, right? But I just need a minute, okay?” Dublin’s tone sounded more frenetic than usual. She sat up straighter. “Here’s the story, Ginny. Act One. Lights come up. The set’s deserted but there’s an empty vodka bottle on a side table. You can’t miss it.”

“Dublin, just tell me what’s going on. You can write the scene later.”

“I am telling you. Welcome to Act Two. Mom crashed her car. One leg is pretty mashed up for starters. God knows what else. She wasn’t too drunk to remember her seatbelt, so we can expect an Act Three.”

The blood rushed from her head. She lowered the phone from her ear and stared at it with a mix of disbelief and anger. The seconds ticked by on the call timer. She listened to Dublin’s voice, now small in the palm of her hand. How easy it would be to quiet him, to hear nothing more about her mother. She could simply slide her finger an inch to the right. What was technology for if not such a convenience?

She raised the phone to her ear. “Sorry.”

“You okay, Ginny? Didn’t you hear me shouting? I was about to call reception and have them check on you. Don’t scare me like that.”

“I’m really sorry.” A car accident. How often had she asked her mother to get in the habit of taking taxis when sober, so she would automatically call one when she had been drinking? Helen’s opportunities to train herself were diminishing. Was it even noon when she had the accident? Geneva pictured the buckled hood of her mother’s blue Mustang, shattered glass on concrete, the rear doors of an ambulance. “Was anyone else hurt? Please tell me she didn’t kill anyone.”

“She didn’t kill anyone, but the cop at the hospital said she took out a few parked cars along Wilshire. The last one was an armored truck in front of a bank. The drivers thought she rammed them on purpose, so one of them drew his gun on her. That brought the cops pretty quickly. Everyone kept their heads, though. The only thing that went off was the airbag.”

“My God.” She dropped her forehead onto the heel of her hand.

“I know. Even I can’t write stuff this good.”

“Are you still at the hospital? Which one?”

“The Good Samaritan. And no. I was there but didn’t get to see her. I had to pick up Jack.”

When Dublin’s son, Jack, was diagnosed with autism four years ago, Dublin’s life had gone from rosy to harried. He and his wife, Talia, had a complex tag team schedule already subject to the mercy of L.A. traffic. A trip to the emergency room wouldn’t have been easy. Geneva felt a stab of guilt for Dublin’s burdens, then immediate gratitude for her two healthy children. Then a bit more guilt for that.

“What can I do, Dub?”

“Stay tuned.” He gave her the phone number of the hospital, and said he’d a leave message when he heard from the doctor.

 

Geneva called Zeke’s owner after the surgery and told the young man it had gone well. She gave him general directions for post-operative care and promised to leave a detailed instruction sheet at reception.

She was about to say goodbye when he asked, “Any chance the iPod still works? The way these vet bills keep piling up, I can’t afford another one.”

She suppressed the urge to hang up. “I didn’t test it,” she said evenly. “And I didn’t match up the socks I found in there either. There were three this time. And two pairs of women’s underwear.”

“For real? That dog is nuts.”

“Nuts? Hardly. Are you waiting for Zeke to reform himself? He needs you to take charge. Do the things I suggested before. Exercise him every day. A tired dog is a good dog. Don’t give him the run of the house when you can’t monitor what he’s doing. And, at the risk of sounding like your mother, pick up your socks.”

 

Geneva sent off the last urgent email of the day and noticed Constantine Corso leaning against the doorframe. Burly and square-jawed, “Stan” looked less like a veterinarian than a retired hit man.

“Zeke vacuuming his house again?”

“Yes. And he’ll be back. I’m not sure it was ethical to have sewn him up. Perhaps a Ziploc closure next time.”

“A lot of dogs eat things they shouldn’t, Geneva. Their owners can’t always stop them.”

“But they should try, Stan. That poor dog.”

Her cell phone buzzed from inside her lab coat. She pulled it out. Her brother again.

“You want me to show you how to answer that?” Stan teased.

“I’m not a Luddite.” she replied, more sharply than she meant to. “I just think connectivity is oversold. Case in point. Here we were, having a nice little chat about the moral quandaries surrounding sock-eating dogs, when this electronic buttinski interrupts with a message I know I don’t want.” She held the phone aloft. “I’m tempted to feed this to Zeke.” She slapped the phone onto the desk.

Stan lifted his eyebrows. She bit her lower lip and turned to the window. Outside, a woman in a blue coat holding a cat carrier walked down the path. A small girl skipped ahead of her. Geneva let out a long breath. Stan stepped into the room and sat in the chair across from her.

“Care to share with the class?” he said quietly.

In the three hours since she had talked to her brother, she hadn’t paused to think about her mother. In fact, she made a point of not thinking about her, and not only because of the demands of her job. The “It’s Mom” message gave her a familiar wrench-in-the-works feeling because each incident involving her mother upended her life. Last time Helen left a pan unattended, and while she was out cold on the couch, the kitchen curtains caught fire. Taking a nap, she had said. The repairs and insurance claim took weeks to sort out. A year before that, her mother was stranded in Vegas, having reached the cash limits on her accounts, hawked her jewelry and burned through the proceeds. As in the past, there would be consequences. Legalities. Arguments. Reparations. And, eventually, promises to do better. Those were the worst.

She considered what to tell Stan. A few years ago, he had met her mother during a rare visit. Helen had embarrassed everyone by flirting ostentatiously with Stan in front of his wife. But Stan knew no more about Helen than Geneva revealed—not a great deal.

“Geneva?”

She leaned back in her chair. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. My mother’s had a car accident.”

 “Oh, no. How bad is it?”

“Serious but not life threatening, as far as I know. My brother was updating me.” She tapped the phone on her desk.

“Can I do anything?”

It’s my life and I can’t even control it, she thought. What could anyone else do? “I’ve kept someone waiting in Room Two for twenty minutes. It’s my last appointment. You free?”

“You bet,” he said, getting up. “And let me know if you’ll need time off.”

Dublin’s message was a list: fractured knee and leg, broken nose (from the airbag, she presumed), dislocated shoulder, possible concussion, monitoring for internal injuries, stable. He had placed the word “stable” in quotes. She smiled thinly at the quip, then winced as she imagined her mother in a hospital bed, in a hip cast, her nose taped across the bridge and bruises blooming under her closed eyes.

 

Geneva lifted the leash off the hook behind the door and hung up her lab coat. She left her office and stopped by reception to remind the assistant to check on Zeke later that evening.

Outside the treatment room, she peeked through the window in the door. Rosa bent over a computer next to Diesel, Geneva’s Great Dane mix. The dog had recognized her footfall in the corridor and sat up expectantly, his ears like twin sails in a stiff breeze. She pushed open the door and called to him. He trotted across the room and sat in front of her, his nose at her waist, and lifted a paw. She held it and inspected the strip of adhesive tape on his forelimb. Tom, her husband, had brought Diesel to the clinic that morning to donate blood for a dog that had been hit by a car.

She stroked Diesel’s ears flat. “How’s my brave boy? Ready for that steak I promised you?”

 

The marsh wasn’t on her way home. By the time she stood on the path that ran along Pickleweed Inlet, the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais had turned the water midnight blue. A pair of kayaks, pointed toward Sausalito, slipped along the eelgrass at the marsh edge. She walked Diesel only a short distance, not wanting to tire him after the transfusion. Raising her binoculars, she scanned for unusual shorebirds. A dowitcher probed the sand and a handful of sandpipers huddled close before scattering like children at recess. The head of a harbor seal surfaced twenty feet from shore. It regarded her briefly, then vanished, leaving the merest ripple.

The binoculars were a ninth birthday present from her father, Eustace, who died less than two years later. The weight of them on the strap around her neck calmed her as she looked across water at the reeds on the distant bank, Diesel’s shoulder against her thigh. Her father had no particular love for birds, but Geneva tagged along when he hunted turkey or small game in the lush Carolina wood. He said searching for songbirds would keep her occupied during the long quiet mornings in the woods. Walking behind him on the narrow paths in the pre-dawn glow, his back as broad as the trunks of the ancient cottonwoods around them, she felt safe, and because of that, happy. They only spoke occasionally, when he would drop to one knee and show her some animal sign—a new opening in the bramble or a print in the dewy moss—his voice so low it sank into the damp mulch at their feet. He never minded when there was nothing to shoot, and she never minded when there was. The harsh crack of the rifle and the limp rabbits and doves represented the practical cost of the joy of those mornings.

That marked the beginning of her interest in animals, and the beginning of who she was to become. When her father died, she felt forsaken. A few years passed before she also felt cheated. Her eldest sister, Paris, was nearly an adult when he died, and his love for her was blinding, uncommon. Geneva, by comparison, was a child in the shadows. He had missed out on her entirely.

She turned toward the car. Tom would be wondering where she was. She would have to explain why she hadn’t called him about Helen. He would nod with understanding. And when he asked if she wanted him to go with her to L.A., she would watch for the measured disappointment on his face as she admitted she hadn’t decided whether to go.

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me

Note: I wrote this years ago, before I was lucky enough to land an agent and become a published author. In a few days, my third novel will be released and yesterday I handed in the revisions for my fourth. I'm all out of words for now and my garden needs me, so you'll have to forgive this somewhat dated story. I hope it makes you laugh.

My youngest daughter is leaving for college in the fall. At least I hope so. Despite dire warnings issued by my friends about Empty Nest Syndrome, I figure that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’ve done my job: she has all of her digits and no outstanding warrants. How can I be mourning her childhood when I haven’t figured out how to turn her room into a small-batch brewery? Besides, from what I understand I’ll be lucky if she and her sister don’t graduate from college and then try to crawl back into my womb.

I’ve got a bigger problem. After I had my teeth cleaned yesterday I chatted with the nice ladies at the desk. One asked if she could buy my novel yet. I told her I was still trying to land an agent, and that in the current publishing market that was like trying to become a supermodel. (I could have said that my book might suck, but she wants to believe in me, so I didn’t.)

“Don’t you have an agent from your last book?” I published a book about animal intelligence ten years ago. You can buy it on Amazon today for four cents. That’s right. You give them a nickel and they’ll give you my book, plus change. Still star struck? Anyway, like I said, these ladies are nice. I’m not just teeth to them.

So I explain that I sold the book directly to the publisher and that my editor now only sells health books (how annoying) and my junior editor founded some multimedia enterprise and…The dental ladies’ eyes are glazing over. Then I remember something about the junior editor.

“He married, um, that actress, you know, the one from, um…” They are looking more hopeful. Their good manners might earn them a tidbit. If only I could remember the name of the actress, or even the movie.

“The Breakfast Club!”

“Oh, her!”

“I know her!”

Of course we all know her. Everyone knows her. And it goes without saying that you know her, that you’re shouting her name in your head, or even out loud. And you’re wondering how someone as stupid as me even manages to find the letters on the keyboard to get this down. You are thinking that because you don’t have what I have, at least not yet. You don’t have Empty Brain Syndrome.

But the dental ladies do.

“I can see her face.”

“Me, too. She’s got red hair.”

“I’m going to google it.”

“No!” They stare at me. “I mean, let’s try to remember.”

I do this a lot. I’m not going down easily or quietly. I’ve discovered that most of the time I can retrieve the information I’m looking for. Eventually. As long as I can hear it breathing in the foggy swamp that is my memory, I will not rest. Yesterday I was on my game and hunted that sucker down.

“Molly Ringwald. That’s the one, right?”

“That’s her!” the dental ladies cheered.

Other days I feel like I’m on Jeopardy, playing against that guy that set the all-time record. You know the one. Ken What’s-his-face. I keep pushing my buzzer, standing there like an idiot with my mouth open until Alex Trebek (didn’t even have to pause for that one—hah!) gives me that supercilious little smirk and I step over to the podium and smack him.

The one person who admires my retrieval efforts is my husband. Days after we both fail to recall a name, or a place, I will tell him what it is and he will be amazed. Or pretend to be amazed, which is just as good.

“Well done!” Delivered in his BBC English, as if I had made an improbable whatever-you-call-it in cricket.

I left the dental ladies and stopped at the nursery to get a tomatillo plant. A thirty-something showed me where they were and pointed out a purple variety. Last year I made purple pesto from purple basil but this seemed wrong.

“It wouldn’t be salsa verde anymore, would it?” I mused.

“No,” she said. “What’s Spanish for ‘purple’?”

Hmmm. My poor brain. Barely had time to dust off from the last mission.

 “Is it marrón?” she offered.

“I don’t think so. But that’s close.” I liked that we were puzzling it out together, me and someone with a functioning hippocampus.

“I’m going to google it later,” she said.

“I’m going to think about it,” I said.

A guy walked by carrying a large plant.

“Hector, what’s ‘purple’ in Spanish?”

No! Don’t tell me! My hands flew to my ears and I hit myself in the head with the tomatillo plant.

“Morado.”

“It’s morado,” she said to me, rubbing it in.

Empty Brain Syndrome be damned. I would have had that before I got to the car.