Going Home for Christmas / Going South

Once upon a time, I lived in a city that was a few hours north-east of my hometown. At the time I didn’t have a car (or a driver’s license, for that matter) so visiting my parents usually meant a long Greyhound trip. Sometimes, though, the train tickets went on a big enough sale that I could mentally justify the expense of the much pleasanter rail trip. I loved taking the train — still do, really.

One of the funny things about traveling between these two cities was that winter arrived in them at different times. About a decade ago I took the train home for Christmas, and while it was thoroughly cold and snowy in the city where I lived, it was really still just late fall where I was going. It was so odd to see the scenery change from winter to fall, as if a time-lapse film were playing in reverse.

Naturally, I wrote a poem about the experience. It has just been published by The Scriblerus in their Spring 2021 “travel” issue and you can read it here.

Small spring updates

Garden

The tulips are out.

Kitchen

I made lasagna today for the first time, and so the kids and I also made homemade ricotta following this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. Dead easy, delicious, and about half the price of a tub from the store. We’ll be doing this again.

Gelatine adventures continue. I’ve been doing teas! Vanilla Rooibos is delicious in jelly form, Jasmine Green Tea a little pretty so-so. I’m thinking my next experiment will be cubed jellied Earl Grey with a sweetened condensed milk pour-over. Also I’m saving bones in the freezer to try my hand at p’tcha. More foods should have names that fun to say. P’tcha!

Words

My poem “Seclusion (A Checklist)” has been published by Jet Fuel Review (issue 21) and can be read online here. It’s part of this issue’s special section featuring golden shovel poems — a relatively new poetic form that is technically challenging and used to pay tribute to another poem or poet. The poet chooses a line by another writer, and each word of the origi line becomes the last word of each line in the new poem — such that the original line may be read down the right-hand side. Confused? I always find it a bit difficult to explain but seeing an example will make it fairly obvious.

In my case, I used a line by Christabel LaMotte, a poet who does not, technically speaking, exist; she’s a character in A. S. Byatt’s remarkable novel Possession (about which I have written here, and which also makes my list of desert island books). I was struck by the line “to drag a long life out in a dark room” in one of LaMotte’s/Byatt’s poems, and — well, click the link above if you would like to see where that took me!

Anniversary bake and jelly cake

No, not our wedding anniversary, although we did have one relatively recently. I mean this little lady’s anniversary:

My good girl Sheryl has been hanging out for a year now. She lives in the cold and the dark and puts up with gross neglect for weeks on end. Yet for all that, she still makes some lovely loaves! My kitchen is cold and so they never end up as lofty as other peoples’ seem to, but they’re chewy and tangy nonetheless. Way to go, Sheryl.

Just look at that blistered crust. I have to say, I think that sourdough starters are a lot more flexible and resilient than a lot of people seem to think. The internet is awash with all sorts of finicky methods (usually named after somebody) that involve very precise times and temperatures and adjusting the amount of water in relation to the humidity of the air, as well as (I assume) performing certain obscure incantations and using flour that was ground in the light of the full moon.

I do pay attention to my measurements — a kitchen scale is a handy tool for this sort of thing — but other than that? I figure that people have been making sourdough for thousands of years. This is something you would carry around in a crock while you followed your goat herd and then baked over hot rocks. It’s a yeast colony. It will survive.

In other culinary news, I’ve been (somewhat inexplicably) really getting into gelatine lately. Why? It’s hard to say. I’ve always loved jell-o (especially with a little dab of fake whipped cream on top, like we always had at summer camp). And when I made panna cotta in the kids’ breakfast milk cups for April Fools, I realised how easy it actually is and a whole world opened up.

Anyway, here’s a jelly cake:

The top layer is orange jell-o with shredded carrot inside (something I remember having at potlucks long, long ago) and the bottom layer is a milk gelatin made with sweetened condensed milk. I don’t actually have any proper molds so this was made in a lightly greased bread pan, which worked well except for being slightly too long for the plate once decanted.

As you can see from that “bloom” of milk jelly in the middle, the orange layer wasn’t quite set enough when I poured in the second, and there was a little intermingling. No matter; I count this very successful as a first attempt and look forward to more experimentation. Nobody here likes jellies as much as I do, so I’ll probably be eating most of those experiments alone.

I am 100% ok with this.

Maryland Summer

Toddler Perpetua in Ocean City, MD.

Our family lived in Maryland for almost three years, in a walk-up apartment with a South-West facing balcony. I loved to sit out there in the long summer evenings: our complex was surrounded by trees, which were perfectly silhouetted by the changing colours of the sunset. They would slowly shade to black as the sky became a deeper and deeper blue, until finally the first stars came out. Behind the nearby sound barrier, the cars on I-83 sounded like waves on the beach.

I’m very pleased to announce that my piece “Maryland Summer: Three Small Evening Poems” has just been published in the second issue of Humana Obscura.

You can read the entire issue online here, or purchase a print copy here. You’ll find me on page 19.

Sic transit gloria Samsung

My cellphone is dying.

My cellphone is dying, and I am rapidly cycling through the stages of grief. Denial: repeatedly rebooting in hopes that it will magically fix things. Bargaining: trying to appease my phone by deleting unused apps and updating the rest. Anger: my CloudLibrary app won’t open and I’m halfway through a giant fantasy novel and I’m second on the holds list for a physical copy and I need to know what happens next, what is your problem, phone?? Depression: none of my apps work, I can’t even respond to texts, my phone is useless, nothing will ever be good or right in the world ever again. Acceptance: ordering a new phone from our provider. Oh, it’ll take a week to get here? Back to anger we go!

It’s got me thinking, though: it’s funny how quickly we adjust to an object’s functionality, and how destabilizing it is when it breaks. My first cellphone — and I was a relatively late adopter, so this was only about a decade ago — could basically do two things: make and receive calls, and send and receive text messages. I think there was a simple game on it, Brickbreaker or Snake or something like that. My second phone had a slider keyboard, which was pretty awesome, but not much more functionality except for a very minimalist and difficult to use internet browser, and a camera that took incredibly low-res pictures. That phone eventually stopped being able to receive calls (I think it was), which roughly corresponded to our move to the US, so I got a cheap copycat-Blackberry from AT&T that got me through school. Again, this phone was minimally functional: bad pictures, phone, text, and I don’t even remember if it could get on the internet or not. I think it might have, but it was so much of a pain to do that it wasn’t generally worth the time.

And then came our big move post-graduation, for which my husband and I both updated to actual smartphones. What a world opened up! Apps! Games! Google maps! Beautiful pictures from decent cameras! Internet! Email! I chose a Samsung Galaxy S7, which was small enough to fit in my purse with ease and, unlike the Note 7, was not prone to exploding. Because I have the natural coordination of a drunk toddler, it was carefully outfitted with a screen protector and shielding case. (Side note: these did their jobs remarkably well under difficult circumstances; the only damage that actually got through to my screen was when a toddler Perpetua decided my phone would make an excellent teething toy.) That was five years ago, and five years is a pretty good run for a smartphone. A really good run, actually, and in that sense I suppose I don’t have much to complain about.

But complain I shall — even though the chief mal here is that my phone will only do the things that used to be the only things that phones could do. (Except for my messaging app crashing, which it didn’t do yesterday but is doing today, and which I hope might surprise me and start working again. Oops, back to denial!) I’ve gotten very used to being able to send an email while I’m nursing the baby, or to put on a podcast and stick the phone in my pocket so I can listen while I clean or fold laundry. I’ve come to rely on GPS when I’m driving somewhere new, and count on being able to quickly look things up online no matter where I am in the house, or whether I’m even in the house at all. These things that used to be novel conveniences have become expected essentials, and suddenly being denied them has left me, well, floundering.

I’m vexed at this loss of functionality. I’m vexed at how vexed I am. And I’m coping less well than I might because lovely, darling, beautiful Tertia has recently decided that sleep is for chumps and weaklings and has been holding me hostage accordingly.

My cellphone is dying. And please, pretty please, I would like it back.

Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.

Weekend Reading: Publishing, Conspiracies, Tech Behaving Badly, MLMs

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. How Capitalism Changed American Literature (PublicBooks.org)

Both essays tell partial truths. By missing corporate conglomeration, they miss the whole. The two paths paved by the period—which subsume and reorient realism or avant-garde, MFA or NYC—were nonprofit or commercial. Two different ways of structuring publishers’ finances created a split within literature, yielding two distinct modes of American writing.

2. Why Is It So Hard to Reach the Christian Conspiracy Theorist? (David French)

And so I feel I should change my response to the question that launched this piece. When you fear for the mind and heart of your conspiracy-committed mother or uncle or son, don’t wait. Engage. But don’t engage immediately with argument, but instead with the fellowship and love that makes the heart want to turn towards truth. You become the person who loves them, accepts them, and helps provide that vital sense of virtuous purpose. 

The conspiracy theory is often the symptom of an underlying disease—a disease of hate or fear that robs a person of joy. The fierce anger and furious purpose of the conspiracy mindset is a hollow replacement for the peace and faith found not just in truth, but in truth communicated by a loving and empathetic family and friends. 

3. Clubhouse is Suggesting Users Invite Their Drug Dealers and Therapists (Medium)

Granting an app access to your contacts is ethically dicey, even if it’s an app you trust. If you’re like most people, the contacts in your phone include not just your real-life friends, but also old acquaintances, business associates, doctors, bosses, and people you once went on a bad date with. For journalists, they might also include confidential sources (although careful journalists will avoid this). When you upload those numbers, not only are you telling the app developer that you’re connected to those people, but you’re also telling it that those people are connected to you — which they might or might not have wanted the app to know. For example, say you have an ex or even a harasser you’ve tried to block from your life, but they still have your number in their phone; if they upload their contacts, Clubhouse will know you’re connected to them and make recommendations on that basis.

4. 12 Ways that MLMs Impact Society (MLMtruth.org)

Multilevel marketing is often ridiculed for its exaggerated promises of income freedom. People often gasp at some of the, admittedly rare, cases where individuals have lost 100s of thousands of dollars, relative to the others that have invested in the scheme. For nearly a decade, writers like the Finance Guy, Sequence Inc, Talented Ladies Club and Ethan Vanderbuilt have offered an incredibly thorough analysis of the financial consequences of becoming a distributor in nearly every major direct selling company.

Today we want to highlight those costs that aren’t captured in this financial analysis. This list is neither exhaustive or ordered in any particular manner.

This is a looonnng read. It is stitched together in one large post to illustrate just how large of an impact these companies have, and how little understanding we all have of their true COST.

How to buy a piano in thirty easy steps

1. Be stuck in a chair, nursing. Idly browse kijiji on your phone because breastfeeding is so, so boring. Happen across an ad for a piano. Note the reasonableness of the price.

2. Reminisce about how nice it was to grow up with a piano in the house. Imagine how nice it will be for Anselm to do his piano practice on a real instrument instead of the electric keyboard. Imagine spending afternoons playing hymns and folk songs while your (cherubic and in-tune) children sing along.

3. Send the ad to your husband, subject line: “I want this.”

4. Phone conversation with husband: Should we buy the piano? Conclusion: Reach out and see if it’s still available.

5. Call the number listed on the ad. Talk to “Mike”. Mike can’t tell you if the piano is available since he’s not in the office. He’ll call you back within half an hour.

6. Wait.

7. Phone call from Mike: the piano is available. But can you remind him what the ad said the price was? Put the phone on speaker while you look for the ad. Why doesn’t Mike know this?

8. Kijiji app won’t load. Grab the link from your email’s sent folder and read it back to him.

9. Oh, “Midsize piano rich sound half price for piano and delivery” means that delivery will be half-price, not that delivery is included. Ask Mike how much delivery is. Mike tells you how much of a deal half-price delivery is, no other shop in the city will do it, you know a piano weighs four hundred, six hundred pounds and you’ve got to use the ramp and the sledge, and by the way, how many stairs do you have up to your house? Say you’ll call him back in half an hour.

10. Phone conversation with husband re. updated price: Should we still buy the piano? Conclusion: Mike seems… odd, but sure, let’s do it.

11. Phone call with Mike: Yes, you’ll take the piano. Confirm all-in price for instrument and delivery. Ask when he can do the delivery. Well, maybe tomorrow, maybe sometime in the next week or two, he’ll have to check and call you back, he’s not in the office right now.

12. Rearrange the family room to make room for the piano. Vacuum behind the bookshelf you just moved. Comfort Tertia, who is scared of the vacuum.

13: Phone call from Mike: miscellaneous thumping and crashing noises, muted yelling of men at work in the background. Hello? Hello? Phone call is apparently from Mike’s pocket. The call disconnects. You still don’t know when the piano is coming.

14. Husband is home from work. When is the piano coming? You can’t answer. How are we supposed to pay for it? Well, you’re not quite sure. You didn’t pay him already, did you? No, no. We’ll pay on delivery.

15. Eat dinner. Put the baby to bed. Start Anselm’s piano practice.

16. Text message from Mike: “. 7uhj”. Respond “?”. Receive reply “Who’s this”. Be in the middle of writing your answer when your phone rings.

17. Phone conversation with Mike: Man he’s busting his butt for this job all day and his f’n phone’s sending messages while it’s locked, I mean how does it even do that, well anyway where do you live again? Yeah, maybe tomorrow, he’ll let you know.

18. Resume piano practice. Mama, when is the real piano coming? You don’t know, buddy. Soon.

19. Start getting the children ready for bed. The phone rings. It’s Mike! Mike is right around the corner so he’s going to bring the piano now. What’s your address again?

20. Your husband runs out to the ATM for cash. Perpetua is too excited to eat and wants to stand at the window until the piano comes. Convince her to come back and finish her snack. Time passes.

21. Your husband is back from the ATM. Are they not here yet? No, not yet.

22. Get the children in their pyjamas. No piano. Start reading their bedtime story. No piano.

23. Phone call from Mike. What’s your address, again?

24. Two minutes later: phone call from Mike. Sorry, long day, what’s your address, again?

25. Finish reading bedtime story. Pray. Resign yourself to the fact that the children absolutely will not go to bed until the piano comes.

26. Oh, there’s a truck! And it’s backing over your lawn. There is a lot of inching, adjusting and yelling. The piano is coming! Briefly consider stapling your children’s pyjamas to the couch as a means of keeping them in place.

27. Explain to Mike that even though the family room is right there, the clearance is too tight and the piano will have to take the long way around: front room through kitchen through dining room through back hallway and finally through the family room to its far wall. Maybe this is why the previous owner kept her piano in the front room.

28. Realise that whatever Mike’s phone habits may be, he is a bonafide piano-moving savant. The piano goes all the way through and around the house with nary a hitch. He has been doing this job for twenty years and is in complete control of the instrument, his teammate, and his tools. Thank you, Mike.

29. Everything is in place. Mike and his associate leave with the cash, and a bottle of scotch for a tip. Notice the handy way the piano shows off the slope of your floor, which you hadn’t noticed before. Wrestle the kids to sleep.

30. Joy: