Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolution redux

It's that post-holiday time of year, when every third commercial is about dieting, gym memberships, or unbelievably buff people touting exercise machines that cost more than my first car. After a few days of these spots, I start thinking about resolutions for the new year. Maybe fitness would be a good place to start, I ponder. Something besides tummy crunches. I make a few pseudo-kung-fu moves.

"Hee-ah!" I try out a kick in front of the television. It feels impressive. I try a couple more, a little bit louder. "Hwah! Hoo-hah! Hee-ah!"

Suddenly I hear my husband's voice from the next room. "I'm hearing weird sounds," he says. "Did the cat just throw up?"

Okay, maybe fitness isn't my strongest suit. I could work more, but I already spend enough time at the desk to have a pitiful lack of hobbies. The last fiction I read was a brochure at the doctor's office touting the joys of broccoli. And while I do watch TV, I don't think George Lopez can count as a viable pastime.

Maybe it's a good year to get organized. First, I'll need a pencil, some paper, and a new calendar. I begin searching through old Barnes & Noble bags for the calendar. No luck. My husband suggests I look in the filing cabinet. Ha! That man and his crazy notions. However, sometimes he does have an occasional helpful thought. I open the filing cabinet gingerly, just in case a giant spider has taken up residence in there since the last time I filed papers. Instead, I find lots of other cool stuff, like a box of dried-up ink pens from 2002, a box of stuck-together envelopes, and three pristine calendars, still in the shrink-wrap. Eureka! I take a closer look at the date. Two of the calendars are for 2001, and the other is for 1999. Undeterred, I open the box of pens, take one, and do the zero scribble on an envelope for about three minutes. I'm encouraged by bits of blue appearing in the grooved circles, so I consider my calendar options, then go with the 1999 Scooby-Doo calendar, a classic. I begin scribbling in potential goals on each month, like "Write best-seller" and "Find good tuna recipe."

Just then, my own personal Scrooge peeks over my shoulder. "You know, that calendar is sadly out of date."

"Don't stomp on my dreams," I reply, writing in a note to lose hubby's socks in March.

He shakes his head and leaves, mumbling something about institution and commitment. It gives me such a warm glow when he talks about our marriage, so I carve in (the pen has quit working by this time) a reminder to lose only half of his socks; this gives him a warm foot to stand on. My goals now set, I wander back to the living room, wait for the Ab Killer commercial to end, then relax with a well-deserved glass of wine. I think it's wine, anyway. I do vaguely remember buying some grape juice last July. I sip delicately from my plastic Shrek glass, comforted by the fact that the new year is all planned out, and I've got everything under control. I ignore the giant crash from the kitchen, followed by a plaintive 'Meow?' Yep, everything's under control. Best of all, George Lopez is coming up next.

Have a wonderful New Year's Eve, everyone!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Soul food, soul day

Yesterday was one of those serene, wonderful days that come all too rarely in life. I didn't have to go into town, so the morning went delightfully slow with hours to myself. I wrote, then I sat down and read a wonderful newspaper piece by DeNeen L. Brown on soul food. The first-person essay was beautifully written, from the detailed, relaxed preparation of dinner to a vivid trip into the kitchens of her youth. While the essay was primarily syndicated because of Kwanzaa, I realized that the African-American aspect of soul food is but one reflection of Southern cuisine traditions born of necessity. Many of the dishes she mentioned I remember from my own childhood; in fact, a pot of pinto beans bubbled while I read the paper.

I, too, follow the habits of my mother when cooking, and those comforting, cheap dishes are the only ones that I can prepare easily and with skill. I 'look' the beans before washing them, just like she does, then wait to bake the cornbread until just before the beans are finished. Fresh, hot cornbread is yellow, crusty, and definitely not sweet, according to family tradition. As soon as it comes out of the oven, a thin slice along the crust must be cut and swirled with butter, then eaten by the cook. After that, it can set out to cool.

I remember Mom walking up the path, picking greens for poke salad. She loved it. I hated it, because I saw it as the Southern equivalent of the Japanese blowfish; it could be your last meal, unless it was prepared exactly right. I also remember hog jowls and black-eyed peas for New Year's Day, crackers made from leftover pie crust dough, fried chicken made crispy in Mom's favorite cast iron skillet, and the delicious taste of fried green tomatoes and squash, golden brown on each side. My favorite meal on earth is pinto beans, hot cornbread, fried potatoes, and fresh green onions and tomatoes just fifteen minutes out of the garden. Extra bonus: fresh, chilled cucumber slices. Mmmm. One taste of homegrown cukes, and you'll never touch those waxy, green torpedoes from the supermarket again.

On a truly soulful and peaceful day, I thank Ms. Brown for bringing all those excellent memories of my mother's kitchen back to my mind.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

And what did you get for Christmas?

Wormy got a motorcycle under the tree this year. Had to make him a little do-rag to keep his antenna from tangling, of course. He's actually posing in a parking space on one of Eureka Springs' curvy streets, ready to rumble over to the library. Worms gone wild!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Holiday trick and treats

Mmmmmmm, holiday treats. So far this year, we've received delicious banana nut bread, yummy peanut clusters, and rich fudge. And my present to all these talented culinary gift-givers? I'm not cooking for them. It's the kindest thing I can (not) do, really. I'm just not cut out for Betty Crocker. If you pass by the house we used to live in, you'll likely see small round patches in the back yard where nothing grows; this is where I threw out a bad batch of peanut butter cookies about fifteen years ago.

Candy thermometers? I believe that's what doctors use to take the temperature of sick gingerbread men. If I made chocolate peanut clusters, the Army would be at my door with a blank defense contract, asking for more of those 'anti-personnel devices.' 'We couldn't believe it,' a general would tell me. 'Terrorists laughed at our bombs, but turned and ran when we threw these candies at them.'

One optimistic friend gave me a lovely jar filled with pre-mixed fixins' for chocolate-butterscotch drop cookies. Yeah, they're drop cookies, all right; I've already dropped the jar once. The air filled with a lovely, chocolate-sweet scent, and I realized the jar would be more beneficial as a room freshener. I may get drunk on New Year's Eve and decide to try making the cookies, who knows? Wine makes me do crazy things on New Year's Eve; that's how I ended up on, checking out how far the homecoming queen has fallen, and where the ex-boyfriends ended up. But for now, I'll just open the jar and wave the smell around, then tear into a bag of Archway's cookies, arrange them on a plate, and call it a day.

Monday, December 17, 2007

All work and no blog

I really wish I was one of those people who could blog every day. In a way, I do. I write blog posts in my head while I'm driving or cleaning house or chasing the puppies to put them in their pen for the night. Problem is, I also have a bad memory, and those posts just disappear into the ether when my brain is distracted by an incoming dog disaster, a business phone call, or something shiny dangling from a tree branch. (Darn those wind chimes!)

The work always comes first, and I've been very blessed this year. The blessings continue this month, as I race to get interviews before everyone goes 'Poof!' on Christmas Eve. My mind is blotchy with welts from multiple rounds of phone tag, I often wander out into public with my headset on, dragging the phone somewhere behind me like a cat toy, and I have yet to find gloves that keep my hands warm while I type and still allow less than 27 mistakes per line.

But, honestly, it's a good life. I'm doing what I always imagined: I'm a professional writer. Checks come on a nearly frequent basis in my name. I get those wonderful 'professional discount' coupons in the mail for magazine subscriptions. (Yes, they get me every time. Who can resist two years of helpful, womanly hints for $10?)

So, if I suddenly pop into your mind for no apparent reason, just know that you've probably been mentioned in an imaginary blog post, written on passing clouds like all creative thoughts, able to be read only by meditating monks and the Dalai Lama. Hey, he's laughing with you, not at you. And he loved the cats playing paintball calendar idea I had for Dawn but never posted.

I'd also like to correct a link for a friend of mine. JR recently began a new blog after I tagged him with the latest meme making the rounds. He's a newbie writer, very creative, and he's working on a book about local history. He's also finished NaNoWriMo a few times, and has a lot of talent. Now, if he would just submit something...somewhere. Anywhere. (Hint. I'm talking to you, JR.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In orbit

Some days you feel like good ol' Mother Earth, solid, grounded, and intuitive. Other days, you're Skylab, tired, broken, hurtling toward the dirt and making people on several continents duck, then wait for the boom. This has been a Skylab week, where my worries have become space junk circling around me, before we all go plunging to the ground, making a dent in some foreign country. Yesterday I hit a major writer's roadblock; the words simply would not come, even when I squeezed my head like a tube of toothpaste. Fast forward to last night's stress meltdown, and today's achy nerve hangover. Luckily, there's one bit of shiny brightness; I've been tagged by Wordsmith, and must concentrate on something other than the entire state of Ohio, and how best to describe it.

So, without further ado, here are the rules:

Link to the tagger and post these rules on your blog. Share five facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird. Tag five people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

1. Random fact: I am left-handed, although no one has ever called me 'Lefty.' My left-handedness is a direct gift of individuality from my father, who passed away when I was eight. My first-grade teacher wanted to force me to become right-handed, and he said absolutely not. His grade-school teacher forced him to become a 'righty' by tying his left hand behind his back when he was a kid, and that experience made him stand up for me and my unique quirks. Thanks, Daddy.

2. Weird fact: I eat with chopsticks or plastic forks, because I really, really, really hate the sound of metal utensils scraping teeth. I do eat with regular forks, spoons and knives when we eat out, but I'm very careful.

3. Factoid: I have no children, but many pets, including cats, dogs, and one spider. I haven't dressed any of them in cute or humorous clothing.

4. Fact-a-chicka-boom-boom: I've always wanted to be a writer, except for a brief period in my teen years when I wanted to be a sex therapist. Actually, I wanted to write books like Dr. Joyce Brothers, so I guess my budding hormones just kicked the writer thing up a notch.

5. Factling: I used to attend UFO conferences, and collect story ideas. Really, this is one of the best ways to hit a sci-fi jackpot; just sit in the lobby and listen. Wait until you get to the car to take notes, though. It makes the attendees paranoid to see a lone person scribbling away in the corner.

Hmmm, who's left to tag? I tag Nita at Nita's Notes; Greg at A Cranky Engineer; Jen at Creatif; J.R. at Walksquiet (maybe he'll update his blog now!) and Jenn at Working Writer (since completing this helped me forget my worries for a while, hoping it'll distract her, too.)

I did it! Bwah-hah-hah-ha!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Gimme more, more more! Four fave free tools for writers

Writers and free stuff: it's a natural relationship. For a writer, feast or famine isn't just a saying, it's a life cycle. Whether you're going through the lean times or just remember them vividly, these free online tools will help as you toil in the word mines, hammering together those manuscripts.

1. iGoogle. How did I live without this for so long? This handy tool allows you to create your own pimped-out homepage from hundreds of widgets, including a preview of your Gmail. Writers will appreciate many of the add-ons, including Literary Quotes of the Day, Shakespearean insults, a search box, or the excellent and handy Writer's Unblock prompts. Also add any flavor of news, from Fox to NPR, weather, horoscopes, moon phases, and nearly anything else you can imagine. I tried out the Office Paintball game widget, which was great fun but a bit noisy, but the Magic Trick of the Day shows promise. Tired of searching page after page on Craigslist for writing jobs? Add the Craigslist search widget, tweak the settings for your needs, and gather job leads whenever you have a spare moment between queries. Having all the widgets on one page saved time for me, because now I don't surf over to three or four sites in my usual procrastination routine, and I actually start working a little earlier in the day.

2. Project Gutenberg. All the fun of a book sale, without having to cart heavy boxes home. Sure, you're familiar with all your favorites here: Poe, Twain, Austen, Dickens, Joyce, Kafka, and the rest of the gang. But have you ever searched for writing texts? I was thrilled to find an early book on freelance writing, originally published in 1920, complete with example essays ripped from the current publications of the time. It was a fascinating read, and so much of the advice remains the same. Do a bit of digging, and you'll find books on short story writing, screenwriting, American literature, Italian poetry, and many other treats, all free for the downloading. An extra bonus for the holiday season: the site has an online advent calendar, with a different children's book under each day that you and the munchkin can read together.

3. NaNoWriMo. Yes, November is over, and most people consider this an event. But I truly consider it a great writing tool; each year, I'm amazed that I've finished this truly crappy novel by December 1. Writing a crappy novel in a month teaches you all sorts of things about writing, including how to just get the words out on a page, and how to wrangle characters so they do what you want. Starting this year, sign-ups for NaNoWriMo will be available all year long, so you can sign up, hop on the message boards, and get involved with writing and editing, or jump straight into procrastinating for 2008. Each regional lounge is also open so you can communicate with other writers in your area. The NaNofather, Chris Baty, has a knack for inspiration, so when you're dragging a bit, check out his pep talks, or peruse this year's pep talks from Neil Gaiman, Sue Grafton, Garth Nix, and other notable authors.

4. Rainlendar (and other software). This program is a writer's dream. It will display several months in advance on your desktop, a great thing when your body is in December, but your mind is in March or April planning queries. The free version also has to-do lists and alerts, and you can customize it with skins. Bump up to the paid version if you want Rainlendar to network with Outlook or Google Calendar. Other freebie must-haves that get a brief mention: OpenOffice, a free and very handy office suite, and FoxIt PDF Reader, which takes up a lot less room and works faster than Adobe Reader.

For a bonus freebie, I'll mention another calendar I can't do without: the annual Free Writer's Planner from Julie Hood and Organized Writer. Even though I never make it through step one of her five-step daily checklist, I still love her newsletter, and print out the planner every year in a burst of New Year's-resolution-I can-do-it frenzy. I try to carry it in the car with me at all times, so when I'm stuck waiting on the hubby I can whip out my planner and make a few notes. Thanks to Julie, and when the wind is just right, I almost feel....organized. Then the universe notices my self-satisfied feeling and drops a dab of chaos right on my head.

Even if you've seen some of these free tools before, take a second look and get the most out of them. After all, you can't beat the price.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Santa's blast from the past

In the interest of catching up on all my work this week, I'll be posting one or two of my newspaper columns from my former employer, the Carroll County News. This is a Christmas column from December, 2001. I've edited out the website URLs that no longer exist; luckily, the coolest one is still around, and you can still chat with Bif the Elf. I'm very fond of Bif, because this column won an honorable mention from the Arkansas Press Association. This blast from the past comes to you with permission from my former managing editor, Jerry Dupy. Thanks, Jerry!

The Lighter Side of the Net

After last week’s column, I had a couple of requests for sites that let kids e-mail Santa. Since I listen to my public (all two of you), I did a bit more digging on the web and found that yes, Marsha, there IS a Santa Claus and he’s at This is a cool site with lots of activities. I especially enjoyed the Christmas Karaoke feature. After a rousing rendition of ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ left the cats hiding under the couch, I tried out the ‘letter to Santa’ option. It’s fairly straightforward, and doesn’t ask for too much information. You don’t need an email address to send a letter to Santa, just make up a password, and you can come back later, log in, and read Santa’s reply.

Games, recipes, music and stories make this a great site for kids of all ages. The only thing I didn’t like about this site is that it requires Macromedia Flash, but it gives you a link to download the plug-in, and then loads quickly. The one feature that intrigued me, though, was the Elfchat, an automated Javascript program that gives you a chance to chat with one of Santa’s workers from the North Pole. Being the intrepid journalist, I decided to interview Bif the elf on current events of the day. And in true Dave Barry fashion, I am not making this up.

Q: Hello, Bif. How long have you been an elf?

A: The other elves are busy making toys, but I work in the mailroom.

Q: So are you worried about anthrax? Do you wear gloves?

A: I’d rather talk about you.

Q: Let’s not get fresh, Bif.

A: We’ll see.

Q: You sound like a dirty old elf looking for cyber love. Don’t the other elves like you?

A: Not quite.

Q: Do you get bored at the North Pole?

A: Let’s go outside and play.

Q: Back off, Bif. You’re getting fresh again.

A: Does it please you that I’m getting fresh again?

Q: Bif, I’m happily married. We could never have a life together.

A: Perhaps.

Obviously, not many people have been chatting with Bif, so drop in and talk to him. He needs company.

There are a couple of other sites that offer ‘letter to Santa’ services, like (website vamoosed). With this one, you have the option of receiving an email or an instant note on the screen. It’s cute, without tons of advertising swamping you like many holiday sites. Another Santa letter site is (website gone). Like all the Santa letter sites, you fill out a form for the basics and then write a note to Santa. In a few minutes, you get an answer back from Mrs. Claus telling you how busy Santa is, and how happy she is to hear from you. Yeah, yeah, Santa’s probably just stretched out on the couch asleep, listening to football and drooling on the sofa cushions.

Finally, I checked out I was put off by how much information this site requires. This was the only site that wanted my home address, but I didn’t see a snail mail feature for receiving a letter from Santa. It also zapped me with an error when I didn’t select three different name-brand toys on my wish list (nothing like teaching branding and consumerism at a young age.) I did receive a very thoughtful, well-written letter from Santa in my email box, though. It emphasized charity and gratitude, which was nice, but was a head-spinning contrast from the toy-heavy letter it urged me to send. I suspect these elves are corporate marketing execs in pointy shoes and Santa took a few public relations and communications classes. (Note: I was right; now the site has a disclaimer saying the kids' letters may be used for marketing purposes.)

All in all, Santa seems to be a pretty wired guy, so send him an email this year. The reindeer are probably checking his inbox as we speak, which is no small feat for someone with hooves. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m expecting an email of my own from Bif.