Friday, 28 September 2012

Lavender Cookies

My lavender hasn't done very well this year, so I ordered two ounces of dried flowers from someone on (culinary grade). I don't care about sachets and potpourri, but I only get lavender cookies once a year and I'm not going to forego them just because a few plants take it into their heads to be stingy this year.

The shipment arrived - joy! - except there was only one ounce. So I sent a quick email to the seller to remind her about the other ounce. She acknowledged the goof and said she'd get the other ounce into the mail right away... but it never arrived. I inquired, and she said the packet must have gone astray. So she sent it again. This time it arrived, and inside I found this nice person had added a third extra ounce of lavender plus some gorgeous lemon-orange homemade soap as compensation for the wait, along with a nice note. Isn't that sweet? So now I have enough lavender for TONS of cookies. I am sending her some homemade dish cloths as a thank-you. Who knows? Maybe I've made a friend. And somewhere someone unknown has received a packet of lavender gone astray, and is puzzling over it.

Here's the recipe:

1 c. shortening
2 c. sugar (hey, I never said they were healthy)
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla
3/4 c. milk
Mix together. Then add:
2 t. baking powder
1 t. soda
4 c. flour
1/3 c. crumbled fresh or dried lavender flowers

Roll into balls, flatten slightly on parchment-lined cookie sheet, and bake at 375 degrees 10-14 minutes until golden. Makes 4 dozen. These freeze well. Not that you'll get any into the freezer, because they get snarfed down the instant they come out of the oven.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Boredom for Fun and Profit

My friend sent my husband a message today (I don't have a cell phone) saying she had nothing to do and he should tell me to update my blog with something new for her to read. So here I am, just for you, Della. And I've been musing about the nature of boredom. I've heard it said that without boredom, there would be no progress, nothing to spur us to creativity. I suppose there's some truth to that; if you don't have some free time on your hands, you won't be able to explore new inventions or daydream and come up with new solutions. If you're so busy eking out a living that you don't have time to dream, you will experience your own Dark Ages as far as creativity goes. Susan Maushart says "The role of boredom in encouraging innovation and creativity is a critical one." She also says essentially that the discomfort of boredom is what jump-starts motivation, and that you need to have room in your world for staring into space.

I can see that side of it, and I've certainly spent my own share of time staring into space. I strongly believe everyone needs "down" time to rejuvenate and restore and rest their brains. And occasionally that blah-period will bring some fresh ideas to the surface. I have also found the opposite -- that the busier and more engaged I am in daily life, the more creative thoughts crowd into my head. Terrific writing ideas pop into my mind at the most inconvenient times when I am at my most busy (and of course have no time to stop and write). Activity stimulates further activity. Ideas create other ideas. If someone could harness my brain waves at those moments, they'd have a working perpetual motion machine, where the slightest nudge touches off a string of increasingly wild ideas building more and more energy. Sometimes a single thought will trigger all sorts of reactions and my thoughts go in all directions, like breaking a formation of billiard balls. At those times I feel like I must sit down and write to capture those ricocheting and interesting new thoughts or I'll burst. And if I don't take the time to do it, the tension continues to mount until I start getting snappish with total strangers, grow absentminded, become grouchy and short-tempered. I pace the subway platform muttering to myself like a mad woman. I try out dialogues and block out scenes while I'm driving. In short, the busy real world around me recedes more and more as the world of my mind's creating comes to the fore. The static only goes away when I finally put pen to paper (well, okay, when I start rattling the keyboard of my laptop. But "pen to paper" has better alliteration). It's like those people who don't experience REM sleep; you can only go without dreaming for so long before you start hallucinating while you're awake.

I have learned to carry a small notebook with me everywhere I go. When an idea crowds itself into my head while I'm otherwise engaged, I whip out the notebook and jot a quick note. It's sort of like a release valve letting off the pressure so that it doesn't build to the bursting point. Of course, later when I look at my notebook, I can't decipher my writing, or I'm left facing such cryptic notes as "The Japanese Beekeeper" and "Name for Pita Place: No Bun Intended" and "Plant calendula" and "decorative futilities." What the heck am I supposed to do with that? Where was I going with it? Why did it seem suddenly vital to me to write it down? Then again, I can sometimes take those weird tidbits in my notebook and recreate the scene I had in my head when I wrote them down, and then I can run with it. I've written entire novels based on one or two words that triggered whole plots in my head.

David Grayson said "True literature, like happiness, is ever a by-product; it is the half-conscious expression of a man greatly engaged in some other undertaking...he is more profoundly, vividly interested in the activities of life and he tells about them...over his shoulder."

So if you agree with that sentiment, essentially you believe that creativity comes out of being busily involved in the other activities of life. That thought begets more thought, and energy leads to more energy. I am at my most productive and creative when I'm at my most busy in other parts of my life (which can be both exciting and frustrating). And yet I still agree with Susan Maushart that you need that daydreaming, quiet time and - beyond that - you need some boredom in order to stimulate you to action.

Of course, who am I to say? I've never been bored.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Making Grape Juice

Today I am bottling grape juice. For weeks now I have been pestering my pet farmer to find out when the concords would be ripe. Thursday he reported they're ready. I met him this morning at the Etobicoke Farmers' Market and picked up two bushels. Beautiful fresh things that look more like blueberries than grapes. (And then of course while I was there I had to load up on frilly lettuce and Ontario mushrooms and Scotch Bonnet peppers and Bartlett pears and a fresh, hot apple fritter with amber maple syrup that made me want to weep with pleasure... but I digress).

Ahem. Back to the kitchen. In and out of the garage all day, loading up bowls of grapes to dump into my steam juicer. Wafts of fragrant steam billowing out of the pot. Sticky purple juice the colour of melted crayon. Finger-burning mason jars. The stove ticking like a Ford engine cooling down. The tricky bit trying to get the clamp back on the hose before the juice runs over the top of the jar. The satisfying thuck of lids snapping down and sealing.

Then carting the bowls of steamed, mushy residue out to the composter, where hornets are beginning to gather in delight. Look what I've found, they cry. I clap the lid back on the composter and imagine the heat building, cooking the weed seeds that might be within the black plastic box, something like a pressure cooker. We'll be smelling grapes and dodging hornets for days. Back to the kitchen to start another batch. The jars of gleaming juice forming beautiful rows on the counter; the promise of the taste of summer in winter.

Friday, 14 September 2012

A Fresh Look at Rejection Letters

They say to write about what you know. Well, I know publishers' rejection letters. I'm thoroughly acquainted with them, having received every conceivable kind over the past twenty years.

There are the apologetic ones that fairly sob in your hand: "We tried and tried and just couldn't fit your manuscript into our publishing schedule this year and we're sorry and we don't want you to take it as any indication at all of the quality of your writing or to get discouraged and if we could possibly change the course of the world we would and please don't hate us!" I don't get many of these.

I heard of one from a Japanese company that said approximately, "Your writing is so wonderful that we couldn't possibly do it justice, and if we accepted it we'd never be able to match that sort of quality again and our business would be in ruins."

There are the polite ones that seem fairly sincere: "We're sorry we can't use your submission but we encourage you to keep looking for an appropriate publisher." The ones that make you shrug and try again. Most fall into this category.

There are the ones that rip your heart out: "The last editor really loved your stuff and wanted to publish it, but the day before your contract would have been sent, he went to work for another company (no telling where, of course) and the new editor is too busy cleaning out the old editor's desk and can't be bothered."

Then there are the stiffly indifferent ones, usually photocopied onto blank paper instead of letterhead: "Sorry, this doesn't fit our needs." The ones that make you want to scream "What about MY needs?" The ones that make you wonder if they even opened your submission envelope.

And then there are the no-answers-at-all, which is a heck of a way to run a business, if you ask me.

And best of all, twice I got rejection letters from publishers that weren't even mine. Someone else's rejections were sent to me. As if my own weren't enough.

At first the letters devastated me, then amused me, and now they just bore me. Someone needs to come up with a new way of rejecting me. Singing telegrams, perhaps, or maybe wrapping my manuscript around a brick and throwing it through my front window. I'm to the point now where I anticipate being rejected. I add a little note at the bottom of the query letter: "If this does not meet your needs, please recycle it rather than return it." It's my little contribution to the environment.

I have collected rejection letters from publishers big and small, American, Canadian, European, Australian. I organize them in a scrapbook according to politeness of tone and colour of paper (interspersed with those choice, heartwarming little news articles about first-time authors who started off as casual bloggers, were approached by Penguin to write a novel, and signed a blockbuster movie deal after their first book came out). I've decided to make a game of it, to see how many I can collect in all. It makes me look forward to the rejections instead of being destroyed by them. Maybe we could take up trading rejections on eBay. "I'll trade you two Hodder & Stoughtons for a Random House."

Sunday, 2 September 2012

To Do or Diet

Okay, so I've finally admitted it's time to do something about my weight. Well, not so much my weight as my shape. I can't bend over without impaling myself on my zipper tab, I get breathless emptying the dishwasher, and someone recently offered me his seat on the bus because he thought I was expecting (the "baby" is fourteen). I accepted the seat without correcting him.

There are so many weight-loss programs and ideas out there. I've watched friends get out the calorie charts and fork out tons of money for pre-packaged meals, herbal supplements, and gym memberships. I've seen others dive into all-protein diets or all-veggie diets. They never seem to keep off any weight they manage to lose. And I can't help but think it would be cheaper to just hire a ten-year-old to follow you around all day and slap your hand every time you reach for the french fries.

I've spent a lot of time pondering why diets always seem to fail. And I've decided it's because they all have one thing in common: they all focus on FOOD. What you can eat, what you can't eat, when you can eat it, counting calories, weighing portions, substituting celery for corn chips...All a dieting person does is think about food! They shoot themselves in the foot every time they get on the scale and think about what they are supposed to eat that day.

To be successful, I think a diet should get your mind OFF of food and focused onto something else. I want to walk into a Diet Centre and have the instructor announce, "Today we're watching slides of the chateaux of the Loire Valley. After that we're going to teach you how to shear a sheep, take a field trip to a butterfly conservatory, go white-water rafting, and then we'll come back and have a guest lecturer teach us all how to speak Swahili."

Wouldn't that be a kick? Keep your mind so busy with other things that you don't have time to think about food. Keep your hands busily entangled in knitting or macramé so you can't reach for the Twix bar. Keep life so enthralling you won't even notice you only snatched a healthy shake for lunch.

It is possible. There have been days when I've been so caught up in what I'm doing that I actually forgot to eat (or do laundry or pick up the kids from piano, but that's another issue). Until I can find such a Diet Centre, I think I'll sit here at my desk with my bowl of Ritz Crackers and watch to see how my friends all make out on their diets.