Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Fantasies: Starvation Lake

Last Thursday, I attended a book signing for author Bryan Gruley’s debut mystery, Starvation Lake, at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan. Ostensibly, I went to the event in order to prepare myself for my own book signing (for the Moon Michigan travel guide), which is happening tomorrow morning (11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) at Saturn. While I knew that a book-signing event for a debut novel would be markedly different than one focused on a regional travel guide, I still hoped that my attendance would ease my mind about my own event – which will incidentally be my first official book signing EVER! Little I did know, however, that I would garner so much more from Bryan’s book signing.

My husband, Dan, and I arrived at the independent bookstore a few minutes before the event was supposed to begin. In doing so, we were able to meet (in person, finally) the store owner, Jill Miner, and the store manager, Karin Beyer – who both do a wonderful job of promoting local authors – as well as the featured author, Bryan Gruley, himself. As it turned out, Bryan, an award-winning Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was a funny, good-natured guy – passionate about his novel, supportive of my own novel-writing dreams, and willing to answer any and all of my pesky questions about his recent experiences with editors, agents, and publicists.

By listening to Bryan speak about his story, his main character, and his real-life inspiration for Starvation Lake, I not only gained a sense of peace about my upcoming sit-and-sign. I also learned a lot about the publishing industry, felt renewed pride for my own novel (currently undergoing the much-needed beta-reading phase), and was overjoyed to discover that Bryan is represented by one of my favored literary agents – a fact that helped to dispel my doubt that a debut novelist can indeed find success in our current economy. Even better, though, I became intrigued by Bryan’s novel itself, the first in a three-book series about a murder-solving journalist in a small northern Michigan town, where ice hockey has always been the sport of choice.

So, at the end of Bryan’s question-and-answer session, I purchased his book and asked him to sign it. “To Laura,” he wrote, “my fellow scribe. Good luck telling your tales.” During the past week, I finished Starvation Lake, a wonderfully atmospheric mystery about a singularly likable fellow – a book that I would highly recommend to any mystery lover. How much better could this past week have been? To have met an approachable novelist like Bryan Gruley – who has an amazing book and a willingness to help unpublished writers like me. Why, just yesterday, he dropped me an email, thanking me for attending his book signing and wishing me the best with all of my writing endeavors.

Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that Bryan Gruley has a fan for life.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughtful Thursday: Doing the Dishes

Right now, my mom’s flying from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Flint, Michigan, to visit me and the hubby in what she likes to call our “natural habitat.” For several summers, Dan and I have been staying in the idyllic woods beside Big Bear Lake in the northeastern portion of Michigan’s lower “Mitten,” and no one in my Southern family has yet to see this rejuvenating place. This afternoon, after Dan and I scoop up my mom at the Bishop International Airport, all that will change... and two of my worlds will finally meet.

I’m excited, of course, but I’m also nervous about Mom’s reaction. Will she like it up here? Will she understand why we love the trees, the air, the lake so much? Why we value our summers in the isolated wilds of northern Michigan? Probably. Though she’s lived in a city all her life, my mother has always been a forest lover at heart.

So, the real question is... will the house be tidy enough for her? Now, as I recall, Mom and I were never the best of housekeepers. We lived together – us two girls – for fifteen years, from the time I was almost three (when my parents separated) to the year I was turning eighteen and headed off to college. In that time, we certainly did our share of vacuuming, dusting, laundry, and the like – but we weren’t exactly clean freaks.

Like many people, I suppose, we saved the extra-special cleaning frenzies for certain occasions, such as parties and family visits - which is why I, a world-class procrastinator, still have some cleaning to do before we head south to Flint in a few hours. The funny thing, though, is that I don’t mind such menial chores. As a teenager, I wasn’t overjoyed about interrupting my homework (yes, I was indeed a nerd) to clean the dishes or fold the clothes, but nowadays, I welcome such tasks.

Perhaps that sounds insane, but I find such chores meditative – especially the rhythmic, mind-numbing act of scrubbing dishes in steaming-hot water (while using my "mad scientist" gloves, of course). I even have a routine, whereby I scrub the plates, bowls, silverware, and other items in groups of ten, then rinse them and set them in the dish-drying rack, before scrubbing the next ten items. As I admitted yesterday, I have a touch of OCD, which might explain the need to count the dishes in my head. But, regardless of my crazy inner workings, I find such a focused act like “doing the dishes” exceedingly therapeutic.

I have two theories as to why: First, it uses a completely different part of my brain than my normal work does (such as promoting my travel guide, editing my novel, writing blog posts, or commenting on others’ blogs), and second, completing the dishes gives me a sense of satisfaction and a dose of self-confidence. After all, no matter what I manage to get done on the computer, I can go to bed at night knowing that I’ve accomplished at least one task during the day. And sometimes, that’s enough.

Speaking of the dishes, I’d better head downstairs. I have a stack of dirty plates (from last night’s dinner with friends) that’s just calling my name.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Whimsical Wednesday: Guitar Lessons

For most of my life – well, the parts that I can remember anyway – I’ve been a procrastinating workaholic-perfectionist, with a touch... oh, okay, a massive dose of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Terrific combination, right?

In high school, I often went to bed way too late, due to some paper or project. In college, I studied until sunrise way too many times. And, now, at the ripe old age of thirty-two, my sleeping habits have begun to resemble those of a vampire. I wish that I could say it’s because I party all night long – or that I am, in fact, a vampire – but, no, it’s usually work that keeps me up past a normal bedtime.

Fact-checking a travel guide, maintaining my blogs or perusing others’ websites, editing my novel, catching up with emails – you name it, I spend most of the day doing it. And everything suffers because of it: my marriage, my familial relationships, my chores, even my health (both physical and mental).

I realize that mental disorders like depression and OCD run in both sides of my family, but that’s no excuse for having a one-track mind. I’m a grown woman, for Pete's sake, and it’s my responsibility to find some balance in my life.

Just after college, I thought I had. At the time, I had a job that I didn’t take home with me; I got sleep on a regular basis; I’d met a cool guy (who later became my husband); I was writing travel articles on the side; I belonged to a Unitarian Universalist church (where I served as secretary of the board); and I was even making time for hobbies. In particular, I was earning free guitar lessons at Chicago’s
Old Town School of Folk Music in exchange for serving as a volunteer during their frequent concerts.

Eventually, however, Dan and I hit the road in a little RV – and despite the fact that I was a freelance writer and should have had more free time on my hands, I soon discovered that my life had lost its balance. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t trade my experiences for all the sleep in the world. But, without structure (imposed upon me by others), I finally recognized my shortcomings in the time management department.

Now, nine years after leaving Chicago, I’m once again struggling to find some balance in my life. I have a wonderful husband, an amazing kitty, a terrific family, and the freedom to organize my schedule on my own terms. But, despite my myriad interests (from photography to baking) and a strong desire to have more fun with my husband, what typically happens is that the workaholic beast within takes over every second of the day. Last summer, for instance, I was working around the clock on a rewrite of the Moon Michigan guidebook, and all else – my exercise routine, time with the hubby, even work for our two film festivals – seemed to fall by the wayside.

Although it could take me years to figure out my inner workings, I know that one solution for my lack of balance would be to reform my sleeping habits and create a day-to-day schedule for all my varied activities – from yoga to work to chores to fun. Another solution, of course, would be to ignore my perfectionist streak and spend less time going over and over everything I write (which might be easier said than done). A third solution would be to make more time for my hobbies – like, for instance, playing my poor old guitar again.

I know that it would help to have some lessons. After all, I’m often more productive when someone (say, a teacher) is forcing me to practice and demonstrate some improvement. But, alas, the Old Town School of Folk Music is no longer accessible – just one of the many reasons I miss living in the Windy City. So, I’m on my own.

Luckily, though, I still have my old songbook from my Old Town days, and not long ago, I finally mastered all five verses of “Amazing Grace.” And while my practices have been sporadic this summer – due to overworking as well as distracting family visits – at least I’m on the road to recovery.

Why, just last night, I went to bed at 10 p.m. – an unusual occurrence for me. I was so excited to embrace so-called normal sleeping habits that I inadvertently rose at 3 a.m. – unable to go back to sleep. Refusing to feel discouraged, I did my morning chores, ate some breakfast, and went outside to watch the sunrise over foggy Big Bear Lake. And now, here I am, posting early to my blog. Who knows? Maybe I’ve turned a corner.

In just a little while, I’m going to do my yoga routine, and maybe, just maybe, despite the fact that some friends are coming for dinner and my mother is flying from Louisiana tomorrow (which means, of course, that the house needs to be cleaned from top to bottom), I’ll find at least a half-hour to strum my guitar. It’s about time, too – I’ve had a Willie Nelson guitar songbook for well over a decade, and it’s high time that I learned to play a song or two. I should at least master "On the Road Again" - you know, in honor of our nomadic lifestyle. Won't Willie be proud of me then?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tuesday Travels: River Road Plantations

For those of you who don’t already know, I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Of course, I can’t believe there’s anyone who isn’t already aware of my Southern roots – after all, I can’t seem to shut up about it. Just ask my husband, my family, my friends, my colleagues... they’ve all listened to me blather about the charms of the Big Easy at one time or another.

In fact, despite the city’s longtime issues (like crime, poverty, educational shortcomings, and the potential for hurricane damage), I love it so much that, when asked by the staff (my occasional employers) to write about my favorite U.S. city, I leaped at the opportunity and wrote about, you guessed it, New Orleans. If you’re curious about that particular post, visit today’s entry for “The Moon Water Cooler” at

Although my guest travel post does praise New Orleans for its unique cuisine, rich musical culture, colorful history, and literary influence, I wasn’t able (due to space constraints) to express my profound fascination with the rest of southern Louisiana. For it’s not just the French Quarter, the Garden District, Audubon Zoo, and City Park that entice me back every spring and fall. Other places offer their own allure as well – places like my dad’s favorite fishing spots in the waters southeast of Louisiana (where his beloved old fishing camp once stood, prior to Hurricane Katrina) or the former sugar plantations alongside the Mississippi River – especially the Laura Plantation and the Destrehan Plantation.

My mother first took me to the Laura Plantation when I was a teenager. Besides the fact that I shared a first name with one of the Creole family's descendants (and the woman for whom the plantation was eventually renamed in 1874), I remember being entranced by the style of the main house – a vivid ochre structure with red, green, gray, and mauve accents. I was also tickled to learn that the Laura Plantation was where the tales of Br’er Rabbit were introduced to America.

Years after my first visit, I was horrified to learn that a terrible fire had destroyed eighty percent of the “Big House” in August of 2004 – but following twenty-eight months of intense restoration, the house was happily returned to its pre-fire glory in December of 2006. Although I haven't seen it in a while, the Laura Plantation still intrigues me - and I long to return.

Roughly twenty miles closer to New Orleans, the Destrehan Plantation is a bit more traditional in appearance – but equally fun to visit. Established in 1787, Destrehan presents year-round historic demonstrations – from open-hearth cooking to indigo dyeing to candle making. Of course, the best time to visit the Destrehan Plantation is during one of its annual festivals – usually in mid-May and mid-November.

The last time I attended this family-friendly event was in May of 2006. Together, my husband, my father, my stepmother, and I drove along River Road to Destrehan (which lies between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River) and headed onto the lovely (if crowded) grounds. For several pleasant hours, we ate regional cuisine (like gumbo and jambalaya), watched historic demonstrations, listened to live music, perused a variety of crafts, artwork, and antiques, and toured the house itself.

The food, of course, was delicious – normally, I’d say it’s my favorite part of any festival. But I really enjoyed browsing through the clever creations on display – from local, regional, and national artists. My favorite artist, though, was the one who had fashioned all manner of whimsical sculptures from pieces of junk. Truly, a real-life demonstration of how one person’s trash can become another’s treasure.

The house tour was a unique experience, too. Not only were the tour guides in full period costume, but the basement (where the tour began with an orientation video) was perpetually cool, like an underground cave – the perfect place to escape the heat of southern Louisiana for a little while.

Trust me, if you ever find yourself just north of New Orleans, take some time to visit at least one of the remaining plantations along River Road. It’s indeed a step back into another era, when beautiful architecture and genteel traditions collided with cruel slave practices that still haunt the moss-covered oak trees today... and even some of the lamp-lit mansions in the French Quarter.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday Munchies: Family Dinner

Yesterday, I shared one of the many reasons that Dan and I love spending summers in Michigan. Besides our chance to have a garden, though, we both appreciate that the little house in which we live is only a short stroll from his parents’ home – on the shores of Big Bear Lake.

For several years, while Dan and I were living on the road and, then later, in Los Angeles, we didn’t see much of either of our families – and the separation, mostly due to financial reasons, was hard on all of us. But now that we spend the bulk of our year in Louisiana (where my folks live year-round) and Michigan (where his parents spend their summers), one huge benefit of our nomadic lifestyle is that we’re able to spend a lot more quality time with our families.

When we’re down in New Orleans, for instance, we enjoy fishing with my dad and going to the movies with my mom. And when we’re in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, as we are right now, we try to schedule a weekly dinner with Dan’s parents – a terrific opportunity for us to spend time with Dee and Jim (my in-laws) and a chance for Dan, the family cook, to experiment on such willing guinea pigs.

This past Saturday, the four of us convened in the “big house” for our weekly family dinner. With a picturesque view of rain-soaked Big Bear Lake, we sat at the Martones’ round dining table and savored Dan’s latest three-course creation: garlic-lemon peapods, scallops and baby portabella mushrooms in an orange-pepper sauce, and, my favorite, a puff pastry filled with goat cheese and fresh basil, capped with a tomato slice.

All I can say is... who needs a fancy and/or trendy restaurant when Dan’s around? For a decade now, I’ve been told repeatedly by close girlfriends and recent female acquaintances alike just how lucky I am to have a man who not only can cook, but who also likes to cook. And I couldn’t agree with them more.

Although Dan is often his harshest food critic (just as I am often my harshest literary critic), I almost always love his dishes – and appreciate his flair for improvisation and experimentation. While I tend to follow recipes to the letter (as with the blueberry scones I mentioned last Monday), Dan has a gift for veering from recipes and making dishes his own – a precious talent that every memorable cook or chef must possess.

Many times, Dan’s mother and I have tried to convince him to consider a culinary career. But Dan’s heart is set on being a filmmaker – and I wouldn’t want to taint his passion for cooking by thrusting career concerns upon him. After all, as I’m sure many of us can attest, turning a passion (such as writing) into a career is a tricky thing – often causing one’s creative energy to be usurped (or at least influenced) by more practical issues, such as finances.

For now, I’m pleased that Dan has an avocation that delights him so. With all the stresses that he faces in running two film festivals, he deserves to find some joy in cooking for others. And I, quite frankly, deserve to savor his cuisine. So, bring on the puff pastries – I’ll taste-test them gladly.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Weekend Mishmash: The Not-So-Secret Garden

Dan and I make no secret about it: We love spending our summers in the woods of northern Michigan. Up here, the air is pure, the trees are lovely, and the days are long. Sometimes, the sky doesn’t turn dark until ten o’clock at night... and there’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise above Big Bear Lake (on the rare occasions that we’re up that early).

Of course, despite such natural splendor, we feel isolated at times. We’re a long way, after all, from our friends in Los Angeles (where we spend our winters) and my family in New Orleans (where we spend the spring and fall). But, most of the time, we’re grateful for our peaceful summers – the perfect way to rejuvenate our weary spirits, in the months between our two hectic film festivals.

For the past three summers, though, there’s been one aspect of our Michigan stay that Dan and I have anticipated the most: growing our little garden, beside our little house. For Dan, there’s nothing better than cooking with fresh produce. For me, there’s nothing better than eating it right off the vine.

True, Dan has the green thumb in the family – and he’s much better than I am at tending the herbs and vegetables. But, despite my shortcomings, I enjoy sifting the dirt with my hands, situating the small plants in May, watering them throughout June and July, and observing the zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, and other delectables in August and September.

Every year, we’ve tried something new. The first summer, it was bok choy. Last year, it was green beans. This time, it was eggplant. And while the summer of 2009 has been particularly cool – especially at night – and caused the unfortunate shriveling of more than one plant, some of the herbs and produce are indeed thriving. During a recent rainstorm, the aromas of mint and cilantro were overpowering, and we’ve already plucked two amazing specimen of zucchini.

Perhaps, the rest of the plants will rally soon. By the end of August, I hope that the teeny bell peppers will have expanded, the green tomatoes will have ripened, and the elusive eggplant will have appeared – if only so that Dan won’t feel so dejected about this season’s efforts. But, no matter what happens, it’s still fun watering the plants on a warm summer’s day and looking up to see our curious kitty, Ruby, watching from the bedroom window.

Or is it a fluttering butterfly that’s captured her awareness? Sometimes, it’s hard to say with her.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Fantasies: The Neon Rain

A few summers ago, my mother-in-law, Dee, recommended that Dan and I – both avid readers – check out James Lee Burke, an award-winning crime novelist based in New Iberia, Louisiana. According to her, we were sure to love Dave Robicheaux, the complicated protagonist of Burke’s Louisiana-based series, and she couldn’t stop raving about the author’s rich descriptions of New Orleans and the surrounding marshland.

Being a native of New Orleans and a lover of other crime novels – such as Kathy Reichs’ “Bones” series – I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of him before. But then, the best purchasing decisions often result from word-of-mouth reviews.

So, trusting Dee, Dan and I bought our first Burke novel – Purple Cane Road (2000), the eleventh in a series of seventeen so far – and neither of us were disappointed. Like any good series writer, Burke had crafted a novel that, though incorporating character and story elements from previous novels in the series, firmly stood on its own.

As it turned out, Dee was right: Dan and I both adored Robicheaux, a flawed detective who, despite plenty of missteps in his past, ultimately endeavors to save (or, at least, honor) the people who deserve it. And Burke's spot-on descriptions of bayous, shrimp po’ boys, and the Garden District made me utterly homesick for New Orleans.

Immediate Burke converts, Dan and I set about trying to find other Robicheaux stories. As part of his present two Christmases ago, I bought three books from earlier in the series – A Stained White Radiance (1992), Burning Angel (1995), and Cadillac Jukebox (1996). Several months back, we even listened to the audiobook versions of Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002) and Pegasus Descending (2006), both of which are narrated by Will Patton – who would incidentally make the best Dave Robicheaux if Hollywood ever attempts another cinematic version of one of Burke’s novels.

Since we’ve now read (or heard) several of the books out of chronological order, we recently decided to experience the series from start to finish, beginning with Burke’s first Robicheaux novel, The Neon Rain (1987). I just finished reading it – while lying on a hammock in northern Michigan – and I’m happy to report that I absolutely loved it. Told in first person, the narrative is rife with descriptions of the French Quarter, accounts of bloody scrapes with the "bad guys," and inner monologues about Robicheaux's own brand of Cajun justice and philosophy.

When the novel opens, Dave Robicheaux, a homicide detective in the New Orleans Police Department, has just arrived at Angola Prison, to speak with a convicted murderer mere hours before his execution. During the visit, the convict informs Robicheaux that, due to a recent homicide case involving the drug-induced drowning of a young black prostitute, someone has marked the persistent detective for death. Unwilling to let the case go - despite the fact that it lies outside his jurisdiction - Robicheaux soon finds himself mixed up with an unsavory cast of characters - from drug dealers, arms smugglers, and mob henchmen, to government spooks and dirty cops, including his wayward partner, Clete Purcel.

A divorced, ex-drunk, still chasing demons from his dark days as a soldier in the Vietnam War, Robicheaux might not be the likeliest of heroes, but that’s what’s so darn lovable about him. He’s far from perfect, often letting his temper override his reason and always struggling to quell the alcoholic beast within, but ultimately, he’s a noble-hearted rogue, with a soft spot for naive do-gooders and the determination to see a case through to its inevitable conclusion, no matter what the consequences – for himself or his loved ones (including his brother, Jimmie the Gent, and his latest girlfriend, Annie, a tough, kind-hearted Midwestern beauty with a past of her own).

If you’re interested in crime novels rich with character, action, atmosphere, philosophy, and, yes, violence, I highly recommend delving into the Robicheaux series, which includes the following novels:

The Neon Rain (1987)
Heaven’s Prisoners (1988)
Black Cherry Blues (1989)
A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
A Stained White Radiance (1992)
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)
Dixie City Jam (1994)
Burning Angel (1995)
Cadillac Jukebox (1996)
Sunset Limited (1998)
Purple Cane Road (2000)
Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002)
Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003)
Crusader’s Cross (2005)
Pegasus Descending (2006)
The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007)
Swan Peak (2008)

Although you might find yourself cringing at the more brutal encounters and yelling at Robicheaux from time to time, you're sure to be sucked into Burke's world of good cops, bad cops, mysterious swamps, rowdy bars, fried seafood, memorable music, crooked politicians, and everything else that defines southern Louisiana, even its seedy, embarrassing underbelly.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thoughtful Thursday: Ruby Azazel

Yesterday, Dan and I attempted to celebrate the tenth anniversary of our first date. That might sound ridiculous, considering that we have an actual wedding anniversary in January, but I would simply say, “Pish-posh. There’s always a reason to celebrate!”

If only, though, the celebration had gone as intended. We should’ve known how the evening would fare when we were getting ready to leave the house. We had simple plans: steak and beer at the
Big Buck Brewery and Steakhouse, followed by a round of mini-golf. But then a thunderstorm manifested, and we knew that mini-golf was out. Not to worry – dinner was still a go.

So, we drove twenty miles to Gaylord, Michigan – only to discover that the Big Buck had temporarily lost its liquor license. Dan looked as if someone had punched him in the face, and the shock had yet to wear off. “What? The brewery has no beer?”

Needless to say, we left. Still ravenous, we decided to settle on a nearby Applebee’s. Big mistake. Dan received a martini in lieu of his ordered margarita, our steaks were more gristle than meat, and a fellow customer spent most of dinner singing bad ‘80s songs at the top of his lungs... until, that is, he started to croon “We Built This City,” and I shouted, “No, that’s it! No Jefferson Starship! I can’t take it anymore!”

When we left the restaurant, the rain had yet to cease, so we decided to call it a night and head back home. But I refused to be dismayed – or read some sort of symbolic meaning in the fact that our plans never seem to go as planned. After all, the evening was pretty hilarious.

What helped most to dispel the disappointment, however, was the sweet face of our ten-month-old cat, who was waiting for us back home. Not long after we walked through the front door, she bolted from upstairs, where she’d presumably been hiding during the thunderstorm, and, with a plaintive squeak, hopped onto her pillow-covered chair and begged us for some lovin’.

Ruby Azazel – so named because she’s part-angel and part-demon – came into our lives last November. She was, in fact, my birthday present – if you can call an animal a “present.” The short explanation is that, when I met Dan back in 1998, he was already the proud papa of a rescued cat named Pawws, truly the sweetest cat I’ve ever known. When Dan and I started dating, she became my “daughter,” too – and I loved her madly.

Nearly three years ago, Dan and I had to put Pawws, who was suffering from renal failure, to sleep – the hardest thing that either of us has ever had to do. Afterwards, Dan vowed to never adopt another kitty – if for no other reason than, as a self-described “dog person,” Dan was unconvinced that he would ever again find a cat as tender, as affectionate, and as non-temperamental as Pawws.

For a while, I respected his wish. I knew that he missed being a papa, but he’d decided to make a dog his next pet. Unfortunately, our nomadic existence made having a canine rather problematic. Eventually, knowing that it might be years until we could adopt a dog, and even longer until we were ready to have kids of our own, my maternal instinct overwhelmed me – and I begged him to reconsider his decision.

I found it especially difficult to deal with being kitty-less when we moved into an apartment on Decatur Street in the French Quarter – an apartment that was just around the corner from a pet shop that also served as a pet-rescue facility. Every day, I had to pass the storefront window and stare at the little feral felines just waiting for a nice home. One kitten, in particular - a domestic shorthaired tabby with leopard spots on her belly - made me swoon, and I was devastated the day that I noticed she was gone.

Then came my birthday – and as with any other afternoon, I was sitting at my computer when Dan hollered that he was going to “run downstairs to get some Diet Coke” from a nearby liquor store. When the front door opened sometime later, I didn’t think anything of it. Suddenly, I felt a presence behind me. For an instant, I just thought it was Dan, bending down to give me a kiss. When I turned, however, I was shocked to see a little feline face staring back at me... the very face of the tabby that I thought someone else had adopted.

As it turned out, the as-yet-unnamed kitty HAD been adopted – by Dan, in fact – and she had only disappeared from the window in order to be treated and “fixed” before the actual adoption could be finalized. I couldn’t believe it, and my heart swelled with gratitude – for Dan, who had finally succumbed to my whining despite his own trepidation, and for the little kitty, who was leaning toward me with evident curiosity.

In the following months, we came to realize that Ruby Azazel was no Pawws. She hissed whenever we tried to trim her nails, bit my extremities at random, and sought out trouble like a heat-seeking missile. But, most of the time, she was sweet, affectionate, and capable of serenity – and despite one fleeting moment of weakness, when I considered that she might not be a good match for us, I fell deeply in love. Every day, in fact, I love her even more.

Despite the occasional struggles to trim her nails or apply her flea medication, the random “attacks” on my arms (yes, I have the scars to prove it), and her obsession with the kitchen countertop, I feel so blessed to have her in my life. Living with her, in fact, makes me realize just how stressed out I felt during the intervening years between Pawws and Ruby.

Nowadays, I fully agree with the various research studies claiming that pet owners live longer than those who don’t have pets in the house. For, even on a day like yesterday, when the best of intentions fall apart, all I have to do is look at Ruby – sleeping on a pillow, nibbling treats from my palm, staring at a chipmunk outside the window, leaping up and down the stairs, or doing one of a dozen other favorite activities – and I feel a great sense of calm, love, and perspective. Because most things – save for perhaps death or the knowledge of some terminal illness – aren't worth all the worry through which we put ourselves. One look at my crazy, little girl, and I know that’s true.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Whimsical Wednesday: Jigsaw Puzzles

Ever since I was a child, growing up in New Orleans, I’ve been cuckoo for jigsaw puzzles. As with many of my longtime interests, I have Mom to thank for my puzzle obsession. Over the years, we worked on a variety of puzzles together – from a silly 1000-piece map of the United States, with crazy little characters that kept us giggling all week, to a 550-piece snapshot of chocolate slabs that made us both ravenous every time we assembled it.

No matter where we were living at the time – the house in New Orleans East, the place north of Lake Pontchartrain, the last one in Lakeview – there was always a stack of puzzles in my mother’s closet. When I visited her in the fall of 2004, I rescued my favorite one from the stack – a vibrant drawing of a unicorn in a meadow. Thank Serendipity that I did, for less than a year later, Hurricane Katrina broke the levee between Metairie and Lakeview, and submerged nearly all of my mother’s belongings, including our beloved puzzles. When I finally saw the house again – several months after Katrina had uprooted my mother and forced her to relocate to Baton Rouge – all that was left of our puzzles were a few scattered pieces in the moldy carpet.

But I’ve never forgotten the joy that I felt working on puzzles with Mom – and the sense of accomplishment whenever we finished one. I’ll never forget, too, our ritual – we would work steadily until the very last piece, which we would insert into the puzzle together.

Today, I still work on puzzles – occasionally with my nieces, but more often by myself. I find them at once relaxing and challenging – so much so that I decided to mention them in my first novel, Hollow Souls. Of course, the novel is soon to undergo a major revision, so it’s possible that the puzzle scene will have to go. Whether it stays or not, though, I’d like to share it with you:

After a leisurely dinner with her friends, Caroline followed the Littletons up to the third level. Most Hollowites were so active during the week that they had to reserve specific nights for uninterrupted family time. For the Littletons, three hours every Sunday were theirs to spend however they wanted – no homework, chores, guard shifts, or other appointments – just board games, jigsaw puzzles, art projects, storytelling sessions, moonlit strolls, anything that allowed them to have fun together. Caroline was flattered to be included in such a precious family ritual.

By half-past seven, a dozen individuals sat on the floor of the Littletons’ cozy parlor, trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle that had only been completed once before – when it was first crafted. Earlier in the year, Mariah Singleton, a skilled portrait painter, had invited Anna and Agnes to pose for a joint picture. Two months later, in celebration of her lifelong friends’ thirty-seventh wedding anniversary, she’d created a life-sized depiction of them, portrayed from head to waist. Instead of handing over the painting, however, she’d sliced the thin wooden canvas into a thousand smaller pieces and stored them in a hand-carved box. Though grateful for the gift, the couple had yet to see the actual portrait, so tonight they’d convinced the family to help them complete the puzzle, which they planned to glue, frame, and hang on their bedroom wall.

For four hours, the family discussed everything from schoolwork to Christmas presents, while diligently laboring on different sections of the picture. Margaret, Julia, and Agnes toiled over the rose-colored background while the children struggled with the women’s faces. Although the subjects of the painting were in their very midst, all of them, including Anna and Agnes, found it challenging to complete the puzzle without a comparison image. Eventually, they were compelled to raid their closets for the outfits worn during their studio sitting. With the clothes draped across the sofa, the image emerged more quickly, though it still proved a difficult project for the men, whose patience wore thin after the first hour.

Nevertheless, the family persevered. Caroline proved especially dexterous; she’d assembled many puzzles in her room back in Lexington. Ignoring the children’s normal bedtime, the family managed to achieve their goal, and Caroline was given the honor of securing the last piece – a smidgen of Anna’s brown eye.

When the image was again whole, the family surveyed Mariah’s handiwork. Against the rosy drapery that the artist had hung in the background, Anna and Agnes posed in a comfortable, smiling embrace. Wearing a maize-hued corduroy dress, with her thick black hair pulled into a single braid, Anna stood behind Agnes, her arms encircling her companion’s waist, her brown-skinned fingers interlaced with her partner’s pale, slender hands. Agnes’ curly, grayish-blonde hair was cropped in a customary bob, and her cotton blouse was the shade of sea green. Well into middle age, the women seemed younger in Mariah’s rendition, perhaps because, after nearly four decades, theirs was an embrace of two women still in love.

“I like it,” Jesse said. “You both look really happy. Younger, too.”

“Yeah,” Caroline agreed. “And the colors are all so pretty.”

“You should definitely get it framed,” Joshua added. “Me and Dad could do it for you.”

Anna squeezed her partner’s hand. “I think the kids are right.”

Agnes smiled. “Think it does us justice?”

Margaret laughed. “Ladies, if an artist manages to capture your unique styles, illustrate your love for each other, and make you look younger, the painting’s definitely a keeper.”

“Thanks, everyone, for helping us put it together,” Anna said as she lifted the board.

Agnes picked up the other end, and together they walked toward their bedroom door, balancing the puzzle between them. “Yeah, if we’d had to do it on our own, we wouldn’t have finished ‘til our fortieth anniversary. And we see these faces every day.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday Travels: Assorted Sensations

Tomorrow, Dan and I will celebrate our ten-year “relationship” anniversary. To be accurate, our actual wedding anniversary is in January – but since little changed between us when we got hitched in Las Vegas back in 2001 – I consider the day of our first official date (July 22, 1999) the true start of our strange adventure together.

All technicalities aside, the point of my rambling is that thinking about our anniversary led me to reflect upon the myriad travels we’ve experienced together – across the United States and beyond. And those thoughts led to yet another one... about being grateful for what we have.

Let’s be honest – no matter how hard we try, most of us complain more often than we should. Whether it’s about an incident that happened at work, something a relative said or did, a story heard on the news, a terrible headache that just won’t go away, or any one of a million other day-to-day issues, we all have moments in which we focus more on the negative than the positive... a fact that does much to strip us of the happiness and peace of mind that we each deserve.

Sadly, I’m often guilty of such negativity, and it usually takes something momentous – like the untimely passing of a friend or relative – to jolt me from my daily routine and inspire me to live each moment as if it were my last. But I’m trying – really trying – to stop worrying about the past (or the future, for that matter) and embrace the here and now. The key, for me, is to focus not just on the good things in my life – like my parents and in-laws, my husband and kitty, my passion for writing, my occasional sense of humor, and so forth – but to also concentrate on the elements that usually go unnoticed by those that possess them – like a reasonable use of my five senses.

After all, how much poorer would all my travel experiences with Dan have been if I couldn’t see the brilliant Colorado River snaking through the Grand Canyon, if I couldn’t hear the constant clicks and bells in a Las Vegas casino, if I couldn’t smell the seafood gumbo in the French Quarter, if I couldn’t feel the ever-present breeze on South Padre Island, if I couldn’t touch the soft rose petals at the Huntington Gardens? I am truly grateful for all five of my precious senses – even on the days when the sunlight nearly blinds me, the winners’ screams almost deafen me, the trash on Bourbon Street makes me want to stuff my nostrils, the wind blows scratchy sand against my cheek, and a thorn pricks my finger.

While I wouldn’t trade any of my senses for all the money in the world, I think I’d be most lost without my hearing. I simply wouldn’t be willing to part with the ability to hear my favorite bands, practice my guitar, take the stage at a karaoke bar, or listen to the varied soundscapes that have defined my travels over the past ten years. All I have to do is close my eyes, and I can hear the clip-clop of the passing horse-drawn carriages in New Orleans, the screeching seagulls and crashing waves on South Padre Island, and the singing birds and rustling trees of northern Michigan. Oh, yes, I’m grateful for my ears, for my memories, and for everything else in my life.

Just what sensations will tomorrow bring?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday Munchies: Blueberry Scones

Since this is my very first post, I should probably explain the purpose of this blog. Currently, I maintain two other blogs: one about U.S. travel and one about my unpublished novel. There is a third, very neglected blog – also about travel – that needs serious revamping, so forgive me if I ignore that one for now. Although I’ve been reading other writers’ blogs for the past few months, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to use my newly acquired Blogger account to launch yet another blog of my own. That is, until this past weekend.

While fiction writing and travel are two of my favorite interests in the whole world – and I’m truly tickled to be blogging about them on a semi-regular basis – I realized just how many of my inspirations are being overlooked by such targeted sites. Musings about yoga, karaoke, movies, religion, blueberry scones, Willie Nelson, and Woody Allen have no place on my Ruby Hollow website or American Nomad blog.

So, I decided to start a new blog – one that would focus on all the people, places, and things that interest and inspire me on a daily basis. After brainstorming possible names for the blog – many of which are too embarrassing to list here – I settled on something short and sweet. Hence, “Laura’s Simple Pleasures” was born.

Now, given that I’ve only been posting two articles per week for my American Nomad blog – and that I’ve been lucky to post a few times per month since starting the Hollow Souls blog – what I’m proposing is perhaps more than I can handle. But, as the saying advises, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," so here goes nothing...

I will attempt to post six entries per week, adhering to the following routine:

1. Musings about my favorite foods and beverages for MONDAY MUNCHIES
2. Tales of memorable people, places, and events for TUESDAY TRAVELS
3. Thoughts about varied hobbies and interests on WHIMSICAL WEDNESDAY
4. Notions about nature, religion, meditation, and yoga on THOUGHTFUL THURSDAY
5. Reviews of assorted books, plays, movies, TV shows, and music on FRIDAY FANTASIES
6. And everything else that’s fit to print for the WEEKEND MISHMASH

We’ll see how long my enthusiasm – or, more aptly, my stamina – lasts. But, until my already overloaded schedule fails me, I’ll happily share my myriad inspirations with you. Because no matter what’s happening in the world around us – from poverty and disease, to pollution and war – it’s the simple pleasures in life that keep us going... which brings me to the aforementioned blueberry scones - the thing that actually inspired this blog in the first place.

During the summer months, my husband, Dan, and I live in the northeastern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, along the mucky shores of Big Bear Lake - truly an amazing place for a writer to be. The rustling trees, the star-filled night sky, and the occasional deer or fox sighting simultaneously calm my nerves (which are routinely tested in my other two homes – New Orleans and Los Angeles) and feed my stories. I relish wandering through the vibrant forest, swimming in the cool lake, and, of course, picking wild raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.

Wild blueberries, which usually flourish in July, are my favorite to pick. Though smaller than the kind you usually spot in grocery stores, they are infinitely tastier – and ideal for baking. Every summer, I pick as many berries as I can wrestle away from the deer – and bring them home to be used in various treats. Typically, I make blueberry muffins, while Dan, the real cook in the family, prepares blueberry pancakes and blueberry preserves.

This summer, however, I decided to try my hand at blueberry scones – my treat of choice at coffeehouses around the country. After collecting enough blueberries – which wasn’t easy, as it’s been a particularly cold summer in northern Michigan – I searched for a decent scone recipe online and settled on the one recommended by
EAT.DRINK.THINK. Earlier today, I gathered all my ingredients, rolled up my sleeves, and prepared my first-ever batch of blueberry scones. True, it took me longer than planned and required Dan’s help during the dough-kneading phase, but I was not disappointed.

As advertised on the EAT.DRINK.THINK. website, these homemade scones were some of the best I’ve ever tasted – not too crumbly, not too sweet, and loaded with blueberries – the perfect complement to my ubiquitous mug of Tetley tea. Even Dan, the gourmand, approved – he assured me, in fact, that there was no need to refrigerate the leftovers, as they wouldn’t last that long. What a compliment indeed!

So, thank goodness for the little things... and for the fact that my blueberry scones came out a lot better than my last batch of oatmeal cookies – or whatever those flat, chewy things were.