Friday, February 27, 2009

Lavender Cream

The lavender is just beginning to bloom in my yard. It always reminds me of my mom, who passed away almost two years ago. Today is her birthday. Last year, just before her birthday, I came across a recipe for a lemon cake with lemon curd and lavender whipped cream. The recipe encompassed so many of her favorite things that I decided to make it in her memory.

Lavender was my mom’s very favorite scent, although I don’t think she ever tried cooking with it. Americans don’t seem to be that into eating flowers. I’m interested in how much flowers appear in dishes around the world, though. In Mexico they make a drink from Hibiscus blossoms. On a visit to France we drank rose flavored lemonade – a delicious combination. Nasturtiums were used as a salad vegetable by the Incas and later were a popular salad ingredient throughout Europe. There’s a Moroccan custard made with orange blossoms. I’ve never had it, but if orange blossoms taste as good as they smell I’m sure I’d be crazy for it. One floral taste I wasn’t crazy about was a violet candy that’s popular in England – that one was a little too perfumy.

The lavender cream is exotic-tasting and fragrant but not too overwhelming. It tasted wonderful with the lemon cake, and I’ve heard it’s delicious with berries, too. If you’d like to try it, here’s the recipe:

1 ½ cups heavy cream
3 T honey
3 or 4 lavender buds (or more to equal 1T)

In a medium saucepan, bring ingredients just to a boil. Remove from heat and let steep 30 minutes. Strain and chill thoroughly, then whip into soft peaks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Post Critique Freak

As part of the conference I attended recently, I had my latest picture book manuscript critiqued by an editor. Here’s how it went:

I ripped open the envelope as soon as I got to the car, but quickly stuffed it back in the envelope. I did need to drive home. If it was all bad, I’d either be a wreck - or cause one. This would also be bad.

Once at home, I glanced at the cover letter. I noticed that the “Areas needing attention” section was five times as long as “Overall strengths” section, and I immediately burst into tears. What? That’s not the appropriate response? It was a long day.

When I could again see straight, I did the next logical thing: I decided to scan the editor’s nicely printed letterhead for typos. Very mature. I mean, who does that? But whaddya know! Success! I did find a typo, right there in her web address. Ha! I immediately felt better. It’s not that I find pleasure in the mistakes of others. I was just relieved to have a reminder that no one is infallible.

Armed with this typo, I decided I was ready to actually read the “Areas needing attention”. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

It was bad enough. Now it was time to run through the house wailing for chocolate, because I know that stuffing myself with brownies is the solution to working out problems in a manuscript.

After picking brownie crumbs off my sweater – and eating them – and spitting out the lint – I thought it was time to take another good hard look at my critique. There had to be some positive things I could get out of it. And this is what I came up with:

A paper clip shaped like a doggie treat! Okay, that made me feel better, and I even started feeling a little guilty for being gleeful about the editor’s typo. But my second and most important discovery…

No matter what, you are never too old to get smiley faces on your paper.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Grim Tales

I was in the library searching through the picture book section when my 11 year old son wandered over and started flipping through a book. When he finished it, he snapped it shut and exclaimed in disgust, “She doesn’t even die!”

“Um, Honey, we’re in the picture book section,” I reminded him. “People don’t usually die.”

“But Mom, look what book it is.”

He held it up for me. There Was On Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie. Ah, a take-off on that old fly-eater who finally chokes on a horse. I started trying to think of other kid tales with morbid endings. And I swear, at the exact moment I was wondering this, I put my hands on what might be the grimmest picture book ever.

The fable Light Foot by Natalia Toledo begins with the pesky problem of too many babies being born and overpopulating the world. So Death decides to intervene and do a little cleaning up. Death challenges all species on earth to a jump rope contest and eliminates them one by one, until she meets her match in a ­­­clever grasshopper.

The story is based on a series of images of animals jumping rope with Death by Mexican artist Francisco Toledo (Natalia’s father). The bold depictions of the skeletal Death would have given my kids nightmares for weeks. And it's confusing - it’s not really clear just how much of the world’s population is wiped out, for instance. There’s also a strange bit about a pair of shoes Death snatches from a corpse, then loses later – explaining why Death is silent and sneaky (also reassuring for small children).

I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a playful explanation of why grasshoppers are good jumpers, or a lesson in why Death is silent. Maybe I was just too stunned at seeing that many bones in a kid’s book that wasn’t about dinosaurs.

I did like the idea of weaving a story around an artwork series. Toledo’s warm earth tone images are a great representation of Zapotec culture. I think Light Foot would be an interesting coffee table book for adults, and I had to wonder if there was a mix-up in cataloguing this book. For me it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing – masquerading as a picture book but meant for an older audience. I wouldn’t be tucking the kids in with this one.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tattered and Dog-Eared

This is an illustration sample I did for the first picture book project I ever submitted. Even though the story was full of mistakes, it earned a few positive comments from editors on both the writing and the art. That kept me encouraged for awhile. Then the rejections piled up, and I stuffed it in the back of a drawer in defeat. It was years before I even entertained the idea of trying to submit another manuscript.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back and try to fix this particular story. I think of it as the one you have to get out of your system before you can begin to figure out how to get it right. I thought I might as well rescue the artwork from the back of the drawer. At least the poor dog deserves to see the light of day.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An OH, DUH! Moment in the New World

Last weekend we took a tour of a life-size replica of The NiƱa, the smallest of Columbus’s three ships that sailed in 1492. The replica was completed in 1992, in time for a 500 year celebration. During the course of the tour, a question from another visitor revealed an interesting fact: Hammocks were a New World discovery.

Consider this. At the time these ships originally sailed, about 27 sailors slept on the upper decks of the crowded ship. Four or five officers claimed the upper deck, which was much dryer since it was higher above sea level. The rest of the crew tried to find a dry spot on the main deck, which was constantly soaked. They fought for a coil of rope or other equipment to sleep on.

Down below in the hold they kept equipment and food supplies, including livestock. The larger animals (horses and cows) were held aloft in slings, to prevent their legs from breaking due to the pitching of the ship. There were also nets on board for fishing in shallower waters.

So here’s where I found the hammock fact so fascinating - wouldn’t you think at some point in their journey someone could have put two and two together? C’mon, necessity is the mother of invention, right? (I like to think laziness is the father. Just consider the remote control…but I’m getting sidetracked.) On board they had: 1.Soggy decks. 2. Animals suspended in slings. 3. Nets.

Really, how big a stretch could it be to come up with a better sleeping arrangement?

I’ll bet the sailors felt pretty silly when they arrived at this new world and found natives sleeping high and dry above ground. In nets. D’oh! The story goes that Columbus returned to Spain with a boatload of those newfangled sleeping nets.

It kind of makes me wonder what other solutions are right there in front of our noses…and we just don’t see them.

Monday, February 16, 2009

YOU Write Something Clever

Sometime back around the holidays, maybe because we were cooped up (er...home) for so many days, I started paying attention to the way my kids argue. They employ a simple technique, really. All you need to do is throw a piece of conversation back at your opponent, preceded by “you” or “you’re”. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Besides that, they’ve taken to calling each other “Fatty” even though they are both beanpoles. (It’s not like I condone it. What can I say…there might be a few flaws in their upbringing.)

Let’s say, for instance, that my son needs to get into the bathroom to shower in the morning. He might say something like, “Hey, Fatty, can you finish drying your hair in your room?”

And then my daughter will say, “YOU finish drying your hair in your room!” See, it doesn’t matter that my son’s hair is perfectly dry, and that he doesn’t even own a hair dryer.

Or let’s say my daughter is looking for something to cart some belongings in, and she asks, “Hey Fatty, don’t we have a couple of milk crates out in the garage?”

Of course her brother’s very logical response would be, “YOU’RE a couple of milk crates!”

See how easy that is? About ninety percent of their interaction takes this form, so I can only gather it must be pretty satisfying. I started wondering if I should give it a try.


The next time I get a dinnertime phone call asking if I’ll participate in a survey, I could yell, “YOU participate in a survey!” and then hang up.

If a snippy cashier at the fast food place tells me we only get one container of dipping sauce, I can just exclaim, “YOU’RE one container of dipping sauce!” Yeah, that should do it.

Maybe once, just for therapeutic purposes, I’ll draft a letter to an editor in response to a rejection. It could read, Dear Editor:

YOU’RE not the right fit! YOU find the right home for this!

Childish? Maybe. But I have to admit, it is kinda satisfying.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Flying Leaps and Writing Tips

I had the pleasure of hearing author Bruce Coville speak at a SCBWI conference last weekend. He gave a couple of very entertaining talks, although his presentation included some leaping on tables and chairs that made me a little nervous. Maybe that’s because I once went to a performance of Rent and saw the guy from Doogie Howser nearly wipe out while performing a similar stunt. But that’s another story. At any rate, Mr. Coville knew how to keep our attention, and I thought I’d share a few notes:

- His first bit of advice – really dig deep to answer the question of why you want to write, in order to realize what it is you have to contribute.

- An exercise he suggests - divide a piece of paper into six sections. In each section, write your strongest memory from grades first through sixth. You now have six story ideas. Repeat the exercise from time to time – you may have new memories.

- For each of the six memories, imagine an opponent’s viewpoint. Now you have six more story ideas.

- It’s common for people to write for one of two reasons – to redeem a wounded childhood, or to celebrate a happy childhood.

- Regarding plot and character, he recommends his theory of “Ha/Waa/Yikes”. That is, to incorporate these three elements into your story:

1. Ha: The belly laugh. Not necessarily a joke – but a way to connect with or relate to your character. I took this to mean something close to sharing a laugh with a good friend.

2. Waa: The tears. This could result from a sad event (the dog dies), but it can also be the result of making an emotional connection to the story.

3. Yikes: The gasp, or plot twist. Put your character in all kinds of trouble. The important thing is to make sure we’ve first come to know and like this character. You can’t care about what happens in a story unless you care about who it happens to.

- A word about slang – here is his list of slang words that have lasted through decades:


His advice if you want to use slang – make some up that is appropriate for the story. It’s the only way to be sure it’ll be timeless.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Heart Trifle

Valentine’s Day is coming up. There will certainly be chocolate. I haven’t decided what I’ll make for dessert, but I thought of this trifle that I usually make for Christmas. It’s my favorite trifle recipe because it has a big slab of chocolate ganache on top. And it’s easy:

The cake layers are a Sara Lee pound Cake, cut into little rectangles (1 pound size).

The custard layers are vanilla instant pudding mix, prepared (the large package).

Instead of layers of raspberry jam, I mix raspberries (fresh or frozen) with a little sugar and orange juice.

To make the chocolate sauce: Heat 2/3 cup heavy cream and 1 tablespoon butter in a saucepan until simmering. Remove from heat and stir in 6 ounces semisweet chocolate and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Cool 30 minutes, and then pour over other layers.

And of course, serve it smothered in whipped cream.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Few Too Many Things Meme

I was tagged by Suzie with a meme. I admit I was going to ignore it, but two things about it made me laugh. The first thing I found amusing is you are asked to list 25 random things about yourself. Twenty five? Do the people who come up with these things think we all have delusions of grandeur or something? I decided it would be as interesting to list 25 random facts about a complete stranger. Here instead are 25 random facts about our mail carrier:

1. She’s not as cheery as our last mail carrier, but she’s okay.
2. She does a very nice job of placing our mail in our box.
3. We hardly ever get the wrong mail, so she must be detail oriented.
4. She totally rocks those black socks.
5. Ditto the shorts and the black shoes.
6. She is very punctual.
7. She parks her truck really close to the curb.
8. She wears a floppy hat when it’s sunny.
9. It’s sunny a lot, so she wears it most of the time. I don’t know if that’s part of the uniform.
10. She has a Dutch boy haircut.
11. My kids find it amusing that she has a Dutch boy haircut.
12. That’s because ever since they saw Irina Spalko in the latest Indiana Jones movie, they are fascinated with Dutch boy haircuts.
13. Thanks to Indiana Jones and Get Smart, the kids are now obsessed with Russian things, too.
14. I don’t know if the mail carrier is Russian, but I don’t think so. We don’t really chit-chat.
15. Remember, she’s not as cheery as our other mail carrier. Or as chatty.
16. She doesn’t deliver packages as often as I would like.
17. It’s not really her fault she doesn’t deliver very many packages.
18. If people did send me packages, I’m sure she would be very careful about delivering them.
19. If the packages were too big for the box, she would set them nicely by my front door.
20. She looks pretty strong, so I’ll bet she could deliver some big boxes.
21. I suppose I’ll just have to order more things for myself so she can deliver more packages.
22. Unless somebody wants to send me something.
23. Wait, some of these things aren’t really about the mail lady.
24. Even though lately she mostly delivers bills and rejection letters, she is still appreciated.
25. I would really rather she’d put more checks in the box. And packages.

Whew! There you go. Now for the other thing that made me laugh about this tag: I’m supposed to tag 25 people. Ha! I’d consider myself lucky if 25 people were reading this.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dulces! Dulces!

The recent visit from my father-in-law was, among other things, a reckless sugarfest. He arrived with a suitcase weighted with calories. If you ever come across some of these goodies from Mexico, try them!

These are two kinds of treats made with cajeta, which is carmelized milk and sugar (sooooo good) and a type of dulce de leche. The blue wrappers are Natillas, which are just a big spoonful of cajeta wrapped in plastic. You can't even handle them - you just open them up and scrape the cajeta off the wrapper with your teeth. If that isn't decadent enough, the Glorias (in the red wrappers) are the same stuff, only rolled around in pecans!

Then we have several bags of these little beauties called Obleas, which are cajeta sandwiched between two paper-thin wafers. Mmm, wafers. Actually, the wafers have almost no taste, but they make them a whole lot easier to handle.

He also brought a big box of another favorite called mazapan. It's kind of like marzipan, only made with peanuts instead of almonds. It's basically peanut butter and sugar compressed into a hockey puck shape. (I think that solved the mystery of my muffin top, but I still like to blame low rise jeans.) But wait, there's more...

...a container full of tamirind candy, another container filled with more dulce de leche treats, and a big ol' assortment that I haven't even dared venture into yet!

Of course, my father-in-law couldn't return to Mexico without bringing back some of his favorites from here, so we went to Julian and visited the candy mine below the Julian Drug Store:

We had to pick out just a few more things to take home for ourselves, too. We did manage to heed this sign:

But only as long as we were in the store.

If that's not enough, my father-in-law knows I'm a chocolate lover, so he bought me not one, but TWO boxes of my favorite chocolates. I guess that'll hold us over 'til Easter, when that bunny arrives with a few basketloads more.

Good thing I've already made a dentist appointment. Now all I need are some elastic waist pants.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Replace Cap After Using

Do you…

…watch your step?
…read all instructions before operating?
…read directions before assembly?
…wait 2 minutes before serving?
…peel back plastic at corner to vent?
…do the patch test prior to each application?
…push down and turn?
…pull sharply?
…squeeze gently from bottom?
…use with adequate ventilation?
…take a moment to note of the location of all emergency exits?
…wipe down sink as a courtesy to the next passenger?
…wait to be seated?
…wait for the beep?
…wait here until your number is called?
…take a number?
…use only as directed?
…cut on the dotted line?
…sign on the dotted line?
…complete and return?
…fold here?
…detach here?
…affix stamp here?
…tear across here?
…have your account number ready?
... have your ID ready?
…hold while your call is being directed?
…silence your cell phone?
…close cover before striking?
…keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times?
…keep out?
... keep out of direct sunlight?
…keep right?
…keep this portion for your records?
…shake vigorously?
…wipe your feet?
…scratch and sniff?
…peel and stick?
…push tab?
…pull tab?
…lift tab?
…insert tab?
…lather, rinse, and repeat?
…feel like you have too many directions to follow?

Go ahead. Give a great big squeeze right in the middle.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Why Yes, There Is Something Better I Could Be Doing

Ooh, all this sitting at the drawing board is giving me such a pain in the backside. I'm stiff as a board!

Maybe a really good stretcheroo would help. Whoa! Did you hear my back crack?! Geez, it sounded like someone just hit one right out of the ol' ballpark! Heh, heh.

Oh, now this is just pathetic. I used to be able to touch my toes, and now look! Guess I'm not as limber as I used to be.

You know, it's not like I do nothing all day! I'm a very active person!

Okay, I'm a fairly active person.

Somewhat active, maybe? Just tell me, how the heck am I supposed to work in a regular regimen of yoga or whatever? I don't even have enough time to do all the other things I want to do!

Hey, I have an idea...

Oh, boy, now that's what I call a stretch! I feel myself getting taller already! Ha!

Ooh, actually I feel the blood rushing to my head. I'm getting kinda uncomfortable.

Very uncomfortable. Uh, oh...

Dang it, I'm stuck.

Um...hello! Anybody there? Anybody...

Oh, oh. What the...

Wha...wh...whoooooaaaaaaaaaa! !

Drat. Now I have a sore head and a sore backside.

I feel like such a sap.