about bliss

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

a little light reading

I recently read two novels by VERY popular romance writers...I don't usually read their work, but the books were at my disposal, I had a little extra time, and I was in between trips to the library. I was also curious to see what qualities made their books so very popular, and I was eager to see what writing tips I could learn as I continue to plod along with my own RN.

I have to say, I was disappointed. In the case of *Irish Dreams,* a collection of two novellas by Nora Roberts, the characters were decently developed but the plot seemed thin. This may be a function of the shorter form. And in the case of *The House* by Danielle Steel, the plot was medium thick, but the character development was lagging. And one analogy Steel used really seemed inappropriate to me: she compared a crucial moment in a relationship to "their own twin towers" (a loose quote, but the reference was there). In a side note, I've been keeping my eye on how post 9/11 novels deal with this defining cultural moment, and this was jarring and distasteful.

As for what I learned, my reading confirmed what I already know. I tend to prefer character development--I want to feel connected to the people I read about. I want to know some intimate details, silly preferences, and personality quirks. Real vulnerabilities, strengths, and ideologies make characters real to me and make me invested in their story. As a fiction writer, I often struggle with plot issues--wanting my plot to seem fresh and not contrived, but also wanting to allow my story to have that HEA if it cries out for one. This would be a large reason why I didn't fare so well in a grad level fiction writing class in which the emphasis was on high stakes circumstances. I can see now that I wanted to write RN in that class but knew that was not the venue, so I would create all these odd plot twists to seeem eccentric and not so, well, sentimental. Famous Beat Writer/scholar Ann Waldman memorably told me my fiction was too sentimental and I needed to "cut it up!" a la Burroughs during a seminar at Naropa University, but that's a story for another time.

In contrast, what I love about Susan Elizabeth Phillips' RNs is that they are so complex--great plots match well-developed characters (even the supporting ones). In my humble opinion, someone like Phillips should be selling more books than the aforementioned super stars.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Yummy, sticky, sugary, gooey, crunchy...what could be as kitchsy and lovable as a s'more? Yesterday my family grilled a late lunch/early dinner and I was craving that old campfire treat, so I stuck two jet puffed marshmallows on a long skewer, held it over the dying charcoal coals until the marshmallows started a precipitous slide toward the grill grate, and then sandwiched them with graham crackers and a chunk of hershey's milk chocolate. And though I really don't like the aforementioned "chocolate" anymore (I will refrain from my sharing my chocolate tasting notes and sounding ridiculously snobby), there's something classic about the flavor combination...(though next time I'd love to use some dark 70% valrhona and see what happens...)

Friday, May 25, 2007

the bee season

No, this isn't going to be post about the novel of the same name (though I read it several years ago and very much enjoyed it). Here in blueberry country (I'm spending the holiday weekend at my parents'), the bushes are blossoming and most of the local farmers, including my family, "rent" bees to be brought to the fields to work their pollinating magic. Apparently the bees around here have not been going missing like they are --so scarily--in other places. Usually I like to stroll around the fields instead of walking along the country roadds, but the bees have declared the acres of blueberries their domain and so I take to the streets.

This morning I took a yoga class at Lakeshore Yoga Center in Grand Haven and I can't say enough good about this yoga center. I haven't practiced in many studios (outside of gyms), but it will take a special place to bump LYC off the top. The teachers are kind, knowledgeable, and encouraging. I leave the classes feeling like everything in my life has been reconnected, and I know I have to give credit to the teachers for creating that transformative space. Namaste!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

pappa al pomodoro: italian comfort food

I just made my first bowl of pappa al pomodoro, a tomato bread soup that I had at Cafe Spiaggia in Chicago a few weeks ago. My home attempt didn't match the creamy, smooth perfection of Spiaggia's, but the soup was still tasty and brought abundant comfort, along with that warm happy feeling in my tummy that I attribute to good bread and accoutrements. There's a simple recipe in this month's Gourmet magazine, and I loosely followed that. This made about two servings, and before adding the bread I divided the broth in half and only added bread to the portion I would eat today.

Add oil and two cloves minced garlic to a cold saucepan. Turn to medium and heat until garlic is softened and sizzling. Add tomatoes--I used half of a large can of crushed San Marzanos. Add salt, pepper, and allow to bubble until thickened slightly. Add 1 cup of water, allow to simmer a bit longer. Add diced bread cubes--from the center of a good italian loaf (the kind with a chewy, crisp crust--though you don't want to use the crusts. Eat them with cheese while the soup finishes) and basil. Stir until soup thickens and the bread absorbs the tomato base. You can add more water if the soup is too thick for your liking. Serve with plenty of freshly ground pepper, a pinch of salt, drizzle of olive oil, and shavings of parm-reg. Cherish the bliss that spreads through your body, mind, and soul while eating!

Monday, May 21, 2007

'07 heaven

Yesterday I met H. at Zingy's in Ann Arbor for a delightful afternoon. I forget how chaotic Z's can be, and yesterday, after a quiet week, the loud noises (Queen was blaring over the radio), pushing people, and overly-solicitous Z's workers jangled my nerves. But H. and I found a quiet corner to settle into and have a heart-to-heart talk over delicious Stewart's Farmer's Hash (a blend of spinach, piquillo peppers, red skinned potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, and crispy shallots). We chatted until the silence was broken by a screaming child, and headed to Kerrytown to visit our favorite boutique, Vintage to Vogue, where H. bought an adorable romper for baby S and I purchased some rather sparkly brown flip flops to replace my straw JCrew flipflops that have worn down through the straw bed.

We headed back to Z's after shopping to check out the chocolate--I bought a mini Cluizel, a 99% "Noir Infini" bar that I have yet to test. Talk about intense! We then split a slice of the astoundingly tasty '07 Heaven Cake: 2 layers of chocolate cake, 2 layers of buttermilk cake, all separated by coconut buttercream. The whole cake is then enrobed with milk chocolate buttercream and garnished with toasted almonds. Wow--talk about amazing. We also order vanilla lattes--and the barista used--quelle horror!--whole milk. It was a luscious treat, but I have to say I do prefer non fat milk in my lattes--the fat in the whole milk takes over the flavor profile and the clean cut of espresso is lost.

Then last night I joined friends/colleagues J, A, J, K, and little E. for a cookout, and we enjoyed each other's company, beer, and good food. I brought Miller high Life Light, and was quite pleased with the drinkability of the beer, denoted "the champagne of beers" on the paper carrier.

A lovely end to a rather emotionally tumultuous weekend, as I start preparations for leaving and set my new life in motion...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

be yoga

What an amazing week simply because it was so unstructured and I could spend my time however I felt at any moment. I used to feel guilty about this freedom that the academic life can provide, as friends and family outside of the ivory tower do not have this luxury. But, this is one of the perks to my career, and one of the reasons I'll never be decked out in Marc Jacobs and Nanette Lepore. I'm okay with that (though I still love, love fashion).

And, I've been working. I've been writing and revising both my novel and my non-fiction piece, been doing a little research for my SAMLA proposal, and I've been reading, reading, reading. Check out the list o'books that I've made my way through...pleasure reads but also instructive reads to help me shape my own RN.

I've lined up two friends to be readers of my RN draft, but now I'm too nervous to send them the opening scenes! Today I plan to revise that section and send it off. At this point, I want to know if my characters are interesting and believable and if anyone cares about what happens with them.

Another discovery this week is Shiva Rea, a yogini par excellence. My friend N. mentioned one of her DVDs to me, and I was able to check out another one from the library--a short Core sequence-- and I was hooked. I bought her "Yoga Trance Dance" and it's like no other kind of yoga I've ever practiced. Or, as Shiva would say, we don't practice yoga we ARE yoga. She blends asana and breath work with meditation and trance work, which is all movement based. So there I am, flailing my arms about and undulating my hips across the living room. I *should* feel silly, but in fact I feel fully alive and I get what she means about being yoga.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

romancing the South

I'm eating the last piece of Florida Pie and drinking my first cup of coffee for the day. Before you indulge yourself in a fit of envy, I should mention that I've already trekked 5 miles, with 10-12 pounds of books on my back. I've decided to limit my driving this week--most places I need to go can be reached on foot, and if I'm trying to walk 4-5 miles/day anyway, why not combine some of those fitness jaunts with errands? By the time I returned home, sweating (it's actually HOT today) and with tired feet, I decided that checking out Tom Wolfe's tome *I am Charlotte Simmons* today wasn't the best decision, as that book alone must weigh about 4 pounds...I actually (dorkily) hopped on the scale with my backpack still on to discover that I was carrying around an extra 12 pounds. Not the 30+ pounds I carried when I used to backpack, but a considerable weight just the same.

So now here I am, clean, caffeinated, desserted, and ready to write for the day. I'm working on a non-fiction piece about my "romance" with the South for possible publication, or if not, than just for myself. And I'm revamping my RN--yesterday I sketched out some character background (some big changes there, from physical details to geographical details) and so I'm trying to work them in. I also began a RD (rough draft) of a proposal I might use for both the SAMLA conference and a longer article for a romance collection.

Speaking of my romance with the South, I just found out another proposal was accepted for a conference at my alma mater, Auburn University, next February. To give you an idea of how much I miss that place, I started sobbing when I read the emails--one from my friend/co-collaborator, and another from the conference organizer. I realized that when I go it will have been nearly 3 years since I was last there, at the loveliest village on the plains. Yes, I know I romanticize most everything in my life, and my 7 years in the South weren't all sweetness and light, but the loss of that place has left an empty room in my heart that even my beloved Michigan (and hopefully, my pending home of Wisconsin) just can't fill. I'm going "home" twice--to Atlanta in November and Auburn in February. That room feels a little less empty with the promise of Southern warmth to come...

Monday, May 14, 2007

happy mother's day!

Yesterday L and I made brunch for my Mom (and Dad) for Mother's Day. L and I cook well together, especially when our parents aren't around and when we're not in their (parents') kitchen. We made a frittata with asparagus and spinach (both from the farmer's market--hoorah the return of seasonal, local veggies!), and a few strips of roasted red pepper for garnish. We also made cheddar grits, and a soft salad with baby lettuces and baby carrots (both from the farmer's market too), tossed with a lemony dressing. The piece de resistance was the Florida Pie I made...from Dorie Greenspan's *Baking: From My Home to Yours,* which is quickly turning into my favorite baking book. I made two versions of the pie--one following the recipe, with a graham cracker crust, a chewy cocount cream layer, topped with a simple lime custard, and a layer of light meringue. The other version, for Dad and L who don't like various elements of the aforementioned pie, left off the coconut and meringue layers, and included a circle of garnet strawberries, oozing juice onto the yellow custard. It--I should say they--we're delicious, one of the best pies I've ever made. As Mom said, it has the right balance of flavors and textures, which makes it quite a treat. We drank sweet tea (loosely following the recipe in *Two for the Road*), a Trebbiano, and my luscious intelligentsia coffee.

In other news, I've been drawing inward as I read novel after novel in quick succession and spin out my own novel plot. thanks to reading the well-written, fully and complicatedly plotted novels of Susan Elizabeth Phillips, I've thought of several ways to deepen the plot in my *Surprise Developments* novel. The real task now is to move from swirling ideas in my head to words on the page, not always one of my strengths. This week is blessedly open, with the whole week in front of me to work on writing, and I intend to take advantage. I also need to write 2 abstracts, a letter of reference, and work on this mystery piece that I need to submit to a journal by the end of June.

One of the most seductive qualities about the writing I'm doing now, whether literary non-fiction (or I should say with aspirations to be literary) or fiction is how I can share parts of myself that really no one else knows through the stories I create and the words I use to shape those stories. Not that everything I write is ME, especially not in my fiction, but it's an outlet for the way I see the world, or the way I might like to see the world. It's difficult to describe, but there's something about the creative force that feels very authentic even when what I'm creating is totally fanciful.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

inner disarmament

Warm breezes, a slight sticky humidity in the air, swirls of pollen, and the lilting of birdsong accompanied my morning stroll. I thought of the Dalai Lama's talk on Sunday, "Finding Inner Peace in a World of Turmoil." And his message is really quite simple--we need to begin with inner disarmament, to carve out peace within ourselves which can then have a transformative effect on the world as a whole. It's a lesson I've read numerous times, and its simplicity belies its difficulty. How often do I forget that I can change how I act, think, and feel, instead of being so reactive to the stimuli that life throws my way? It's a lesson from yoga too--to focus inward, to find the rhythm of the breath and to steady oneself.

The Dalai Lama also spoke of the importance of hope--another seemingly simple concept to grasp, but also with the power to change the world. He spoke of our modern culture's reliance on the material world to distract us from the inner world that is so often in turmoil. Instead of turning to the outer world, the material world, as a means of transformation, we need to begin within. Not be so distracted, so distanced from ourselves.

His message of non-violence, of using dialog as a point of connection between individuals and warring nations, struck a strong chord with the group of people assembled. I appreciated his emphasis that ALL sentient beings desire to avoid suffering. We (humans) are simply another species in the interconnected web of life, and we have the advantage of a more complex brain that allows us to engage these questions.

And the most delightful aspect of his talk was his own presence--he sat lotus style, and as the cool breezes gusted off of Lake Michigan he quipped, "it's cold here!" and wrapped his crimson robe more tightly around his body. He conducted his talk in English, with a translator ready to offer the English word to the Dalai Lama or to translate whole sentences to us, the eager audience. But the most delightful quality of the Dalai Lama remains his infectious laughter, even when discussing serious topics--a reminder to not take ourselves so seriously, and to find delight in the midst of suffering.

Monday, May 07, 2007


I am SO behind in my posts...so I will chip away with many short posts instead of creating one long novella length update. Sunshine streams through my windows, promising a day of soft, warm breezes, a beautiful May day. I'm kicking off with this lovely Monday with a mug of french pressed Intelligentsia coffee...mmmmm. I finally found the Millenium Park intelligentsia coffee shop on my brief jaunt to Chi-town this weekend, and experienced a coffee revelation. My home brew lacks some of the depth of that I enjoyed at the coffee shop, but I can still taste a superior bean at the base.

I knew I was in a coffee shrine when I ordered french press coffee and was given a choice of which beans I wanted. I told the barista I liked a full, darker roast, a sumatra style, and he suggested a Kenyan coffee that he described as "purple." Furthermore, they have a sophisticated system that surpasses the french press mehtod and brews an individual cup of coffee quickly and and expertly. I was even able to drink it straight up, unlike my usual milky and raw sugary beverage.

We returned to the cafe yesterday morning, en route to see the Dalai Lama, and H. and I both enjoyed big bowls of latte, artfully poured with a classic leaf shape in the foam/crema layer. Paired with buttery, flaky candided ginger scones, it was a lovely and decadent departure from my usual oatmeal breakfast.

I have to admit that Intelligentsia now reigns as my favorite coffee, placing Zingerman's in a close second. Because Intelligentsia's sole focus is coffee, I believe they're able to make their whole approach more artful and all around more aesthetically and socially appealing. (like Zingerman's they too deal directly with the coffee growers, bypassing fair trade for the higher standard direct trade).

And so I linger over my coffee a bit longer before setting out on my path today...