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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Every year on January 1, I re-read last year’s (foolishly optimistic) predictions for the year ahead. Last January we resolved to focus on the decorative side of the house, and do all the “normal” resolution things, like reading more non-fiction.

I did not know then that simply surviving the year would be an accomplishment in and of itself.

We did manage to paint all the downstairs rooms in the house, but the upstairs bedrooms are still covered in drywall patches. We also planned a major kitchen renovation, which will kick off next week. And we bought a new couch. Heeeeeey.

I read eight non-fiction books over the course of the year. Quite honestly, I needed the escape of fiction. I was learning pah-lenty in my real life.

Otherwise, we survived. We kept the kids fed and schooled and loved. We paid our bills and changed the oil in the cars and ran the dishwasher.

And we managed my mom’s decline and death. We planned her burial and her memorial service. I acted as her personal representative and filled out a mountain of paperwork.

And I wrote a book.

All in all, it was a year I am proud of.

I’ve started going through the contents of mom’s storage unit, and on Saturday I pulled out a box filled with notes and cards. Some of them were from mom’s initial hospitalization in 2015, but most of them were the cards she received when my father died in 2003.

There were a LOT of cards.


I read every one of them, since mom didn’t share them with me when dad died (even though some of them were addressed to me, AHEM). I couldn’t just put them in the recycling bin without looking.

I did find some treasures – funny stories and details I hadn’t known – but what kept coming up, over and over, were descriptions of my father that included the word “joyful.” His joyful smile, his joyful laugh, his joyful spirit. Many people remarked on the fact that he was frequently the last person to leave the sanctuary after church because he just loved visiting with everyone. And dozens of people – dozens – said some variation of the following: “every time I talked to him, I left the conversation feeling better about myself and better about everything.”


Jason and I made a list of New Year’s Resolutions a few weeks ago, but reading all those cards caused me to toss my list right out the window.

This year, I just want to be more joyful.

My dad was able to find joy wherever he was, and whoever he was with. He made it look easy.


There is much to be joyful about. I just need to do the hard work of choosing it.


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Reading Materials: December 2017

56. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, David Lagercrantz. (Borrowed) While still not as good as the original Millenium trilogy, I liked this second follow-up offering by David Lagercrantz better than the first one. It seems he is more comfortable with the characters and has found his own style.

57. Daughter of Time, Sarah Woodbury. (Kindle, Free) Ms. Woodbury has clearly also read Life in a Medieval Castle and wants you to know it. I did not mind this aspect, although some Goodreads reviewers did. This is another time-traveling romance in the vein of Outlander, but a very PG version – there’s no depiction of sex at all. And honestly, I found that kind of refreshing. After reading books like Outlander and Song of Ice and Fire, I am a little weary of graphic sex – especially the violent kind. Aside from that, the book was stubbornly fine. Not great, not awful, no typos. It was a decent time-filler, but I doubt I’ll read the rest of the series.

58. Secret of Nightingale Wood, Lucy Strange (Borrowed, Book Club). This book was recommended for the 8 and up set, but there were definitely some tense situations that made me question that designation. I really enjoyed this story, which was told gently but effectively. It reminded me a bit of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” without the dry asides. I would definitely recommend it for the older elementary school or early middle school reader.

59. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman. (Library) This book was tremendous. It was a wonderful adventure story with great characters and a quick pace. I loved the world created by Pullman. It was different enough from ours to be interesting, but similar enough not to require pages and pages of explanation. I will definitely read the other books in this series, and will probably force my kids to read them, too.

60. A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd. (Library, Book Club) This is a murder mystery set in and around Kent, England, during World War I. Bess Crawford is an Army nurse who was raised in India with her Colonel father and has just survived the sinking of the hospital ship Britannia. While on leave, she’s pulled into an old family drama surrounding one of her former patients. It’s a quick, satisfying read – perfect for Christmas break.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 52
Non-Fiction: 8

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Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna

In recent years, we have found ourselves attending multiple services at church on Christmas Eve. We go to the children’s service for Hazel, and the candlelight service for me.

All that church means that preparing an elaborate Christmas Eve dinner is out of the question, so I’ve started making lasagna every year. This was an excellent decision. Last year I tried the Pioneer Woman’s lasagna recipe (with modifications), to much applause and cheering. This year, I made up a spinach and mushroom lasagna that also received rave reviews. Since I’ve been asked for the recipe twice, I figured I’d write it down. Here goes:

Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna

1 box lasagna noodles

2 boxes frozen chopped spinach

4 TB butter

1 tsp. Minced garlic

1 onion, chopped

8 oz. sliced mushrooms (I used baby bellas)

1/4 cup flour

4 cups milk

Salt & Pepper

15 oz. container ricotta (I used whole milk ricotta, because I’m Team Full Fat Dairy)

1 egg

1 bag shredded Italian cheese blend

Preheat oven to 350.

Defrost your spinach and wring it out in a towel.

While your spinach is defrosting, melt the butter in a large skillet. When it’s hot, add the garlic, chopped onion and sliced mushrooms, and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and stir until no lumps of flour remain, then cook and stir another minute. Add the milk, and heat over medium to medium-high heat until mixture bubbles. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in defrosted spinach.

In a bowl, combine the ricotta and egg, and add a pinch of salt.


Ladle a few spoonfuls of the spinach sauce into a 9×13 casserole and spread that action around. Lay three lasagna noodles down, and top with dollops of the ricotta mixture (use about 1/4 of the mixture). Sprinkle about 1/4 of the shredded cheese over, and top with 1/4 of the remaining spinach sauce. Repeat these layers three more times, but on the last layer, put the shredded cheese on top.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes to an hour, or until lasagna is bubbly and you begin gnawing your fingers in anticipation. Let stand 30 minutes to firm up, then serve.

NOTE: I do not pre-cook my lasagna noodles. If you are assembling it to bake later, you should go ahead and cook your noodles.

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I am a short-distance writer. I grew up writing articles for the school newspaper and short fiction for the literary magazine. When I went to college, I wrote for a political magazine and then had an op-ed column in the student paper. After graduation, I was an honest-to-goodness newspaper reporter, and transitioned to a decade as a paralegal, writing legal-type stuff.

I’m not sure when National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) appeared on my radar, but I think it’s been at least three years ago. Last year, I took a pathetic stab at it, turning out only 10,000 words over the month. I have almost as many excuses as words, but the sting of that failure stayed with me for the next eleven months.

This year, I decided to try it again. In and of itself, this is remarkable for me – usually, if I’m not completely awesome at something on the first try, it is dead to me. But I knew I could do it if I approached it like my newspaper job. Way back then, we were all expected to write several stories a day, and I’m sure my daily word count easily exceeded the NaNoWriMo goal of 1,667. I tried to imagine my book as 30 vignettes of 1,667 words apiece.

It worked.

By November 30, I had written 50,144 words.

There were days when my word count was zero, but I made sure to keep my average up. Over Thanksgiving, when I was ensconced in a cabin in the woods with Jason and Hazel, I made up a lot of ground. It was pretty easy when this was my writing area for the week:


As I said at the outset, I chose to write about my journey with my mom through the last two and a half years. It was a valuable experience, and looking back over the whole experience gave me much better perspective on both the bad parts and the good. I giggled some. I cried a lot.

I used half a box of Kleenex. A whole box would have been unseemly.

Writing the whole story has helped me grieve. Forming my mother’s death into a narrative allowed me to wrap my brain around its edges, instead of feeling like I was drowning in it.

On a technical note, I used a private blog on WordPress to write my book. I simply started a new blog post for each chapter. Most chapters were one or two days long. I don’t know if I’ll do this again next time, because it was hard to keep track of posts – they’re published chronologically, not in the order in which they appear in the finished work. I’d like a little more flexibility to re-arrange sections. Also, in order to officially “win” NaNoWriMo, you have to copy and paste the complete text of your book into a text box. That would have meant copying and pasting around 25 separate posts. Honestly, the Facebook badge just wasn’t worth it.

So now what?

I’ve put the whole thing aside for the last week, but will probably pick it up soon to begin organizing it, refining it, and maybe even adding to it. And then I’ll let someone read it (spoiler alert: probably Jason). After that, I’ll ask his opinion on its fitness for public consumption.

I may publish it serially on the blog, or look into self-publishing if Jason is blown away (spoiler alert: not likely).

I consider this to be a big personal accomplishment. I’ve always, ALWAYS, wanted to write a whole book – and now I have. I really don’t care if it’s amazing, it’s mine.


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The Sweet Smell of…..Rejection

Several weeks ago, a friend forwarded me a story contest announcement from Midtown Reader, our completely delightful local bookstore. The limit was 600 words, a short short story.

Many would enter; six would be chosen.

I entered. I was not chosen.

I’m not surprised, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting a little. I used to write for a living, and I wasn’t terrible at it.

Anyway. Here’s the story I wrote.

“My glass is empty,” Violet whispered, peering at the underside of her champagne flute, “again.”

I grinned at her as the sweat finally coalesced on my spine and began to travel in rivulets towards my waist. It was 10:00 in the morning but already sweltering, in the way that only New Orleans swelters. Violet and I were seated outdoors, taking full advantage of bottomless mimosas and double breakfast meats, planning the second day of our first adult vacation.

The waiter appeared with refills. I squinted up at him. “If you were us, would you go on a paddlewheel boat ride or to the Zoo?”

“Oh, definitely the Zoo. It’s just up the streetcar line from here.”

“Zoo it is!” Violet raised her glass. “Can we get drinks to go?”

“Of course you can, chere.”

“Cheers to you, sir!”

* * *

Thirty minutes later, we wandered through the Zoo entrance after downing our alarmingly large traveling drinks. I was sweating in earnest now.

“What was that?” Violet tilted her head. “Did you hear that?”

I listened, but didn’t hear anything un…. There.

“What the heck was that?” I asked, looking around. It was a guttural, primal sound, and it pierced the din of the zoo crowd like a spear. By the looks on the faces around me, other people heard it too. There it is again. It sounded almost, but not quite, like…

MOMMY IS THAT A LION?” A towheaded child whispered. “DID THE LION GET OUT OF ITS CAGE?”

Violet turned to me, her eyes and mouth perfect Os of surprise and delight, as the low bellowing roar once again snaked its way to our ears. “Do you think the lion got out? Is it menacing people right now? We have to find out! Let’s go!”

Violet and the kid managed to set off a whispering campaign that rippled through the sultry air. By the time the rumors had traveled 50 feet, there was definitely a lion loose in the zoo, it was hungry, and every sweaty tourist was on their way to find it.

Violet spotted something.

“Is that a bar? IN A ZOO?” She began giggling. “A bar and a lion? This is the best day of my life.”

Re-supplied with beer, we trailed the crowd in the direction of the noises, which seemed to be getting stronger and closer together, like contractions. I paused at a misting station, holding my beer out of the spray.

“What are you doing?” Violet asked.

“I figure if I cover myself in water, then I’m just wet, not sweaty. Right?”

“Yes? But come on! I think the lion is mad!”

“Should we maybe consider moving away from the noise that sounds like a threatened lion?”

“Uh…. Nope. Cheers!” We clinked plastic cups and strolled on.

We rounded a bend and saw the enclosure from which the strange sounds were emanating.

It was not the lion enclosure.

A mother, obviously upset, was hustling her small daughter away from the fence. She reached back to grab her husband, who was transfixed by whatever was going on in the pen. Several other parents were trying in vain to cover their children’s eyes.

I reached the fence and froze. It took me a moment to process what I was seeing, during which time the 600-pound Galapagos tortoise, with a final bellow, completed his sexual conquest of the female beneath him.

The ensuing silence was broken when Violet snorted, beer sloshing to the rim of her cup as she raised it high.




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Reading Materials: March 2017

12. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. I purchased this book in college and only now got around to reading it. It was a tough read, and not just because of the references to institutions and people who were current events in 1908 but are now British history. Chesterton wrote this account of how he came to embrace orthodox Christianity after years of trying to work out his own interpretation of faith. However, many of his statements continue to ring true in 2017, and I found myself nodding along to many of his arguments. I’m glad I read this book, even if I had to do it with a pen in hand and no distractions.

13. The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. (Library) I loved this book, about four siblings who have to grapple with money and its influence on relationships and people. It’s difficult to write a book with a large cast and make every character seem three-dimensional, but Sweeney succeeds. I also loved the sense of place in the book, which is set in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Westchester.

14. The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore. (Library) I forced myself to wait until the last page before I rushed to the internet to see how much of this book was fact, and how much was fiction. The novel tells the (embellished, but historical) story of the War of the Currents. For those who don’t know: at the dawn of the electric age, there were two competing electricity delivery systems – alternating current, favored by George Westinghouse, and direct current, favored by Thomas Edison. The two men fought in courts and in the press for years over whose system was better and safer. This book examines one facet of that fight, the battle over the light bulb patent, and is told from the point of view of Westinghouse’s lawyer, Paul Cravath, with a special guest appearance by Nikola Tesla. I learned a lot about the conflict I hadn’t known before, and enjoyed the author’s take on Westinghouse and Tesla. But Edison came across as a two-dimensional villain. You could practically hear his cartoon cackle. I really enjoyed the story and did find it suspenseful – despite knowing the end.

15. Little Nothing, Maria Silver. (Library) This was a frustrating read. It’s meant to be a dark fairy tale, and it’s very well-written, but…. even fairy tales have their own twisted logic. If you speak the forbidden word, the kingdom will fall. Only a person of pure heart can remove the talisman from its chamber. If you tell anyone the secret of your beauty, it will be taken from you. This book looks like a fairy tale, and smells like a fairy tale, but it does not have even fairy tale logic to hold it together. A couple has a baby who is born a dwarf. She is sent to a terrible doctor who tries to stretch her on a table… and she becomes a normal-sized woman with a wolf face. Why a wolf face? THERE IS NO WHY. Later, she becomes a wolf, for no apparent reason. And finally, she becomes a normal-sized person, with a different face, again without real explanation. There is no other magic in the novel. In fact, the writer goes to great lengths to describe non-magic systems that work like magic in the world of early-20th-century-Eastern Europe, like the clockworks of an old clock tower, or an efficient system for excavating tunnels, or the intricacies of indoor plumbing. And the character cannot remember any of her previous incarnations, so there’s no character development per se. The writing itself is lyrical and lovely, but the story leaves much to be desired.

16. The Infinite, Nicholas Mainieri. (Borrowed) This was our church book club selection, and we got to Skype (and drink!) with Mainieri at our meeting. I enjoyed the book, which was well-paced and thoughtful, but I enjoyed it more after hearing the author talk about the process of writing it, and about his adopted hometown of New Orleans. Set in Louisiana and Mexico, my initial impression was of a modern day Romeo-and-Juliet story. But the novel also makes insightful commentary on the drug trade, and the threads that run from cartel wars in Mexico to low-level street dealers in the U.S. As a bonus, the author devotes some ink to nutria (if you don’t know what nutria are, imagine Rodents of Unusual Size from The Princess Bride). Nutria are a non-native species to Louisiana, and there are parallels to be drawn between their plight and that of the heroine and her family, who are illegal immigrants. It was a good read, and I recommend it.

17. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. (Borrowed) This was supposed to be an innovative take on the standard issue slave narrative. In this book, the underground railroad is imagined as a real thing – with tracks and cars and tunnels and stations. However, this device does not do enough to distinguish it from other books about the slave era. Whitehead also has a tendency to use modern turns of phrase where they are out of historical context. Despite these linguistic choices, the story of the book was entertaining enough.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 13
Non-Fiction: 4

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Skillz: Picture Framing

We inherited most of the furniture and art in our house, which means that it’s all old and sentimental. Actually, that could be said of our house itself. Hm.

Anyhoo, we have a lot of framed art that is starting to show its age. Among these are four watercolors of the beach painted by Jacksonville artist Eula Bull. Her daughter was friends with my mom, and Ms. Bull gave my mother the watercolors in the late 1960s or early 1970s. They hung in the hall near my bedroom in my childhood home. When we moved them here, I hung them in our bedroom. They helped with the serene feel and watercolor palette I was hoping to cultivate. (<— That statement was 90% fancier than reality.)

The pictures were soothing, the frames were fine, but the mats were looking a little decrepit.


At first I considered caving to the barrage of Framebridge ads and having the pieces re-framed in a quasi-professional manner. But a simple frame and mat was estimated to cost $70, times four, and I am not in the mood to pay $280 to change the mats on free watercolors.

Many, many Pinterest posts encourage a DIY enthusiast to “pick up frames at Goodwill” for re-purposing. But most of these projects turn the frame into something else – a tray, or a chalkboard thingy, or a photo display. I could not find a tutorial on re-using a picture frame….as a picture frame.

I decided to roll up my sleeves and take a crack at it. WITHOUT A PINTEREST TUTORIAL. I know.

Here’s my arsenal of re-framing tools:


Self-healing mat & ruler, pliers, glass cleaner, razor knife, pencil, and tape.

First I unwound the hanging wire from one side of the frame, and laid it to the side.


Next, I cut away the paper backing on the frame. Using a razor knife, I (carefully!) slashed the paper along the edges and pulled it away. This was the only part of the frame I did not re-use.


This was underneath. It’s a layer of cardboard held in place by little metal teeth. I pulled the cardboard out next.


Under that was a piece of mat board, the watercolor, and two more mat boards. I removed each layer.


To get the glass out, I had to remove the little metal teeth with pliers. It turned out they were diamond-shaped pieces of metal that were wedged into the wood frame. I’m sure they have a fancy name, but I shall continue to call them teeth. I took out the teeth on the top and sides of the frame, and put them aside.


I pulled the glass out and cleaned it. Then I got to work on the new mat.

I purchased a 32″ x 40″ piece of off-white mat board for $8.00. NATURALLY, the mats I needed were 16.5″ x 20.5″, which means instead of getting four mats out of one board, I could only get two. Grrrr.

Using the old mat as a template, I cut out my pieces. Then I measured the inside of the old inner (blue) mat to get the opening, which was 10.5″ x 14.5″. I marked the lines on the back of the new mat, using my fancy ruler and a pencil, then used the razor knife to slowly cut the mat board. Straight lines are stressful! It took me three passes to get through the mat board.


Moment of truth: I put the old mat on top of the new one, to show how dingy it had gotten over the last 50 years. Bear in mind that the new mat is not white, but cream-colored! Yikes!


With the new mat cut, it was time for re-assembly.

First the sparkly clean glass went in.


Next, I taped the watercolor to the back of the new mat board and put that in.


Then the cardboard, to make sure everything was secure.


I couldn’t get a picture of the next step,  because it required two hands, but I re-inserted some of the metal teeth along the sides and top. Last, I re-strung the wire and hung it back on the wall.


A watercolor with the original mat is on top; mine is on the bottom. So much fresher! And cleaner-looking!


I re-matted a second picture the following day, and (no surprise here) the process took about half the time.

It will cost me $16.00 and a couple of hours to re-do all four, and I’ll have plenty of extra mat board to frame (or re-frame) other art. VICTORY IN OUR TIME.







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