Muse Blues

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a question most writers have heard. And struggled to answer.

Those of us with blogs or columns get our ideas from daily life – family, news, travel, and what’s going on in the world around us. For example, I’ve written about ratatouille, possums, education, books, toilets, advertising, bipolar disorder, ghost towns, grocery shopping, and feminism, to name a few. Subject-specific blogs get their ideas from (duh!) the subject matter – recipes, medical conditions, politics, or whatever.

But sometimes the muse eludes us. It’s not writer’s block, exactly. That’s when you know what you’re writing about, maybe have even made a start at it, but hit a blank wall. This is the blank sheet of paper phenomenon, or Creative processthese days, blank screen. It gapes. It mocks. It snickers. It yawns. You rack your brain for amusing anecdotes, clever observations, strong opinions – anything at all worth writing about.

We’ve all been there.

But what can we do about it?

First of all, do not ask any friends or relatives, “What should I write about?” Ninety-nine times out of hundred you will get either “I dunno” or something exceedingly lame. That’s why you’re a writer and they’re not. Don’t ask a writer friend either. You don’t want to take an idea that she or he might want to use later.

Look at pictures. These can be snapshots of yourself, nature photos in National Geographic, or other sources. I belong to a photo service that I use to find the illustrations that accompany my blogs. Sometimes I browse through them and see if something strikes me. Mystery writer Sue Grafton even goes to secondhand shops and buys old photos from other people’s abandoned shoeboxes. It worked for Ransom Riggs, too.

Go somewhere. Really, you’ve looked at all the stuff in your house a million times and it’s just not speaking to you any more. Walks in nature often work for Thoreau-types. People-watching in malls and cafés (and, frankly, eavesdropping) can work too. Go to your basement or attic and see if that stirs memories as well as dust.

Read. Read a novel. Read the newspaper. Read your Facebook newsfeed. Someone else’s thoughts can trigger your own. Agree, disagree, explain, apply something to your own situation or town or friends. Read your old blog posts. Maybe you’ve changed your opinion, found a better recipe, or seen a follow-up news story. “Bathroom books” full of trivia and weird facts are good for topics to explore further.

Do research. This is for the truly desperate. You’ve spent all that time staring at a blank screen, and there’s not much left before your actual or self-imposed deadline (if you have one). Treat your topic like you would a research paper in high school or college. How many for-profit prisons are there in the U.S.? Are we the only country that has them? What about the time an elephant was electrocuted? What was up with that? How many raisins are in a box of Raisin Bran? Calculate the size of a “scoop.” (Okay, that was a dumb idea, but you get the gist.)

Google writing prompts can be fun too. Simply enter your name and a verb in the search box and see what Google suggests. One that I got was “Janet has a secret daughter.” Topic: If I did have a secret daughter, what would I want her to know about me? Other prompts: Janet shoulda known better. Janet is a party pooper. Janet loves jewelry. I could write 650 words on any of those.

If you’re getting down to your deadline and nothing else has worked, there are two more solutions. One is to ask one of your blogging buddies to do a guest post. The guest doesn’t even have to write something new for the occasion – an old post from his or her blog will be new to your readers. Then later, you may be able to return the favor and write a guest post, expanding your readership.

The other last-ditch option is to re-post something you wrote when you were first starting out. Maybe you had 50 readers then and 600 now. That means that most of them won’t have seen the piece. And some of them hold up quite well, or will with just a few tweaks.

And once you’ve chased down your muse and found something to write, don’t let her get away again. Write down good titles or one-line drafts. Save the URLs of interesting news stories. Keep digging in that attic, or whatever worked for you this time. Or try a different suggestion.

If all else fails, take Hemingway’s advice: Write drunk. Edit sober.

Why Are YA Dystopias So Popular?

Dystopias – the opposite of utopias – come in a variety of styles and genres to meet the trends. For a while, science fiction post-apocalyptic dystopias such as A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller) and Mad Max movies were popular. Feminist dystopias, the most famous of which is The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), have had continuing appeal.

Now, however, we find that the dystopia is one of the most prominent trends in Young Adult (YA) literature, meant for ages 15-20. (Let it be noted that I and some of my friends are *cough*ahem* somewhat above 20 and still enjoy YA lit.)Concept of reading. MaConcept of reading. Magic book with door a

Two of the YA dystopias that have created the largest buzz in the literary or at least genre fiction world are The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins) and the Divergent trilogy (Veronica Roth). Both create an oppressive, if implausible, society and feature protagonists the same age as the intended readers, who rebel against it.

This current in fiction, of course, taps into the phenomenon of teenage rebellion, but also channels it in a positive direction – these are societies that need to be rebelled against. The young adults are empowered, whether with weapons or mental or magical powers, to defy the status quo and try to bring about a new, better world.

There are certainly aspects of these books that older readers might object to, from teens wielding weapons to teens defying the powers that be, to teen sex. (Though the sex is nonexistent in some cases, minimal in others, and so non-graphic and off-stage as to be barely recognizable in other books. Apparently shooting heads of state with arrows or guns is still less alarming than 16-year-old characters having sex.)

But teens (and others) love them. Here are my opinions as to why.

Dystopias acknowledge that today’s society is dystopic. Maybe not rotten enough to choose teens to participate in televised killing sprees. But dysfunctional in a lot of ways, which teens can see and feel even if they don’t follow the news. They can hardly escape the sense that the world (or whatever part of it they live in) is unfair, unhealthy, and unjust, and many of the people in it are dangerous, vitriolic, scheming, and power-mad. Teens are smart enough to recognize that, no matter how many feel-good histories you feed them.

Dystopias say that teens can be active agents of change. The protagonists of these novels are certainly acted upon by society, but they also have the power to effect change at many levels, from personal defiance to regime change. However unlikely the plots, the idea that teens have power is, well, powerful.

Protagonists include strong female and male characters. And they acknowledge the possibility that males and females can work together. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is the clear lead, but Peeta is clearly no stick figure. The two have interactions that are complex and focus on the survival themes as much or more than the boy-girl angle. In Divergent, the relationship between Tris and Four (Tobias) is even more nuanced, with their personal and strategic goals often at odds. By the third novel, the narrative point of view even switches back and forth between them.

There are no pat endings. Appropriately, since the dystopian societies are in such abysmal shape to begin with, not everything is peaceful and peachy by the end of the story. Nor are dystopian novels simply about tearing down a bad society, but raising up a new, better one – and acknowledging the strength, courage, and intelligence that will take.

Few would deny that – at least in the U.S. – society is becoming more fractured, chaotic, and hate-filled – more dystopic. Truthers, birthers, factions that can imagine death panels and reeducation camps, blaming whole groups – the NRA, Wall Street,  liberals, conservatives, or whomever – for society’s ills cannot have escaped the notice of young adults. They’re still young enough to believe that solutions are possible, and old enough to see that the solutions will require commitment, struggle, and hard work.

Dystopic YA novels say, “More power to them!”

 

 

 

Art Is Love. Art Is Work. Art Is Football.

Art is love.

Deep in our hearts, most of us long to be artists. Most artists, deep in their hearts, long to be some other kind of artist.

I can write, but I would really like to be able to sing.

Dan can sing, but he would really like to be able to draw.

Jason can draw, but he would really like to be able to paint.

Peggy can paint, but she would really like to be able to write.

And all of us wish we could be better at the creative things we can do.

Art Creative Imagination Inspiration ConceptWhen I say “creative things,” I’m not just talking about the fine arts, either. Quilting, cooking, crocheting, and woodworking can all be creative acts. It all depends on the imagination, the love, and the attention you put into it.

Art is a process as much as it is a product. The process itself is valuable, even if the art never reaches professional levels. It expands the mind without drugs. It stretches your creative muscles without workout clothes. It brings frustration, and satisfaction, and courage, and effort, and pleasure, and giving all together. Just like love.

Art is work.

Remember the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!” It’s not enough to want to create art. Even singers born with perfect pitch have to practice breath control, projection, and reading music.

Dan will not learn to draw unless he tries, fails, tries again, takes classes, studies other people’s drawings, starts with something simple, practices, and practices, and practices. He may never become an artist in the sense of selling his works, but he will improve. And if he doesn’t improve enough to satisfy his inner longing, he can try photography or songwriting.

Art is work for your brains. And for your hands. And for making them work in sync. No one was ever born at the height of their creative powers. (Well, maybe Mozart, but I bet his compositions improved from when he was a child prodigy to his later works.) You may be born with creativity – we all are – but you will never make anything of it unless you use it.

The workers who made up the Bread and Roses movement had it right. Originally a call for both fair wages and dignified conditions for workers, the slogan has been used in poems and songs: “Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses.” Roses are what feed the heart. So does art. Art is necessary to our lives, a fact that has apparently been forgotten by everyone from politicians to businesspeople to educators.

Giving up on art is a sad thing. Never trying is worse. You may not be depriving the world of brilliance, but you are depriving yourself of potential and joy.

Art is football.

Young people playing sports imagine that it will propel them to the Good Life – fame, glory, sex, and millions and millions of dollars. Art can do that too. It allows a person to aspire to gallery shows, museums, art auctions, becoming a household name, and millions and millions of dollars.

Of course, that happens to only a select few persons – football players and artists alike.

But that’s not the point. If you truly love your art – or your sport – you do it anyway.

That’s not to say there are no ways to get recognition. You can teach art to others, just as you can coach pee-wee football. You can enter your artwork in local competitions and even state fairs. You can sell it at a booth at an outdoor art fair. You can give it to friends as birthday and holiday presents. Or you can keep it to yourself, for your own enjoyment, as Emily Dickinson did. You can even combine two of your passions and do art about athletics, like Leroy Neiman.

Nurture your art as you would a relationship. Throw yourself into it as you would work. Improve at it as you would at sports. Grow and your art grows with you. And as your art grows, so do you.

 

 

Political Noise

USA Flag Man YellingA friend of mine recently started a Facebook page called Political Noise. I wish he hadn’t.

Oh, I don’t mind that he (mostly) keeps his political rants on a separate page from his puns, movie reviews, and discussions of pop culture. What I mind is the title. There’s already too much noise in politics.

So much noise that the signal can’t get through.

Wikipedia defines signal-to-noise ratio (or SNR) as “a measure … that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise.” Think of an old-fashioned television set or radio.  When there’s too much static, you can’t get a clear picture or clear sound. At most, you get a snowstorm of non-information or a meaningless buzz.

That’s what’s happening in interpersonal communication these days as well. It’s worse because this is an election year, of course. It seems that whoever shouts the loudest gets the most attention. The content – the message – has become irrelevant.

In fact, the content has dwindled to nothing. Words that no longer retain any meaning are flung at the heads of those who are supposed to be recipients of the message. Patriot, citizen, terrorist, liberal, fascist, tyrant, and other, cruder, forms of common words no longer have denotations (agreed-upon definitions), but only connotations (emotional content). Linguist S. I. Hayakawa nailed it back in 1941:

[W]e discover that these utterances really say “What I hate (‘liberals,’ ‘Wall Street’), I hate very, very much,” and “What I like (‘our way of life’), I like very, very much.” We may call such utterances snarl-words and purr-words.

Then there’s the problem of who’s supposed to be receiving the message, the snarls and purrs. Sadly, the answer seems to be, only those who already agree with you. Try as they might, nay-sayers’ voices will not be heard – certainly not understood. This is “preaching to the choir,” not an exchange of ideas. Multiple viewpoints not welcome.

We are all shouting across an abyss and can neither hear nor be heard. The only response is an echo.

If ideas are not in play, surely facts must be. Alas not. Facts are fungible and loaded with political opinions. Want a fact about climate change or voter suppression or welfare, or, god help us, guns? People on both sides can rustle up some statistics from somewhere. There is always a scientist who’s an outlier, or is funded by someone with an agenda. Cherry-picking and rhetorical fallacies (strawman, slippery slope, post hoc ergo propter hoc, appeal to the common man or to authority, etc.) have become Olympic-level sports.

Not only is this cacophony damaging, it is counterproductive. No one convinces anyone of anything by shouting at them. The goal isn’t really persuading anyone else – you can’t do that by telling people they’re evil and stupid. The only goal is reinforcing oneself and one’s own worldview – intellectual masturbation. 

I do not think that the situation will change for the better once the election is over. I can’t believe that people will stop, take a step back, and lower their voices or the heat of their rhetoric. The only solution offered for noise is louder noise.

Some of us wish for clearer signals, less interference, a volume knob not that begins at 11. Less shouting and more hearing. Listening. Thinking. Considering. Compromising. Maybe the secret is asking questions instead of yelling slogans. What do you suggest? Why do you think that will work? Whom will that help? How can we best use our time, our resources, ourselves?

I’m not a little old-fashioned lady asking for a little old-fashioned civility here. Empty politeness is not the solution. Real work is – the extremely hard work of true communication. Sharing ideas, not screaming them. Trying solutions, instead of dismissing them. The mental work of trying to understand; the physical work of acting locally; the emotional work of finding common ground; the spiritual work of valuing one another. These are ways to get signals through the noise.

If what we really want to do is communicate, not pat ourselves on the back and vilify others, that is.

 

 

 

 

Seven Reasons I Hate the Bloggess

Red heart, studded with apins isolated on a white background. 3d render

First, let me say that I read the Bloggess all the time. I have her books and I read them all the time too. But secretly I hate her, and here’s why.

1. She had a weirder childhood than I did. She lived in a small Texas town full of farm critters and wild animals, and weird characters, including her father the taxidermist, and has interesting poverty stories, like the one about the bread-sack shoes. I lived in a nondescript middle-class suburb with a stay-at-home mom and a dad that went to work every day smelling of Vitalis and Aqua Velva, rather than deer blood.

(This was also the problem I had trying to write country songs. You can’t get very far with “I was born an industrial engineering technician’s daughter/in the Central Baptist Hospital of Lexington, KY.”)

2. She had more interesting pets, with more interesting names than I did. She had a raccoon named Rambo that wore Jams and a delinquent turkey named Jenkins. Later she had a dog named Barnaby Jones Pickles and has cats named Ferris Mewler and Hunter S. Thomcat. We had dogs named Blackie and Bootsie and rabbits named Christina and Mittens. Our recent dogs have been Karma and Bridget, and the only eccentric cat names we’ve bestowed have been Django and Dushenka.

(Ordinarily, I don’t like cat names like Baryshnikat and F. Cat Fitzgerald. I think cat names should be something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to yell out the door if one of them wanders off, like Louise or Garcia. But I suppose the Bloggess’s neighbors are by now used to anything.)

3. She has more interesting disorders than I do. I have a bad back and bipolar disorder type 2 (and a blog about it, bipolarjan.wordpress.com). The Bloggess has generalized anxiety disorder, anti-phospholipid syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and, apparently, an obsession with chupacabras and vaginas. This gives her much more to write about. Although I do have two blogs. Two! In your face, Bloggess!

4. She’s less inhibited than I am. The Bloggess would have ended that last paragraph, “In your face, motherfucker!” I didn’t learn to cuss till I was in my 20s and no one I meet ever believes I swear until I do. Then they’re shocked. Also, I swear all the time, except in my blogs, where I’m afraid I’ll offend readers, all of whom I assume have tender sensibilities. The Bloggess knows her readers better than that.

5. She has way more readers than I do. And she’s published books and has another coming out. I have 495 followers and I think most of them want to sell me books on how to publicize my blog. I should probably study a book like that, but I’d rather read ones about emerging viruses, cloud cities on Venus, and mostly true memoirs. On the other hand, I have the distinction of being the only writer ever to have articles in both Catechist and Black Belt magazines. So take that, moth . . . Bloggess!

6. She and her husband have more interesting arguments than my husband and I do. We never even talk quietly about whether Jesus was a zombie.

7. She has a stronger voice than I do. I mean her writing voice. I had no idea what her speaking voice was like until I saw a video clip of her on the web, talking about vaginas. But when I’m going to write in my blogs, I have to lay off reading her for a day or two, because her voice takes over my weak, tiny mind and it wants to sound like her. I wish I could write like that. Or at least as well as that.jennyme

But, like the Bloggess, I am a strangeling. And that’s a start.

The Other Sex Talk

I’ve never had the “sex talk” that all people – both parents and children – seem to dread. I’m not a parent and when I was a child I received my technical understanding of reproduction from a health class film, which left a lot to the imagination, and the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, which filled in a lot of gaps that the health film skipped right over. (The film referred to a menstrual period as “the weeping of a disappointed uterus.” Ick.)

erotic education button on computer pc keyboard keyBut that’s not the sex talk I mean. This is the sex talk for consenting adults that hardly anyone has but everyone needs to. It’s divided into two sections: The Health Chat and the Pleasure Chat. It’s best to conduct these conversations when everyone is still clothed and not engaged in heavy breathing. I would recommend choosing a time and place not conducive to sex – a park, for example. Both parties need time to consider the discussion before deciding whether to proceed.

The Health Chat

The easier part of the health chat is discussing birth control/safe sex. What method does each partner typically use or prefer? Barrier methods? Hormonal? Does either person have an allergy to latex? These are things it’s better to know beforehand.

So far the health chat has been fairly smooth and non-threatening. Next comes the part that too many people skip because it’s just so uncomfortable to talk about: STDs. Herpes and HIV infections are the most serious, as there is no cure for either, and both carry enormous stigma. But those are the very reasons potential partners must talk about them. They’re not just potential surprises but possibly life-changing ones.

STDs can be a deal-breaker. Talking about them in advance can eliminate the possibility of a revelation at an inopportune moment and give the other person a chance to consider the risks, the seriousness, the forms of protection, do research, or even discuss the subject with a physician.

How do you do this delicate dance? Be forthright, but not panicky. “I know we’re both thinking about having sex, but I need to tell you something. I have a herpes infection.” Explain what you’re doing about it. “I’ve been on anti-virals for over a year and haven’t had an outbreak in that time. I always use condoms, even when I’m not having an outbreak.” Then back off. “I’m sure you’ll want to think about this, maybe learn some more about it, before we decide whether to go further. And that’s okay. If you decide not to, I respect your decision.” There, that takes what? Two minutes? Three? (Working yourself up to having the conversation may take a tad bit longer.) But ethically, it’s something you need to do.

It’s also legitimate to ask if your prospective partner habitually practices safe sex. “I didn’t use condoms with my last girlfriend, but she was a very nice woman” is not a good enough answer. That nice person’s last partner might at some point have had sex with a diseased goat. The point is, you just don’t know. The safe option then is for you both to get tested. I once advised  a friend who was in this situation of what his hero Ronald Reagan said: “Trust, but verify.”

The Pleasure Chat

It can be best to check out with your partner what activities he or she finds enjoyable. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be very important. Again, it’s something you might want to discuss before you’re close to getting it on, to prevent knee-jerk reactions that might spoil an otherwise good time.

If both of you enjoy mainstream, middle-of-the road sex, that’s fine. But one or both of you may also like the more kinky side of things. Better to talk about it than be surprised when someone approaches an unexpected orifice or brings out an unfamiliar sex toy.

One saying in the kink community is that sex should be safe, sane, and consensual. It’s better to discuss the safety and sanity, and get the consent, before proceeding.

Also, discussing these matters beforehand gives you a chance to think seriously about what your boundaries are – what things you absolutely don’t want to do, what you might try once as an experiment, and what you’ve never done but have no objection to. You can also take time to ask yourself whether you are reacting automatically or have actually thought about the questions raised. Your instant instinct might be “Ew,” but on further reflection you might say, “I’ve never thought I’d like that, but if it gives my partner pleasure, maybe I could try it and see.” From these reflections can grow more varied – and more fulfilling – sex lives.

Talking about sex can be scary, or erotic, or sensible, or just plain necessary. One thing’s for sure. If you can’t have a sex talk with someone, you shouldn’t be having sex with that person.

 

(This is for my friend John and others who informed my thinking on these issues.)

 

Lessons Learned From Waitressing

My theory is that at least 80 percent of people who go to college spend time as waiters or waitresses. The rest have rich parents.

I took a year off college after my freshman year to think things over and to earn money. I spend that year as a server (as they’re called now) and a cashier at a chain family restaurant notable for having large statues of juvenile males holding up hamburgers while wearing checkered overalls.

I learned a lot while I was there, both from my own experience and that of my fellow waitresses. (There were no fellow waiters at that time and place.) These lessons may not apply to fast food places or fine dining establishments, but for middle-of-the-road places I think they’re pretty typical.

The truth about tips.

  • Tips are not a living wage. It’s likely that your server has a second job in order to pay the bills. Or is caring for a relative at home, which is a second job all on its own. Many servers have Tupperware parties or sell candles and gift wrap to their coworkers, which bsicallly just shifts too little money around.
  • I worked at a time when a dollar tip was considered something special. Nowadays, with the battered economy, dollar tips aren’t rare – but very few patrons tip the recommended 20 percent or even the formerly recommended 15 percent. (Hint: 20 percent is easier to figure. Bill x 2, then lop off a zero.) And I don’t care if all you got was coffee and it cost $1.50 – $.30 may be 20 percent, but you should be embarrassed. Leave a buck, will ya, or at least half a dollar.
  • Tips are even worse at bill-paying when the management fiddles with the figures. Back in the day, waitresses were required to record – and pay taxes on – enough tips to make their hourly pay equivalent to the minimum wage – whether they actually made that much or not. I don’t know whether this illegal practice is still a thing, but if it isn’t, I’m sure there are new ways to screw servers out of their full pay.
  • A tip is good. A thank you and a tip is better. A tip and snapping your fingers in the air when you want something is not better. And blaming the server (and lowering the tip) for any dissatisfaction may not be warranted. Slow service could be caused by the cook being swamped with orders, or the manager not scheduling enough workers, or dozens of other reasons. If your server is rude, scatterbrained, or otherwise clearly to blame, fine, lower the tip. But think of all the other reasons your food might not be piping hot and delivered instantly. P.S. Cooks, managers, etc. do not live on tips.
  • Religious tracts are not tips. They may look like tips, with dollar bills printed on the cover, but if the inside says “Want a tip? Find Jesus!” it does not pay the bills (see above). And this can lead to poorer service the next time you dine (see above). Plus, I have never known these pamphlets to work as intended. “What a good idea! I’ll go to this church and turn my heart over to the Lord!” said no server ever. Besides, it’s vaguely insulting. Why assume that all servers are pagans in need of salvation?

Church groups can be annoying.

  • They arrive in parties of a dozen or more, push tables together without regard to servers’ assigned stations, and all order fried chicken (which takes a long time to cook, especially in mass quantities). (I know I’m generalizing here, but that’s sure how I remember it.)
  • When you arrive with the huge platter of food and are holding it precariously on one shoulder, that’s when they decide to pray. Couldn’t they at least wait until the food is in front of them? (Yes, there are stands for huge trays, but never when and where you need one.)
  • They also steal silverware and salt shakers. Not every group, not all the time, but we definitely noticed that the amount of cutlery often diminished after a large church group. Other large groups like softball teams were more likely to leave tips under an overturned glass of water or loosen the top on the sugar shaker. We were not amused.

Miscellaneous

  • I developed a great many skills that have been useful in later life. Cursing, for example. I never used to swear until the day that I slammed my hand in the sliding door of the case that held the pies.
  • I also learned to sneeze without actually sneezing. This was essential while holding the aforementioned tray of chicken dinners at the aforementioned prayer time. I can’t quite describe how to do it, but it seems to involve closing your mouth and closing off your nasal passages at the same time. I don’t think it’s good for your eustachian tubes, but it’s better than ruining all that chicken.
  • Police officers were some of our best customers, even if they did get 50 percent off their tab. They were jovial, polite, and usually would just say, “Give me the usual.” (I did know one police officer who wouldn’t take the discount. I just shrugged and let him have his way.)
  • Night shift was the best shift. Yeah, we had to do all the cleaning when the restaurant was closed and an inspection was impending, but we could also crank up the music and make a party of it. There were slow periods when we could get a little crazy (the manager once breaded and deep-fried a piece of cardboard and told the cook it was his check). Then off to the all-night Putt-Putt or a poker game.

Bottom line: Waitressing was hard, silly, frustrating, fun, colorful, exhausting and weird, sometimes all on the same day. I’m glad I had the experience; it builds empathy for other service workers.

But, God willing, I’ll never do it again.

 

 

 

When the Husband’s Away…

“Bye, honey!” My husband is leaving on a vacation. “When will you be back? I need to schedule the dancing boys!”

OK. Not really. I mean, I don’t really invite male strippers in when my husband is away. But I really do say that.

You see, we’re totally on board with the idea of separate vacations, and we feel comfortable making jokes about nonexistent indiscretions. Once Dan sent me flowers and signed the card “Raoul,” my imaginary lover/pool boy. (Didn’t that stir them up at the office!)

We take plenty of vacations together, when we can, but that doesn’t always work out. One of us can get time off, but the other can’t. He has to go do home repairs for his mother and I need to cat-sit for a honeymooning couple.

“You mean he’s going to let you go?” a coworker asked on learning that I was going to Florida for a week without my husband. I ignored the “let you go” part, which would have taken a long explanation that would probably have confused her anyway. I tackled the other assumption instead.Farewell at the station

“If I were going to cheat on him, I wouldn’t have to go to Florida to do it. I could do it much more conveniently right here in town.” At least I think that was the assumption she was making. Perhaps she simply thought that a woman alone in Florida should fear for her safety and that my husband would worry if he weren’t there to protect me. (Oh, well, there went my reputation again!)

While I do think that separate vacations are Good Things, it’s not for the usual reasons. Most separate vacationers rhapsodize about the freedom of being alone and the sweetness of coming back together afterwards.

No one ever mentions that a couple may have very different vacation styles. I’m not talking here about when one person wants to lounge on the beach sipping tropical drinks with little umbrellas to keep the drinks dry, while the other hankers for rugged adventure with primitive sanitary facilities and the thrill of potentially being eaten by bears.

What I’m talking about is the way two people can go with each other to the same place and still be on separate planets. Take me and my husband, for example. Before we leave, I like to do research (yes, I am just a wee bit compulsive). I like to know what the attractions in the area are, when they’re open, how much they cost, and the best way to get there. Dan likes to wing it.

Once we’re there, though (wherever “there” is), he likes to schedule each day. And sometimes over-schedule, a practice that a friend refers to as The Bataan Fun March. I like to plan what we do based on the weather, how tired we are, and which are our individual must-see trade-offs.

Then there are souvenirs. Dan likes to buy something at each place we visit, even if it’s something he’ll likely never use, like a cowboy hat. I prefer to purchase that one perfect item that reminds me of our whole trip. Although I will admit a weakness for shot glasses with the names of cities and scenic places on them. But I use those.

Packing is another issue. He underpacks, and I overpack. (Though not to the extent of stereotype woman-with four-suitcases-and-two-trunks.) I just like to have clothes for any type of weather and shoes for any type of terrain we may encounter. Dan packs as little as possible to leave room for the aforementioned souvenirs.

In short, we can easily make each other crazy. Stroll through the airport or run to the gate and then sit for hours? Visit museums or go on walking tours? Take a day off to relax in the hotel pool or squeeze in more sightseeing? A together-vacation is fraught with potential pitfalls.

So what do I recommend? A judicious blend of together and separate. After all, vacations are about variety, aren’t they? A different environment, different experiences, different destinations? We spend most of our lives together. A week apart can be a refreshing change!

 

 

A Marriage Made in the Kitchen

I think it all started with the naked Julia Child impressions. We were newly married and everything was fun. We weren’t entirely naked while cooking, of course – aprons were a requirement and oven mitts (worn wherever) were allowed. There were other rules, too – no deep-frying, for example, for obvious reasons. Using plummy, authoritative voices we would do a fictitious play-by-play of dinner preparation: “Place the turkey in the oven for 350 minutes at 120 degrees. Oopsie! [take slug of wine].”

Flour, eggs and Love

Of course, at that stage it wasn’t really a turkey. We were the newly married poor and subsisted on mac-n-cheese, frozen burritos, and anything else that cost $.27 or less. Cooking was simple, fun, and entertaining. Not that we could afford to entertain. All of our friends should be grateful for that.

We didn’t get serious about cooking until years later, when friends of ours came up with a recipe they called “Experimental Chicken.” It was wonderful, and was wonderfully different every time they cooked it. “By God,” I said, “if Tom and Leslie can cook, so can we!”

At the time, we weren’t foodies. Either they didn’t exist yet, or hadn’t made their presence known to the likes of us. Our early attempts at cooking were really “modifying” existing products. We’d take Hamburger Helper “Beef Stroganoff,” substitute stew meat for hamburger, and use real sour cream instead of the packaged powder that was supposed to morph somehow into a sauce. It may not have been actual cooking, but it was an improvement over the boxed version. We also improved mac-n-cheese by adding tuna and peas to it. Protein and veggies! What a great idea!

Then we branched out into original one-pot meals. (We still prefer one-pot meals. Both of us hate to do dishes.) “Cowboy beans” was one of our specialties: ground beef, pork-n-beans, and cheese. Call it minimalist cooking if you want to be kind. As we became more adventurous we began to add ingredients like refried beans, tomatoes, chiles, green peppers, onions, and assorted spices, then serve them with tortillas and salsa for do-it-yourself burritos. We never went back to the $.27 frozen ones.

At last the Food Network came into our lives. Stuck at the time in severe depression, I watched the shows endlessly for the calm voices and helpful tips. I finally learned the term “flavor profiles.” Our cooking life was revitalized. I became the chef and my husband was the sous-chef.

We seldom used recipes. The experimental nature of the original chicken inspiration had stuck with us. We belonged to the look-in-the-fridge-and-pantry-and-go from-there school. “Cut that chicken into bite-sized pieces,” I would say. “No, my bite-sized, not yours. Now pass me the paprika, please. The smoky paprika. Now, everyone into the pool! Mixy-mixy!” We developed our food repertoire to include a killer ratatouille (see wp.me/p4e9wS-2z) and something that resembled a quiche.

Then came a bigger change – my back wouldn’t allow me to stand at the stove and the tremor in my hands made me dangerous with a knife. So Dan took over as head chef, and I became the food consultant. His first attempts were a little sad. “A casserole needs some moisture in it – milk, stock, or something – to hold it together, especially if there’s rice or noodles involved,” I would gently suggest.

Gradually Dan came into his own. I only had to answer questions about whether I wanted my fish baked or broiled, or whether sage or lemon pepper was needed. Once I explained them, he instantly caught on to shepherd’s pie and frittata. They’re now his signature dishes, so lovely that we could post pictures on the Internet if we were into food porn, and tastier than many a restaurant meal.

I still fondly remember those days of naked Julia Child impressions, though I have no particular desire to recreate them. But since then, our cooking partnership has evolved just as our marriage has – for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, with laughter and spice, and a willingness to let each other take the lead at different times. All in all, a tasty recipe for two.

 

This post first appeared on BlogHer, on March 26, 2016.

An Arizona Ghost Town

My husband and I were vacationing in Arizona when we encountered a ghost town.

It wasn’t the ordinary sort of ghost town, neither the kind with re-created western storefronts and actors playing at gunfights and saloons that serve sarsaparilla nor the kind that are abandoned towns of the 1930s or 50s that sport  completely empty streets, dilapidated houses, decrepit main streets, and sand-filled parks and parking lots.desert road

This was something else again.

We were in Arizona for the silliest of reasons. We had decided to visit the small town of Benson, based entirely on the name of the theme song of the little-known sci-fi movie Dark Star. It’s a charming little country-and-western number on the topic of special relativity. Here’s the best recording of it I could find: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2F0dHVZAm8

It turned out to be a swell vacation. Very relaxing. The nearest city of any size was Tucson, Benson was surrounded by scenic mountains, there were an excellent restaurant and a great diner (also a noted barbecue joint, but it was closed because the chef had cut himself), and not a great deal else.

But Benson was a good jumping-off point for assorted day trips. One of the best was to Kartchner Cavern (http://azstateparks.com/Parks/KACA/), which was the most accessible and best-preserved cave I’ve ever seen, but also a delight because the tour guide actually used the word “adit,” which is usually encountered only in crossword puzzles.

On this particular day we were visiting the copper-mining town of Bisbee. Noted for its historical significance and its artist-colony vibe, Bisbee was a delightful town to explore. There was a bicycle race going through town that day, which provided some very intriguing sights of the buff-guys-in-skintight-shorts variety. I also indulged my fondness for semiprecious stones. They are available all over the southeastern Arizona area, but Bisbee’s shops provided some of the most attractive examples. I bought an iolite bracelet at one. (A little bluer than amethyst, iolite is lovely set in silver http://www.minerals.net/gemstone/iolite_gemstone.aspx.)

At some point during our ramble around Bisbee, I had picked up a real estate paper, and read in it about a restaurant/bar/orchard for sale, complete with liquor, as the owners had abandoned it. It sounded unusual and interesting, and on the way out of town we passed what had to be the same property.

It inspired us. We started daydreaming about how we could buy the property with our friends Sandy and Hugh. Sandy and I could run the bar while Dan and Hugh tended the pecan orchard and baked pies. Or Dan and I could run the restaurant while Hugh and Sandy set up stables for boarding horses. Or we could all drink up the liquor and abandon the place as the previous owners had.

Our next destination that day was Chiricahua National Monument, a place of spectacular formations that looked like God had played Jenga with rocks. We were chatting and driving merrily along when I noticed the gas gauge. It was at zero. Not near zero. Not approaching zero. The needle was actually on the red line.

We looked at our map. Nothing. No thing. Not a thing between us and Chiricahua. Not even a symbol that indicated food, gas, and lodging.

Actually, there was something between us and Chiricahua. Miles and miles of nothing.

It’s pretty well known that when the needle hits the red line, there is still actually some small amount of gas left in the car. The thing is, you never know how much or how far it will take you. In our case, it looked like the rental car might take us just a little closer to Absolutely Nothing.

As couples will, Dan and I began to bicker. Who should have reminded whom to get gas on the way out of Bisbee? Would driving faster or slower conserve more fuel? Could we arrange to run out of gas on a downhill slope so the car would be easier to push? What were the odds of getting a cell phone signal? Why were we so stupid, and unlucky, and screwed?

Then, ahead in the not-too-distant distance, a smudge appeared on the horizon. As we crept nearer, the smudge resolved into a few lonely buildings. We both started humming the Twilight Zone theme.

It was a town. Not much of a town and not on the map, which still indicated that we were nowhere. But it was there, and it was a town with two buildings.

And one of them was a gas station. (The other was a post office, which I can’t imagine was very busy.) So we got gas and a couple of cold drinks and didn’t have to die of heatstroke walking forward to Chiricahua or back to Bisbee. We thanked the attendant (who was not Rod Serling) kindly and went on our way, letting the smudge of a town disappear in our rearview mirror.

I suppose I should have asked the clerk’s name, or the town’s name, but it never occurred to me to do so. We were simply awed and grateful and more than a little amazed.

And we decided that the moral of the story was this: It’s better to be smart, but if you can’t do that, it’s even better to be lucky.