Wednesday, February 29, 2012

For Writers

I have two files on my hard drive devoted to “characters”. One is filled with snatches of stories I’ve heard featuring great characters who help in forming my own fictional characters. A popular saying these days is, “you just can’t make this stuff up.” And I agree that life is often stranger than fiction. So when I’m in the presence of a truly gifted story teller I laser in and pay attention. The essence of what’s being said is the nugget I can work from, and these real stories need only a clever twist or a bit of imaginative adornment to become something more.  

The other file is full of pithy or hilarious sayings from various friends and acquaintences. And they’re just all over the place. Writers are nosey and inquisitive and keeping track of them can really pay off. There’s one man in particular I like to be near whenever we’re in the same gathering. He's like a lush strawberry field of remarks worth saving. He’s an armed services vet, several years my senior and is rarely shy about sharing his opinion. I remember rushing home after one social event to record this one before I forgot it.

“There’s so many people in China they have to take turns breathing!”

This cracked me up. I can’t remember what the conversational bent was, but that remark hit my funny bone. The story and moment within it will have to be just right but I know this gem will find a home. I’ve placed it in a character file with a sub-heading for this guy because I know some day I’ll be able to use it in some piece of writing. The man’s mannerisms and facial expressions are also brought to mind whenever I recall one of his maxims, and I know I’ll be able to work those in somewhere, too.

These character studies are part of the reason I prefer character to plot driven stories. Yeah, I know, a story has to be about something. But when that something is enriched by characters teeming with wit, charm, humor, pathos or impossible virtue – well, then you have something worth writing about, my friend. Yes, you do.

Coming soon: my take on British actors

Image: renjith krishnan                                                    

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


A few years ago, by way of a Christmas gift to my family, I asked them for food stories. Sisters, brothers, cousins and friends were urged to compose their childhood memories and I got some great responses. I gathered and sorted and did them up on holiday paper. Then I bundled them off to each contributor early in December. It was a big hit. Today I'd like to share a few of their remembrances with you.

From our sister, Wendy

Do you remember setting the table every night for dinner? We would set the dishes, silverware, and milk glasses out and then pour the milk. Jim would come to the table every night before the milk was poured and pretend he was Popeye. He would lift the empty glass as if it was Popeye’s can of spinach (remember the cartoon?) and shake it into his mouth. Well, one night we had already poured the milk and Dad, Shar, Tim and I were already seated at the table. Jim came to the table, picked up the glass and poured milk all over his face! You know Dad—you could never know for sure if he would laugh or not. The kids were all biting their cheeks trying not to laugh, but when Dad burst out, we all did. It’s my favorite Jim story.

From our family friend, Bill

I remember once when my mother was out of the house and I was about thirteen or fourteen years old and decided to make oatmeal cookies. So I took the box (remember the round box of Quaker Oats?) and followed the recipe on the back that used the entire box. I had cookies on cookie sheets, frying pans, pots, lids – everything I could find to bake them on. But the cookies were edible and ranged in size from a ½ inch to four inches. Boy! What a mess! Luckily my Mom didn’t kill me.   

Editor’s note: I, for one, am glad he didn’t mess with his Mom’s Honey Cake. THAT would have been a true sacrilege.

From our cousin, Denny

My only food thoughts are your Dad's BBQ's and Christmas. Your Dad’s secret to satisfying folks with his BBQ was to make them wait.  When dinner was served everyone was starving, and dirt would have tasted good.  The food was always good, however.

Christmas foods for the adults were always an enigma to us kids.  How any of them could enjoy lutefisk with that disgusting yellow cream sauce, makes my skin crawl to think of it.

From our sister, Pam

Steph (her twin) and I were trying to make a cheesecake once, the kind you refrigerate, not bake, and the recipe called for powdered sugar. We didn’t know if you were supposed to pack the powdered sugar like you do with brown sugar, so of course we did, and it was terrible. The funny thing is (and this is the difference between the first born and last born) that Mom liked it and ate most of it. We didn’t even get into trouble! It was really awful though.

There are other stories and I'll share them another time. My own story, Remembering the Pie, was published in Sasee, Prairie Times and eventually in the anthology, I Didn't Get Old Being Stupid. I may share that another time, too.

Image: digitalart                                    


Monday, February 27, 2012

Waxing Nostalgic

It's so important to remember where we come from - the people who gave us life and how their lives affected ours. With that in mind, I share with you such people and times from my own very early life. I hope you don't mind.

Back in the late forties and mid fifties, California was the Promised Land for a lot of Americans. People from all over the United States moved there in droves. My mother and father decided to make that move so our family could have a better life. At the time we were living in northern Minnesota on the Iron Range.  

To pay for plane tickets, Dad spent eight months in Greenland where the U.S. Army had contracted with civilians to build an airstrip. He was able to send home enough for my mother to buy us our first TV. We kids watched Pinky Lee and Howdy Doody. Mom loved Playhouse 90 and the United States Steel Hour. When Dad returned he bought a used Plymouth because he was driving to the West coast with his brother, our Uncle Vern. They would find a place for us to live and get the lay of the land.

Dad had us kids all excited about going to California. He told us about the huge orange groves, the year-round nice weather and a new amusement park called Disneyland. He had a way of making everything seem like a big adventure.

Because I was so young and had this big adventure looming, I guess I didn’t realize what we were leaving. Mom’s folks had a small farm and my dad's sister, Aunt Dee, had a house on Swan Lake. Both places were loads of fun for us kids.

Aunt Dee’s place on the lake actually had two houses, the ‘big house’ and the guesthouse. The big house had a huge kitchen and a living room with a fireplace and a glassed in porch. Wide cement steps led down from the porch to a volleyball court and then to a patio with a big stone barbeque. The dock went about 20 feet out into the lake.

We loved to swim, too, but were afraid of leaches or "bloodsuckers" as we called them. Aunt Dee put salt on them if one of them attached itself to an arm or leg. We’d try to scare each other silly by yelling bloodsucker!! whenever we saw one darting through the water.  The best thing though, was when there was a big cookout going on.  Aunt Dee entertained a lot and her husband, our uncle Tubby, made the best ribs! He really was tubby from partaking from his own excellent cooking and his real first name was Toivo, Finnish in origin, and his Americanized nickname suited him well. When he was at the helm, you knew you were in for some good eating!

The big house also had a sauna in the basement. Being of Scandinavian descent, it was a natural thing for us to go into the steam bath where a big drum held hot rocks. When water was poured over those things billows of steam filled the little room where we sat on wooden benches. We'd hunker down in our swimsuits until we couldn't stand it. Then we'd give each other the eye and charge up the basement stairs running pell mell to the dock where we'd hold our noses and plunge into the lake. It made us feel wonderfully tingly and clean all over.

My uncle also had a nickel slot machine in the basement. We'd beg for nickels so we could pull the handle and maybe win enough money to go to the drug store for a malted milk. The drug store was called Oja’s and we could walk to it from the lake house. Of course that hard earned malted milk was un-surpassed and they always gave you the shiny shaker with the extra bit that wouldn't fit into the glass. Maybe that was our bonus for walking to the store. Sucking it down with a fat paper straw was bliss!

My mom’s folks lived on a small farm just outside of Grand Rapids. I especially liked it when the spring vegetables were ready in the garden. Grandma Blaine cooked them in butter and cream. She had a separator in the kitchen and used the cream right from there. She also did a lot of canning. There was a big trap door in the floor outside the kitchen that led down to the earthy smelling cellar where Grandpa had lined the walls with shelves for the jars. They sparkled like jewels and it was always fun to go down there and pick out a jar of peas or carrots for supper!

The farm also had an outhouse, a two holer. Once, when my younger sister, Sharon, and I went out to use it, a garter snake greeted us when we opened the door. You never saw two little girls high tail it back to the house so fast in your life! I didn’t have pee for hours and hours after that. My bladder probably grew two sizes that day.

Grandpa had a few cows and also had a springhouse where he kept the milk cold. One time I did venture out with my Aunt Doreen, who was only four years older than me. I remember how mysterious it seemed to be in the cool dark building and hear the stream rushing around the metal milk cans. There wasn’t anything for kids to actually do in there, but my curiosity was satisfied, so it was worth the trip.

Eventually with the help of her family and many sad goodbyes’, my mother managed to get us all packed and onto the plane, headed to our new life. There were four of us kids and Mom was pregnant with our brother Jim. I'm still astounded at the courage it must have taken for her to make that trip! We left Minnesota on a snowy day in January and arrived many hours later in sunny Southern California. I still remember walking down the steps onto ground that wasn’t frozen. Dad was there to greet us and couldn't wait to show us around. I was young and excited and all ready for our big new adventure, but I’ll never forget the wonderful times we all had before the Promised Land.  

Image: Idea go                                    

Saturday, February 25, 2012


You know, every once in a while they do something so sweet you just want to spread them on toast and eat them.

Several posts ago I featured my children’s poem that won third prize in a contest. Usually my dear spouse says little or nothing about my writing accomplishments and when I showed him the certificate and the check for this one he said, “Wow, very nice.” That’s his standard response for many things including when he can’t understand the rapid chatter of one of the grand kids.

But that was okay with me. I was pleased with myself for placing at all and I put the certificate in the 2012 folder where I’ve begun collecting proof of sales, etc.

A few days later while I was cleaning up the kitchen from lunch I heard him go up the stairs. I soon  followed and he called to me from the office / bedroom where I write.

“What?” I answered.

“Come in here, it will be easier to show you.”

He then asked where my certificate was. He’d found a nice shiny black frame for it which he now held up.

Placing in the contest was nice, but having my sweetie go to the trouble of finding a way to display it was – blueberry jam sweet. That’s a picture of it on the left, no longer in the folder, but out there for the world to see.

I wonder what he’ll do when the first royalty check comes for the mystery I signed a publishing contract for last week?

Love you, Honey

Friday, February 24, 2012

There's Something About a Cookie

I wrote this essay several years ago and the snowy weather today brought it to mind. Enjoy!

It was one of those dreary winter days that just begs to be devoted to cookie baking. I didn’t fight it. The sky was dark, the freezing rain was coming and I had flour. A half an hour later I had about half of my Snickerdoodles baked. The house smelled wonderful. I popped the next batch into the oven and grabbed my cup of coffee. My counter is a peninsula of sorts and just beyond it is a ten foot picture window looking out over our huge backyard. Earlier I’d thrown out some bread crusts for my crows and as I stared out the window, I noticed movement. Peering closer I saw that it was a cat – the most pitifully thin and bedraggled cat I’d ever seen. I watched as the critter inhaled the bread then I went to the back door. I just had to see if she’d come to me.

“Meow,” was the soft reply to my cajoling whisper.

“Come on, sweetie,” I said and it was only a matter of moments before the cat was in the house. Soon she was cuddled up on the couch with my youngest son and we marveled at the poor kitty’s matted hair and lack of body fat. The cat’s ribs were not visible because, as we found out later, this was a Maine Coon Cat. Long hair in shades of gray covered her bones, but just barely. She also had a nick in one ear and I could just imagine what fight caused that.

“What are we going to do, Mom?” my son asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Your Dad doesn’t really care for cats and we can’t afford another animal. I guess we’ll just have to put it back outside.”

And silly me, I thought that would be the end of it. But, no, the cat may have been undernourished be she wasn’t stupid. If there was food at this house, she was going to stay. So of course she was there the next day and the next, until finally I was telling anyone who would listen about our stray, the one my son named Bones.

“Really?” said my friend, Karen. She and her husband had just lost a beloved cat, and I zeroed in on her interest.

“Want her?” I asked, then launched into a description of the poor creatures condition.

“We’ll be over to look at her this afternoon.”

And that was that. One look at poor Bones and they were goners. The cat carrier came out, an appointment with the vet was made, and the cat’s name was subsequently changed to Buddy. The vet determined that this was a he-cat, not a she-cat.

So what does this have to do with cookies? Well, let me tell you. I feed things; kids, crowds, crows, squirrels – you name it. One of my daughters-in-law even nicknamed me Grandma Food. But I’m most famous for my cookies. I have a beat up old Tupperware cake taker that, if it’s sitting on the kitchen table, the kids and grandkids know I’ve been busy baking. Our youngest granddaughter, w ho is just two, came in the door the other day, saw the container and said, “cookie?” It made me proud.

The elderly mother of a friend makes sure every year at Christmas that I remember her with cookies. And I’m so flattered, I always do. She loves my choco-caramel delights, the ones I used to give to the delivery people when my husband and I owned a computer shop.

I’m kind of famous for feeding crows, too. There’s an old tree stump a short distance from the big picture window and up a little rise. I call it my crow stump and I’ve even gone so far as to beg leftover pizza crusts from friends and family when I’m out in polite society. Old cereal, apple peels and of course stale cookies (not too many of those) are all candidates for the stump. My crows even call for me in the morning and especially appreciate it when I shovel a path to the stump in the dead of winter.

I feel a little bit like Jack. You know the one from the old nursery rhyme who built the house? This is the crust from the loaf of bread that went to the stump to feed the crows. This is the rain that fell in the autumn that caused me to bake the Snickerdoodles. This is the coffee I stood and drank and looked out the window and saw the cat while I waited for the cookies to bake. And this is the cat that came in the house and found a home because somebody loves to feed people.

Yup, there’s just something about a cookie.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

For Writers - Point of View

Stay With the Dog

You’ve done this exercise haven’t you? Imagine you’re at the scene of an accident. You’re the reporter gathering facts about what happened. You madly scribble away as each eyewitness tells you what he or she saw and come away with mountains of notes regarding the incident as observed through many eyes. Some relate in-depth details and some focus on only one aspect of the event. A few may even make things up. But each has a point of view and so do you, the reporter.

What you have to do when you write your story is fashion it into a cohesive whole that will inform and entertain your reader. Now imagine telling the story from only one point of view and you have some idea of what your job as a storyteller is. The difficulty is in the choosing. Let’s examine what your interviewees said.

  1. The clerk at the convenience store – “I was just about to hand a lottery ticket to a customer when I saw the front end of a dinged up yellow truck coming right at me through the window!”
  2. The lottery ticket buyer – “The clerk’s eyes got huge and she screamed ‘DUCK’! I didn’t even have time to turn around when I heard an earsplitting crash.”
  3. The guy in the back of the store buying milk – “All of a sudden there was chaos. I had no idea what was going on.”
  4. The driver of the truck – “I’m so sorry. I thought I had the truck in reverse. Boy, I never saw glass shatter like that!”
  5. The little dog sitting next to the driver on the front seat of the truck – I’ll bet this means my supper will be late – again.

Which point of view are you going to go with? Probably you’ll want one with lots of detail, a dash of flare and …hmmm…an interesting quirk or two. Yeah, I’m going with the little dog, too. The kid in me wants to know what that dog knows. The clue here for an intriguing point of view is in that little word, again. So this has happened before, huh? Tell me about it little dog. Give me the who, what, why, where and when of the story. I want your unique point of view. Let me know the story through your quirky dog eyes.


Now that you’ve chosen the little dog’s point of view, stay with it. You’ll see everything through the dogs’ eyes. Be the dog. This doesn’t mean that you can’t describe a scene or introduce another character, but the dog’s character will be the one that your reader will identify with and that’s where your primary focus will be. The dog is the one that your reader will care about. Think of it this way – it’s a story about a truck crashing into a convenience store window told from the point of view of a little white terrier.

You Can’t Do That!

There are a few things that your dog will not be able to do and you need to know what they are if you want to maintain point of view. He can’t know what another character is thinking. He can’t see what’s happening out behind the store or what the clerk did on her way in to work. But scenes and actions can be included in your story as long as you, the dog, would be naturally privy to the information. Here’s an example.

Mr. Flopbot opened the truck door and slid the cold carton of milk across the seat. The little white terrier, his constant companion, popped awake and yawned. The cold carton was snug against his sleepy-warm body. As the truck engine roared to life, the little dog, giving in to the urge to stretch his front legs, suddenly found himself scrambling to simply stay on the seat as the truck plunged into the plate glass window of the convenience store.

"That’s the third time this month!” he thought.

You’ll notice that every detail in this paragraph is something the dog could have observed or felt. I did not change the point of view, for instance, to let the reader know what the driver was thinking or why he hit the gas instead of the brakes. Neither did I say how much money he had in his pocket or include any other details that the dog couldn’t possibly know about.

You Can Do This     

So what do you do with all the other notes you took at the scene of the accident? There’s no reason to let them fall by the wayside. You can incorporate them in a way that maintains point of view and can actually be fun. Did the dog see the clerks face at the last minute? Did he see the glass shining like diamonds on the floor of the store? Did he hear it shatter or notice the hundred candy bars that went flying? Those notes aren’t wasted at all. It’s a matter of how you use them.

Point of view can be tricky. Even the best writers have trouble with it. Of course you have an advantage over them because each time you lose your focus there will be a reminder. Yap, yap, yap! That little white ball of fur will be right there, letting you know that all you have to do is…stay with the dog.   

Image: nixxphotography                      

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Long Ago - Far Away, Sort Of

Remember high school? Sure you do. Even though it’s been quite awhile since I’ve walked those hallowed halls, some traumas are burned into my little gray cells. For many girls it often involved hair, always has, still does. I wrote the following to answer a call for stories somewhere – can’t remember where – but  they ignored me so I thought I’d share it with you. See my picture on the right there? That was taken last October when my sisters and I took our first ever "sisters only" trip to Charleston and Savannah. I had tortured my hair that morning and got a lot of the curl out. Yes - out. Not like so many of my friends who get curl put it. I torture my poor hair still - run to Walmart every June and get a straightening kit. My efforts last for a while and then the curls are back. Sigh – some problems just never go away.

Curly Girl

“I love your hair,” she said with a half smile.

“Thank you!”  I chirped. I’d just come out of the gym shower and was surprised and pleased by her remark. Then, as I rounded the corner heading for my gym locker, I heard the laughter. The girl and her friends were giggling and smirking in my direction.

“She thought I really meant it,” whispered the she-devil. Of course she didn’t love my hair. No one did, including me. I should have known.

When puberty hit, along with hair in other embarrassing places, came the tight fuzzy curls on my head that would plague my high school years. No matter what I did to it, Dippity Do, Aqua Net, or VO5  hair smoother (like petroleum jelly); my unruly hair would never behave. This was at a time when straight teased hair was the rage and I was the antithesis of that look. I was mocked at the bus stop, on the school bus, in music class and in gym. At home I spent hours in the bathroom trying to remedy the problem. Once I put it up in a French twist and a particularly nasty kid poked me in science class saying it looked like dog poop. And then when I was sixteen . . .

A new hair product came on the market called Curl Free. I devoured ads for it in teen magazines swooning over pictures of girls with smooth hair. Here was liberation and freedom from bullies in a box. I even fantasized it would make me cool. I saved every babysitting penny and at last I had salvation in my hands. I read the instructions intently, then hit the bathroom determined to change my fate. I glopped the stuff on, combed, rinsed and prayed with each step that my hair wouldn’t fall out during the night. But I had nothing to worry about.

The next day was glorious. I walked to the bus stop with my straight hair swinging and turned every head.

“Wow, look at you!” My friend Mardene nodded her approval.

The guys didn’t say much but their eyes told the story. I looked pretty darn good and my confidence soared. But the real triumph came in silencing my critics with my long, thick and very straight hair!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

For the Kids

Today in Susan's Extras I'm posting one of the first children's stories I ever wrote, Freezer Boy. The original title was much longer, I Have Corn on My Forehead and Peas on My Knees. A critique partner suggested that title gave too much of the story away so I changed it. Many adults, especially moms, have told me how true to life and funny the story is. I bring a lot of personal experience to it. Having grown up in a big family  - there were nine siblings - I know how kids really are particularly when Mom and Dad are out of the room. I hope you and your kids or grandkids enjoy it!

Image: AKARAKINGDOM                             

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

For Writers - Six Ways to Bump Your Sales

My husband and I have owned and operated a computer sales and service business for over fifteen years. We are considered a VAR business; that is, a value added reseller. We use pre-manufactured components to build, load with software, and make computer systems Internet ready. Upon delivery we’ll install and test the unit. For service calls, we’ll pick up a malfunctioning unit, take it into the shop and return it – fixed. The pick up and delivery aspect of our business is an additional value that can hardly be purchased anymore. Our customers love it. Operating in this way has helped us stay in a very competitive game and it’s slopped over to my writing. It can for yours, too.

Of all the ways to get an editor to look at your work, none is more effective than that little extra something that tells him or her you’re the one for the job. Professional queries, meticulous research, a command of the King’s English – good practices all – but these things you should be doing anyway. By adding a little something extra you can greatly improve you chances of a sale.

  1. Read your editor. Editors write and they have something to say. Look at the editorial page of any glossy magazine and you’ll find out something about that person – the editor. Look at her photo. See that smile? This is a nice person who wants only the best for her readers. Read her editorials and her blog if she has one. Realize she is a reseller, too. She wants to buy work from you that she can pass on to her readers. Appreciate that. Absorb and comment (briefly) on her blog or in reference to an editorial when you query. Let her know that you know and value the work she puts into her publication.
  2. Offer extras. Is your query about a piece that required several hours, weeks, or months of research? No doubt you didn’t use all of it. Put together a sidebar or add links to websites and blogs that tie in with your subject. Offer photos or links to free photo sites that would compliment your work. Be excited about offering a bit more than what was asked for.
  3. Use quotes. Nothing sets the mood for a piece like an appropriate quote. If you write humor, for instance, find a Will Rogers, Mark Twain, or Jerry Seinfeld quote that suits the focus of your article. Quote a president for your essay on the history of pets in the Whitehouse or find a pithy saying about farm manure for your Grit article. I used a quote by Ian McEwan for a Children’s Writer Guide  assignment. I wanted to equate fine architecture with story building and his quote set the stage beautifully for the slant of my article. Search the Internet for who has said what about your subject and consider using what you find.
  4. Be a willow. You’ve seen these lovely trees blowing in the wind. They weather the most brutal storms by being able to bend nearly to the ground when the tempest comes. Demonstrate your own bending power by staying open to what the market, readers, and editors demand. Change your slant, do more research, or cut and revise whole segments of your work. Do whatever is necessary to finalize the deal. No editor will fault you for it.
  5. Show staying power. It can’t be said often enough that persistence pays. That does not, however, mean that being a pest pays. Editors will fault you for that. But there are times when you must drop back, re-group, and get your bearings. Then you must surge forward as though you’re the best writer in the world. This kind of thinking fends off failure and impresses editors.
  6. Read other writers. How often have you read a great article, taken away something valuable and then gone your way without one scintilla of curiosity about the writer? I used to do it all the time until the name of one writer who consistently has her work published in Parade magazine intrigued me – Lyric Wallwork Winic. I went in search of her and learned that she really has no reason to fear me as a rival – at all. It never hurts to aim a little higher, however, and knowing the work of other writers helps us to aspire.

Nothing will trump hard work and determination in any endeavor in life, but doing a bit more is like putting a lovely bow on the gift you’re presenting. The value of it cannot be overestimated.

Image: Scottchan                      

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Romancing Your Life - It Helps

What romance means, first and foremost, to most women and girls is love. And strictly speaking, it’s the pursuit of and hanging on to, the love of a man. It’s always a wonderful time in our lives when our hero, at last, walks through the door, dashes up the staircase or swings in on a vine to swoop us, his own true love, into his arms. That definition of romance will never die and shouldn’t. But perhaps we can expand the definition of romance a little. Okay, maybe a lot. In my opinion one of the true and lasting methods of coping with life’s problems, large and small, is to romantasize them. Let me illustrate.

You know those little clear stickers they put in car windows with the letters AWD? I realize what it means; all wheel drive. But I’ve decided that it could mean something else and in my mind it does; attractive woman driving. That’s  my favorite, but awesome, adventerous, assertive, agreeable or acclaimed could also be used. So what I’ve done here is I’ve “romanced” the term. Pretty cool, huh? Looking at that sticker brings a smile now where formerly it meant little. I already expected all my wheels to drive anyway.

Recently I listened to a popular radio talk show host who came on the air all huffing and puffing about a tangle she’d just had with someone. After grousing about it for a bit she remarked that she’d found a way to cope with this person and all the other odious people in her life. Henceforth she’d imagine herself the heroine in a romantic novel and take on the noble characteristics of that woman, dealing with each situation in like manner. So there, you brute! She’d hold her head high, snuggle into her midnight blue velvet cape, and struggle valiantly just as, perhaps, Scarlett O’Hara did when fighting for Tara or like Elizabeth Bennett who stood up and gave Mr. D’Arcy a thing or two to think about. How romantic can you get? That talk show host had resolved to cope by romancng this part of her life. Bravo!

Sometimes we have to step back from our everyday life and see it through other eyes. My sister visited last spring and I was quite stressed that I hadn’t been able to finish painting our walk-in pantry in time for her arrival. The pantry is an old thing and hadn’t been touched with roller or brush for twenty five years I’m ashamed to say. But she thought it was wonderful. The cupboards and walls, which I’d just managed to get done, were in a color and texture she loved. The open shelves at the far end of the pantry sparked her imagination. Standing back she gave it a good bit of concentration then offered advice on how to decorate and even leant a hand with the rest of the painting. She’d put some charm and romance into the effort and now that it’s finished I can’t walk through it without thinking of her.

I have to include in my expanded definition of romance the four seasons. In the spring I plant my annuals unevenly so they’ll grow as they please or go charmingly astray along a path or patio border. When the vegetables go into the garden I always hope the pumpkin vines will run rampant and we’ll find hidden globules of orange plumpness under the gigantic dark green leaves in the fall. Last year as my husband and I tramped through the rows of tomatoes, pulling them up before first frost, I noticed a distinct clump of leaves and debri between two plants. When I got nearer a little field mouse dropped from the nest and scurried away into the green bean bushes. Poking her head out at intervals, she seemed determined to return to the nest, now on the ground. We shooed her a couple of times, but she kept returning. Stopping, then, to watch we saw her run to that spot in the ground and dig frantically. In seconds she had the tiny pink body of her baby in her paws and ran pell mell back into the green bean bushes. Now was that a brave little mouse or what? The power and romance of a mother’s sacrificial love can never be underestimated!

No woman of my acquaintence has ever been completley happy with her looks. That discontent pervades in our image driven culture and has fueled a billion dollar industry in cosmetics, hair care, weight loss programs, and plastic surgery. But would it be so awful if we began to love the imperfections in our sisters? Put the best possible spin on an extra ten pounds, a less than brilliant smile, or a series of very bad  hair days? It’s what character is all about; like those memorable icons in a Dickens novel. Yeah, I’ll be Esther from Bleak House and you can be Belle from A Christmas Carol. How does that sound? We’ll look at each other through sepia tones and toss our heads and hug each other when the joys and sorrows of life hit.

So, maybe you’re still waiting for your true love to swing in on a vine to claim you, or maybe he’s been alongside you for years. But your life can be full of romance no matter. It’s all in how you look at it. So get out your rose colored glasses and romance your life. It really does make a difference.

Image: digitalart          

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mr. Rooster


A few days ago I received word that my poem, The Crooked Rooster, was awarded third place in the Children’s Writer (Institute of Children's Literature) poetry contest. I’m so pleased. If you have children or grandchildren they might enjoy this bit of fun.


The Crooked Rooster

By Susan Sundwall

There was a crooked rooster
Who had a crooked crow
And everywhere the rooster went
He’d cock-a-doodle DOE

He could not wake the farmer
He could not wake his wife
He could not wake up anyone
To save his rooster life

Finally in despair one day
He went to Chicken Lou
Who told him what he had to do
Was wear his other shoe

“You cannot strut around all day
With only one shoe on!
It throws your crowing out of whack
And messes up the dawn!”

Crooked rooster limped away
All sorry for himself
He spent the whole day searching
In each corner, nook and shelf

That night he wandered to the barn
And said to Little Pup
“I’ve got to find my other shoe
Before the sun comes up!”

Little Pup looked up at him
She wasn’t one to scoff
“The answer to your problem
Is to take the one shoe off.”

“Why, I was thinking that myself”
The crooked rooster cried.
“I didn’t like them anyway
They always come untied!”

He bent and took the one shoe off
Then strutted through the door
And no one in the barnyard
Called him crooked anymore

So now the farmer and his wife
The pup and Chicken Lou
All rise up with the sun each day
To cock-a-doodle DO!

 Image: Idea go        

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Little Language Lesson

I once proofread material for a man who wrote political commentary. He was focused, articulate and fearless in his thoughts and opinions. But he didn’t seem to know the difference between ‘then’ and ‘than’. It made me nuts. I destroyed his clean white copy with my red pen when I saw these words improperly used and he was frequently amazed at his own misuse of the terms. He wrote ‘then’ when he meant ‘than’, All. The. Time. I did the proofreading as a favor to him and didn’t get paid, so imagine an editor reading small, avoidable errors and finding the intrusion too jarring to continue with your piece. Ugh. Here are three other examples of such abuses that bug me.

  1. There’s no such word as alot just as there’s no such word as alittle. Yet the use of this non-word, alot, has become alarmingly common. Please, please don’t ever use it. A lot is always two words.

  1. Use it’s and its properly. It’s is a contraction of it is ie: It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. The term its, without the apostrophe, denotes possession ie: The clock lost its ability to tell time.

  1. Please don’t write your when you mean you’re. This, too, is becoming quite commonplace.  Again – your indicates possession ie: The Prize Patrol is on its way to deliver your check. And then we have you’re, a contraction of you are ie: You’re looking mighty fine today, sweetie.

Okay, that’s it for today – rant over.

Image: graur razvan ionut

Monday, February 6, 2012

Sam Bakes

About a week ago I was busily mixing up a double batch of gingersnaps when the back door opened and in pops our grandson, Sam. He’s a nine-year-old walking bundle of energy most of which is channeled into the many sports he loves to play. His dad was there beside him and suggested Sam get his chef’s apron and give Grandma a hand. And he did even though cookie baking doesn't exactly qualify as a sport. I scooped the cookie dough from the bowl and Sam rolled them in sugar. He plopped them onto the cookie sheet and into the oven they went. In between batches we played UNO. Yes, he beat me, and with relish but I didn’t go down easily! No sir. It’s all in the cards, after all.

A few unexpected hours with Sam, or any of our other grandchildren, is always a joy. It’s also what great  memories are made of – especially on my end. It makes me realize how fast time goes and how far Sam has come from the following incident. I wrote this just before he went to kindergarten and a slightly longer version was published in The One Year Devotional of Joy and Laughter last year.

Sam is a quick study with a great attention span, and he also has the ability to retain all the details of his favorite subjects. When he loved trains, he knew about coal tenders, the difference between diesel and steam engines, and the names and functions of all his plastic train cars. Next came pirates, then airplanes and most recently, dinosaurs. With these pre-historic beasts he knew about books, movies and computer games with dinosaur themes. This included the names, weight, whether they were herbivores or carnivores, and in what time periods, Jurassic, Triassic or Cretaceous, they had each lived. Smart kid.

One day on our way to the library, I was lamenting that he would soon be in kindergarten and how much I would miss him. But I also told him he’d be learning more things than he could ever imagine.

“Oh, Sam,” I said, “you’re going to learn so much in kindergarten. Why, you’ll know more than Grandma ever knew, from day one!”

There was a thoughtful pause from the back seat of the car, and then he responded, “Grandma, I think it will be day ten. You’re pretty smart.” 

I’ve begged each of the grand kids to stop growing, but alas, they have not listened to me. I guess I’ll just have to hope they pop in when they can and offer to help me bake. I'll have chocolate covered beaters, warm cookies, cold milk and an open heart all ready for them whenever they do.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pretty Patterns for Pennies

I wrote this for Prairie Times several years ago. I hope some of my readers remember the days when you could get paper patterns of all sorts for mere pennies - days long gone but fondly remembered.

Nowadays no one would dream of taping coins to a piece of cardboard and sending them through the mail as payment for, well—anything. This thought occurred to me as I carefully unfolded the old yellowed news clipping, a treasure among many that I’d stored away. There, right next to a recipe for creamed turkey and ham tidbits, was a Marian Martin pattern for doll clothes. It would cost the home sewer thirty cents, to be sent in coin, and contained pattern pieces for a complete set of clothes for a 14”– 24” doll.  The set included a pinny (pinafore), coat, hat, party dress, sailor dress, blouse and underwear.

From the 1940’s through the 1960’s patterns like these were available in hundreds of rural and small town newspapers across the country. As I looked at the charming ad with its black and white sketches of the doll and her wardrobe, I remembered many other kinds of patterns offered for just pennies in these papers. It was, for instance, a popular pastime to make covers for small appliances like the toaster. Sometimes, as an added incentive, the pattern company included an iron on transfer outlined in bright red or navy ink. After the item was sewn, the transfer was embroidered in colored threads. This was especially appealing at holiday time. A jolly Santa, fat jingle bells or holly sprigs are some of the transfer patterns I remember.

Apron patterns were extremely popular. It’s truly amazing the number of designs there were for aprons. The pockets alone had shapes like tulips, hearts, daisies or ovals. It seemed every Sunday for months the papers would feature some pattern variation on this indispensable item of kitchen wear. Apron patterns also frequently came with iron on transfers and were put to use on the gift aprons women gave to each other.

When a friend of mine inherited an old home chock full of furniture, pots and pans and other household items, she gave to me an old apron. It was in excellent conditon, made of polished cotton in a bright floral print with an organdy ruffle trimming the skirt. A delightful piece of the past I will stow away to show off or look at whenever the nostalgia bug bites.

I don’t know if I would have the patience now to make doll clothes for my granddaughters or if I’d want to. Children are so instantly gratified these days that I wonder if the delight of anticipating a gift in progress is lost to them. I hope not. For now the little news clipping will stay tucked in among my memorabilia.  It will remind me of a time when a pattern could be bought from a newspaper with coins taped to cardboard and sent through the U.S. mail. 

Image: digitalart   

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Stephanie Reviews

Every once in a while I’d like to post something that touches the heart and has a little grit to it. Something that will invite you to wrestle with exactly what you believe about the world, your life and where we’re all going. In light of that I’m posting a review of Sam Harris’ book, Letter to a Christian Nation, written by my sister, Stephanie. Mr. Harris is an atheist and my sister is a Christian. She answers him well and her last paragraph is in line with my own thinking.  Her lead-in to the review is posted in Susan’s Extras. She was responding to another family member who sent the book to several of us. That family member’s thinking is in line with Mr. Harris.

My Response to Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
I agree with Sam Harris on one thing:  the origin of life is unknown.  Those of us who take the time to consider this perplexing notion will have to come to some sort of conclusion.  We all believe something.  One of us is right and the other is wrong.  In the end if Sam Harris is right, then he will never have the satisfaction of knowing it. He won’t be able to say “I told you so”, but that doesn’t matter.  Sam Harris contends that religious people are stupid…that they have imaginary friends and believe in fairy tales.  He contends that all wars have been started by religious fanatics and finds religion “dangerous” to society.  He believes that if everyone held to an atheistic worldview then we would have healthier and happier lives and we would experience world peace.  That being said, the only point worth discussing is whether or not there is a god because everything else he purports in his book rests on that one question.
The problem is that almost everyone who has ever lived on planet earth believes in some sort of higher power, and Mr. Harris thinks they are therefore stupid and unthinking.  In my opinion the majority of humans believe in a god because they have an innate sense that something exists that is greater than them.  If most humans believe this then there must be a reason for it other than just being stupid.  Everyone looks at nature and is in awe of it…even Sam Harris.  He has come to the conclusion that those very things in which he is in wonder of exist, not for our pleasure or purpose, but rather they exist merely for the sake of existing.  He looks at the natural world around us and is awestruck, but he can’t seem to allow himself the possibility that life was created by a higher power.  Rather he chooses to believe that it all just came about randomly and for no reason….it was all just an accident.  It takes just as much faith to believe in evolution as it does to believe in a creator because no onereally knows.  But I have to wrestle with more than my mind.  I have a heart to contend with.  I have a desire that is unexplained….a longing for something more (I believe its call hope), and so do 88% of Americans apparently.  This is a phenomenon that can’t be ignored.  If we evolved from primal apes then how is the fact that every civilization since the dawn of man has bowed down to worship a god?   Sam Harris ponders this thought as well, but has no real answer.   If most of humanity is compelled to believe in a god then one must wonder why and at least ask the question even if you are an atheist.  If humans evolved then this sort of thinking has been a natural part of the evolutionary process.  Belief in god was obviously unavoidable so I’m curious why Mr. Harris is so upset by it.
I think most people believe in a god because it is natural to do so.  We are spiritual as well as physical beings.  How does a flower bloom from a seed planted in the soil? What “causes” it to grow?  If there is no spiritual nature to life then why do our hearts beat?  Something is causing it to move.  Medical science can’t explain it….IT JUST DOES. I’m not crazy or stupid or delusional because I believe in a powerful spirit that resides in every human being.  It’s how I explain life.  It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.  We are mind, body and spirit.  Sam Harris is closed minded in this regard….he can’t get out of his own head.  If he can’t prove it scientifically then he rejects it.  If anyone concludes after serious thought and research that the universe must be the result of intelligent design then Sam Harris thinks they’re an idiot even though he readily admits that neither he nor science actually knows the answer.   Just because you can’t prove something empirically doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  There are things we will never know or understand and I’m okay with that.
If I’m wrong and there is no God, then I’ve spent my entire life pursuing what makes me happy and I’ve lived a full life regardless.  If I’m right, then I have everything to gain and nothing to lose…it’s a win-win for me.  In the end, Sam Harris is not going to bully me into thinking that every human and global tragedy is a direct result of a delusional belief in God.  The world will not come to an end because of my or anyone else’s faith, but if it does (as Sam Harris contends) then rest assured  another random chemical reaction somewhere out in space will occur and slowly evolve into a new world with unsuspecting inhabitants.   Maybe the next evolutionary process will produce a far more intelligent species and they can live happily ever after in their godless world.  Until then I will continue to have hope that there is more to this life than just existing for a few decades and then disintegrating.