Monday, February 25, 2013

All in a jar of tomatoes

Sunday, yesterday, was a yucky day but instead of getting all bummed about the mud, dirty snow and lack of sunshine, I decided to make stew.  Usually I bake, but I have some store bought cookies (gasp!) and that will do for now. Anyway, this beef stew I make requires stewed tomatoes, so I took myself down to the basement and grabbed a jar. There are still quite a few of them from last summer’s garden and I feel downright wealthy when I look at the shelves full, or almost full, of the food I worked so hard to put up.

I bipped back up to the kitchen where I chopped up the vegetables and the meat, seasoned it all and then I opened the jar of tomatoes. Thwok!  Off came the Mason jar lid and there they were, all red, plump, and juicy just as though I’d only spooned them in there yesterday.

I couldn’t resist. I stuck my nose in and sniffed. That’s when summer hit me in the face. Kitchen scenes popped into my head. It’s August, it’s hot and the tomatoes are sitting in pots, buckets and pans all over the floor and I’m wondering if I’ll get it all done. Spaghetti sauce, ketchup, stewed tomatoes, Peruvian sauce – a kind of relish made with apples. What a time consuming, perhaps unnecessary, way to pass an afternoon – or several of them. Was I nuts? Spaghetti sauce is on sale at the grocery story all the time and so is ketchup. C’mon, ketchup; who makes their own ketchup?

But, no, I couldn’t let those counter productive sentiments creep into my thinking. I sniffed the jar again and other thoughts presented themselves. Like the picture of my good man who plows and plants, weeds and harvests so I can have this end of February experience – August in a jar. This tomato-y, briny smell did that in an instant and I gotta tell ya; the hard work seemed as nothing compared to this. It was almost as good as a trip to visit family in sunny Southern California. Almost.

We planted some watermelon and tomato seeds this past week. Got those little peat pots to start them in. What I put up last year will be all gone before these seeds, these tiny seeds with their promise of bounty, will become what God programmed them to be. They're sitting in a plastic form leftover from some grocery store cupcake holder (hubby recycles everything) and we'll see little sprouts from them soon. But I can wait. The jar of tomatoes was just a foretaste of the glory to come. Yeah, I can wait.

But in the meantime, I’m making stew and looking out the window at the waiting garden plot. Give us a month or so and that foretaste will become a full blown appetite.  

I’m looking forward. How about you?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Way Back When

I don’t wax nostalgic often, but every once in a while several seemingly un-related conversations will get me thinking about how things used to be. This was such a week. It began with a casual conversation in the kitchen with our youngest son, Carl. He was telling me about a goody bag his daughter, our Melodi, got at a birthday party.

“One of the things in there was little white sticks,” he said, holding up his fingers to show me. “They were just like the candy cigarettes you used to get, but no red tips,” he laughed at the silliness of it. They even came in a little box.

“I remember when there were licorice pipes, too,” I said. They were black (as all real licorice is) and shaped like the pipe Sherlock Holmes smoked. Are they still out there or have the candy police held sway?

The next night we were at dinner with friends and the subject of old cars came up. “What was that little button on the floorboard we tapped with our foot? The brakes?” As soon as I asked I realized the absurdity of the question. The other five at the table rushed to correct me.

“No, that was for the headlights.”

And there followed a discussion of whether it had been a good idea for car manufacturers to take them out. The upshot was the women preferred the light control on the steering column and the men liked to be able to tap their foot on that little sucker on the floor. I guess they didn’t actually go away until the 70’s or 80’s. Anyone remember?  

This afternoon I visited my daughter-in-law, Heather, and she mentioned marring her table once with an iron.

“I’m not used to ironing,” she said. “I was really pressing hard and left a mark on the table.”

This reminded me of the catsup bottle sprinkler my mother used to use to dampen our clothes before she ironed them. A chore most women have abandoned with glee over the years.

“She used an empty glass catsup bottle and a special topper that looked like something you’d find on a watering can. She probably got it for a dime at the grocery store,” I said. That was way back in the fifties when I was quite small, but I remember that bottle.

We also talked about some things we have now that we didn’t have back in the day. Like the ATM. Good grief. When we were first married you had to make sure you got money out of the bank on Friday if you wanted to have money for the weekend. And then you could only use it on Saturday because almost every story was closed on Sunday. I kind of miss that. The stores closed not the inaccessibility of my money. Money at your finger tips any time we need it is a Good idea.

Remember Pong? Oh my word. Did that signal the beginning of the video age or what? People would sit for hours playing a game that now seems incredibly Stone Age.

Such are the times we live in. I love all our modern conveniences and wouldn’t give up my ATM for love nor money. But once in a while we should look back and marvel at how far we’ve come and how much we don’t realize it most of the time.

So – what do you remember?

Image: Kenneth Cratty                                                              Free Digital Photos

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Good Email

Rejection can make or break a writer. Never mind that it’s what we fear in almost every corner of our lives anyway but when we’re opening a vein (as they say) and putting into words our private thoughts and feelings, rejection takes on a whole, disturbing, new meaning. Most people don’t do it. Their vein opening is reserved for traffic jams, spousal shenanigans, rude waiters, and dealing with teenage offspring. But some of us insist on spewing forth to a wider audience and here is gets dicey. Why do we do it? I. Don’t. Know. What I do know is this. If there were no story tellers the world would be a dark and dreary place. We’d be without life, love and redemption. So some of us, I guess, were tapped to tell the stories and this we do, rejection notwithstanding. I was tapped late in life so my veins are extra full.  

Okay – with that in mind, and for your amusement, I thought I’d share some of the ways my mystery novel was rejected before the clouds opened and “We’ll take it!” was heard in the land – or at least in my little bedroom office. It was a long potholed road and I began by looking for an agent.

1st crack at agent – Although we enjoyed reading your story we’re not going to offer representation. As you know, it is very hard to sell cozy mysteries now but we wish you . . . blah, blah, blah. No luck at Bookends.

2nd crack at agent – Six month wait before I realized they weren’t going to bother responding.

3rd crack at agent – Not something we’re representing at this time.

1st crack at sending it to publisher – We liked your proposal and would like to see the full manuscript. Two months later Avalon told me it wasn’t compelling enough to be a mystery.

2nd crack at sending to publisher – We all read your story and enjoyed it. You write with facility. However, we are discontinuing our fiction line. (This was written on a piece of legal paper that had been cut into thirds. I’m sure two other author hopefuls got the second and third pieces. Probably saved one whole birch twig. Yeesh.) This one took a year.

3rd crack at sending to publisher – “Susan we love what we see so far! Send the whole manuscript.” Five months later, after inquiring, “Oops! Computer crashed early this spring and we lost a bunch of submissions. Please send again.” Six months later, after another inquiry, “Sorry, not for us.” Bell Bridge doesn’t like to be bugged, I guess.

There were others. And with each rejection I revised the story. I tightened. I edited. I added more humor and intensified the mystery. The Red Shoelace Killer began as a 1K short story that I wrote for a coffee company. They almost bought it for their label where they used stories to entice buyers. That was over ten years ago. I revised the short story and sent it to Ellery Queen. No thank you, m’am. Made it longer and sent it to Grit, back when they did serial stories. Eventually the short story became a book. Why not?

And on it went for years. Then one day while searching yet again, I found Mainly Murder Press. They had opened up submissions for a few months and I read their requirements. The part I liked least was coming up with a detailed marketing plan. I didn’t submit right then. Had to mull it over. Scary, marketing. Pounding the pavement selling myself. But something drew me back and then back again. I wrote up a proposal. A killer query letter (I thought). Told them what I could reasonably do for marketing. Sent it off mere days before they closed submissions. Within two months a request came for the whole manuscript and then, then, I opened the Saturday morning email that told me I was IN.

“Dear Ms. Sundwall, I’m delighted to inform you . . .” wrote Judith Ivie, the publisher.

And my heart nearly stopped. After years of rejection and feeling like a putz for even thinking I could write a book anyone would want to read – I.Was.In.

I hope for every writer who has a book dream that you one day get an email like I got that Saturday. It will rock your world and is worth all the hoping, praying and waiting, and waiting – and rejection.

Oh, yes it is.

Thanks for reading.  

Image: Free Digital Photos

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Dear Elegant Lady

I dislike February. It’s the one month in the year when I’m almost always sick. I hang on through Christmas, the January blahs, and even got into February, barely, this year. But here I am. Sinuses stuffed and left ear clogged, as usual, and feeling all woebegone. Poor me.

So, yesterday, being rather sick of my whiney self, I thought it was time to get out of the dull and suffocating house. A little trip to the dollar store should do it. Probably they’d just stocked all kinds of cutesy spring gee gaws I didn’t need and I wanted to see what they were.

I found two greeting cards and a container of disinfecting wipes and headed for the checkout. No cutesy gee gaws but now I could go home and wipe all the germs from the countertops and pen a note or two. Big whoop. Still not loving life. Sniff.

And then . . .

On my way out of the store I saw you.

You’d just gotten out of your car and made your way to the curb. You stopped there and attempted to step up, but your knee wasn’t cooperating, I could tell. You tried to reach for the pillar that sat a ways in on the sidewalk, but couldn’t reach that, either. There you tottered, back and forth, trying to make it all work.

It took me about ten seconds to zip over and offer you my hand. Then I noticed how neatly you’d prepared youself for your foray out into the world. Every gray hair in place, a pretty scarf at your neck, elegant long coat, and leather gloves. Lipstick even. I smiled.

“Oh, thank you,” you said, smiling back. “I just can’t get my knee to work sometimes. It’s arthritis.”

You stepped up easily now and I held your hand until you felt steady. “I know what you mean,” I said. “I have arthritis in my hips.”

Up close you looked to be about eighty and one of your eyes was red-rimmed. “It’s just the way it is,” you chuckled. And then you looked at me, “For me, that is, not you.”

Perhaps to you I looked young or maybe “young-ish.” Little did you know how horribly haggard and old I’d felt all week. And you couldn’t possibly have guessed what our brief meeting meant to me just then. I was taken out of myself for a few minutes and very glad to be away from whiney me.

Right before you continued on your way into the store you said, “I guess it could be worse.”

“Yup,” I said. But suddenly I was feeling much better and marveled at how an encounter of only a few minutes right there on the sidewalk in front of the Friendly Dollar Store turned my grumpies away. Because of you my day was brighter.

And so I’d like to say:

Thank you, elegant lady with the pretty scarf – wherever you are. I hope you have a great weekend

Image: David Castillo Dominici                                                                 Free Digital Photos

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Just So You Know

In our modern zeal to celebrate everything and spur the economy while doing so, we often forget the origins of things. So - I did a little Googling and found this about Valentine's Day. Somehow we've exchanged "Happy" for "Saint" thus rendering the original intent of the day somewhat impotent, Vermont Teddy Bear commercials notwithstanding.

This is taken from the website Catholic Online. Let me know what you think. All red hearts, chocolates and flowers or something more?

The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in a TheNuremberg Chronicle, a great illustrated book printed in 1493. [Additional evidence that Valentine was a real person: archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine.] Alongside a woodcut portrait of him, text states that Valentinus was a Roman priestmartyred during the reign of Claudius the Goth [Claudius II]. Since he was caught marrying Christiancouples and aiding any Christians who were being persecuted under Emperor Claudius in Rome [when helping them was considered a crime], Valentinus was arrested and imprisoned. Claudius took a liking to this prisoner -- until Valentinus made a strategic error: he tried to convert the Emperor -- whereupon this priest was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stoned; when that didn't do it, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate [circa 269].
Saints are not supposed to rest in peace; they're expected to keep busy: to perform miracles, to intercede. Being in jail or dead is no excuse for non-performance of the supernatural. One legend says, while awaiting his execution, Valentinus restored the sight of his jailer's blind daughter. Another legend says, on the eve of his death, he penned a farewell note to the jailer's daughter, signing it, "From your Valentine."
St. Valentine was a Priest, martyred in 269 at Rome and was buried on the Flaminian Way. He is the Patron Saint of affianced couples, bee keepers, engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, plague, travellers, young people. He is represented in pictures with birds and roses.

Image: Free Digital Photos

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why We Love Downton Abbey

Okay, maybe that “we” doesn’t include you, but for all my friends and family who are loyal watchers of this BBC Masterpiece offering I want to put this out there.

People like me have always been captivated by depictions of life “the way it once was.” A period costume drama invites us to experience another era in a way unlike any other; beyond the pages of  dusty history books or poorly remembered stories from old relatives. No, on the screen it all comes grandly to life, appealing to most of our senses and delighting our imaginations. For women  there’s the added charm of dress, hair style and demeanor. We love the study in contracts a period drama allows. From the high plain of our own era we can weigh the pros and cons of things like . . .

Long dresses. The fact that women have worn them for most of history still astounds. Okay, maybe not in the Fiji Islands, but you ladies know what I mean. We feel ultra feminine in a long dress. Swishing around our ankles, created from yards of enchanting fabrics with a pretty slip or petticoat peeking out. Sheer sleeves and beading. Dropped waistlines and covered button trims. Of course fashion was changing rapidly at the beginning of the last century, the era of Downton Abbey, but Flappers in short skirts were still a few years off and our indulgence in long dress fantasies can hang around for a bit yet. We can’t even imagine wearing a dress every day, or even a couple of times a year, now but it’s so much girly fun to re-visit the idea on the screen.

Servant and served. We can live in both worlds. Upstairs with the Persian rugs, gleaming silver and family portraits. Downstairs in Mr. Carson’s orderly domain where food is prepared, linens washed and ironed, and where exciting flirtations begin. As dependent on the upstairs crew for employment as those upstairs depend on them for every function of daily living. And in both cases there is hierarchy. I imagine myself the Dowager Countess, played exquisitely by Maggie Smith, in one scene and then I’m Anna or Mrs. Hughes in another. I congratulate myself on not being stuck in either lifestyle. Rich and rigid, bound by tradition. Poor and subservient; bound by ignorance. In my imagination I’m delightfully able to inhabit either place, passing judgement and tsk-tsking at this behaviour and swooning or laughing at another. 

Women particularly love Downton Abbey because the men there seem closer to what we want them to be. Interested in us and frequently seeking our advice and wisdom. Pining for us in a more old fashioned and romantic way than now. Not so engrossed in sports (although Cricket came into play recently), or politics or business all the time. Being involved with us in the life of a busy household.

And the thing that enthralls most of all is the fact that the human problems of one hundred years ago are still the human problems of today. Families growing and changing. Wars disrupting. Industry and technology defining a frightening and challenging future. Anger, love, lust, humor, joy, social change,dastardly deeds, and unexpected kindnesses – all of it. No matter how we dress it up, or down, the drama on Downton Abbey is drama we can relate to and watch in the comfort of our cozy chairs, sipping hot tea with a crumpet in waiting. It’s just wonderful.

So, fellow Downton lovers, what do you think?

Image: Free Digital Photos

Thursday, February 7, 2013

There's Life Out There

Hope is kind of sneaky. It can pop up out of nowhere and make you feel – well – a little ashamed, but then . . . better. Like yesterday.

I sat at the computer revising my second Minnie mystery and stopped to cough. Yup, I’m right in the middle of my annual always in February Sue cold. A big mug of honeyed tea sat next to me on the desk, the tissue box too and I was feeling quite miserable. I grabbed a tissue and blew. Then I looked out the window.

The trees outside are bare, not a hint of anything about to sprout. The snow from January is all gone so the brown icky leaves that we didn’t get to in October are still there. Broken branches from our mammoth maple trees clutter the landscape and everything has a kind of dead look to it. Even the garden, which I can see from the window, and which grows and flourishes all summer is dead, dead, dead.

And then, right in the middle of my cold and old leaves induced misery I saw flutters. Quick darting bodies bouncing from fencepost to bare tree limb. I scooted closer to the window. Oh! A small bird of some sort landed in the big maple where the kids swing hangs in the summer. I tried to keep an eye on the limb where it landed as I grabbed my binoculars – the ones I keep by this window just for times like this.

I swung them up and scanned the trees where I thought the bird sat. And there, tiny feet clinging to the limb, cute as could be, sat a bluebird. A bluebird. Those stunning little creatures I hardly ever see and are so delightful to watch. It’s belly was rosy and it’s back was brilliant blue. My chapped lips curved up in a big grin.

“A bluebird!” I whispered. My voice cracked a bit as I stared at it through the binoculars. And that’s when it crept in. Some shame at being in such a desparing state, but then, thoughts of spring and growing things. Memories of the warm sun and the supple earth that would soon, yes, soon, give way to the prodding of my little hand shovel. I thought of the seeds we’ve been carefully selecting for the garden we’ll soon plant. All of this only a few months away. Nice.

I pulled away from the window and felt slightly less gloomy. There’s life out there, I thought. Waiting to happen – soon. So I made a vow right then. I’ll hope I mouthed to the little bluebird. Hope that my cold goes away, that the snowstorm that’s bearing down on us will come and go quickly. And I’ll hope that a few people will make it to my book signing on Saturday, that Sam sinks a couple of baskets for the team this weekend, and that I have enough voice to sing praises on Sunday. I mean - Somebody sent that bluebird, right?

Hope – it sneaks up on you sometimes. Don’t you just love it?

Image: Dr. Joseph Valks                                                                   Free Digital Images

Monday, February 4, 2013

Spoiled and loving it!

Some things never change. Like kids. Most of them, under the age of ten, think it is their prime function in life to have fun. They seek it in all forms and bug parents and grandparents to provide it on an ever grander scale. And we really do try to please them, life is hard after all, but it’s a bit much at times. There have been a couple of episodes lately, though, that warm my heart – in that – the simple old fashioned pleasures can still thrill and engage young minds.

For instance – dioramas. An old shoebox, some dollar store construction paper, crayons, tape and scissors made this lovely creation and gave two of my granddaughters and their friend, Olana, much pleasure. They all adore Hello Kitty. I sat and made this one with them and Melodi and Olana took the ones they made home. Sierra was there with more enthusiasm than skill, but she’ll come along.

And then at my daughter-in-law Heather’s birthday party where no lavish entertainment was prepared for the children, we see great young minds at work. Lo and Behold they came up with an idea. Blanket Mountain! Every cushion and pillow and blanket in Grandma’s living room was commandeered for the construction project. And why build it if you can’t jump into it – sort of an indoor substitute pile of leaves.



Just before that party I had to pick up some other things at the dollar store and Melodi threw a bag of 25 balloons into the basket. I sprung for them – a whole buck and we’d have party balloons besides. When we got home, had lunch and hunkered down to pass the afternoon, guess what we did? Yup, we blew up balloons. We tossed them. We rubbed them on our hair and stuck them to the walls. And the ceiling. But the best fun of all was taking the small soft ball, cloth, that Grandma was smart enough to buy at yet another cheapo store, and trying to knock the balloons off the ceiling with it. Bop, bam, uh-oh watch that lamp. Fun, fun stuff.

Cardboard boxes, construction paper, cushions and blankets, a dollar bag of balloons. Kids nowadays. They just have everything.