Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On the Verge of the Verge

After a crazy whirlwind of high school graduation parties and book completions and house guests and weird monsoon rainstorms, this summer has suddenly turned quiet. 

My daughter's on the verge of heading off to college. And I'm on the verge of starting a new book after wringing myself out writing the last one. At the moment we're both in a holding pattern. Hovering between adventures. 

Quiet. But with different definitions of the word. 

For my daughter, it's a building, impatient kind of quiet. She's eager to get going on her adventure. Texting her new roommate a thousand times a day. Making up packing lists and perusing college course catalogs.

My version is the lazy, borderline boring kind of quiet. I'm doing stuff like vacuuming. Making squash balls. Posting goofy pictures of vegetables on Instagram. 

When I teach writing workshops, I like to talk about the Hero's Journey. If you're not familiar with it, the Hero's Journey is basically the narrative structure for nearly all stories. Our hero starts out in the ordinary world--either perfectly happy to park out there forever (see The Hobbit. Jaws, etc.) or itching to get the hell out of there (Wizard of Oz. Star Wars). 

Either way, something happens. 

The hero gets a Call to Adventure (Gandalf comes knocking on the door; a shark eats a swimmer, a tornado blows the farmhouse away, storm troopers murder the family) and off the Hero goes on the adventure. 

I'm greatly simplifying here --because sometimes the hero refuses the Call for a while or it may take a few attempts to get moving-- but most stories don't get cooking until the main character crosses the threshold and goes off-- finally!--on the adventure. 

Readers and moviegoers tend to get a bit antsy when the writer holds the hero in the Ordinary World for too long. We want to see the hero in some real action. Not smoking a pipe in the hobbit hole or ticketing cars on Amity Island or singing on a fence post in black and white Kansas or farming and fixing droids for Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. 

Maybe I am getting old. I know my next adventure's going to start soon enough. Meanwhile, I am content to kick back and wallow around for a few moments in my little wedge on the verge of it. 

Look! An eggplant!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dispatches from the Dirt: Random thoughts from the garden (plus a bonus squash ball recipe)

It's that time of year when my neighbors pretend not to see me. Uh oh, here she comes, is what they are thinking. She's going to give us another bushel of green beans. Run away!! 

It's true. I have a lot of freaking green beans these days. Also, an overabundance of kale. Soon I will be up to my eyeballs in yellow squash, tomatoes, and green peppers. 

(Overabundance of kale)
Let's just say I have a tendency to over plant. It's a combination of not being able to imagine green stuff growing when I do my planting back in the cold crappy gray days of April and my inability to thin the little plants out when they do start to come in. 

It just feels wrong, you know? To kill them. 

Which is why I have more than forty green bean plants. 

Green beans are not easy to pick. They are hard to see. And hard to grasp. When the plants are all bunched up together, it's even harder. I MUST remember this next year and be brutal with the thinning. 

(Helpful green bean tip: Plant purple green beans.
They are much easier to see)

Other stuff I've learned from this year's garden. In no particular order:

It's good to have a plan. This spring I was bored with my usual throw a bunch of stuff in the ground and see what comes up. 

I saw a garden pattern in my Cooking Light magazine and decided to try it. 

Because I tend to go overboard in all things, I doubled the plan and planted four gardens instead of two. 
(Zooey can't imagine these patches of dirt
turning into anything green either)
But BOO YAH. They did:

The garden is lovely but it's had a few problems. Some obnoxious stealth critter ate all of my sunflowers and I had to replant them. The borage (not sure what this is exactly. A pretty flowery thing) grew much bigger than I realized it would and flopped all over the cucumbers. My eggplant got eaten alive by a weird yellow bug. 

A volunteer zucchini plant crowded out one corner of the garden and is now heading into the yard. 

(zucchini plant on steroids)

 A word here about "volunteers." Okay, I never knew what a volunteer was until my expert gardener mother-in-law told me. Volunteers are plants that sprout up from seeds you didn't plant. Maybe a squirrel dropped the seeds. Or they're left over from a plant from last year's garden. Every time I see a volunteer anything growing in my garden (or somewhere else in the yard), I am excited. Like a little surprise gift. Ooh, look, watermelon!! over here... by the gutter downspout. 

Real gardeners snap these suckers out as soon as they find them, but I can't bear to do that. (see above: Issues with Killing. I mean, thinning.) 

This damn zucchini volunteer though. So far, all it's caused me is trouble. Taking up space. And still no zucchinis.

But I digress. 

Let's chat about slugs for a moment, shall we? Because of the crazy amount of rain we've had this year in Ohio, my lovely garden is being besieged by slugs. My neighbor told me to spray pesticide, but I dunno, this seems to go against my whole point of having a garden in the first place. 

A more organic yet gruesome way to combat slugs is, apparently, beer. What you do is pour beer into shallow dishes and place at various points around the garden. The slugs are attracted to the sugar? The alcohol? The grain? Whatever. And they slither up to the dishes, fall into the beer, and... um, die. 

So, I tried this, and I am here to tell you that it works. I want to think that the slugs died happy. 

On that appetizing note, here's a recipe! 

Squash Balls (from SpicySouthernKitchen.com

(Squash balls. Also, fried green tomatoes because
have I mentioned we have a crazy number of green tomatoes?)

5 medium-sized yellow squash **
¾ cup yellow cornmeal
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ a medium sweet onion, minced
½ a jalapeno
½ cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Vegetable oil
Chop squash. Steam for 12-15 minutes until tender. Mash. Add onion, jalapeno, buttermilk, and egg. Mix well. 
Combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. 
Add squash mixture to cornmeal mixture and stir until blended.
Heat oil in a cast iron skillet.
Drop rounded tablespoonfuls into skillet and fry until golden brown on each side. (3 minutes per side) Drain on paper towels.

**(Be sure to pick all slugs from the squash before cooking.) 

Drink a glass of cold beer. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

How I Spent My 30th Birthday

The year I turned 29, I had something of an early mid-life crisis. From the outside I might've seemed put together. A stable contributing member of society. Wife. Mother. Homeowner. Teacher. 

But on the inside, I felt like a fraud. I liked teaching, but it was a pretend career, something I was doing "for now"-- until I figured out what I really wanted to do. I loved being a wife and mom, but those felt like playing dress up too. I had so few positive role models for wife-dom and mother-dom. Most days I was winging it, and then falling into bed and angstily analyzing all of my actions and choices. 

As my 29th birthday approached, I remember thinking: Yikes. I can't keep playing around. Time to get serious. Next year I WILL BE 30!!

But a funny thing happened the day I turned 30: I didn't think at all about turning 30.

I had too many other things on my mind. 

My husband's company had recently transferred him to another state. I'd stayed behind for a few weeks with our three year old son, to sell our house and wrap up my teaching job. I also got called up for jury duty.

Oh, did I mention I was eight months pregnant? 

We moved into our new house at the beginning of July and for the next few days I tore around like a manic unpacking (my husband teased me because I spent time arranging all of our books into the bookcase in alphabetical order. Just put them away, he said. To ME. A former bookstore employee. Ha ha)  

The only room I didn't touch was the nursery. I shoved the unpacked boxes into that room and told myself I'd get to it later. The baby wasn't due until the end of the month. 

The morning of the big Three-Oh, I slept. All of that racing around had finally caught up with me. I collapsed on the couch, waking only to pop another Scooby Doo video into the VCR for my three year old. 

Lunch was fun. I spent it in line at the DMV getting my driver's license renewed. Weight? the clerk asked, and I patted my engorged stomach miserably. It's okay, she said, just write down what you think you'll weigh after.

I still love that woman. 

And then it was back to the couch and Scooby Doo videos. 

My husband brought home dinner and I ate like I hadn't eaten in years. Half of a pepperoni pizza. A liter of coke. A quarter of a carrot cake. And I don't even like carrot cake. I was diabetic during my pregnancy. I wasn't supposed to be eating this way. But, whatever. 

I went into labor a few hours later. 

I called the only person I knew in the new city to come stay with our three year old son (a decision that still apparently haunts the poor kid. 18 years later). My husband had to get directions to the hospital from the OBGYN. Before we left, he dug around in boxes to try to find the sweet little dress we'd planned to have our daughter wear. 

All he could find was an old hand-me-down undershirt of our son's. 

The anesthesiologist laughed and laughed when I told her what I'd last eaten. Half of a pizza? Well, it's my birthday, I said. And it hit me. Who cared how old I was? Who cared if I ate half of a pizza every once in a while or if my kid watched six hours of Scooby Doo videos or...um... if the books weren't arranged perfectly in the bookshelf. 

This was one day in my one life. 

Our baby girl was born the next day. She looked darling in her undershirt. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

On Slowly and Quietly Standing Up

A few months ago I heard the novelist Colum McCann speak at a luncheon. Colum McCann is the author of nine books, including Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. I hadn't read any of his books. The truth is I had never heard of Colum McCann. I only went to the luncheon because a writer friend had invited me.

As soon as Colum McCann began to speak, I rustled around in my purse as quietly as I could to find a pen and my little notebook. I had a feeling that I might want to remember what the guy was saying.

Stories are important, he said in his lovely Irish accent. We each have stories to tell, stories only we can tell. It's important--as human beings--that we do this.

I nodded in agreement, but I didn't write it down. I knew it already. If I believe in anything, I believe in this.

He went on to to talk about how scientists have done studies. They've looked at our brains when we tell stories, when we write stories. Apparently, our brains light up. Something powerful is going on. What's fascinating, though, is that the same kind of lighting up of the brain happens to the listeners of stories.

When we hear another person's story, we experience it too. We feel what he feels. We step into her shoes if only for a moment.

"You can't hate someone when you know their story," Colum McCann said.

He called on the audience to practice radical empathy--truly listen to what other people are saying-- even people who seem to us to be close-minded, people who are unwilling to consider other points of views. It may be hard, but we must listen and listen and listen until the other person is storied out.

Only then can we begin to bridge whatever gaps we have between us.

I don't know if this is true. Some days the gaps between people seem unbridgeable to me.

I do what a lot of people I know do: I feel immense outrage and horror and sadness. I rant and rave to anyone who will listen. Or I mock everything.

How stupid people are. How crazy. How ridiculous.

I turn off the news when it gets to be too much. I immerse myself in a seemingly endless array of entertainment options--anything to forget how lucky and privileged I am. Because if I don't think about it-- I don't have to do anything about it.

But not very deep down I know that I am one of the carriage riders in Les Miserables, flying past suffering and abject poverty. I am a laughing clapping audience member sitting in the front row of the Hunger Games. 

The other day my little notebook fell out of my purse.

I flipped through the pages and found the notes I took when I listened to Colum McCann.

Think of others. Listen to others.

And then what, Colum McCann?

Friday, June 19, 2015

On Standing By

I go through a weird depressing manic cycle. Maybe you are familiar with it too.

A horrible shit thing happens. You see it or read about it on the news. Five sleeping and sometimes not sleeping girls are molested multiple times by their brother. A teenager at a pool party is grabbed by her hair and thrown to the ground. Nine people are killed at a bible study.

I feel horror and outrage and disgust. I torture myself by reading the idiotic and vapid responses, the inevitable framing of the horrible shit thing along party lines.

I feel sad and helpless and powerless that shit things like this happen in my country and at the same time I feel incredibly blessed and lucky and privileged that shit things like this are not happening to me or my family members.

I go back to my writing or digging holes in my garden or reading books or watching silly movies and TV shows until the next shit thing happens.

And the cycle begins again.

Recently, for a research project, I came across a horrifying picture online. It's an old picture, something tucked safely into the past, but still terrible to stumble upon. It's a black man hanging from a tree and crowd of white people standing around him. I feel a visceral revulsion when I see a picture like this. I am sick at the sight of the person who has been murdered. But I am also sick at the sight of the onlookers.

I used to pat myself on the back when I saw pictures like this. First, because I would tell myself those kinds of things don't happen anymore. This particular picture was taken in 1935. Some of the people there turned the picture into a postcard. This would never happen today, I tell myself.

If I lived in 1935-- if I lived in the town where that lynching took place-- (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) I can tell you without a shadow of doubt, that I would not have been one of the people in the crowd. I would not have been in the mob that tracked the man down (his name was Reuben Stacy and he was 37 years old and he was accused of assaulting a white woman but he didn't live near where she did and he had an alibi, but no matter.) I would not have been smiling in the crowd or clamoring for postcards.

I know what I would have done if I lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on July 19, 1935. I would have been sitting in my house. Maybe I would've been listening to the radio or reading a book or cooking a meal or cleaning up dishes. I wouldn't have known what was going on. Or maybe I would've known and felt disgust and horror and outrage, but it was happening somewhere else in my town and so, did not involve me or anyone I knew in any way.

Maybe I would've read about Reuben Stacy's murder in the paper the next day or heard about it from someone else. I would've felt sad and helpless and powerless.

And then I would've gone back to listening to the radio or reading a book or digging a hole in my garden.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Wine and Trees: Interview with Scott Zanon

A few weeks ago I was milling around at the annual Ohioana Book Festival in downtown Columbus and ran into one of my neighbors, Scott Zanon. I've known Scott for eight years, but only in the sense that we live on the same street and I am in a neighborhood Bunco group with his wife. 

I had no idea that Scott is a writer and so I was surprised to find him signing at the festival, and I practically keeled over in a serendipitous swoon when I saw the topic. TREES. I happen to be writing a book about a dryads, and fun fact: dryads are connected to trees. For months I've been doing tree research and all along, there was Scott, a few houses down from me, a freaking tree expert! 

We got to talking--mostly this was ME, asking him stuff about trees and probably sounding like a complete loon--and then the conversation turned to wine. Fun fact number two: I like wine. Scott, my mild-mannered neighbor, is a writer AND A WINEMAKER. 

So after the festival, I bought a bottle of Scott's wine and we sat down in the virtual sense and chatted.
(Scott Zanon. credit: The Columbus Dispatch

Jody: (drinking Scott's wine) Okay. This is good. First, I've got to know: how did you become a wine-maker?

Scott: I previously had spent sixteen years in the wine industry from both the retail and wholesale side. Zinfandel has always been one of my favorite grape varietals and over the past ten years the style of this wine has changed. Most of them available on the market are high alcohol, jammy, fruit-bombs that do NOT go with food. So I decided that I would create my own Zinfandel in the style that I grew to love in the 90’s, one that is lower alcohol, medium-bodied, with slight nuances of pepper, oak, and acid. It smells and tastes like the grape. It is the way Zinfandel should taste.

Jody: (drinking more of Scott's wine) This is really good. Admitting here that I know absolutely nothing about wine-making--I'm picturing the old I Love Lucy show with Lucy stomping around in a barrel of grapes-- but how does an Ohio guy end up making a California Zinfandel?

Scott: I've been long-time friends with a third generation Italian family who have been growing grapes and making wine since 1927. I went to them and asked if they would sell me enough wine to make 400-500 cases a year in Ohio only. So I flew out to California and we struck a deal. I go out to the beautiful Sonoma County twice a year for harvest in October and to blend in April. They give me estate grown and bottled wine and I blend my style.

Jody: And you set up some kind of distribution here in Ohio?

Scott: Right. I had to get a wine distributor in this area who buys, stores, distributes and sells the wine. When you are as small as Zanon Zinfandel is, it's difficult to get placements. But once folks try ZZ, it becomes much easier. I do as many tastings as possible.

Jody: It seems like it's working out for you. I was at the local supermarket the other day and saw a huge display. I was so excited. I know him I kept saying to everyone who walked by. So you're doing well...

Scott: Yes, but I'm really doing this for the fun and certainly not for the narrow profits it generates. Introducing a style of wine to folks is satisfying as well as having one’s name on the label. Of course that also brings high expectations, but I would never bring an inferior product to market. I am most proud that the label states Zanon Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. This region is truly the best are in the world to grow Zinfandel.

Jody: Totally switching topics on you, but how did your tree book come to be?

Scott: Landscaping with Trees in the Midwest is actually my second book and was published in 2014 by Ohio University Press. My first book Desirable Trees for the Midwest was self-published in 2009. I could write a book on the self-publishing process!

I was Chair of the Green Committee at the Ohio State Golf Club for ten years and in 2003/04 the vaunted Scarlet Golf Course underwent a much needed and large restoration. I was appointed Chair of the Scarlet Restoration Committee and we removed many trees from the golf course to allow sunlight and air circulation. We started to discuss what trees to re-plant into some areas and there was nothing out there to help or guide us through the process. That is where the seed was germinated for the books.

In my latest book I describe sixty-five desirable tree varieties, their characteristics, and their uses. There are more than 325 color photographs--

Jody: Those photos are stunning, by the way. Did you take them?

Scott: Thanks. I did take most them. I wanted to illustrate the appearance of each species through the seasons – including height, shape, bark, flowers, and fall colors – as well as other factors that influence selection and siting.

Jody: Would this be a resource more for a professional landscaper to use?

Scott: Professional landscapers would definitely find it helpful. The book includes a table of growth rates and sizes, a map of hardiness zones, and plant usage guides by categories. I also touch on underused species of woody plants that are overlooked in the industry and discuss areas of concern for landscapers, such as the Emerald Ash Borer.

But gardeners at all levels of expertise have found the book to be a useful visual reference--something that helps them make informed choices when landscaping.

Jody: Nothing in there about dryads, though.

Scott: Ha. No. But I am working on developing a picture book. I've teamed up with an illustrator and we're in the process of searching for a publisher.

Jody: Well, best of luck to you! Thanks so much, Scott, for talking with me today and sharing this bottle of wine.

Scott: Thank you!

*Clink clink*


For more information on Scott Zanon's wine... or trees, see below.

Landscaping with Trees in the Midwest

Monday, May 25, 2015

When a Writer's Not Writing

When writers talk about the act of writing, they tend to speak metaphorically.

Writing a book is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.-- E.L. Doctorow

To write, you sit down at a typewriter and bleed. --Ernest Hemingway

Stephen King talks about diving into a dark pool or digging up fossils.

Maybe we speak metaphorically about writing because the literal description is so boring. Basically, writing a book involves parking your ass down and picking up a pen or typing on a keyboard until you finish writing it. Sometimes this take months.

Sometimes it takes years.

You are alone. Or you are surrounded by people in a coffee shop, but after awhile you forget those people. You type the letters right the hell off your keyboard.

(Goodbye A, S, and E) (the N and L are gone too)
Some days you forget to wash your hair or change your clothes. Your fingers get cramped. Your back aches. Your eyes burn. You drink a lot of cold coffee. You babble like an idiot to your family about plot holes and snippets of dialogue. 

Or you grunt at them. 

I'm kinda manic when I shut down for the day. I walk out of my office in a daze as if I have been holed up in a cave. There I go speaking metaphorically. 

It does feel like emerging from a cave when you finish writing a book. 

I stumble out into the sunlight, blinking my eyes. Huh. It's spring. Who knew? 

I don't know what to do with myself. 

Cleaning is usually number one on the agenda. When you spend nine or ten months writing a book, you tend to let household chores go. Now it's time to sweep up the dust tumbleweeds in the living room and tackle the science experiments brewing in the bathrooms. 

Do the laundry 

Plant seeds

I always think I should celebrate. Throw a party. Or at the very least, flop out in the hammock and read a book. Instead, I assign myself projects like Paint the Office or Create a Rock Garden. 

I'm not sure exactly why I do this. 

Yesterday I sat in my garden all day pulling up weeds and scattering mulch. There was something very zen-like about it. 

I was not thinking about the book I had just finished, the book that had pretty much consumed me for months. I wasn't thinking about how this possible mess of a Thing is now in the hands of my trusted first readers, how what they say about this Thing will determine how I spend the next few months. I wasn't thinking about publication or the fact that the last book I finished is still bouncing around with editors or more likely, sitting in editorial inboxes, untouched and unread. I wasn't thinking about why I Do This when there is no guarantee that anything I write will show up on a library or bookstore shelf ever again. I wasn't think about next books or speaking engagements or book signings or book festivals or teaching writing workshops. 

Instead I was squatting in dirt chasing the shade around my garden. I had mud under my fingernails and bugs crawling in my hair. 

My mind was blissfully empty and I didn't even realize what I'd accomplished until I stood up and stumbled out of the garden and looked.