cooking

Midnight Baking: Simple White Bread

Sometimes I don’t sleep in the middle of the night. If it’s simple insomnia, I often get work done. If I’m happy but just awake I sometimes draw. If I’m unhappily not sleeping – because of stress, drama, bad dreams, or anything else – then I need something to sooth me back into bed. Depending on the problem, I may be feeling more introverted than usual, and so I need something that I can do at home, alone, without bothering anyone else.

One thing that is easy, productive, and calming to do, is baking a loaf of bread.

Most people I know have never baked their own bread. A few have but only in a bread making machine, one that blends the pre-packaged mix, lets the dough rise,  and then bakes an oddly shaped square of bread (with a hole in the middle from where the mixing arm was) for you. Commercials for these machines, and society in general, tell us that baking bread is hard, time consuming, and something better left to the professionals.

But making bread requires nothing but a few minutes of work, a couple of hours of letting the dough rise while you basically ignore it, and only a handful of ingredients. Simple white bread needs water, a package of yeast, white flour, and a tiny bit of sugar. That’s it. You can get fancy with it – I do occasionally and I’ll show you some of that soon – but you don’t need to. In fact, if you’re making bread for the first time, I recommend that you strip it down to its most component parts and assemble the easiest version first, so you know what the base model looks like. After that, you can customize. (more…)

Some Thoughts On Becoming A (Maybe Part-Time?) Vegan

Those of you who have followed my writing for a while will remember my cooking experiments from last year, where I practiced French and Asian cuisine, and even some dishes from the Moosewood Cafe cookbook (a vegetarian restaurant). You may have seen my Instagram photos of especially delicious-looking dishes from the last several months; just whatever I cooked up that day. Some people noticed that my plethora of meat dishes has, over the last year or so, become more veggie-centric, then vegetarian, and finally, lately, vegan.

Well. Yeah. Since folks have started to ask, I have to admit: I am a vegan.

Except when I’m not.

I’ve been a vegetarian before, a couple of times, but had never gone all of the way to vegan (and never quite all of the way back to carnivore - I still can’t stomach meat on the bone, and have to have it boneless/shredded/ground). As part of my dietary changes and losing weight the last two years, I slowly moved from eating a very unhealthy diet to one that still included the occasional junk food but cut down on fast food, included more vegetables, and even experimented with tofu. I made writer friends who happened to be vegetarian, vegan, or have dietary restrictions against dairy or certain meats, and I learned to cook foods they would like. Which happened to be tasty.

I also traveled more this year, which included eating bar food and fast food and getting to compare how I felt after a weekend of heavy greasy/meaty food to how I felt after a week of not eating that way. I had to admit that I felt better when my diet was more than just meat and starches. But how do you get from “eat more fruits and vegetables” to “vegan”?

It started with me wanting to take better care of my son. He’s had a milk allergy his whole life, so we’ve always had soy milk in the house, but his current special education director noticed a recurring rash he has and suggested he might be more allergic to milk that I’d thought. The only way to test it was to go dairy-free for a while and find out if it had an effect.

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The Dream is in the Details

I had a dream tonight. Unlike most of the dreams I remember, it didn’t end in adrenaline and panic and running. It also, strangely enough, included real people, instead of actors playing the parts of people that I know. My dreams have always been like that – I’ll know who the image is supposed to represent, but I’ll also know (in my dream) that it’s not actually the person I feel it is.

In this dream, a friend asked me to meet him after work. This involved maps and driving and ending up at a cabin in the woods, snow crunching under my feet as I got out of the rental car and walked toward the house. I know that the trees were evergreens, that the sky was clear even though the snow was still crisp and powdery, and that the house was a dark reddish color, though it was yellow on the inside – yellow paint, or yellow light, or something. A faded kind of yellow, not sunny and bright, but something that reminded me of age. There was a big porch, and people every where. I wandered around, saying hello to his family, who’d never met me before, and didn’t know where he was. I smiled a lot, and walked around the property. There were people cooking in the kitchen and arguing in that way that you know they love each other as much as they love being loud and energetic. Too many opinions about how to cook something, and the older woman trying to get everyone else out of her way.

I was wearing dark jeans and dark grey snow boots and a grey jacket that went down past my hips and had a hood I didn’t keep up. I remember brushing snow off of it later in the dream. At some point I fell asleep in the snow, because I woke up, dusted the snow off me, and kept looking. A few minutes later a truck pulled up and a couple of guys piled out of it – I was standing on the porch and he walked up to meet me. Snow fell from his shoes as he climbed the wooden steps. I remember looking down at his hands and seeing he was holding a lit cigarette – in my dream I thought, “He doesn’t smoke,” and then thought it was one of those bad habits you pick up with disreputable cousins. When the weekend’s over, you put those things aside and we pretend it didn’t happen.

He took me toward the back of the house, to where another small porch sat off the back kitchen door, introducing me to people along the way. More smiling. We sat down on the floor, with him on my right, and me sitting with my back to the railing. I could see other people walking around, looking at us but not coming over to join in the conversation. My friend began excitedly telling me about what he’d been building with his cousins, the reason he’d made me wait so long. It was some kind of clockwork contraption, though I never saw it. At one point, while he was sitting there, smiling, gesturing with his hands – still lit cigarette in his left hand – he mentioned that he’d had to fold up a piece of paper to make a kind of bellows balloon, to blow air into the machine, and he pulls out this folded map from his jacket pocket. It’s creased  every inch or so, a pattern radiating out from the center, where he’d torn a small hole.

I remember thinking, “That’s my map. I’m going to need that to get back.” But I didn’t say anything.

People kept walking by, and I mentioned that he was ignoring the others to tell me about his machine, but he said that he’d be expected to say hello to me and tell me what he’d been doing, since I drove all the way up there. He said he knew what he was doing.

I watched him go back to his family, smile and chat and smooth hurt feelings. They all went to go eat and I was left on the back porch, looking out at the snow and the trees.

But I kept the map.

______

I don’t need to interpret the dream. I know what it means. What interests me is the details. When I woke up, the scenes still fresh in my head, I thought over what stood out to me. Aside from the feelings, which are difficult to put into words, there were the tiny moments of texture, color, objects. They supported the scene and made it all-together more real. The crunch of the snow, the colors of the house, the sun in the sky, the green needles on the tree … I knew where I was, what time of year it was, what kind of place I was in. My friend’s smile, the movement of his hands, and other details I didn’t need to mention here, all made it clear who he was, even if he he hadn’t looked like himself. The cigarette, the creases in the map, the playful argument in the kitchen – details.

The story was simple but the extra bits of information made it memorable, at least to me.

When I write I try to remember the details. The color of the sheets, the texture of a picture frame – they don’t change the story but they add to the feeling of place. My best stories are ones where I can imagine having lived in their world, because the sense of place identity is made stronger through the accumulation of detailed objects and sensory information. On the other hand, I never want to get so overloaded with expositional description that I spend 300 pages talking about a particular, comfortable, chair.

Next time you have a dream, try to hold on to the details, and then write them out when you wake up. You might see it in a new way.

New Year, New Writing

We almost all have them, whether we’re willing to admit them to others or not. There’s something about the turning of the year that encourages us to believe that we’re getting a clean slate, a chance to start over again on a brand new calendar. We empty out our planners, half filled and with tasks still unfinished, and put in new pages, crisp and clean and full of potential. We let go of the things we didn’t accomplish in 2010 and think ahead to all the new things we could, maybe, get done in 2011. We are encouraged by the fact that if we’ve made even one change in the last year, then we’re entering the new one as a new person, a new version of ourselves (for better or worse).

I have goals too.

Last year I wanted to learn to write better. I spent most of my time writing experimental pieces, trying to fit under a certain word count, within a certain genre, training myself to be able to write coherently even when that flitting and hard-to-catch Muse of Writing* has escaped me. I wrote flash, micro-flash, and twitter flash fiction, each smaller than the last, shorter and more precise. I wrote zombie erotica, gaslight, robots, alt history, literary fiction, urban fantasy, horror, and poetry, most of which didn’t get submitted for publication (but much of what was, got picked up). While I don’t feel that I know everything I need to, as a writer, I do think I’ve stretched my writing muscles enough that I can focus on a different aspect of my work which, well, needs work.

My main goal for 2011 is to write more. I have ideas, I have people who want to beta-read what I write, I have a few sales to encourage me to keep going, and I’ve even been asked to create pieces for a few invite-only anthologies. What I don’t have is the habit of writing. I need to write more than once a week (let’s be honest… there were a few months where I was lucky to finish a piece of writing at all). I’m hoping this blog will help me to get back into the habit of writing by giving me something consistent I can work on without pressure. Writing here is non-fiction, stream of thought, and largely unedited. And that’s ok.

Another way that I’m planning to write more is to get back into the habit of completing my weekly book reviews. I haven’t posted there since October, mostly because I haven’t had time to read. I’ve started a couple of different books that I want to talk about, I just have to get through the end bits before I can formulate a coherent thought about it.

Which brings me to another one of my goals for 2011: read more. I firmly believe that a writer has to keep reading in order to know what’s being published today, and to see the evolution of what other authors are doing with styles, characters, and genres. I also love reading. I love the exploration of new worlds and the way sensations are transferred through the written word. I miss reading the way that I miss writing when I’m not doing it.

I’m going to brush up on my French in 2011. I’ve studied a couple of languages but am not fluent in any of them, and that needs to change. When I looked at my options, French stood out at me both for being the language I studied the longest in high school, and for being the language the books I want to read are written in. Book history, my academic specialty and my non-fiction love, has developed primarily over the last 30 years or so, and some of the great books on the subject are written in French. Read French, read more, write about what I’m reading.

My last goal for 2011 is to cook better. I’ve got a couple of great cookbooks (Larousse Gastronomique, a thick text on classic Chinese cuisine, and the updated Moosewood cookbook) that I want to work through over the next 52 weeks. I am a decent cook, but I want to be a great one, and it’s time for me to focus on more textured recipes instead of the comfortable home-style cooking I currently specialize in. I’ll be writing about this too, of course.

Everything comes back to reading, learning, and writing.

What are your goals for 2011?

* I’m not sure that I have a Muse in the classical Greek sense – at least, I’m fairly certain I’d have noticed a lovely young woman, draped in a fitted sheet, posing near my writing desk – but I do know there’s a difference between the writing I’m inspired to do and the writing that I have to work at. My goal is the make sure that even if the writing feels like work, it still gets done.

Thanksgiving thoughts

This has been a lovely holiday for me, even though I’m far away from friends and family, and there are those whose absence I was constantly reminded of today. I’ve had a full-time job for the last three months, meaning that my husband could stop working his soul-sucking retail job and focus on getting his college degree, but at the same time meant I’ve been working on one thing or another every day for months. What little time I haven’t been in work has been spend on writing, on publishing, on getting stuff done around the house, or (occasionally) sleeping. Last weekend was my first whole weekend off in a month, due to some mandatory overtime at work, but I spent that at a convention (more about that later) and driving (about 20 hours in 3 days).

This weekend I’ve got four days off, and nowhere to be but here.

I’ve seen some people posting about how they’re anti-Thanksgiving or how they can’t support the idea behind the day because they don’t believe in a higher power, but they’re still eating the food. Fuck that, I say. There is so much to be thankful for, and so many people/things to thank, that it’s just pretentious to avoid it on anti-religious grounds (further pretentious if you make a point of telling people how you won’t be doing something you could have just neglected to mention). I don’t have a connection with a higher power unless you count the Universe in general, and I am still damn thankful to be where I am now. The first 33 years or so of my life in no way prepared me for the near-daily joy I see in the world today, and I’m not letting your drama or negativity mess that up, thank you very much.

Plus, I have a turkey. A big turkey.

But first, let’s get back to the things I have to be thankful for:

I have a husband who loves me. I’d be just as thankful if I had a wife who loved me, or a committed family group, or a long-term partner, but in this particular moment my love is a man and we’re legally married, so there you go. I am thankful that he cares for me and cares about me, and I tell him this often, which is the way it should be.

I have a healthy child. He has a disability but he’s working to overcome it, and in the meantime we could be dealing with a host of other health issues that we don’t have to worry about right now. I’m thankful that while his disability does affect our daily lives, he still has a chance to go to school, to laugh, to be tricky and clever and brilliantly smart, to miss me when I’m gone, to argue with his Dad (which is far funnier than we will ever admit to him), to draw, to run, to climb. I love that kid and I am thankful he’s in my life.

I’m thankful for the chance to create Dagan Books and edit Cthulhurotica. Even if this becomes the one book we put out, and only 100 people read it, I will have done something that I was proud of, and not everyone can say that. I created something, I made it out of my hard work and spent hours and twisty brain, and I love it. I love the people who contributed, I love that more than just me thought it was a good idea, and I’m grateful for everything I learned about publishing along the way, even the parts I failed at and had to do over (sometimes more than once).

I’m thankful for new friends, new faces, new experiences, new perspectives. I’ve met a lot of people this year, virtually and in real life, that I’m glad to know.

I’m thankful for moments I will never forget: driving in the dark on twisty mountain roads, the color of the leaves turning into fall, chasing the child around the house while he screams laughter, getting married under a flowering tree surrounded by old friends, having that moment of realized joy when I finish reading a book that – at the end – made perfect sense, and lying in the dark in a soft hotel bed with someone special, waiting for that first kiss.

I’m thankful that I have a warm apartment, food in the fridge, and a growing collection of books. I remember what it was like when I didn’t have those things, and will hopefuly always be grateful that I do.

I’m thankful that my relationship with my mother has gotten monumentally better. I’ve gone from having a parent who barely spoke to me, who considered me to the “weird” one in the family, the outcast, the one who would never amount to anything, to having my mom be proud of the work I’ve done on the book and where I am in my life. She now emails me, calls me, has seriously talked about visiting and may even move out here in a few years (though she’s clear that we need to live at least 10 miles away from each other).

I’m thankful that Logan’s birth father hasn’t called in over a year, and my son is finally starting to forget him. I see how messed up Vincent’s daughter is over his in-and-out in her life, and I don’t want Logan to grow up with the realization that someone out there, who was supposed to love him and take care of him, didn’t want him as much as he deserves.

I’m thankful that I noticed when the first snow of the season started falling today, and that I got to take my son out to play in it for few minutes before it turned to rain and then stopped.

I’m thankful for an excellent dinner, for good music, for the ability to express myself to faraway friends through this lovely invention/distraction called the Internet, and thankful that you care enough to read this.

And, as always, I’m thankful that Great Cthulhu hasn’t yet risen up and devoured us all.