Another Year Older and What Do You Get?

I’ll be 44 years old on Wednesday, in the afternoon, when the sun is still in the sky but is starting to set, before the light has faded. (My birth certificate has another hour listed, but I’m adjusting for the time difference; I was born in Los Angeles, CA, far from where I ended up in central New York.) I’m very nearly middle-aged now, according to the OED, which defines all things.

Baby me, early 1974.

I don’t feel old, though. I don’t look back at my high school years or childhood with much nostalgia, and my 20s (into my 30s) were a whirlwind of bad relationships, bad choices. I didn’t know who I was, and I let too many other people define me, or limit me. You could say that I spent the first 20 years of my adulthood learning how to do all the things I didn’t learn as a kid–including how to go to school, how to manage my ADHD, how to be a well-balanced, emotionally healthy, and functioning adult… and that’s not wrong, but it’s not entirely right either. At least, it’s not the whole story. Before I could learn to grow up, I had to figure out what that meant to me, and that process took a lot longer than anything else.

In a way, being who I am now is pretty new to me still, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet.

If you’re struggling with your own life and goals, good news kids! I’m hopeful, happier, more focused, and more productive than I was at 34, or 24. I’ve got some health issues, but I take better care of myself than I did at 20; I’m still physically strong and capable, and I’m confident than within a few years, I’ll have the shape and fitness level I want, which is more than I had at 20. (My sex life is amazing, in case you were wondering. Knowing what you like and not being afraid to ask for it is a a good thing.)

And I’m learning to tackle my problems, make changes, make amends, instead of running away. I’m learning (have learned) what I deserve, and what I have to give.

My biggest problems right now are all about money, because I’ve been in a career transition the last couple of years, and being my son’s sole caretaker means my work options are limited. But we’ve learned to live with a lot less than before (including being without a car, which broke down earlier this year). I have plans for our future that feel possible, if we can survive until then.

I have writing projects I’m genuinely excited about, and I’ve learned–lately, finally–that success for me comes from a mix of work ethic and inspiration, not just one or the other. Novels are possible from me now. Writing multiple days a week is possible now. You can expect to see a lot more from me in the near future… which I couldn’t have said at 24, or 34.

So this “getting older” thing is pretty good, and I hope to keep doing it for a long, long, time.

If you’d like to get in on my birthday (or winter holiday) celebrations, I have some Amazon gift lists and of course, PayPal is great for a coffee or helping me pay a bill. It’s instant help, & so appreciated.

My household Amazon list is here. It has things like bakeware and paper towels–it might not be “fun” stuff, but not having to worry about buying those things for myself this week reduces my stress and that’s a great gift.

PayPal is here, and you don’t need an account to use it.

My personal wishlist & my son Logan’s holiday list is here too. (Thank you!)

If you’re looking for another way to make my life better, there’s two things I can think of. The first is to read my fiction–most of which is free to read online–and if you loved any of it, recommend it to your friends. Tweet about it, write an online review, rave about it on Facebook… whatever you feel comfortable with. Share my work. Introduce new people to my writing. It won’t cost you anything but time, and it could make a big difference for me.

A sorted, often-update, list of my fiction is here: https://carriecuinn.com/2015/01/09/where-to-start-when-you-want-to-start-reading-my-work-fiction/

(You can also find my non-fiction writing here )

The other thing you can do for me is to do something for yourself. Do one thing that will make you happy. Treat yourself to something nice, to a nap, to a quiet evening with a good book, even if it means leaving the dishes in the sink. (And leave me a comment to tell me what you did!)

Life is so much shorter than we think it is, and before you know it, half your life has disappeared behind you. The journey is worth it, though. I’m not sure I believed that at 34, or 24. But I know it’s true now.

Rescheduling “Cake History Month” for January 2018

I’m not sure exactly when I got sick but it’s been about a month now that I’ve been too ill to do much more than sleep, cough, and cry about how tired I am. I ended up with two different colds, actually: I had one that dragged on for about 3 weeks and sapped my energy but I wasn’t congested, and then just as that was done, I managed to get a chest cold my person brought home from work. (I know that was a separate thing because the symptoms were different, and because all three of us–child included–came down with it, one day after each other, all in a row.) Today was the first day in that long time that I feel a little better, like I might not die after all.

Being sick for a month messes up a lot of plans. I haven’t worked at all (I posted a note on my editing Twitter that I was closed for business, haven’t taken on any new clients) or written much or even read any books. I watched a little TV, though not a month’s worth. Mostly, I slept a lot, or laid on the loveseat being uncomfortable but unable to do anything about it.

I took the bus to buy groceries today and managed to get home with Thanksgiving supplies without dying in the parking lot of a big box store, so I’m putting my foot down and deciding: that’s it, that’s the moment where I start to get better, because damn was I sick for a long time, and I’ve got so much to catch up on.

It’ll probably take a few days to get all the way back to productive, and my son’s still sick at home, but I’m hopeful.

Meanwhile, I have rescheduled “Cake History Month” for January 2018, which is just 6 weeks or so away. It was my intention to do a post a day and be available for conversation about the history, the recipes, but I was too sick to stay on top of the schedule. Rather than post a bunch all at once, I’ll just shuffle the dates and we’ll do it properly.

I’ve taken the ones already posted back off the website. (They’re not gone, just unpublished, so you’ll see them again.) I’ll use the extra time to do a few more of the recipes I couldn’t test myself, and if there’s anything new I learn, I’ll update the posts.

Thank you for your patience.

Free Fiction: “A Different League” (flash, noir)

Originally posted August 2013, at Akashic Books. Guidelines required a 750-word limit and a distinctly recognizable setting. Felicia’s isn’t downtown anymore, but everywhere else still exists, and looks a lot like this, under a certain light…

A Different League
by Carrie Cuinn
Downtown, Ithaca, NY

Two a.m. at The State Diner came with a refill on my half-drunk coffee and an impatient smile on the lips of the waitress who’d been hovering nearby. My appointment was late, but my wallet was empty, so I couldn’t afford to leave. A week of poor sleep, too much caffeine, and more than one drive-thru meal meant my stomach was churning like the Buttermilk Falls after a storm, but I glanced over the menu anyway.

“Turkey club, side of fries,” I said. She smiled for real this time, her eyes sparkling. If my taste ran to tired bottle-blondes with swollen feet, I might have chatted her up, but just then the bar crowd stumbled in. Carefully-trimmed beards, pastel plaids, and skinny jeans . . . hipsters from Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, drunk on Black Cherry Old Fashioneds and Fig Manhattans, the upscale cocktail-revival staples.

A petite beauty in a yellow dress disentangled herself from the pack. Naomi Le’s three-inch heels clicked against the tile floor until she paused at my booth, looked back over one shoulder, and quickly sat down. I wanted to tell her she was late, that she was a liar, but too much truth at once and she’d bolt. She had that look about her, as if she was only half-girl sitting on a black bench seat. Her sparrow half was already fluttering away.

“Are you hungry?” I asked instead.

“No,” she replied. “I couldn’t get away sooner. Derek got an internship in DC, and we were celebrating.” She tucked a strand of night-black hair behind one ear, revealing a diamond bigger than a pea.

“That’s a nice dress,” I said. “Vintage?”

She smiled, now on familiar ground. “It’s from Petrune, on the Commons. Have you been?”

“Sure, loads of times,” I lied. The waitress sidled up and set my order in front of me. I waved her away with, “We’re sharing, thanks.” She sighed, but left us alone.

I couldn’t afford to dress out of Petrune’s closet. $250 for a new jacket constructed in a vintage style made the shop popular; only a certain kind of rich could drop that amount of cash on a casual wardrobe. Cornell University had plenty of those, playing out college party fantasies on their absentee father’s dime, and I was just another day-player in Naomi’s life. But I was going to get paid before my scene ended.

I took a bite of my sandwich, enjoying the crispy bacon and the crunch of cool lettuce, before I said, “You were right. Your fiancé is having an affair.”

She gasped, her brown eyes going wide. It was almost believable.

“Are you sure?”

I pulled an envelope, fat with glossy photos, out of my pocket. “I tailed Derek for a week. During the day it was business as usual: classes on the Hill, studying at Olin. But Tuesday night he had a visit from a woman with red hair. She didn’t leave until after midnight.” I pulled one photo from the bunch and slid it across the Formica table. “Do you know her?”

She shook her head. “Was . . . was that the only time?”

“No. There was an overnight stay at The Statler Hotel, too.” I concentrated on my fries while she studied the woman in the photo.

“Do you have any that show her face?”

“Sorry. They were discreet. I only got what I did because I’m very good at my job.”

That line usually does the trick. She handed over a platinum card with a little nod. I scanned the numbers with my bank’s app, and authorized the payment. “I’ll email you a receipt,” I said as I handed the card back. She stuffed it and the photos into her pocketbook and stood up to go.

“What are you going to do?” I asked, staying seated.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Our families are old friends. Our fathers golf together. I can’t just leave.”

“Of course. Good luck.”

She strolled back to her friends and nestled under Derek’s arm as if she’d never left. I pulled up an image on my phone, one I hadn’t had printed out: Naomi Le in a red wig, checking into The Statler with her fiancé.

They weren’t the first couple to play bad boyfriend/naughty mistress, though not many could afford a private eye to heighten the drama. But what did I care? Mr. Le’s allowance would be paying my rent this month, and tonight I didn’t have to stiff the waitress on the tip.

And that ain’t nothing.

New story: “Routed” (Creative Non-Fiction)

Routed

I often notice the people who ride the bus with me, just like I’m sure some of them notice me. Not everyone does. Some people fold in on themselves like an origami bird when they go out in public, seeing only their own devices, and out of habit, their stops. We all follow the code though: you keep to yourself. Don’t talk too loudly. Don’t take up more than one seat (two, if you have groceries, and the bus isn’t crowded). People who don’t respect the muffled quiet of the commute get away with it, of course, because when you follow the code, you’re not going to break it by speaking up, but we notice.

Halfway home from the store, the bus stopped for five minutes of scheduled break before the route number changed. If you’re going up the hill, there’s no point in getting off the bus and then back on, so the drivers let us sit until it’s time to go again. A man, with long greasy graying hair, wearing a dark grey sweatshirt, Cornell hat, aviator glasses, and jeans, plus a heavy-looking backpack, pulled the bike rack down from the front of the bus with a loud clank. He situated his bike, then boarded. Loudly, he asked, “Anyone got anything for sale?”

No one replied. Few looked at him. The bus was not crowded yet; we were waiting at Green St, in front of the library, for more passengers. Our driver was off getting a drink from the nearby coffee bar.

“Any chips?” the greasy man asked, voice still booming, as if the half dozen people sitting quietly on a standard-sized city bus might not be able to hear him. He sat down on a bench near the front, next a middle aged Latina wearing a red t-shirt and red plastic sunglasses, who scooted over a few inches, moving away from him as far as the seat would allow.

“I’m hungry,” he said, leaning toward her, by way of explanation. He wasn’t so loud this time, and he mumbled. She nodded as if understanding, with the half smile we women use to acknowledge people we wish would stop talking.

The man took off his backpack and set it on the floor with a tired thump. He scowled, looked around at the other passengers, and shook his head. We had failed him by not having food to share with or sell to him, and he would not forget it.

The bus driver got back on, and checked his machine to be certain the greasy man had paid the right fair. Satisfied, he let a few other people on, cheerful enough, though saying little more than everyday bus pleasantries. We gained a dozen Cornell kids as we rode up through Collegetown, where the scent of lunchtime restaurants landed in my nose and inspired my belly. The man said nothing, but his expression made it clear he’d noticed the same smells.

Our numbers diminished as we wound through campus, releasing students into the bright September afternoon one stop after another. The man stood for a moment as we passed the century-old Theta Delta Chi fraternity house, but sat down quickly again. He had perhaps two days worth of scruff on his computer, and his tanned face was sparsely but deeply lined. After the Thurston Hall stop, there were only six of us left on the bus, including him.

On holidays the bus takes a slightly different route than I’m used to. The change in route number is clear but I forget anyway, just enough that I wonder once or twice if we’re still going in the right direction. At Jessup, we lose the last student, and the red-shirt woman starts up a conversation with the young black girl across the aisle. She had purple hair and was going to the airport; the man leaned in, trying to grab a piece of the conversation, but neither women had any more to say, and he leaned back into his seat.

At the cemetery, the landscape became familiar to me again. I always know my relative distance from a graveyard.

The airport girl gets off at the pharmacy stop, which means she’ll have to wait an hour for the next bus if she wants to catch her flight, and I realize then that I may have misheard her. Who goes to the airport without luggage?

It’s not until we–my son and I–get off a few minutes later that the hungry man notices our grocery bags. We stepped off onto the warm asphalt as he opened a window and shouted,

“Hey, you have food!”

There are two cars idling behind the bus, and I’m surrounded on all sides by apartment buildings, but the bus isn’t moving.

“Ingredients,” I called back.

He shakes his head at me.

“Flour,” I said loudly as I raised the translucent bag containing 5 pounds of unbleached white. The noon sun beats down like a spotlight of discomfort. “It’s for baking.”

Whatever response he had was lost as the bus trundled forward, leaving us behind. The cars pass. A wispy cloud drifts in front of the sun. We head home, flip flops smacking against the new parking lot, to our little apartment, where no one has to notice us at all.


I wrote most of this as it happened on the bus today, and finished it when I got home. It is nearly entirely true, but it’s the way you tell a story that makes it creative, I’m told, though if you tell it well enough, it somehow diminishes the part that’s real. (Personally, I think the real parts are what make fiction work best.) As always, comments are appreciate. Thanks for reading!

Dear Writers: Let’s talk about the history of food (& November is Cake History Month!)

Food history is an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food, and the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of food. Food history is considered distinct from the more traditional field of culinary history, which focuses on the origin and recreation of specific recipes. – Wikipedia

As a sociocultural art historian and an avid foodie, food history fits neatly into the venn diagrams of several of my interests. It’s not just finding out which cultures ate what foods, and it’s more than a desire to recreate certain recipes. If you know how a society gets dinner on the table, you know whether they’re more hunting- or more agrarian-based. You know whose job it is to cook, and who isn’t allowed to. You know whether your chef has to spend hours a day focused entirely on feeding herself and her family, or whether food is so easy to get that some folks take it for granted. How involved is your cook in the growing process? Are some foods prepared in advance? Is there refrigeration and canning and chemical preservatives, or does everything need to be eaten shortly after acquiring it so it’s not wasted?

As a writer, knowing every step of the culinary process tells me who my characters are. As a reader, details (or the lack of them) about your culture/character’s food journey tell me whether you’ve done your research. This is especially important in “historical” stories (whether fantasy or alt-history lit) and science fiction that is set outside of our current culture or time. If you’re writing about the here and now, you can get away with not talking too much about food unless it impacts the story you’re telling; if you say your main character grabbed a quick bite at a drive-through on the way home, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that means, how that food got to your character.

But if you’re writing about a time and place removed from what your reader knows intimately, the plausible creation of your character’s food journey is just as important as the politics, gender/sexuality, parenting, and education invented for your imagined culture. Food–and especially the lack of it–builds kingdoms, starts wars, elevates your citizens, or keeps them oppressed.

This probably matters most when you’ve based part of your world-building on existing times and places. If you set your story in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, say in the major city of Ur, you should know:

  • they wrote cook books, and had recipes for over 800 different foods, plus everyday access to maybe 1600 different foods in their markets and kitchens.
  • that women were the cooks at home but important chefs (temple chefs, royal cooks, the culinary artists employed by the richest members of society) were usually all men.
  • they grew wheat and barley, grapes and figs, olives, melons, apples, eggplants, beans, lettuces… they raised sheep, goats, and cattle.
  • they brewed beer, and also used fermentation to leaven breads and cakes; grapes were used to make both raisins and wine.

So your characters in this story, set circa 3000 B.C.E., either ate a diverse spread of foods on a daily basis, and were part of a rich food-making culture, or they were somehow outside of that, and their lives involved a substantial amount of awareness that they could be eating better. Just from knowing what their food potential was, you know all of that.

Same is true whether you set your story in a version of Revolutionary France, colonial South Africa, the Phillipines during WWII, or during the breakfast hour in northern Thailand, last week. Food is culture.

My birthday is at the end of November, so I’ll be dedicating this blog to the history of cakes all through that month. Cakes because it’s my birthday month! And I like cake. But more importantly, by choosing one type of food to start with, we can begin to talk about food history and everything that goes with it, in a focused way.

I’ve already started trying out recipes and writing posts. I’m going to start with a basic history of cakes (including definitions), then start off with a recipe for temple cakes of Ur. I’ll go through evolutions in wheat, leavening, and ovens, as we make our way through unleavened fruit cakes into beginning pastries, through politics and colonialism and the economic factors that influenced recipe design, into the advertising behind certain early 20th century cakes and the psychology of cake decorating in the 1950s, before ending up with a couple of posts on cake mixes and novelty cake molds. Each recipe post will have pictures and instructions, as well as my notes about the sociocultural importance of the featured cake.

My Patreon subscribers will gets advance notes and previews all through September and October, but everyone will be able to read these posts for free as they post each day in November. (Want to kick in for ingredients? My PayPal is here. Or, you can check out my Amazon list for basic cooking tools which would help me make all the things.)

I’m really excited to start this discussion with, to share my love of food and my academic studies with other writers and readers. Please feel free to ask any questions!

And thanks again for reading.