Going to the Movies with the Smiths

My husband and I have a tradition for our birthdays: we go out to the movies and then to dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant. It’s an inexpensive celebration that is usually doable on a weeknight. Sometimes we have additional celebrations, such as the wine events we attended this year around the time of both of our birthdays. This year, for my husband’s birthday we saw Still Alice—because who doesn’t want to celebrate getting older by seeing a movie about a woman who discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease? “Another uplifting film,” my husband would say.

(Yes, we’re a fun couple. On Presidents’ Day we saw Leviathan, the Russian film nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s an epic tragedy about one man’s fight against the corruption of Russian bureaucracy, especially against his antagonist, the piggish, evil mayor. The film also has stunning shots of the Barents Sea coast, where it was filmed.)

So Still Alice. After it was over, my husband turned to me and said, “I think that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen.” That sparked a dinner conversation about sad movies we’ve seen recently. (See, aren’t we fun?) There are different types of sad movies, of course. There’s the overly sentimental maudlin sad, for example, the type of movie that doesn’t really appeal to me. Still Alice is sad, but it focuses on the woman and follows her through her life as it changes over the course of her illness, instead of becoming a sappy emotional vehicle. The movie boasts an amazing performance by Julianne Moore. I asked my husband if he was sorry he had seen the movie, and he said no, he was glad he had seen it. I don’t know if we would say we “enjoyed” the movie, but we were both glad we had seen it, and we both agreed Julianne Moore did an incredible job in portraying the articulate, fashionable, university scholar and professor who becomes the slightly unkempt, nearly wordless, vacant-faced victim of a disease that robs her of her memories. It is the journey from those two extremes that makes the movie so memorable–and that also makes it so sad.

I also dreamt about the movie last night, but I was Alice. In the dream, I told my friends, Chris, Pat, and Irene about the diagnosis. As we have shared the heartaches and the joys of our lives for many, many years, it seemed this would be one more crisis we’d all weather together somehow. That was sad, too. Then I had another dream that involved food. Life goes on.

During our dinner discussion of sad movies, I mentioned first Amour (2012), about an elderly French couple—the husband cares for his wife, a brilliant pianist, after she has a stroke. After seeing trailers for it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see it, but my husband and I both agreed that it was a very good movie. It may tie with Still Alice as “saddest.” A couple of other movies that we discussed during dinner: The White Ribbon (2010), a German movie, that is bleak, cold, and disturbing, as well as sad. I don’t remember it as well. I do remember “bleak” though. It is all black and white and gray. The Lives of Others (2006), is a terrific movie about spies and spying and life in East Germany. It’s one I would definitely watch again.

Lest you think my husband and I are like Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall who is constantly going to see The Sorrow and the Pity, the French documentary about the Holocaust, let me assure you we are not. (I do love Annie Hall though.) The latest Hunger Games movie (Mockingjay, Part 1) was my birthday movie in December. OK. I guess that’s not really upbeat either, but honestly, we do sometimes see comedies. Recently, we’ve seen Mr. Turner, Into the Woods, Birdman, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, among others, so we have seen an eclectic assortment of films. I have seen most of the movies nominated for Best Picture, all except Whiplash and American Sniper, and I will probably see both of them at some point. We’ve seen two of the four movies nominated for Best Foreign Film (Ida and Leviathan), and have seen many of the other movies nominated for various other awards this year.

Sometimes we need an escape from reality. Books and movies help provide that escape. Sometimes they also make me think and reflect about my own life.

Movies form a backdrop to favorite family memories, as well. I began to see some movies in different way because of our children. When my older daughter was about three, she wanted to see a particular scene from My Fair Lady and referred to it by the color of Eliza’s dress. (She also referred to a restaurant by the color of its door, which we had never noticed. Can you tell she’s an artist?) Our younger daughter cried and cried every time she watched The Fox and the Hound, but she still insisted on watching it. I remember my husband and I laughing and laughing at Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year.

Do you watch sad movies? Do have family memories associated with movies? Do you try to see the movies nominated for Academy Awards?

Public Service Announcement

merrildsmith:

CS Boyack has asked people to share this post in the hopes that it might help others.

Originally posted on Entertaining Stories:

I’m going to invite everyone to re-blog, tweet, and otherwise share this post today. We all wish our posts got that much love, but this one is important. If you are a man, love a man, or maybe both, this post is important.

I debated long and hard about sharing this at all. It involves personal information, and I like to keep a bit of privacy. I had to weigh the fact that my mother reads this blog, along with at least two co-workers, against the possibility of helping someone else. Someone else won.

Popular rumor holds that a man should have certain things checked medically once he turns 50. In typical male fashion, I waited until I was 53 and 8 months to schedule my colonoscopy. This is a degrading procedure that involves shoving a camera into places that aren’t visible by design. I thought it was degrading, but…

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Valentine’s Day Wine and Chocolate: Heritage Vineyards

My husband and I usually don’t do anything special on Valentine’s Day because of all the February birthdays in our family. This year, however, since Valentine’s Day was on a Saturday, we decided to attend a wine and chocolate event at Heritage Vineyards. (This was a New Jersey Wine Trail event, and wineries throughout the state had wine and chocolate events.)

The obligatory Selfie

The obligatory Selfie

We’ve been to Heritage Vineyards before, and we like many of the wines they produce. The vineyard is located in Mullica Hill, NJ. There were three ticketed time slots for the event (also held on the 15th), and we went to the last one, which began at 4 PM. I really know very little about wine, so these are simply my impressions and not a review. After checking-in, we received our glasses, and a woman, who poured us a Moscato Spritz, greeted us with a “Happy Valentine’s Day”. The drink was light and refreshing. We then moved to the Wine and Chocolate Pairing, held in the heated tent.

Wine and Chocolate Pairing

Wine and Chocolate Pairing

The woman who poured for us (I believe her name tag said Kim) was great. She was knowledgeable and friendly, despite having been there since 9 AM. The pairings all worked very well, even though some of the wines were not wines we’d choose to buy. I really enjoyed the Late Harvest Chambourcin, a port-like dessert wine. I’m not a fan of sweet wines, but this was a great dessert wine that worked with the dark chocolate drizzled Oreo. (I’m also not really a fan of Oreos, but it was delicious with the wine.)

I like wine.

I like wine.

We then did the Dry Wine Flight. I don’t know the young man’s name who poured our wine, but he was also very helpful and knowledgeable. I don’t always like Chardonnay. Sometimes I think it has a weird grapefruit taste, but maybe that’s just me. I do like this 2013 Estate Reserve. My husband and I both enjoyed the 2011 Merlot, which to me has sort of a silky feel. The 2011 Malbec was interesting. I thought it had a bit of pepper in the finish. Each wine sample was more than a usual “tasting,” so I have to admit I was a bit buzzed by the time we finished. Fortunately, my husband is not such a lightweight!

Here are the wines in the Dry Wine Flight:

Dry Wine Flight

Dry Wine Flight

After the Dry Wine Flight, we wandered around the Tasting Room/Gift Shop. Although there was a musician, Dave Kelly, who provided live acoustic music, there was no seating available to make the event into a linger-around sort of thing. We purchased a bottle of Merlot to take home with us, and then wandered over to The Truffle Tree chocolate store next door.

When we got home, I made some sweet potato nachos (note to self, slicing potatoes after visiting a winery might not be the best idea). I’m not certain that the sweet potato nachos and the Merlot made the best pairing, but it was great with the Italian Espresso Truffle I ate afterwards.

Sweet Potato Nachos

Sweet Potato Nachos

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Italian Espresso Truffle From The Truffle Tree

I hope all of you experienced something sweet on Valentine’s, too!

Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole of Memory

This might be a long post. You see, I had intended to write another post on books. It was going to begin something like this:

         When I was a child, perhaps about ten or eleven years old, my older brother gave me a copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. It was a paperback book, a facsimile of Lewis Carroll’s manuscript that would become the book Alice in Wonderland. I think my much older brother might have purchased it while traveling in England. I seem to remember him telling me in his sort of theatrical, conspiratorial whisper that the book was a copy of the author’s original manuscript, as though it was a true treasure he had purchased for me. And actually it was. I was nerdy kid, and I thought it was very cool to own such a book. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it. The book vanished somewhere, along with my youth, down the rabbit hole of time.

         So that was what I intended to write about. But then Brian Williams happened.

         And then suddenly there was news everywhere about false memories.

         And I started thinking about a memory I have. I remember being in one of those old-fashioned elevators. It’s the kind that has the metal grill work door that you pull closed, and then you see can see everything outside of the elevator as you go up and down. Something like this:

"Montecito Inn3" by Vmiramontes - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg
“Montecito Inn3″ by Vmiramontes – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg

I remember taking this elevator in my grandparents’ apartment house in Philadelphia. Problem? Well, apparently this never happened. My mom said her parents never lived in a building that had such an elevator, and my brother confirmed it. Neither of them could think of any relative who lived in such a place. So was I ever in this elevator, perhaps visiting someone else? Or did my overactive imagination take some old movie I watched and make it my own experience?

         What are memories and what are dreams? And what are dreams of memories?

         My husband and I have been watching the TV show, Fringe on Netflix. In one episode, a former rock band keyboard player (played by Christopher Lloyd), now in a nursing home, has a late night encounter with his young son, who had died many years earlier. The keyboardist later mentions that when his son was younger, the son told him of a dream he had had. In the dream, he met his father in a nursing home. It turns out that the mysterious creatures known as the Observers experience time differently. One of them took the son when he a child to meet his father many years in the future. The boy thought it was dream, and for the father, the experience had not yet happened.

         Storytellers all over the world have written about time travel. There are time machines, and then there are stories of people who can just wander into another age. I have always loved these stories. Perhaps that’s why I’m a historian.

Philosophers and scientists have also theorized about time. It’s said that animals do not experience time the way humans do. They live in the present. Some human cultures also experience time differently. In fact, those of us in modern western culture probably experience time differently than those in previous centuries—before electric lights, accurate clocks, train schedules, and all the various social media devices we now have alert us to news 24/7. Not that time didn’t matter, but perhaps it mattered in a different way. The hours left of daylight to accomplish a task, the changing of the seasons, when a crop should be planted, when a cow should be milked—all of these things were important, but perhaps it did not matter to previous generations if it was 7:00 or 8:00, or even what year it was.

         Books and written records bring some past worlds to our present existence (as do other artifacts). But they are often incomplete. In reading an eighteenth-century divorce petition, I might discover the bare bones of a couple’s unhappy marriage—when they married, and why the petitioner sought a divorce. If there are extant depositions, I might discover more. Perhaps a neighbor saw the husband brutally strike the wife, or witnessed the wife having a sexual encounter with another man. (Some of those depositions are pretty juicy.) The documents also tell me about legal language and conventions of the time, and perhaps provide some details of how privacy—or the lack of it in the eighteenth-century–but I will probably never know more about that particular couple and their unhappy life. Yet I might glean some idea of how they lived from other records, from accounts and stories told by others. These records are not time machines, but they do give those in the present a window into the past.

And that brings me back to this.

Once upon a time, a teenage boy bought a book for his sister. This girl, living in Cold War America, read about the fantastic adventures of a girl in Victorian England. As she read, she traveled through time and space. She saw people dressed in nineteenth-century clothing who had weird tea parties and spoke in a way that was different from the people around her. She encountered magical creatures. In her dreams, she may even have tumbled down a rabbit hole with the English girl, Alice.

I might not remember the thoughts and dreams I had then, but I do remember receiving the book. A memory of a book, a gift of the past, it now exists in the present.

 PS. Shout out to Rachel Carrera! Her blog post on Lewis Carroll triggered this post. Check out her always interesting blog.

True Confessions, Library Version

A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.

–Neil Gaiman

My brain seems to be fixated on writing about books and the pleasure of reading, so this post might be seen as Part II of last Wednesday’s post, or Part Whatever in the story of my life. It’s here, if you’re interested.

On Friday I went to my local public library to return my books and check out new ones. I can spend hours browsing the stacks at a library. I HAVE spent hours. I like to browse. Sometimes I find a book I’ve wanted to read or the latest book by an author whose previous works I’ve read and enjoyed. Sometimes I find a new treasure. So many books! How to choose?

I feel such anticipation in looking for new books to read. I suppose it is similar to how some people feel about shopping for clothing. Or window shopping, which I really don’t get. Shopping for clothing or shoes is fun on occasion, especially if I find something that I like (that also fits), or if I’m spending time with my daughters–but then it’s not really about the clothes, is it? It’s about the companionship.

Anyway on Friday, I realized how excited I was about looking for books to read. I mean I never thought about it before–that I get excited about this. But I suspect that I’m not the only one, right? True confessions time. So I’m a nerd, and maybe I need a more exciting life, but at least I’ll have something interesting to discuss over dinner. Or I will once I get my head out of a book.

I always pick out an armful of books because I can’t decide what I want to read right then, and what I might want to read once I actually get home and have a chance to read. I like to have choices. Choices are good, right? I think that’s why it’s more fun–for me–to roam and browse in a public library than in a bookstore where I have to choose only one or two books. Too much pressure—what if I choose the wrong one? (Research libraries and archives are different, obviously, but finding a hidden treasure in an archive is also wonderful.)

Sometimes I choose a variety of novels—hmm, do I want to read a literary novel or something more popular? OK. I’ll get both. How about this historical novel? And a mystery, too? Yes, please. Or maybe that new cookbook. . .

This was my selection on Friday.

What to read?

What to read?

There were several more books I wanted to borrow but I restrained myself. It was difficult though. Thank goodness for renewals–and libraries with lots of books.

I read one novel at a time. Yes, I practice serial monogamy with my novels. Occasionally, I’ll casually date a book, but then after a few chapters we part and go our separate ways. Maybe I’ll call again sometime in the future. On further reflection we might actually have quite a bit in common. Maybe we each had our own issues to work out on that first date. It’s not you; it’s me.

I also go back and re-read books. They’re like old friends, comfortable and familiar, but still capable of surprising you.

There are books that I read quickly. It’s all fast and furious and ends with an explosive climax. Other books I read slowly, caught in the mood, lingering over passages, tasting the sweetness of a phrase, and embracing the fictional world I’ve entered until the very end. Part of my mind says, “Oh, Hurry! Faster! Read faster.” But another part of my brain says, “No, slow down. Oh YES! That phrase there.” But then the anticipation rises, and I have to go faster, faster . . .until I read those final words—and it’s over. Breathe. Back to reality.

Whew. Is it suddenly warm in here?

I better go now. I have books to read, and new worlds to explore, at least in my mind.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”

–William Styron

On Books, Harper Lee, and Coincidence

By now most readers have probably heard that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, will be publishing a sequel to the beloved novel. This sequel will be out this coming July. The new book is set in the 1950s, twenty years later than To Kill a Mockingbird, and it focuses on a now-grown Scout and her father, Atticus Finch. Lee, however, wrote this sequel before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, which she wrote at the suggestion of her editor who wanted to see a novel told in the voice of a young Scout.

A few days ago, I was thinking about favorite books and what I read as a child and young adult. My younger daughter and I were discussing how much we both love the novel Jane Eyre. My niece mentioned that if she sees a movie version of a book, then she never reads the book, and if she reads a book, then she doesn’t want to see the movie version. I think movies and books are different forms of media and storytelling, and should be enjoyed on their own terms. (We were discussing The Hunger Games trilogy.) While we were talking, I thought of To Kill a Mockingbird, and how much I love both the book and the movie. I’m fairly certain I saw the movie first on network TV when I was a child, and then at some point, I found the book in my house, and recognizing the title, I decided to read it. Perhaps I was about 11? I’m certain I did not understand it all that first time, but I understood I was reading something wonderful. I’ve re-read the book several times (and I do picture Atticus looking exactly like Gregory Peck, not a bad thing). I don’t think I ever read the book as a school assignment, but I did re-read it when it was assigned to one of my daughters.

I’m sure I would have read To Kill a Mockingbird at some point in my life. After all, I did borrow it from the library when I was older, but I would not have read it that first time, if it hadn’t been in my house. I thought of all the books I read when I was young—simply because they were there. My mom took me to the library, I borrowed books from the school library, and I also bought Scholastic Books (including the copy of Wuthering Heights that I’ve mentioned in previous posts), but our house was always filled with books. I think that having so many books in the house–including the books of older siblings that I “borrowed”– influenced what and when I read. I wonder if mainly having books on e-readers and tablets limits that broader type of browsing? This is not a Luddite rant. I love my Kindle, but if I had a young child at home, he or she would probably not be reading the books on it. The fact that my girls grew up seeing my books on sex in history lying about the house is an entirely different conversation!

Education and reading are important themes in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout would have been a very different character if Atticus had not read to her and taught her to read at an early age. How does coincidence and what we read affect what we do and what we think? There must be some connection. Things to ponder.

A friend said to me recently that she had read several novels set during WWII, but that it was a coincidence. I’ve had the same thing happen. Once many years ago, I read a novel set during WWII, then another one that had an important WWII back story that I didn’t know about until I started reading the book. While I was reading one of these books, my family and I watched an episode of Star Trek Voyager in which the some crew members were caught in WWII holodeck program. Isn’t coincidence strange?

My husband and I watched the second episode of the British TV show Grantchester last night, now airing on PBS. (And now that I think about it, the story is set in post-WWII England and the main character, the young Anglican vicar, has flashbacks to WWII battles. Hmmmm.) Coincidentally, as I was thinking about coincidence, the vicar and his inspector friend discussed coincidence. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” says our vicar, as he looks at the body of a woman who had been murdered. “That’s funny, I don’t believe in God,” says the inspector. They return to the idea of coincidence and belief later in the episode.

So did you think you’d read one of my posts that does not mention food? Let me reassure you that the To Kill a Mockingbird scene in which Walter Cunningham pours molasses all over his food is one that made a big impression on me, and that there are many food references in the book. In watching the episode of Grantchester last night, I noticed that a dinner party and fruitcake are important plot elements. Coincidence that I would remember these things? I think not.

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

-Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

The Snowstorm That Wasn’t and Was, or Making Your Garden Grow

 Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes, and to add to other peoples store of it.”

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

The expected blizzard of 2015 did not take place in South Jersey this week. Weather forecasters kept changing the numbers. The amount of snow expected kept changing—we’re going to get a foot of snow; we’re going to get 6 to 12 inches; we’re going to get somewhere between 2 inches and 13 inches. The timing for this anticipated snowstorm kept changing, as well. First we were going to get a storm with 1 to 3 inches of snow on Monday morning, then later in the day and into the next day we’d get the “real” storm.

Based on the forecast, my husband’s school, as well as all of the schools in the area, made plans the night before to close. The governor of New Jersey declared a state of emergency, and people were not supposed to drive. When I woke up early Tuesday morning, I discovered we had received less than an inch of snow. So much for the snowstorm. But everything was quiet and still, and we had a snow day.

Not exactly a blizzard

Not exactly a blizzard

I thought about real snowstorms we had had. There was one huge blizzard when our daughters were small, and we had about two feet of snow, and more where the snow drifted. Our daughters’ school was closed for the week, and so was my husband’s. We were cocooned inside our house, and I baked lots of treats—something different every day. It was somehow relaxing knowing that we could not go anywhere.

My daughters playing in the snow many years ago.

My daughters playing in the snow many years ago.

On Tuesday, though the roads were fine later in the day, my husband and I treated the day as a “snow day.” He did some schoolwork, and I did a bit of work, too. But we also relaxed. We watched four episodes of  “Fringe” on Netflix throughout the day. I read; he napped (have I mentioned that my husband is a champion napper?). Of course, on snow days, one must cook and bake. Well, one must if you’re me. I had already made a pot of red lentil soup and homemade black bread, so I baked an apple cake.

I know for some the unnecessary snow day was a burden or a day of missed income, and I know others north of us really did have a snowstorm, but for me, the day was an excuse to slow down and relax, to not go anywhere, or follow a schedule—well, except for feeding the cats at their usual time.

We will probably get more snow at some point before the winter turns to spring, but I’m eagerly waiting for sprouts of green to appear on lawns and trees and to feel the warm sunshine upon my face and shoulders. In the meantime, I’ll delight in happiness when it comes, and appreciate unexpected pleasures. Sometimes life’s storms never materialize. Sometimes they’re followed by periods of calm. And sometimes it’s fine to just take the time to watch Netflix and bake goodies.

The word “garden” popped randomly into my head this morning, followed by this song, “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, based on Voltaire’s novella. I love this song, and it’s possible I listened to it several times today. Here’s “Make Our Garden Grow” from the PBS version that was a favorite in our house.

“We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.”

From Leonard Bernstein, “Make Our Garden Grow,” Candide

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Sometimes there’s a snowstorm, and sometimes you get an unexpected gift of a day. Sometimes you see snow, dream of gardens, and find happiness where you can. And sometimes you bake a loaf of bread.

Wheatberry Bread

Wheatberry Bread

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Bloggers Unite for a Better World: 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion

merrildsmith:

What a wonderful idea! How can spreading kindness and compassion ever be wrong?
#1000Speak

Originally posted on beyondtheflow:

1000 Voices for Compassion 1000 Voices for Compassion

“The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”

― Mark Twain

In response to recent terrorist atrocities around the world, a call has gone out for bloggers to unite behind an inspirational campaign to highlight compassion around the world. On the Friday 20th February, 2014, bloggers are asked to write a post on their blog about compassion and be a part of the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion.

This campaign was launched by Yvonne Spence who suggested the idea to a Facebook group she belongs to and it went from there.

As a writer, I have always hoped that the pen is mightier than the sword and in more modern times, the bullet. Through participating in this campaign, I hope to be part of the change which leads the pen and indeed the cartoonist’s pencil, to victory!!

Naturally, I would love…

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Indecision, or Sometimes I’m a River

Did you have those days when you can’t decide what you want? Salty or sweet? Comedy or drama? Work or nap? Years ago, the Peter Paul Cadbury candy company made use of people’s indecisiveness with a campaign telling consumers that they could have either Mounds (no nuts) and Almond Joy (with nuts)–or both! The advertisements also played on the word “nuts” as slang for crazy.

“Sometimes you feel like a nut / Sometimes you don’t / Almond Joy’s got nuts / Mounds don’t.”

(You can see one of their TV advertisements from the 1980s here.)

One of my favorite treats is dark chocolate covered pretzels—salty, bitter, sweet, and crunchy all in one bite. You might decide to watch a movie that’s classified as a drama, but that also has funny scenes. You might choose to write a work of fiction that’s based on a historical incident. You might plan to work for an hour, and then go out with friends or watch TV—and then eat sweet and salty treats.

“I don’t see much sense in that,” said Rabbit.
“No,” said Pooh humbly, “there isn’t. But there was going to be when I began it. It’s just that something happened to it along the way.”

I’ve been Pooh. Sometimes things happen. Icy streets force you to change your plans, but you end up watching a movie or reading a book instead and have a great day.

Discoveries are made when something happens along the way. You wander away from your usual route, and there’s a restaurant you never noticed before. You suddenly decide to make a pot of soup and add all those leftover bits in your refrigerator to it—and it’s the best soup you ever made.

You think you’re writing a blog post about one thing, and suddenly it’s something else entirely.

Hmmm. . .well, yes.

The other day in a spin class (have you figured out that I do a lot of thinking while in spin class?), the instructor played a song that began with the theme from the old TV show, The Munsters, but then went into something else–something happened along the way to the melody. I meant to write more about musical “mashups,” and other types of combinations, but then I started thinking about something that happened when my daughters were young.

One day I played a game with them that became known as “The Queenie Queenie Show.” I think it began on a cold day, perhaps there was bad weather, and I was looking for something to do with them. I really don’t remember. It was the spontaneous decision of a mom at home with the kids. I had them place their kid-sized chairs in the living room and sit as though they were the audience for a show. I was the queen, of course, so I became Queenie Queenie. The show started with me putting on a fake genteel air and telling them the Queenie Queenie show was very refined. I think I played part of a Bach minuet on the piano, and then I hummed and did a really fake dance with exaggerated movements—talking all the while about how cultured and refined it was. I may have been channeling the “Washington’s Birthday” number in the movie Holiday Inn. My tune changed and my movements wilder, but then went back to the slower “the minuet.” Gradually, the dance became sillier and sillier and faster and faster until they got up and joined me in dancing around, and we all shouted and danced and collapsed in a heap of giggles. I only did the Queenie Queenie show a few times, and only for the two of them. Even my husband has never seen it.

So what was the point? It was something that happened along the way, a spontaneous idea that became a family memory. It is something that never could have been planned. It just happened.

I’m between book projects right now. I’m trying to decide what I want to do. Encyclopedia or monograph? Fiction or nonfiction? Maybe some type of weird combination? I can’t decide yet what I want. Sometimes indecision is a good thing. I’ll let my mind wander and see what happens.

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Indeed, Pooh.

Rain, or the Slightly Scary Inner Workings of My Mind

It’s a cold and rainy day in southern New Jersey. One of the spin instructors at my gym always says, “It’s a beautiful day. You woke up. It’s a beautiful day.” So there is that. The sky is the light, slightly pearlescent gray that would be attractive in a sweater or scarf, but not so much in the winter sky where it blends into the darker gray of the wet street. I started thinking about weather and wondered how often it figured in literary plots. I thought of reading Wuthering Heights when I was in sixth grade–it was one of my prized Scholastic Books purchases—and remembered the scene in which Lockwood, the narrator, is caught in a storm and forced to seek shelter for the night at Wuthering Heights. After dozing off, he is awakened by the tapping of a branch on the windowpane. When he opens the window he sees a ghostly figure, and then when he reaches out, his hand is clasped by an ice-cold hand and voice asking to be let in. Ohhhhh. . .those delicious chills you get from reading about ghosts while wrapped snugly in a warm and cozy place.

This memory of my long ago young self sparked yet another memory of coming home from the movies with my mom and older sister in a storm in Dallas, where we lived at the time. There was hail, which was scary—at some point, then or another time, we had hail that actually broke a window in our house. My mom made us hot dogs and hot cocoa, which at the time seemed very comforting.

(I think hot dogs are repulsive, and I’ve never really liked them, so I think what I actually found comforting were the toasted rolls. Toast is always comforting, especially when it is eaten with cocoa. When my daughters were little, I always made them cinnamon toast and cocoa when they came in from playing in the snow. My husband was the designated snow player, and I was the designated toast and cocoa maker. Cinnamon toast and cocoa would probably be my top comfort food, although I can’t remember when I last had it. Now I’m craving cinnamon toast, aren’t you? My husband will say it always comes back to food with me, and I will say, yes, and what’s the problem? And now I feel the need to make a sour cream coffee cake with cinnamon streusel with perhaps a touch of cocoa this afternoon. You want some, too, don’t you? This is why I go to the gym even on a miserable rainy day.)

(Second digression—my husband said to me the other day in the car, how do you come up with these things? I tend to suddenly ask him weird things or make comments that seem totally random. We were on our way to see a play, The Body of an American, which deals with journalism, writing, war photography, unlikely friendships, ghosts, dysfunctional families, and unlikely friendships—among other things. I said, “We should buy a cheap tray table that we can keep in the car for when we go to wineries and things.” He thought this comment was totally out of the blue. I explained: we had been discussing rehearsal dinners, and I thought of when our older daughter got married last summer. The night before the rehearsal dinner, we went to a local winery and sat outside with my homemade challah and some cheese and drank some wine, but didn’t have a table to put the food on. My husband agreed it was a brilliant idea. And yes, it does always come back to food.)

So back to weather and literature. I think it would be difficult to write a book and never mention the weather. Sometimes it creates a necessary plot device—for example, the blizzard in Stephen King’s The Shining. I recently read Jane Smiley’s Some Luck. Focusing on the everyday life of one family, there are scenes in which it seems like nothing much happens, and yet it is so elegant in its simplicity. That is what life is like for most people. It is made up of the chores we do at home, the conversations we have with our family members and friends, our work, and yes, the weather.

“It was a dark and stormy night. . .” is the opening of the much-parodied sentence by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. (See information on the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest here.)

But sometimes it actually is a dark and stormy night. Or a gray and rainy day. And sometimes the weather sparks memories, and sometimes memories spark baking. And these things may or may not lead to good writing. They may lead simply to some great food—and more memories.

And now it’s time for lunch.

Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby.
–Langston Hughes, “April Rain Song”

“Rainy days should be spent at home with a cup of tea and a good book.”

–Bill Watterson, The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book

“Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?”

–Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes