Kind People And Thoughtful Gifts

Do you see that hat up there?  The one with teapots on it?  Jennifer from Pastry & Purls made it for me.  I admired a similar one on her blog-after all, a hat with teapots is just calling out my name.  In this case, I mean that literally since the pattern is the Tea Jenny.  Jennifer contacted me and offered to knit me my own Tea Jenny hat.  I was so touched by her kindness.  It came in the mail last week and I love it.  It makes me smile every time I see it.  Jennifer also sent the book.  Obviously, my interests are coming through clearly on my blog. I will shortly be an expert on how to make ratafia cakes and syllabub and beef-steak pudding.  It is so interesting to see what actually goes into some of the foods that have been mentioned in the books I read.  I am thinking I might need to make a whole dinner based around this cookbook.

I told my dad about my blog.  For the longest time, my kids and husband were the only ones in my real life who knew it existed. However, I knew my dad would get a kick out of it and I was right.  He was flatteringly enthusiastic and promptly bought me a subscription to this magazine. He said he used to read it years ago.  The first issue showed up in the mail recently and I am enjoying looking through it.

This isn't a gift unless you consider it a gift to myself.  I've mentioned my fascination with wartime diaries many times before.  This book is new to me and I am finding it very interesting.  Since the diarist was a shop assistant there is a lot about the rationing scheme and how it worked and impacted shopkeepers.  Kathleen Hey lived in an area that wasn't bombed but that did have to deal with evacuees and the day-to-day deprivations of wartime.  I am about halfway through the book and would definitely recommend it.

Now, if only this unseasonably warm weather will come to an end so I can wear my new hat.

A Winter Walk

February is the month of grey days, too much snow, and endless cabin fever.  All we really want is to see the world starting to turn green and the sun staying out a bit longer.  Unfortunately, there is not a hint of green to be seen but we have had a few warmer than usual days.  My daughter had the day off from school so we went for a quick walk on the bike trails near our house.  You can still see the remnants of the eighteen inches of snow we had a couple of weeks ago but thankfully the trail is clear.  Celia brought her scooter and ran circles around me, talking the entire way.

We sat on the fence for a long time watching all the birds fluttering around.  It sounded so much like spring.  There were several varieties of woodpeckers and what Celia insisted was a junco.  Maybe we need to bring binoculars and a bird book next time we go.  There were also a lot of animal footprints.  Some were just from the dogs that had been for walks with their owners but we also saw deer and rabbit prints.

It was only a short walk because we had things to do and places to be but for a little while, we were able to enjoy the winter sunshine, blow the cobwebs out of our heads, and remember what it is like to enjoy the outdoors.  My kids say I only like the weather for a few weeks out of the year in the spring and the fall because the rest of the time I say it is too hot or too cold.  Sadly, that is true. This day, though was a good day.  It was a break in the winter misery and a reminder that maybe, just maybe spring is only weeks away.

This is a walk we do regularly throughout the year and it is interesting to see how it changes with the seasons.  The snow clears, the daffodils bloom, the trees fill out, the river is high, then low, then high again.  The leaves change and then fall and the skeleton branches are outlined against the sky.  The sound of the river is always there, sometimes louder than others, but always a constant chuckle in the background of our walk.  We walk the path as a family and in ones and twos and threes. Scooters and bikes are ridden.  We walk fast and slow and we think about running but never actually do it.  It is close and convenient and slowly, it has become part of our lives, of our family traditions.

Life Update

snow out the window

All it has done is snow lately.  The kids have had three snow days in the last week.  No, they are not complaining.  Is there any better feeling in the world than being told school is canceled?  A whole day has been gifted to you to waste as you see fit.  You can roll over and go back to sleep and then wake up hours later and do absolutely nothing.  Every minute is wonderful.

During one of the snow days I taught my daughter how to make cinnamon rolls.  She did a good job and they were greatly appreciated by her father and brother. Don't they look yummy?

cinnamon rolls

It is snowing again today (Sunday) as I write this.  We have been home all day since everything has been canceled and the roads are horrible.  There is a good chance school will be at least delayed tomorrow.  I am starting to think we will never leave the house again.  So far I have enjoyed a fire in the fireplace, made pizza, read most of a book, watched the first episode of The Durrells in Corfu (I recorded it ages ago), and spent way too long looking at shoes online.  That last one is not as interesting as it sounds.  My son needs new sneakers.  We went to the store last weekend and found out his feet have grown and he now wears size 14.  No, I didn't type the wrong number.  Size 14.  Which are pretty much impossible to find in stores.  Hence the online shoe shopping.  It is amazing how little choice there is in that size and how much they cost.  I'm praying that his feet stop growing soon.  On the plus side, when the snow melts and the house floods we can use his shoes as boats.

Last week my daughter had another horseback riding lesson.  She is loving it just as much as ever.  This time she was allowed to trot.  She was very excited about that.  She has one more lesson in the package she purchased.  She has so much fun and I enjoy watching her and the others who are in the ring at the same time.  This day there were several members of the University of Connecticut equestrian team there and they were practicing dressage. It was gorgeous to watch.  I am going to end up wanting to learn to ride too!  I'll just have to live vicariously through my daughter.

girl on a horse

girl with a horse


Maybe if I read The Enchanted April and The Secret Garden and every other springish book I can think of winter will leave early.  That isn't likely though, is it?  We probably still have six more weeks of winter stretching out in front of us.  I had better stock up on baking ingredients and books.

What season is it where you live?

Books And Food

children's books

As soon as he got home, he went to the larder; and he stood on a chair, and took down a very large jar of honey from the top shelf.  It had HUNNY written on it, but, just to make sure, he took off the paper cover and looked at it, and it looked just like honey. "But you never can tell," said Pooh.  "I remember my uncle saying once that he had seen cheese just this colour." So he put his tongue in, and took a large lick. "Yes," he said, "it is.  No doubt about that.  And honey, I should say, right down to the bottom of the jar.  Unless, of course," he said, "somebody put cheese in at the bottom just for a joke.  Perhaps I had better go a little further...just in case...because Heffalumps don't like cheese...same as me...Ah!"  And he gave a deep sigh.  "I was right.  It is honey right the way down."

Children's books make me hungry.  Winnie-the-Pooh is a perfect example.  Read a chapter of two and you will be dreaming of honey too.  Maybe some buttermilk biscuits hot from the oven, split open with butter dripping down the sides, and lots and lots of honey.  Pooh always thinks it is time for a little something and eventually you find yourself feeling the same.

The Famous Five seem to spend all their time eating and their cooking is frequently done over a campfire which only makes it more appealing.

Let's think about dinner, Anne.  What are we going to have?  'Fried sausages and onions, potatoes, a tin of sliced peaches and I'll make a custard,' said Anne, at once. 'I'll fry the sausages,' said Dick. 'I'll light the fire out here and get the frying-pan.  Anyone like their sausages split in the cooking?' 

Just a few pages over they have a

truly wizard lunch--two hard-boiled eggs each, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, mustard and cress, and potatoes baked in the fire in their jackets--followed by what Julian had asked for--slices of tinned pineapple, very sweet and juicy.

And so it goes, ice cream and ginger beer and fizzy lemonade and picnic after picnic.  Not only are they gloriously free from all parental supervision but they live a life of one adventure and one meal right after the other.

Sometimes the food in books is just part of the picture but somehow makes the scene.  Jo March in Little Women was in the garret,

eating apples and crying over the "Heir of Redcliffe," wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa by the sunny window.  This was Jo's favorite refuge, and here she loved to retire with half a dozen russets and a nice book, to enjoy the quiet and the society of a pet rat who lived near by, and didn't mind her a particle.

And of course, Amy March and her downfall brought about by her love of pickled limes.  I still have a burning desire to try a pickled lime.  There is also Anne Shirley and her downfall.  Brought about, of course, by her confusing currant wine for raspberry cordial and getting Diana Barry drunk.  I love her monologue on cake baking that she was in the midst of when she realized Diana was sick.

I should think Marilla's raspberry cordial would prob'ly be much nicer than Mrs Lynde's," said Anne loyally.  "Marilla is a famous cook. She is trying to teach me to cook but I assure you, Diana, it is uphill work.  There's so little scope for imagination in cookery.  You just have to go by the rules.  The last time I made a cake I forgot to put the flour in.  I was thinking the loveliest story about you and me, Diana.  I thought you were desperately ill with smallpox and everybody deserted you, but I went boldly to your bedside and nursed you back to life; and then I took the smallpox and died and I was buried under those poplar trees in the graveyard and you planted a rosebush by my grave and watered it with your tears; and you never, never forgot the friend of your youth who sacrificed her life for you.  Oh, it was such a pathetic tale, Diana.  The tears just rained down over my cheeks while I mixed the cake.  But I forgot the flour and the cake was a dismal failure.  Flour is so essential to cakes, you know. 

 Then there is Paddington Bear.  We are introduced to him when he has tea with Mr. Brown.

Before Mr Brown could answer, he had climbed up and placed his right paw firmly on the bun.  It was a very large bun, the biggest and stickiest Mr. Brown had been able to find, and in a matter of moments most of the inside found its way onto Paddington's whiskers.  People started to nudge each other and began staring in their direction.  Mr. Brown wished he had chosen a plain, ordinary bun, but he wasn't very experienced in the ways of bears.  He stirred his tea and looked out the window, pretending he had tea with a bear on Paddington Station every day of his life.

 Paddington goes on to eat hot cocoa and chocolate cake and have picnics on the river and, of course, eat countless marmalade sandwiches--many of which are stored in his hat in case of emergency.  When I was small and first reading the Paddington books I wasn't completely sure what marmalade was.  I decided it was a cross between honey, jam, and toffee.  I love the real marmalade now but I still have a yearning to eventually find my imaginary marmalade.  I am sure it would be delicious-- and very sticky.

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are some of my childhood favorites and they are full of descriptions of food.  The first ones that come to mind are the meals Almanzo Wilder eats in Farmer Boy.

At last he and Father got places at the long table in the dining-room.  Everyone was merry, talking and laughing, but Almanzo simply ate.  He ate ham and chicken and turkey, and dressing and cranberry jelly; he ate potatoes and gravy, succotash, baked beans and boiled beans and onions, and white bread and rye'n'injun bread, and sweet pickles and jam and preserves.  Then he drew a long breath and he ate pie.  When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else.  He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie.  He tried a piece of mince pie but he couldn't finish it.  He just couldn't do it.  There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.

Don't you want a piece of pie now?  And to be able to eat like a growing boy?

I think I need to go bake.  Maybe some pie?

On Writing

I always wanted to be a writer. I, obviously, loved to read and the natural progression was that I wanted to write.  What I wanted to write varied widely depending on my age and interests at the time.  My dad was a newspaper editor so being a journalist sounded fascinating.  I loved fiction so wouldn't it be wonderful to create my own stories?  For a long time, I wanted to be a travel writer.  Imagine being paid to travel and write about it.  It sounded like the best job on earth.  To be frank, it still does.  If anyone wants to send me around the world in return for a series of mediocre ramblings about my experiences I am available.  I tried my hand at a few children's stories.  The one about the monsters that lived under my bed was my favorite. There were also a few light romances, a few cringe-worthy poems, and an abandoned attempt at a suspense novel.  I eventually decided I did not have the makings of a writer and started ignoring the words that continually floated around in my head.  Doesn't everyone have to mentally narrate their activities and edit and re-edit the running monologue that accompanies their life?  I preferred to believe so.

You know where this is going.  Then I started this blog and it revived my interest in words and the things you can do with them.

I enjoy words.  I like their precision and their ambiguity.  I like playing with them and seeing where it takes me.  I love the feeling when they flow and hate the frustration when I am staring at a blank screen and all the words seem locked in my head.

For some reason, a quote from The Wind in the Willows keeps running through my head.  "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing-absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."  Except I keep hearing it as "messing about with words."

 The thing is, I still want to be a writer but I want to write well, or at least as well as I can. How do you learn to write?  Well, reading obviously.  The best training to be a writer is to be a voracious reader.  It seems I have been training for writing my whole life.  The natural progression is to start reading books on writing.  That is what I have been doing.  The one I am in the middle of right now is On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  It is described as "an informal guide to writing nonfiction" and I think it is so useful that I am now going to quote huge swathes of it at you.  I am only on page 77 and the pages are already littered with sticky notes.  The first sticky note is on page 7 where he says:

Clutter is the disease of American writing.  We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon....But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what--these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of the sentence. And they usually occur, ironically, in proportion to education and rank.

I think maybe this can sum up the whole book.  Simplify and then simplify again.  Excess words muddle your writing.  He says this better than I can just a bit further on.

The point is that you have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up.  You must know what the essential tools are and what job they are designed to do.  If I may labor the metaphor of carpentry, it is first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails.  Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that is your taste.  But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that is based on certain principles.  If the nails are weak, your house will collapse.  If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.
Zinsser also addresses the question of "Who am I writing for?"

It's a fundamental question and it has a fundamental answer: you are writing for yourself.  Don't try to visualize the great mass audience.  There is no such audience--every reader is a different person.  Don't try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read.  Editors and readers don't know what they want to read until they read it.  Besides, they're always looking for something new.

All three of those quotes can be found in the first 26 pages of the book.  I told you, it is littered with sticky notes.  What I appreciate is that he makes writing so accessible, so doable.  It isn't some secret art only practiced by geniuses in the light of the full moon with their muse leaning over their shoulder.  It is ordinary, everyday.  It is work, not flashes of pure inspiration.   This work-a-day approach to writing does not take away the magic.  It just makes the magic possible for anyone who wants it.

I still occasionally dream of being a travel writer, crisscrossing the globe, and writing up my articles in atmospheric cafes. Sadly, I don't think that dream is ever going to come true.  However, Zinsser's book has made me realize that it is still possible to play with words. It is still possible to be a writer.