Strange Past Times

Pandemics make for peculiar past times.  My friend, Chris, is making Viking grease horns for her needles and tying knots around bottles. Besides the usual writing and the more mundane gardening, I’m reading tarot cards and cataloging my weeds.

You may recall, I was the crazy cucumber lady last year; this time it’s tomatoes I’m inflicting on anyone who will hold still. I have promising cantaloupe vines, but the fruit seems to be slow to ripen. I suspect my impatience and not the vines is the issue here. 

This year for the first time, I have a butterfly garden. Among my guests have been a tiger swallowtail and a pair of monarchs. It’s also a favorite hiding place for the yard bunny.  I don’t usually realize she’s there until I water and she runs out, all indignant. I don’t mind deviling the chipmunks, but I really don’t like terrorizing the bunny. You know my opinion of squirrels.

My yard is really good at growing brush but the traditional edibles have been struggling. In fact, all the fruit trees in the neighborhood are bare. It will be a lean year for some of the creatures who rely on them. But you can always count on the poke weed to have fruit, little poison bombs the birds eat with impunity but that can kill a human (the seeds are the poison part). My chokecherry tree had a lot of fruit, too. The birds got all of it, but I don’t begrudge them. It makes lovely jam, but I have jam enough for now.

If you remember that the apocalypse I have always been preparing for is retirement, you’ll appreciate that I’ve discovered many of those weeds in my yard are culinary, medicinal, and otherwise useful. It’s weird how much we don’t use these days that in the past were the stuff of home remedies and the dinner table. But while chicory and dandelion root coffee may be interesting, I think I’ll pass for now. I’m not that desperate yet. Still, all this is useful fodder for writing. Especially the poisons. Always gotta love the poisons if you plan on writing mysteries. Did you know…never mind. Wouldn’t want to give bad ideas to anyone stir crazy from quarantine.

As for the writing, it’s had its ups and downs. Last night I wrote a really terrible flash fiction piece. In fairness, I was quite drunk. I’ve got to stop writing drunk. It may have worked for Hemingway, but I need all my wits to keep from embarrassing myself. If somehow that story ever escapes into the wild (it’s about taking a van to the apocalypse), promise me you’ll ignore it.

It’s being fun releasing a chapter at a time of The Gingerbread House. I’m making final edits as I go, and it’s good to revisit it from a distance. I don’t know how the experience is for the readers (drop me a line and let me know, if you are reading it), but I’m liking it even better now than I did before.

That’s how I’m doing. Now back to the tarot and my weeds.

Image: Butterfly garden. By Marilyn Evans

Plague Journal

As I’ve said before, my survivalist and prepping interests have always been to prepare me for the impending disaster, not of nuclear war or a solar flare or the zombie apocalypse–but for the disaster that will be my retirement. If I don’t manage to have enough savings or investments or social security to feed my husband, myself and the cats, the disaster will be right there in our faces. Turns out, the disasters have hit a bit sooner than I expected, so I’ve upped my timeline. Toward the goal of being less dependent on the world at large that is failing to provide, I’ve started by analyzing my yard. As Euell Gibbons used to say, many parts are edible. I’ve been amazed at the variety of medicinals and edibles merrily jumping out of the ground that most people would be dumping weed killer on. On top of that, the herbs I’m growing, especially basil, seem to cure everything. If I have food and medicine covered, what’s next?

Since I’m planning on being in quarantine until there is a safe and effective vaccine (for the sake of the at-risk people I might infect if I should get sick), I’m staying in and trying to keep from dying of boredom. I genuinely believe people can die of boredom. It’s caused me to leave more than one job. Our first line of news, education, and entertainment is probably the television followed closely by the computers and magazines and newspapers. But my greatest source of comfort is reading a book–paper, electronic, audio, it doesn’t matter. Besides, as so many writers have said, you have to read to write. I’m chest deep in reading material right now. My husband is slightly horrified at how many books I currently have piled on my desk. That happens when you’re trying to research more than one topic at the same time.

The library has a reserve and pick up service so, like your favorite takeout meals, I can carry out books I want to read. Right now, among others, I’m reading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. While it was published in 2016, and covers Milwaukee, I figured it would be relevant to our times of people not being able to pay rent or mortgages. Even with eviction moratoriums, homelessness is coming. Already the park across the street from my house has more homeless people camping out in it. One has a dog. One has a scooter. I’m not sure what will become of them when winter comes. Maybe by winter things will be better, but that’s not the way I’m going to bet. I worry about these people a lot. As for us, for a retirement present, my husband paid off the mortgage. If we keep up the taxes and don’t have a tornado, earthquake, fire, or gas explosion, we’ve got a place to sleep.  The way 2020 is going, I’ll keep my fingers crossed, even though it makes typing tough.

Then there are family and friends, essential survival resources for sanity and humanity. My mom is in lock down in an assisted living facility. I call. It’s not the same as visiting. My neighbors are cautious about visiting at a distance. We chat across yards and streets. My friends post on Facebook. I’ve seen a couple of them in person, carefully after self quarantine when there was any chance of exposure. We chat on the phone or by e-mail. It’s not the same.

And finally, the other essential of survival, useful employment, to keep up my sense of self worth. I’m writing. Finally. The pandemic took several months away from me, but I’m finally writing again. I eased back in with non-fiction, but I’m working on fiction again. I’m posting The Gingerbread House as a serial on tapas.io, and I finally know what the sequel is going to look like. You may have noticed (or not) that I haven’t been blogging much. It’s hard to know what to say when you’re not writing and everything you want to say seems so bleak. But here it is, my current survival status. I hope you’re surviving as well. I worry about you. It’s what I do. And I write.

Image: Basil, a universal cure? By Marilyn Evans

Instant Gratification

My husband can tell you I’m lousy at delayed gratification, so I keep wondering why I end up in vocations and avocations that are all about delayed gratification. There aren’t too many things on this planet slower than research–something I did for over twenty years. First you do the lit search, then come up with a theory, write the grant, wait for funding, do the experiments (if you have to wait for donors, that takes even longer than if you’re working with something more compliant, like, say, bacteria). Some experiments take days, even weeks to get results. When you finally have the results, you write the paper then try to get it published. Waiting and waiting and waiting.

It’s the same with writing fiction (or even nonfiction) and with gardening. So much time is spent waiting, for the seeds to come out of the ground and the fruit to set, for the publisher to get around to doing what publishers do. I recently suffered another gratification blow. The anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change has reopened submissions hoping to add diversity to its author pool. This anthology accepted my novella “Wasting Water” about a hundred years ago, then kept pushing back the submission deadline. I told everyone I knew to send them something. The publisher finally closed the call for submissions, but recently reopened it. I’m guessing by the time this anthology is published, half of Florida and most of the islands in the Pacific will be underwater. Oh, well, delayed gratification is the name of the game, and I’m nothing if not gamy.

Fortunately, I have coping mechanisms. One is to keep writing. The other is fiber arts. Yes, knitting and sewing are my methods of choice for instant gratification. With needles and yarn in hand, I can make a hat in an afternoon. I can whip up a dress in a couple of days. These mechanisms are less fattening than baking and more fun than cleaning house while serving to satisfy my need for instant gratification. Unfortunately, if I keep at this writing business, I am going to need more closets (to supplement the four I already have).

Image: Captain Jack holding down the fabric for me to cut. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Back to the Garden (With Apologies to Joni Mitchell)

Enough about the joys of writing. Let’s talk about my garden. My garden that I have loved and nurtured since last fall. My garden that I gave raised beds and mountains of aged manure and rich, dark garden dirt and love and attention and vast quantities of seed and water. Yeah, that garden. The one that is breaking my heart.

First, the weather was too hot too soon, then too cold. Then, too little rain fell for too long. Then, who knows what the heck. I’ve planted chard three times and have one plant. The bugs are happily chewing its leaves into lace. The carrots, after weeks and weeks, finally came up (I used expensive seed tape to get the spacing right). They made little green fronds and almost no root. For Pete’s sake, I planed by the moon! The roots should be the size of my thigh!

The radish roots went woody then the plants bolted. The lettuce and other greens struggled to even present themselves, finally, angrily bolting into triffids that threatened to take over the neighborhood. Thank goodness, Howard Keel and Nicole Maurey were visiting a neighbor, or it could have gotten ugly.

But do not cry for me, Blogosphere. Some potatoes in my pantry were getting weird and insistent, so I threw them into the dirt. They produced some of the ugliest plants I’ve ever seen (I think they have a fungus), but many lovely little red potatoes grew among the roots. They taste wonderful, and I am filled with happiness and potato salad.

I have planted leeks twice–nada; cantaloupes–again, nothing; red onion sets from which I got pathetic little bulbs that can be seen with a scanning electron microscope; and finally, dill. After three tries, I got dill to grow in a pot, but it is growing even more luxuriously in the cracks between the patio bricks. What does it say about my gardening skills when my best success is with volunteers?

That leaves us with bed number three. First, I killed my heirloom tomato plants by not hardening them off properly. My bad. In desperation, I purchased eggplant, tomato, and cucumber plants. I bought lots of plants. At the attrition rate I was seeing, I hoped one or two would survive. Something ate the eggplants down to sticks. What eats eggplants? They are a member of the nightshade family and ought to be poisonous. I take some cold comfort in hoping a squirrel or bunny got at least a tummy ache.

By now you may have guessed, all the tomato and cucumber plants survived. I have them trellised, but they are so dense I can hardly see the fruits. And yes, they are producing. I’ve already made pickles (I do not recommend my family recipe–I’m going back the the Ball book). I have so many green tomatoes I might be able to wrestle some ripe ones out of the greedy little paws of the squirrels. If not, there is a green tomato pie (tastes like apple) and green tomato salsa in my future.

I finally got the strawberry plants to grow in pots (on the second try), and they are spreading. The secret is to put rocks in the pots to keep the squirrels from digging them up. I’ve splint the banana tree into three trees and all are surviving nicely, but I doubt I will ever see a banana. I got a few raspberries before the birds discovered them. Whatever was climbing the chokecherry (probably a squirrel) and breaking its branches has stopped. I get about one blueberry every three days.

Gardening is not for sissies. If I had to live on what I’ve grown so far this year, I would be nicely aromatic (my herbs seldom fail) and weirdly malnourished. But I love gardening. At least, I think I do. Or maybe I just refuse to let the squirrels win.

Image: My sad and lonely chard plant. By Marilyn J. Evans.

Put Down the Computer, Step Away From the Novel

One of the hardest things for me to do is to stop editing. I want to mess with the book and mess with it and mess with it until everything is despair and woe. At some point, I’ve got to put down the computer and step away from the novel. When I put distance between me and the story, I can see it objectively and recognize what the heck is wrong–sometimes. If I’m lucky, I’ve got weeks to do other things before I have to pick it up again and view it through fresh eyes. At that point, all the typos, plot confusion, really bad turns of phrase, and so forth jump right out and assault me so I can defend myself in a fit of justifiable murder. In an even better world, my readers can review the story and share with me what I have completely botched.

I’m not one of those writers who believes every word I type is golden. I can usually tell when what’s on the screen is crap, but sometimes I just can’t figure out how to uncrap it. Bless my readers, they usually can, or at least they can point me in the general direction of improvement. When I’m all smug and sure what I’ve written is as good as I can possibly make it, a few weeks cooling off time and a re-read or a sheaf of suggestions from friends are all I need to show me I have a long way to go.

So what to do while waiting for my brain to reset? I’ve got a garden and the ongoing war with the squirrels to keep me occupied, as well as the mystery of what can possibly be eating the eggplant bushes (they are in the nightshade family–why aren’t there poisoned culprits littering the yard?) I’ve got other books to mess about with, some coming along nicely, and some disasters that will in their turn get sent to the story ICU. There is my late uncle’s estate that is a bit of a confused mess and requiring some attention. There are the various book promotion activities to keep me busy and out of trouble including a recent reading at Aquarius in Westport and the upcoming ConQuest sci-fi/fantasy convention.

I’m quite looking forward to ConQuest, not only because I get to do a reading of Beloved Lives, but also because I’m on some panels. One is about Edgar Allan Poe, whom I adore and admire; it should be fantastic. Another panel is about post apocalyptic fiction–one of my favorites. I’ll be doing some other fun stuff as well as and getting to see all kinds of good folk.

If you find yourself at loose ends Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (May 25-27), mosey on down to the Sheraton Hotel at Crown Center in Kansas City, and join me. I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time. And say, “Hi” of you see me.

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Image: Where I’ll be doing my reading at ConQuest (just kidding–that’s the theater at Pompeii). By Marilyn Evans

 

Writing and waiting for the seed catalogs

The folks replacing the water lines on our block are taking a day off. I suspect it’s due to the black ice on the streets and the wrecks all over Kansas City. My husband is working from home so there’s one less thing to worry about. The cats are snoozing, thankfully not on the keyboard. I’m wrapped in a blanket, sitting at my computer, and trying to figure out how to blog.

They tell me all authors need to blog these days. I’m game. I’m always happy to talk about myself–no false modesty here. Problem is I’m a bit of a Luddite. Still, I’ve managed to get a book published, or so they tell me. It was all done electronically, so I think it went through as expected. I’ve seen the Amazon page for ordering it and told all my friends, hoping they’ll tell their friends. I haven’t actually held a copy in my hands yet, but that’s coming. I hope.

I take a lot of things on faith. I assume my editor is going to pay me. I assume what I write will be read by someone. That’s why Facebook is good for me: I get a thumbs up or comment that indicates what I sent into the ether was read. But even if I got no feedback, I’d still write. It’s a sort of disease. Or obsession. Or hopeful dream.

I write the way I plant seeds. Seeds look like dead things, dry and lifeless, but they do contain life. I plant them and wait, taking it on faith that something will happen. When the green shoots start coming out of the ground I never quite believe it’s real, never quite believe that dead thing I planted has become this tender plant that will grow into flower and fruit. It always seems like a small miracle.

When I write, I begin with an idea. Oddly, the title often comes first. As I write, I add, discard, embellish, strip, and rearrange words, thoughts and ideas. I give the preliminary mess to friends who nod sagely and hold their peace. Sometimes they make helpful suggestions, but relying on my friends for constructive feedback is sort of unfair. They are my friends. They kind of have to be nice to me. Some might be brutally honest, but that’s not the way to bet.

I like writer’s groups, but good ones are hard to find, and sometimes don’t last long.  I’ve had the great, good luck to take some writing classes with writers and teachers who have helped me tremendously, but in the end, I have to be my own harshest critic, exceeded only in harshness by my editor, and I have to have done the hard work before she ever sees it. It’s not unlike the hard work that goes into preparing the soil in the autumn and the early spring before the seeds go into the ground. Even after the green things break through the soil, the flower and fruit is a long way off. Like watering and weeding, there  is more editing, proofing, and all the rest of the attention that is required to get to the harvest.

I haven’t made it to the harvest yet. I still have to promote the book, try to arrange signings, and maybe give some interviews, if I’m lucky. And blog. They tell me I must blog. We’ll see how that goes. I suspect I’m going to have fun doing it, and I take it on faith that someone somewhere will read what I write.