Spring. Still cold, gloomy and raining (this is the Pacific Northwest) but at our house, spring means that sometime between the fading of daffodils and the blooming of tulips, the raised beds are gonna get planted.
The beds were here when we moved in. Four big rectangles set in a corner of the yard. We replaced sagging boards, shored up the sides, and amended the daylights out of the clay topsoil they were filled with. (We still occasionally have to take a pickax to particularly stubborn deposits.) The beds have grown everything from corn to catnip, eggplant to peppers, basil to zucchini. Every spring I look forward to planting them, and I say this not as a chlorophyll-addled health nut but as a lifelong vegetable hater. Yes, you heard me: I hate vegetables. On the other hand, I love anything deep fried, high in nitrites, or full of saturated fat. Preferably all three. As far as I’m concerned, the perfect food is bacon. Fried crisp, hot, and lots of it. Mmmm.
And yet I also love the raised beds. It’s primeval magic: plant a seed or shoot, water, watch grow and bear fruit. All in one season’s time, which also satisfies my need for instant gratification, and why I don’t plant asparagus, because it takes two years until harvest which is one year and nine months longer than my gardening attention span.
There have been lots of media stories in the past year about how more and more people are raising their own backyard vegetables. Which warms my vintage heart no end, because it’s like the victory gardens of WWII all over again. Only back then, it was the government urging Americans to get busy with shovels and seeds. Canned fruits and veggies were needed for the military, so the idea was to get citizens to raise and preserve their own food. It worked: during the course of the war, 20 million backyard gardens produced 8 million tons of food…almost half the fruits and vegetables consumed nationwide. Even city dwellers with no land of their own got in the act. Neighbors banded together, cleaned up vacant lots and planted their own community gardens. Grow More in `44!
I love the idea of the modern, grassroots-driven victory garden. Some people are getting into it to save money on groceries; some, because they’re inspired by the local/fresh/seasonal food movement. Here we have organizations like the Portland Fruit Tree Project, which helps people harvest fruit from their trees and also teaches them the arts of canning and preserving—skills that most of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew, and hardly any of us today do. (We once helped friends harvest apples from their half-dozen trees and make hard cider from them. Pressing, fermenting, and months of aging later, we held the ceremonial tasting. As hard cider, it was awful. But if you closed your eyes and pretended it was a strange, dry sort of Chardonnay—possibly from another planet—it almost worked. Hey, at least we tried).
So in the midst of all this newfangled victory gardening, what about the vegetable-haters, like me? Is it possible to turn us to the light side of the Force?
I’ll admit it: I have learned to adore a homegrown tomato. My favorites are the little yellow pear tomatoes, just picked, cute as buttons and still warm from the sun. And have you ever noticed how good a tomato plant smells? Like summer itself: green and fresh and delicious. And artichokes! Have I mentioned artichokes? Yummy in their own right but really—simply to do them justice, you understand—much better eaten with loads of melted butter. Mmmmm.
Baby steps. That's all I'm sayin'.
And what about you? Anything you're planning to plant this spring?
The last evening of my Chicago stay, I had a reading at Women and Children First bookstore. I came straight from the Back of the Yards event and so ended up arriving half an hour early: shucks darn, I thought, guess I just have to browse this adorable bookstore! Good thing I only had half an hour, otherwise I might have bought a dozen books instead of only four. (I think I’ve got this New Year’s resolution thing down…just make resolutions that involve doing something you already love. Like buying books. I’m such a genius!)
It’s a little nervous-making, having a bookstore reading not in your hometown. It’s just too easy to picture nobody showing up…especially on a freezing, snow-blowing night. But people did show up, bless their tough Chicago hearts. And among them came the Babes!
The Babes With Big Books, that is. Almost a year ago, this Chicago-area book club won copies of Ten Cents a Dance through BookMovement.com. They read the book and then invited me to call in to one of their club meetings. What a blast! These avid readers gave me a warm, open-arms Illinois welcome; it was so much fun to finally meet some of them in person. Thanks, Babes, for helping make the reading a success! Thanks too to my friend Jenny, a friend and fabulous writer whom I met at a writing workshop here in Portland, for coming out in support, and laughing in all the right places.
Here are the Babes and I: That’s Amy, Karen, me, Meredith, and Kimberly. I feel incredibly lucky that these wonderful women won my book—you all are an author’s dream!
A top shot of the victory rolls. (Thank God I didn't write a book set in the early `60s...no WAY I'm EVER doing a beehive!)
Chicago was over, but no time to rest; the next day, I headed to Cincinnati to spend a few days with my brother’s family and do a book signing at a Borders bookstore. A book signing is different from a reading: my role was to sit at a table at the front of the store, greet customers as they came in, and if anyone was interested, talk to them about Ten Cents. Now, most folks see someone in `40s getup at a table piled with books, and they get this kind of spooked-deer don’t make eye contact don’t make eye contact oh look at this incredibly interesting thing way on the opposite side of the store thing going on. Which I don’t blame them for, as I in all my introversion would undoubtedly do the same thing. But I was the author; this was no time to be introverted. I smiled at everyone and offered free bookmarks, and if people stopped to chat, I gladly (and gratefully!) chatted. Marjorie, the store manager, brought me coffee, which helped fend off the cold (twenty degrees outside, and me in front of the big double doors swooshing open and shut constantly; after forty-five minutes, I couldn’t feel my feet). In just over an hour and a half, all the books were sold. Whoo-hoo! Many, many thanks to my brother Matt, Marjorie, and all the staff of the Borders in Mason, OH—you guys rock!
And then it WAS time to rest. Tons of good food (my sister-in-law Janet is an awesome cook), hours of wonderful conversation, intense Scrabble games with my nephews, and my first-ever episode of The Bachelor, which happened to be the finale (Jason, you fickle, fickle man, how could you?)
And then—after a fifteen-hour three-airport two-delayed-flight odyssey—sweet home at last. For now, Chicago, goodbye…but I had an incredible time, and I'll be back--I know it!
In the last two years, I’ve done so much research on Chicago I feel like I know the city inside and out. But what I know is a black-and-white 1940s version: photographs and movies, maps and books. Which made leaping into the present-day Windy City, in all its glorious color, such an exciting prospect.
I put together a multimedia presentation, A Hepkitten’s Guide to the War: Taxi Dancing, Chicago, and World War II, based on Ten Cents a Dance. (Do I know how to do a multimedia presentation? Ha! I do now. Let’s just say there was a whole lotta learning curve going on. Thank you Jerrod Allen, computer wizard extraordinaire and tutor magnifique.) I went on the hunt and found the most darling raspberry wool `40s jacket and vintage black hepkitten-ish skirt. My fab publicist, Kelly Powers of ObieJoe Media, worked like crazy coordinating events…and on February 23rd, this show hit the road.
Eighteen degrees in Chicago when I landed. Thank heavens my mother, who grew up in New York, insisted years and years ago that I get a heavy wool topcoat. Nobody wears such a thing here; on the West Coast, we’re all about GoreTex and goosedown. But the streets of Chicago were teeming with wool, and snug in my own (thanks, Mom!) I have a deep new appreciation for sheep. Those suckers are warm.
First event: Norwood Park Historical Society. Their headquarters is the oldest house in Chicago, harking back to 1833 (in comparison, our 1906 Portland home seem positively teenagerish). Giving the Hepkitten presentation in its gorgeous rooms was a treat. Even better was discovering that a few of the attendees had danced to the same hot swing as Ruby, back in the day!
Next, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. The Back of the Yards is the neighborhood where Ruby grows up, and I practically had my nose pressed to the car window, drinking in all the streets I’d only seen before on a map: Damen, 47th, Ashland. That’s where the People’s Theater used to be! That’s where Ruby and Angie would have gotten on the streetcar! In Ruby’s day, the Back of the Yards was home to many ethnicities; today, it’s still one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. The BYNC is an amazingly energetic, vibrant organization buzzing with activities: children, teens, adults, seniors. They welcomed me with open arms, and a I had fabulous time talking Back of the Yards history with the wonderful group of kids who came to see Hepkitten.
What with preparing for events (victory rolls still take me forever to do), getting to events (and I thought L.A. traffic was bad), and doing events, I didn’t have a lot of time to go sightseeing. But I walked the Magnificent Mile, and one bright, bone-chilling-cold afternoon, took the world's fastest elevator up 94 stories to the John Hancock Observatory. Isn’t Chicago gorgeous?
And OK, I can’t resist—I have to show you the kitchenette in my hotel room. It was the tiniest thing, but just adorable. I swear I cooed when I saw it. Bliss to come back from an event, brush out the victory rolls, and heat water in the kettle for a mug of peppermint tea.
More to come about Chicago—including a pic of me in my `40s getup—and my further adventures in Cincinnati. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of the video clips I use in my Hepkitten presentation. This is from Ten Cents a Dance—the 1931 movie. (That's Barbara Stanwyck, playing the world-weary taxi dancer!)
And my topic for NAS? “Essential Skills for Every Fiction Writer.”
I had ninety minutes, so I distilled my list of essential skills down to three bottom-line, make-it-or-break-it abilities that every novelist or short story writer must master: building characters, building conflict, and building the fictive dream. Attendance was good, and the audience was great. As any of my former students can tell you, I get bored if I’m just up there rattling away; I like participation, and I’m not above randomly pointing at people and firing questions. But I didn’t have to with this bunch; every time I posed a scenario, they called out ideas and answers. Fabulous!
Many, many thanks to all who attended, and especially to Christina Katz for inviting me to speak. I had a great time, not only giving the talk but having the chance to chat with folks afterwards. The talk was filmed, and when I get a copy of the video I’ll post an excerpt or two here—keep your eye out for it!
And then I was done and headed home…only to pack the suitcases for a 6:30 AM flight the next morning. My latest Adventures in Book Promotion had only begun, and the next stop?
I'm a veterinarian who started writing and never stopped. I've published two young adult novels: Ten Cents a Dance, which was named a Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, and Tallulah Falls, which was named a 2007 Book for the Teen Age by the New York Public Library. I practice veterinary medicine part-time; the rest of the time, I'm up in my office, clacking away at the keyboard.