Friday, October 21, 2016

Well into Oktober... A Belated Month of Writing Begins

I have decided I will do NaNoWriMo after all this year, so this prep month of writing is necessary. I shall simply take my notebook writing practice, ala Natalie Goldberg's system from Wild Mind, and begin it fresh here.


Dough and Do Nots.

 The babka dough is rising. It's a chocolate babka, unlike the dried fruit version I grew up eating on special Sunday or holiday mornings. This is from the pages of Food&Wine magazine, more or less. I've tweaked the filling by adding orange peel & ginger, and using clabbered plant milk for whole cow's milk; and I've decided to shape the loaves differently.

 Tweaking recipes is my usual thing, but I didn't start out cooking that way on purpose. It's just that when I first moved out of mother's home into an apt., I didn't have the greatest set of cookware or a budget for exotic ingredients (and back then, fresh ginger was exotic, fresh cilantro was unheard of). So I learned to substitute flavorings or skip steps, as when I first made a flourless chocolate cake by Alice Medrich of Cocolat fame, and decided not to waste cash on blanched almonds that were just going to be ground into almond flour anyway. The cake was delicious, perfect, gorgeous and dramatic, with it's subtle topping of sifted dark cocoa, ringed with caramelized dried apricots.

 Years later, she now makes the same cake with whole raw almonds, as I did way back when. Validation!!! Of course, I've also read that during that time, she had so many mags and such asking her for recipes (while she was running a full-time food biz), that she didn't actually test all of the spinoff versions (like the one I made) of certain of her most famous recipes; like me now, she could come up with changes that she KNEW would work, and send them off. I do that all of the time in the kitchen-- if you have a good grounding in the type of recipe you're making, you don't have to measure or test to tweak successfully. You just have to understand how flavors work together, how the physics & chemistry of baking works.

 Hell, I never even follow a recipe or use measurements for some things, like shortbread crusts. I know the components, I know what it should look, feel and taste like, and I know when I want it sweeter or more buttery or more floury. Only if I was making a grand production type of dessert from some specific Patisserie recipe, say a special torte from Kaffeehaus, would I follow the measurements for that kind of crust or bottom layer, because then it's a matter of having the right balance for the whole.

 And then sometimes, you make a bread or pastry exactly as the recipe says, and the balance doesn't suit your own taste. In these cases, I'll tweak like a mother**er  the next time I make it, if it is worth making again otherwise.

 Once I tweaked a crumb topping beforehand, just from misreading the amount of butter, and when I realized my mistake later, I had to wonder what the hell the woman that gave out the recipe originally was thinking-- because my topping was perfect (and that topping, I DO use again and again, for various baked goods). Hers would have been way too gooey to be properly called "crumb."

 The whole recipe was for a crumb-topped apple pie, one made with chunked rather than sliced apples-- it's become my go-to apple pie recipe, and several other people have said it's their favorite ever. What's great about it is that dicing six cups of peeled apples is much quicker and easier than slicing them, and you don't have to worry so much about the arrangement either, just pile them up and pat them in. I think I might have to make one next week, to celebrate October.

And right now, I have to go check that babka dough; it's probably ready for shaping now.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

July Comes Early... Grumpy Thoughts on Summer.

Something about summer always seems to take me by surprise. I'm not one of those sun-loving people that looks forward to the season. I don't dream about planting my garden all year, I don't enjoy weddings, baby showers, bug-infested night-time concerts or park-shelter picnics, and I don't ever have enough money to go to the ocean. I love the ocean, being in it, being near it; if you get me into the ocean I'll stay there till I'm sunburnt & dehydrated and you have to pull me out. The last time I was there, the aftermath included three days of virtually bathing in Aloe with Lidocaine with a headache as big as the sea, and I would have gone back and done it all again the next week if possible. But as I said, I may never get near an ocean again, and definitely not in 2016.

Our long cool spring probably had a hand in helping summer sneak up on me this year. Then busyness took me over: writing and worrying about my mother's health and trying to find a part-time nanny job and trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage. And now, halfway through July, I look up from my computer to find it's either too hot to bake fruit pies or too rainy to sit in the yard; that I haven't weeded the flowerbeds yet, the roses are besieged by crawling vines, and the annoying weed of a tree that I cut down to a nub last year has grown out from its hiding place under the toolshed for the third year in a row, so big it's blocking the door to the tools I need to cut it back (clever b*tch!). Real, sunny-hot summer just got here and I'm already behind on seasonal chores & activities. Not that there are many activities I go in for; getting fresh cherries to eat & bake with is nice, and making watermelon salads, or drinking wine at the table in the backyard.

I can't remember when I stopped looking forward to summer. Like every other school kid, from age 6 & onward I loved seeing June arrive, knowing my daytime freedom was coming. My family didn't take vacations anywhere and we got to the beach maybe once per year, but it didn't matter; my little sister and I loved being outside from morning till night, playing & riding bikes or whining that we were bored till Mom told us to go back out and give her some peace; or eating drippy popsicles and watching ants on the sidewalk. We loved our summer clothes and our cool back bedroom, an add-on room in our rented flat-- it didn't have heat and was well shaded by a huge maple tree, so it was super-cooled year round. In summer we'd play Barbies in there when it was too hot to go out. And although most nights we moaned and groaned about having to come inside to get ready for bed, I always enjoyed slipping into the nice cool sheets and closing my eyes. Then the morning would come, and let's face it, what's better for a kid than waking up to summer sunshine through the window & knowing you get to go outside & play in about a half hour-- if you want to?

Somewhere between then & now, that joyful, hopeful, excited savoring of summer left me. Maybe the summer I was twelve, and we lived in a new neighborhood with no kids my age and nowhere to walk to but a few residential blocks that looked just like mine, chipped away a bit of the enjoyment. It was the most deadly dull neighborhood I've ever lived in.

The couple of years I spent summer babysitting my oldest sister's kids while my little sister became popular & hung out with her friends all the time rollerskating, might have changed me. The year that I knew I'd have to go back to a middle school where I was a complete and utterly despised pariah, wasn't a great summer either. But was it those experiences that altered my perception? Was it later, when I lived in Indianapolis and it was 90 degrees or worse almost constantly from May to September?

 I haven't wondered about it before, not really. I thought it was more of an immediate thing-- since I moved back to Buffalo in 2007 and had a relapse*, and especially the last few years, I haven't been able to do much of what I'd like to do to prepare for any season, so as to fully enjoy. I'm often unable to be outside, and I used to loved being outside in all but the harshest weather-- and sometimes even then.

 I'll never forget this one long, long walk I took with my best friend in Indy, on a summer day that went from nice to superhot to grey & drizzly to a damn 40 minute long downpour, with thunder & lightning. We were both soaked. My Jackaroo hat had waterfalls pouring from all around the brim, my mineral face makeup washed away, my skirt was absorbing so much water I had to keep wringing it out so the weight of it didn't stop me from moving forward along the Monon Trail, and Mike's long curly hair kind of tripled in size from all the moisture; and still we walked, on and on. We walked so long, we finally got dry again, except for our squishy wet booted feet. Then it rained for another hour. I think we ended up walking back to a Taqueria we liked, for cheap quesadillas, dripping all the way.

 So, I can't do that anymore. The auto-immune disease that made me disabled and damaged my muscles took my physical confidence & stamina to a lower level, as well as taking away, maybe permanently, some muscle memory; which until you've lost it, you don't realize how you've relied upon it constantly for things like walking downstairs without having to see the steps as you descend; or putting on socks and a half dozen or more other daily actions we all do without forethought. Well, I used to.

 Is this why I don't love summer anymore? Hot weather, illness and the financial struggles that came with it? Was it that easy to lose? Or did it come away piece by piece, starting from those first few bad summers in teenagehood, and keep slipping as more unpleasant changes or forced seasonal activities gradually built up to a "block" against summer? Did the weddings & baby showers & that one horrible camping trip in sixth grade, all those activities that are hell to an introvert because of the vapid chitchat and the draining over-stimulation from hours of forced sociability while wearing uncomfortable clothes, did they play a part?

 I don't know. There's more I could look at, to begin to understand the process. I do have good summer memories: riding my bike down quiet cemetery paths pretending I was in Mirkwood; making love under swaying maple branches at midnight; grilling pizzas for friends using homegrown tomatoes & herbs; helping to make a movie with almost no budget but lots of imagination, commitment and resourcefulness; singing at a gig in Terre Haute where the music came through me so perfectly I was illuminated, transcendent; backyard theater nights & playing bocce ball with my family & having a sweet baby boy fall asleep on my shoulder; for every bad idea about summer, there's a good memory to counter. And I'm a make-the-most-of-it kind of person, so I've kept trying, at least most years I can remember.

Yet here I am, on a lovely July afternoon with no schedule to keep, no one to please but myself, on a warm but not hot day with beautiful breezes coming through the back screen door. There's beer in the fridge and ice cream bars in the freezer, a cat to play with, and books to read, and I'm sitting here thinking how I don't like summer anymore...

Or maybe now I have more time to learn and practice whatever I want than I've had since I was a kid, maybe I'm learning to like summer again, and this whole exploration is how I'm facing that weird reality. For years I've thought of myself as a summer hater, and now I feel it changing... I hope.

*I have Dermatomyositis, a debilitating, incurable auto-immune disease. Feel free to look it up, or not. I can vouch for this-- it kinda sucks.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dolled Up & Ready to Go... Where?

May 3. True story.

 As a kid I wanted dolls to play with; Barbies, babies, etc., & my little sister felt the same. So that's what our Christmas presents usually were. Being poor, we felt lucky to get any gifts.

We didn't know we were making a choice that was supposed to represent our major life interests. We didn't know to ask for telescopes, spaceships, microscopes, easels, guitars. Those were things I could have wanted, given a chance-- I don't know about my sister. I wanted drums, I wanted a mummy, I wanted to be Mr. Spock, but didn't know how to ask for those. Maybe being trained in girl-ness for six years was enough to show me I shouldn't ask. After all, the train set I had asked for never appeared. The Hot Wheels track in the basement belonged to my older brother, and despite my enthusiasm for playing with the cars, on the rare occasions he allowed that, nobody ever considered that I might want race cars & a track as well. No one asked if I wanted them instead of dolls.

Why would they? I was a little girl during the early 70s, and that meant I could play house (they should call it HouseKeeping 101), put on pretend fashion shows, play with baby dolls, Barbie dolls, color pretty pictures, use my BFF's Easy Bake Oven. Oh, and read, which I did, daily. Any interests I had outside of the conventional set were not going to be overly encouraged, at home or in school. No one was going to notice how, before actual 'play' I spent two hours setting up every detail of Barbie's house, made of discarded shoeboxes and whatnot, and think that I had a talent or desire to design & organize. The teachers at school didn't see that while the other girls were swinging & braiding each other's hair at recess, I was playing Star trek with a (boy) friend, roaming invented galaxies and negotiating with aliens.

To be fair, I was encouraged in some ways-- my Mom made sure I got books on whales & archaeology, two of my interests, and got me art supplies & books on how to use them. But I was miserly with my paints, knowing there wouldn't be more anytime soon, and was afraid to really experiment and thus use them up. A side effect of being poor. I guess another issue was that I learned better by being shown how to do something, than by reading instructions (still do). So the How-To books didn't work for me, and my lack of production of a masterpiece was taken for lack of strong motivation, although I drew constantly, on any paper I could scrounge.

This kind of unconscious choice we make, as kids & adults, is almost heartbreaking to me, now. I carry some guilt to this day, for not somehow intuiting the methods & techniques to become A Great Artist; and that I didn't figure out how to ask, despite the behavorial programming, for the guidance & gifts to become some kind of scientist. And I bristle when I see children being locked into similar choices, choices that they too are unaware they are making.

I wanted it all-- to be an artist, to understand whales and dig up ancient civilisations to study, to figure out the mysteries of space, to learn to play drums and to create my own fairy tales. My heart was full of all these desires. And still, I asked for dolls, mostly, and that's what I received.

C 5/2016
by Mari Kozlowski

Monday, May 2, 2016

May 2. 

 This is just a beginning-- there's more to come later this month or week.

  Hang in There.

 "Dammit, Malky!" he said, nearly tripping on the cat as she raced by him; and then, not paying much attention, he looked up and caught sight of something new. Not Jenna's usual style.

 Len would never have noticed the poster hanging next to the desk in his wife's office if the cat hadn't tear-assed by him so that he had to stop short to avoid stepping on her long, furry tail, & breaking it, very probably. He was jostled, in other words, and so just accidentally saw that where there used to be, had always been, an illustration of a kitten clinging to a branch beneath the sovereign advice to "Hang in there, baby!" now there was a drawing of an evil looking typewriter, along with the message "If you were in my novel, I'd have killed you off by now." 

 He stopped to take it in, a rare concession to fate's whims. How you make a typewriter look nasty, vicious even, was beyond his artistic scope, but not beyond his comprehension-- the thing was menacing, along with the words, and Len slowly absorbed the oddness of finding such a piece of snark in his wife’s personal refuge. Now he saw that the paint just above the left corner of the poster had been scraped, getting the old picture down. She hadn't fixed it, or asked him to, or mentioned it.
C 5/2016
by Mari Kozlowski

Sunday, May 1, 2016

May 1, 2016.

 Story-A-Day May.

 Bird Wars

 This morning I saw a sparrow being attacked by a pack of crows. It was an unfair fight. The sparrow kept struggling up, struggling to stand his ground, while the crows kept swooping in to pick and bitch at him, one & two at a time. He didn't really try to defend himself, and I'd say he was as shocked as I was. His posture & movements seemed to say, You can't mean to do this, can you? He was as baffled as I was, I'm sure.

 I'd never seen a skirmish like this between the birds of the neighborhood. Sure, if there was food in the street (a rare happening, as we have regular weekly street cleaners here in my suburban village) there might be a couple of birds that tried to steal it from each other, though never as violently. But there was no dropped food or any other obvious cause for the conflict I witnessed.  It's hard to imagine what could drive a half dozen or more big crows to beat up a little sparrow on a sunny Sunday morning. They were so cruel to him, a robin actually came over to help, strafing the crows as they hit the poor little guy, then taking care to fly away fast after each run.  He was still taking a chance, and he knew it, but he couldn't do much against so many, brave as he was.

 My ragamuffin cat & I watched from the window, horrified and fascinated (it all happened very quickly) and then suddenly the sparrow was down, and not getting up. On his back, eyes closed as far as I could tell, and not moving.  His attackers noticed, too. After a last peck at his silent form, the whole gang of crows took off, while I ran to find a box and a small towel. I intended to try to revive the bird, if possible, or at least keep him safe & warm in his last moments.  I hoped it wouldn't come to that.

 In a minute I had dressed & found what I needed. I hurried out to do what I could, wishing I had been fast enough to rescue the sparrow before he got seriously hurt. It was early, not yet 7am, and I had been barely awake when the birdfight began; I'd only come out to the front window to say Good Morning to the cat before making some coffee. Now I was going to the front lines to tend the wounded, sans my daily caffeine ration.

 Outside it was cool, and quiet, now the combatants had fled the scene. My hands were trembling as I walked across the street to where the sparrow had fallen-- I was not simpatico with birds, generally. I found them interesting, but they found me scary, probably because I spent a lot of time with cats, and had the smell of cat fur on me. Thus I had some trepidation about getting the bird into the box, if it was still alive, but that didn't matter. He needed help, and I was the only witness able to respond.

 When I reached the battleground, I was surprised: the downed sparrow had gone, whether flown away or carried off, I couldn't tell. Not a trace of discord remained, & there was nothing to show what had occurred moments earlier-- not a spot of blood nor a dropped feather. I hunted around to be sure the poor creature hadn't merely crawled under a bush to die, but no; he was gone, the brave robin was gone, and all was now as peaceful as a spring Sunday ought to be. I was relieved, but a touch worried over the circumstance of the sparrow's disappearance, and wishing I had been awake enough to do more. I tried to take comfort from a thought that the bird had only been stunned, then recovered.

  Soon my neighbors would wake and begin their weekend rituals of yard work & dog-walking. The sun would warm up our lawns, and my cat would shift his attention to the back window to watch the usual rabbit action on display there. No one would know about the strange little war I'd been privy to, or my ineffectual attempt to participate. I slipped into my morning routine again without much effort, but as I sipped fresh coffee and watched my cat watching the backyard, I wondered, over & over: what was the war about between the crows & sparrow?

by MK

Sunday, May 24, 2015

You must submit!

...If you want to get your share of writing rejections, the true sign of a persistent writer. This month, I submitted a short (1600-ish words) piece of fiction to a nice lit mag.

 I'm determined to keep working on the edit of my first novel, The Fall, and Further Fall, of Miriam Bronski-- but also to submit some of the other work that I have been finishing and polishing, that is piling up all over my hard drive. Especially as Bronski is going to be a long haul.

 As I recently re-embarked upon the edit, I had a crazy burst of clarity that showed me that I did not in fact have a full first draft (as I'd been telling myself), but a really long draft that was missing about 8 years of the MC's life, and 8 important years at that. This chunk of life will have to be written, now.

 Aaaand to do it right, I kinda need to visit Syracuse, NY, and Cincinnati, Ohio. And do some other research. And I need, at some point, to figure out exactly how the non-linear timeline works for this. So, major work still happening with Bronski.

 I've found I need to periodically distract myself from the main effort by knocking off side projects, so I have a few other novels and a dozen more short stories that I mess around with, and the occasional bit of poetry, odd essays, and of course songwriting. I'm glad I have a critique group to run my stuff through the gauntlet before submitting-- if you don't have one, find one or start one. It's really helped me to keep plugging away.

 I'm even thinking of submitting a short piece to Asimov, because why the hell not?

 Wish me luck!


Friday, October 3, 2014

Walking into Sunset, Con't.

 Patty’s car was wedged tight in the last space she could find, a long block from the restaurant, and she wondered how on earth she’d get out again when the night was over. A sharp tap on the window drew her out of her reverie: it was David, bending towards her, as handsome as a man had ever been, holding an umbrella as he waited for her to unlock the door of her little coupe. She smiled and did so, and he opened the door for her, helping her out with a gentle arm under her elbow, and making sure she was sheltered, at his own expense.

 “Thanks,” she said. “Well, still raining. I guess.” Brilliant conversation, Patty, keep going and this will be a very short night.

“I’m sorry our gorgeous walk at the lake didn’t come off. We’ll do it next weekend, even if it’s chilly. Maybe Saturday afternoon, if you’re free?”

He was already talking another date— not terrible to hear. It calmed her a little more.  

“I’d love it. But I have to admit something— I don’t like calamari. In fact, I don’t eat any seafood. Didn’t want to be a pain, though.”

 He adjusted the umbrella to cover them both perfectly, and started walking her towards the gargantuan gold and black doors of Olivio’s. “They also have the best Chicken with sage, artichokes, and Spaghetti Aglio E Olio you can imagine, I promise. There’ll be some incredible dish you’ll never forget— unless you don’t like Italian.” He looked at her, smiling deep, from his eyes, and Patty felt a little too charmed all at once— a gooey-good, scary feeling.

“Amo italiano; e` il cibo degli dei,” Patty purred in almost perfectly accented Italian.

David’s smile broadened, hearing her. “Sono d’accordo,” he replied, “It is food for divine beings, as
I’m sure our host would agree. I’ve known him 30 years, and he’s probably going
to ply us with so many antipasti we won’t have room for secondi, much less the
contorni his daughter will insist on providing."
 David’s prediction turned out to be true. Olivio, a slim and gracious but very stubborn man, absolutely refused to let them wait in the bar for their table, bringing them instead to his special tasting table in the kitchen, where he poured glass after glass of a deliciously tart and bitter cocktail for them and the several other people that had paid actually paid for the privilege of being spoiled by the owner-chef. The antipasti were a feast unto themselves— cold artichokes in spiced oil and hot ones cloaked lightly in the crispiest breading; buttery soft sliced meats, fruits stuffed with an herby cheese filling, peppers fresh and roasted, and sauteed tiny baby squid flecked with coarse salt and sprinkled with lemon--  that was before the pasta even arrived. Luckily, their private table was ready by then— Patty wasn’t sure she could manage even a single bite each of the several kinds of pasta Olivio was tossing together for his delighted guests in the kitchen.

 Their own booth was cozy, almost secluded, in a sort of pocket off to one side of the large fireplace that dominated the main room of the restaurant. Patty sat back against the deep fabric of the banquette and watched David scanning the menu.   

 “That was— an experience.” she said.

He looked up, eyes twinkling in the candlelight. “It was. It always is, with Olivio. He started as only a dishwasher here. Watched and learned, nagged his grandmother for cooking tips, begged his way into pasta prep, and just went from there.”

 “So it wasn’t always called Olivio’s?”  

“No. It wasn’t even a fine restaurant then, just a pasta and pizza place— one of those good old red sauce & chianti joints, with the checked tablecloths, you know? Tony’s Tomato Pie, I think it was called. My family used to come here then for birthday parties. But when Tony wanted to move to Florida and retire, he offered Olivio a great deal, and Olivio decided to make it over from the ground up. It’s good location, and he kept all the staff that wanted to stay— and most of the old customers, too.”

“That’s amazing! He is a fantastic cook.” She only hoped she’d make it through dinner while still retaining her ability to walk.

 “He is,” David said, but he must have read her mind, because he took her hand and squeezed it, adding “And I’ve found it’s wise, with Olivio's cooking, to practice the fine art of doggy-bagging. Otherwise I’d be wearing a suit at least three sizes bigger by now.”

 Patty relaxed her hand against his, enjoying the feel of it; he held on loosely, she noticed, but didn’t let go till their wine arrived.  

 It was a wonderful meal. The pasta came in a sauce both light and subtle, with accompanying vegetables Patty would have loved to get the recipe for. She and David chatted easily about jobs and cats, their long-gone college days, and the troubles of being a homeowner vs a renter, all the while drinking in each other’s presence as they sipped a superb Pinot Grigio. He made her laugh out loud at least a dozen times during a certain story about a boyhood attempt at pancake-making gone horribly wrong, and there was definitely a strong current flowing between them by the time they’d finished their main course.
 Olivio visited their table just once, to bring a palate cleansing sorbet, and  the perceptive chef must have sensed they had more than food on their minds, because he sent over only two desserts more than they’d ordered, along with small snifters of Frangelico to go with their espresso. When the extras worth taking were wrapped up for them, Patty was sure it was enough for several more meals. Olivio himself came to see them out, hugging them warmly, each in turn. “Make sure you bring her back soon, Davide,” he told her date seriously, “or you only get one pasta dish from now on.”  

David nodded without hesitation, Patty was happy to see. “We’ll be in before the month is up, if she agrees,” he promised, taking her hand. Finally they left, stashing the take-home bag in Patty’s car.