“When anybody asks, 'What are you writing about now?' if I try to reply, the book-in-the-works sounds so idiotic to me that I think, 'Why am I trying to write that puerile junk?' So now I give up; if I could talk about it, I wouldn't have to write it."
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet


It Hasn't Even Started And It's Already Keeping Me Awake

Monday, October 31, 2011

Just to get a couple of things out of the way before I start the real post:

1) There are still a few sites left to visit in my European Vacation series, and I will be posting them despite doing NaNoWriMo.  The next one (which will be up this week) is one of my favorites.

2) "Barton Hollow."  "The Civil Wars."  Fantastic.  Go.  Buy.  Or at least listen to a few songs on YouTube and see if you aren't instantly addicted. 

Okay.  Now on to the meat of this post.

Last night we went to bed at 9:30.  Normally we'd be in bed by 9:00, but the Geek had last week off and we got used to going to bed late and getting up late (about 6:30 or 7:00 for us as opposed to our normal 4:50). 

Then two voices started arguing with each other inside my head, keeping me awake.

One of them was very enthusiastically thinking about ideas, first lines, opening scenes, and characters for the NaNoWriMo novel that I can not start until midnight tonight.  The other was vehemently arguing against such nonsense, shouting that the plan this year is not to make any plans

Eventually I got tired enough to tell them both to shut up and managed to fall asleep.  But then I woke up at 2:00 am and did the whole thing over again.

It's a good thing NaNo starts soon.  I've heard that writers have a tendency toward insanity, and with two inner voices speaking to me, I'm afraid I may be heading that way.

P. S.  I should add that while having a voice in your head coming up with ideas for your novel would seem like a good thing, this one was not.  It was more like a very loud, small child yelling every random thought that comes to him.   Like this: Apple Jacks!  Fruit Loops!  Cardboard box!  Candy!  Pretty Rainbow!  Lightning!  Aaaahh!!

The last two words came when the other voice got so put out that it touched the first voice with a live wire.  And I can't blame the second voice for doing so.  It really was annoying.

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A New Way (For Me) of Doing NaNoWriMo

Sunday, October 30, 2011

NaNoWriMo starts in less than 2 days.  The starting point is looming, dangling in front of me like a carrot on a stick, and on Tuesday, November 1st I will catch it.  Normally I would be nibbling on that carrot a little before the starting date, planning my plot, setting, characters; struggling to form an interesting main conflict and resolution (always the hardest part for me).  But this year, I am going the extreme "No Plot? No Problem!" route. 

It's not that I didn't try to plan ahead.  I racked my brain, trying to come up with a great story idea, but nothing I could think of excited me.  I ran my ideas by the Geek and he agreed.  There was no magic, no thrill to them.  It was like dangling a thistle from a stick; not exactly something that was going to entice me or any potential readers to bite.

I started thinking that, like last year, I might just skip NaNoWriMo and work on the editing of another novel – certainly the more practical, responsible route.  But the truth is, that just made me sad.

I love NaNoWriMo.  I love the thrill of setting new, fresh, previously unread sets of words to the page.  I love watching a story mysteriously form itself in my head and subsequently on the page.  I love the challenge and the motivation of writing 1,667 words every single day for a month.  And, for these reasons, I have looked forward to November every year since 2005 when I first discovered the wonders of NaNoWriMo.

So, I am going to write.  I have no plan; no outline, no plot, no setting, no characters.  I am attacking the event this year armed only with excitement, a desire to write, and the knowledge that whatever the outcome I will enjoy the process.

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European Vacation – Paris – Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe

Saturday, October 22, 2011

After visiting the Louvre on our second day in Paris, we noted on our map that Notre Dame was within walking distance, just down the river.  So we started walking.  And walking.  And walking.

It seemed to take forever to get there, though that might have been because we were still tired from the previous day of walking and the hours we had just spent walking around the Louvre.  Eventually I started pointing at buildings I thought were Notre Dame, but then it would turn out they were not.  After doing this about half a dozen times – or maybe more – we finally came to the real thing.

Notre Dame was beautiful.  I mean, just look at those doors.  Like the Louvre, the carvings were amazingly intricate, and all the more impressive for having been done so long ago.

When we arrived, there wasn't another English tour for a while, so we wandered on our own, which a lot of people seemed to be doing as well.  It was very dark inside, and all I have is a little point-and-shoot Canon, so only a few of my inside photos came out well enough to use.

There is stained glass everywhere inside Notre Dame.  Beautiful windows in various shapes, colors, sizes, and designs.  While the structure itself was somewhat symmetrical, the windows didn't seem to have any rhyme or reason – each alcove around the sides of the church had a different window and different vignette made up of various altars, statues, and other objects.  Maybe if we could have read the signs we might have understood better, but once again they were all in French.  Nonetheless, despite the seeming randomness of it all – and maybe because of the it – this church was beyond beautiful.

The height of the ceilings was breathtaking.  Imagine working up there to create this structure, hundreds of years ago, long before they had all the safety tools, apparatuses, and regulations that we have now.  Below all those gorgeous arches and windows were hundreds of people, some wandering and taking it all in like we were, and some sitting in the chairs arranged down the center of the church.  I wondered if the people in chairs were resting their feet or worshipping, and if they were worshipping I wondered if they resented all the people walking around snapping photos and exclaiming over the beauty of the place in many different languages.

The chandeliers were amazing.  (How many times have I used that word?  It's getting hard to come up with new adjectives after all we saw.)  This one had been taken down for cleaning and repairs so we got a close-up view of it.  They were even more beautiful hanging and lit up, but my little camera just didn't take very good photos of those.

Back outside, saints and angels were carved into the facade of the church.  These were just a few of them.  I assume the second from the right in this photo is John the Baptist.  I love how there is a circle of stone where his head should be, as if he has a halo over his missing head.  Sorry.  Was that irreverent?

The gargoyles fascinated me.  They were so high that we couldn't get a very good view of them.  It's strange how there are carvings of saints and angels alongside these grisly gargoyles.  I don't know what their purpose was, though I'm sure there was one.  Maybe to scare away evil spirits?  Anyone know?

The flying buttresses of Notre Dame.  This is at the opposite end of the church from the doors in my first photo.  Behind me is a very nice park-like garden.

Notre Dame looks different from every angle.  It's almost like the builders had so many ideas of what they wanted the church to look like and rather than pick one they just used them all.  Or maybe as it was built and rebuilt over the years, different builders used different ideas creating almost a hodge-podge of design.  However it was, they did it in such a way that it has become one of the most admired and well-known structures in the world.

The stained glass windows with all their stone work are just as beautiful from the outside as they are from inside.

A side-view of the church with the towers.  It's hard to believe that any building could still stand after so long, and while it has been plundered and desecrated, and undergone restorations over the years, it has essentially been there for almost 1000 years. 

The famous towers of Notre Dame.  We were not able to take the tour that takes you up to them, but we enjoyed admiring them from below anyway.

After leaving Notre Dame, we took the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe.  The real one this time.  We were tired by then, and we had to wait a long time before the guards would allow us into the tunnel that crosses under the roundabout that encircles the Arc since they apparently only allow a certain number of people at a time.  So we didn't spend a lot of time there, but once again, it was an amazing experience to actually see in front of our very eyes all these sights that we had seen only in pictures all of our lives.

This was our last day in Paris.  The next day we traveled across France on our way to Germany, but on our way, we made a stop just outside of Paris which I will tell you all about in my next post.

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European Vacation - Paris - The Louvre

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The day after the long walk to the Eiffel Tower we decided that the Paris Metro would be the way to go.  We'd heard good things, about it and while we enjoyed seeing so much of the city on foot the day before, our feet needed a rest.

So we bought day-passes, studied the giant color-coded wall map, mispronounced many French names as we searched for the correct stop, and figured out how to get to the Louvre.  There were a couple of times throughout the day when we stopped at an information booth to ask for help.  My Geek had no qualms about walking up to them and saying, "We are ignorant Americans.  Can you help us find this?"  That approach apparently worked, because not one Parisian was rude to us.  We had heard so many horror stories about how Parisians will not speak English to Americans even if they can.  Our experience was quite different.  Almost everyone we spoke to was very nice to us.

We tried to get there a little earlier this time to beat the ridiculous line, but we there was already a line by the time we got there.  When they started letting people through, we noticed that it moved fairly quickly, so we decided to get in line anyway.  We really wanted to see the Louvre.

 While we were waiting, we noticed that a group of women who were directly in front of us in line were speaking English with American accents.  One of them, who introduced herself to us and told us she was from Michigan, offered to take our photo.  

 The wait wasn't too bad, and totally worth it.  The Louvre was amazing.  This is the inside of that famous glass pyramid, looking up from the main lobby area.

 Have I mentioned that the food in Europe was incredible?  I don't think you can get a bad sandwich there.  After viewing the Rembrandt exhibit, we stopped at the cafeteria and picked up a couple of sandwiches for lunch.  The bread is chewy, crusty, and flavorful.  Yum. 

 In case you didn't know (I didn't until we got there), the Louvre was originally a palace that was built on top of an old castle, which this is a model of.  You can still see some of the original castle walls as you walk through the basement, but it was so dark down there I couldn't get any good photos.

 Sphinx!  The Egyptian exhibit was huge!  We spent so much time there.  It was interesting to see so many artifacts, but we couldn't tell what much of it was since all the signs were in French. 

 I don't know for sure (since we couldn't read the French signs), but I think this was an actual wall taken from some ancient Egyptian structure.

 Those could not possibly have been comfortable.  Apparently Dr. Scholl wasn't around yet when these were made.

 The ceilings were gorgeous.  Every room was different, with their paintings, and ornate details everywhere.  Incredible. 

 More incredible ceiling art.  We took tons of photos of the ceilings.

 I loved this one with the figures carved around the sides and the bright light pouring through the skylight.  Beautiful.

 The Winged Victory of Samothrace took my breath away.  It was so incredibly beautiful.  I had seen photos of it, but it never really impressed me that much until I saw the real thing.

 It was also much taller than I thought it would be.  I had pictured it as something that would sit on a table top, but in reality it's probably about 10 feet tall.

The Mona Lisa was just the opposite – much smaller than I thought.  It was no larger than a portrait you might hang above your mantle.  There was glass in front of it, so my photo isn't very good, but it was amazing to see the original Mona Lisa just a few feet in front of our faces.

 The Geek told me to give him my best Mona Lisa smile.  Not sure it's very Mona Lisa-ish, but it's proof I was right there anyway.  :)

 See that crowd?  That is what we had to fight our way through to get to the Mona Lisa.  There is no line, just a massive crowd.  You slowly make your way forward (people there seem to have far less personal space issues than we Americans do, which was not always never pleasant) until you get to the front where there is one of those movie theater type rope barrier things.  After you are done admiring the piece, a guard unclips it and lets you out through the front because you would never be able to get back through that crowd.

 The Venus de Milo.  Also bigger than I thought, and very cool to see up close.

 The Geek posed for me in front of this lion statue.  Little kids kept running up to it trying to touch it and saying "Aslan!"  I hope they didn't think the White Witch had turned Aslan into stone.

The Greek and Roman section of the museum is huge just like the Egyptian section, but where the Egyptian area contained a lot of artifacts (jewelry, household items, etc.) the Greek/Roman part was mostly pottery and statues.  We saw many copies of statues of Diana in this exact pose.

These are only a small portion of all the photos we took and even less of all we saw, and we only saw a tiny fraction of what is there.  The Louvre is an amazing place.  I imagine you could go every day for a very long time and still see something new every time.

Later on this same day we visited Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, but I'll save that for the next post. 

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Coming Soon: NaNoWriMo

Saturday, October 08, 2011

According to their website, NaNoWriMo is starting in exactly 23 days, 11 hours, 52 minutes, and ... well, I got stuck there because it keeps counting down, but you get the idea.  I don't really know what I'm going to write this year.  I have a couple of ideas, but neither is well enough developed for me to fall in love with writing them yet.

And for those who have been around here for a while and remember that last year I spent November concentrating on editing an existing manuscript rather than writing 50,000 new words, the answer is no; that novel is not completely edited yet.  I've been working on it this year, but it needs some major help in certain parts and I'm feeling the need to get away from it for a little while with the hope of coming back to it later with a fresh eye.

My problem in the past has been that I envision a character that I really love and want to write their story, and I have an idea that I think would be really cool and fun to write, but there's no strong plot and I don't have a clue how it will end.  This year I want to know how the story will end and at least a few major points along the course of the plot before I get started.  I think this will make my 50,000 NaNoWriMo words much stronger and hopefully easier to edit later on.

So my writing focus for the next 23 days, 11 hours, 50 minutes and ... whatever ... is to come up with a keep-your-eyes-glued-to-the-page plot with a killer (not necessarily literally) ending, whether it be one of the ideas I'm already considering, or something entirely different.  Wish me luck!

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European Vacation - Paris - Eiffel Tower

Friday, October 07, 2011

You may have gathered from my last vacation post that I left Europe and went back again. With my Geek being there so long, I went for a short visit in the middle of his stay, and then at the end of his stay we took a lovely 9-day vacation together.  Our first stop on this second visit was Paris.

We spent three nights in Paris.  On our first and third nights we ate at a little French (of course) restaurant just down the street from our hotel where we bravely tried new and interesting foods like duck conservé (good) and escargot (not so good in my book, but the Geek loved it). 

On the morning of our first day we took off walking with our handy tourist map in hand, aiming to find the Museé du Louvre which I have no idea how to prounounce even after seeing the pronunciation guide on Wikipedia.

On our way, we stumbled into the Pantheon, which was very cool.  We didn't go in, but it was fun just to have seen it.   Then we turned around to go back down the street we came up on and look what we saw.

With so many buildings around, the Eiffel Tower was obscured most of the time we were walking around Paris that day, but every once in a while it would peek out through an opening between them.  It was fun to catch glimpses of it throughout the day.

 We found the Louvre!  (Smile, Sweet Geek!)  This is just a small portion of it from outside the gates and across the river.  I had no idea it was so huge.  As you follow it down the river it seems to just keep going forever.

 Inside the gates (and after being stopped by a very persistent little kid asking for money for a cause that may or may not have been legit), we found the famous pyramid entrance.

 We also found the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which is a smaller version of the real Arc de Triomphe (although it was built first).  Much smaller.  And which, I must admit, threw us off briefly.  "But the map says the Arc is over here?  What's it doing in the courtyard of the Louvre?  I thought it would be much bigger than that."  We eventually figured it out.

 The Eiffel Tower is also visible from the courtyard of the Louvre.  Our feet found out later that it was much, much farther away than it looks.

 The courtyard of the Louvre.  The building is ancient and beautiful.  The glass pyramid actually looks a little odd in the middle of the ancient palace, but then so much of what we saw in Europe is like that – a juxtaposition of old and new.

 The detail was amazing.  To think that all this was carved and built so many hundreds of years ago, long before they had the advantage of machinery to help them.  I can't even begin to imagine the monumental undertaking this was for artisans that had to do it all by hand.

And then we saw the line.  It was long.  Very, very long.  And we really wanted to get in, but the line was so very, very long.  So we left and went on a very, very long walk to the Eiffel Tower instead.

We walked and walked and we thought we were close based on our map, but we couldn't see it, and then we turned a corner and voilà!  There it was!

Looking up from underneath the Eiffel Tower.  It is truly an amazing structure.

There are three decks.  The first is a restaurant, and the third, at the very tip top, was closed by the time we got there because there were so many people.  We stopped at the second which is 380 feet above ground and offers impressive views of the city.

Now that's the real Arc de Triomphe.  I love how it stands out among all the smaller buildings surrounding it.

Looking up from the second deck to the top.  Yes, my Geek held me again to keep me from falling backwards while I took this photo.  :)

The river looks so pretty from up here.  And there's the Arc in the distance again.

We got lunch at a snack bar on the second deck of the Tower (the most Americanized place I think we ate the entire time we were in Europe) and then started our long trek back to the hotel.  On the way we stumbled upon an Italian restaurant (run by real Italians) where we stuffed ourselves full of great pasta (the gnocchi bolognese was to die for!)*.  Our feet were so very sore by the end of this day that we decided the next day we would take advantage of the Paris Metro. 

Next stop, more Paris sights, this time with the advantage of not having to walk everywhere!

* And now I'm craving a big steaming plate of gnocchi bolognese.  At 8:30 in the morning.  I'd better walk away before I start drooling on my keyboard.

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A Chicken Stock Revelation

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I am going to post about Paris soon.  I promise.  But I just discovered something so simple and so wonderful that I had to share.  

I have been making my own chicken stock for a long time – it's so easy and it tastes a million times better than anything you can buy off the grocery store shelves.  And with an inexpensive pressure cooker, it takes about half an hour to make it from the minute you pull out the ingredients until the timer beeps telling you your wonderfully fragrant chicken stock is ready.  This article by Camy Tang was my inspiration for buying my pressure cooker and now I can't imagine my kitchen without it.  I'll include my recipe at the end, since this post is about storing it, not making it.

After making my stock, I put it in the refrigerator covered in plastic wrap overnight, and then skim the fat off the top the next day.  Then it has to be strained before packaging it up into usable portions for storage, since even after straining it in a colander there are usually a lot of small bits that need to be strained off.

In the past I've always poured it from one big bowl into another big bowl and tried to somehow cover it with a giant piece of cheesecloth, which inevitably falls off because there is never a rubber band big enough to hold it in place and the Geek isn't always around to hold it there for me, and even if he is sometimes it just doesn't cooperate and the cheesecloth ends up falling into the stock and ... well it's a mess.

So today I had an epiphany, and for all I know everyone reading this may already have figured this out, but I am nearly giddy with my new discovery.  Instead of my old, messy, wasteful process, here is what I did today.

First, I pre-labeled my bags.  I used quart-sized freezer bags and used a sharpy to write "ck stock - 2 c." on each one since I like to freeze my stock in 2 cup portions.

Then I cut a piece of cheesecloth (double thickness) just big enough to cover the top of a 4-cup measuring cup.  Unlike a bowl big enough to hold my entire batch of stock, it was easy to find a rubber band the right size for this cup.  I stretched the rubber band around the top and under the handle to hold the cheesecloth in place, as you see here.

Then I proceeded to pour 4 cups of stock through the cheesecloth into the 4-cup measuring cup, using my 1/2-cup ladle.  Once it was 4 cups full, I poured 2 cups into each of 2 pre-labeled zip bags.  I did not take off the cheesecloth or attempt to clean it yet.  At this point, there was a lot of gunk clogging up the cheesecloth, but as I had poured it in through the center top, and I was pouring it back out through the spout, it worked fine, and by pouring out through the cheesecloth it double filtered the stock.

Then, without removing the cheesecloth from the measuring cup, I rinsed the cheesecloth under running water to get off all the excess stuff clogging it up, and made sure to pour out all the water before repeating the above process until I had bagged up all the chicken stock.  

This may sound like a lot of steps, but trust me, it was so much easier, cleaner (I did use a towel to soak up the small amount of drippage that came off of the cup as I poured), and efficient than my old method.  I hope this helps anyone out there who likes to make their own chicken stock (or veggie stock) and if you don't make your own, please consider it.  You will not believe how much better it tastes and it is not nearly as difficult as you might think.

Now, here is how I make my stock:

After cutting apart a chicken, I toss in whatever bits I have: the back bone, wings, any bones I've cut the meat off of, and sometimes the drumsticks.  I add half an onion (no need to slice or peel it – just chop it in half), 1 or 2 sticks of celery, 2 carrots, some whole pepper corns, a sprig of whatever fresh or dried herbs I have on hand (marjoram, thyme, and oregano are all good choices), and a generous pinch of salt.  Then I add water up to the line indicated on the pressure cooker, pop on the top, turn on the heat, and after 15 minutes of cooking I have a glorious chicken stock. 

I let it cool, then pour it through a colander into a large bowl, and toss the stuff in the colander into the trash. 



They Say You Learn Something New Every Day

Monday, October 03, 2011

Here are a few things I've learned recently.

  1. This is not the most annoying sound in the world.  Nope.  The most annoying sound in the world is the sound of asian beetles landing on various items in your house.  It's like a little click, or tap, and it could seriously drive me insane in a very short period of time.
  2. Crab Cobb Salad?  Not tasty.
  3. The South Beach Diet takes a LOT of work.  I pretty much spend 8 hours a day prepping food.  I have no idea how anyone with a job outside the home could find the time to do this diet.
  4. When you're on a diet, even one that says you can eat until you're full, you get really hungry for every meal - even breakfast.
  5. If you leave a half-pound steak on the counter, the dog will jump up while you are not looking and swallow the entire thing in less than 10 seconds.
  6. If you get too close to your dog's face, she might just belch up skunky-smelling nastiness in your face, even though she hasn't eaten a skunk.  At least not that I'm aware of.
  7. On a nicer note, it's really fun to see your dingy, dank basement be transformed into a cozy, liveable space.
More European vacation photos coming soon.  This time we're going to Paris!