Monday, July 30, 2012


I feel today like I haven't a creative bone in my body. Or I suppose "cell in my brain" is closer to anatomically correct. But I also don't have a critical bone in my body today, so correctness isn't a high priority either.

The highlight of my existence right now is harvesting herbs. Not an event I'll be talking about for weeks to come. I keep thinking a real writer would already be tossing around ideas for a mystery titled Death By Dill or Poisoned By Pesto, yet nothing occurs to me.

My car went through its annual state inspection and oil change last week. Did that inspire Inspector Tierod and the Corpse in the Corolla? No.

The trash container that I use for overflow from my rain barrel sprung a leak after an epic thunderstorm. The Mildew At The Bottom Of the Can? Be Worried In The Rain? The Perp in the Puddle? Nope. Sigh.

Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out of You" was the first time I encountered the word "ennui." Leave it to the French to make being bored and listless sound romantic. Too cool a word for such a horrible case of the blahs.

Writers need brain stimulation. So next week, I've decided to go find some. Going to load up my car trunk with it, bring it home, freeze it. That way, I can thaw a package of stimulation when I need it during my winter doldrums next January.

Meantime, I'm leaving the A/C off. Maybe I can work out a plot to Witness For The Perspiration.


Thursday, July 19, 2012


Purple peppers, one of this year's experiments.
I think I mentioned before that my Santangelo granddad was a farmer. He was also did shoe repair and, at the end of his life, owned a little neighborhood grocery store, but he still kept a vegetable patch in his backyard and considered himself, first and foremost, a farmer.

Most of grandpop's children also grew food of some sort in their yards, though only one son became a farmer. Two of that uncle's sons also followed the family vocation. One of them became a professor of agriculture.

About 90 square feet of my small yard is devoted to growing vegetables each year, with another 15 reserved for herbs. Each year as I till the soil, I wonder how many more years I'll be able to handle the physical torture involved. I wonder if it's worth it. A month or so later, I taste the first lettuce, then around July 1st, the string beans. This past week, I've had the first bell peppers and tomatoes. It's worth it.

But beyond the obvious gastronomic rewards, I enjoy a kind of scientific fascination with the process of growing. I experiment with different soil additives, different growing techniques (like putting screens over my lettuce to keep the plants cooler), different seeds. I'll plant more than one variety of tomatoes and peppers, observing which grows better in my conditions and which produces more. If I find great tasting veggies or herbs, I try to dry the seeds for next year. Sometimes my experiments work, sometimes not, but the learning process is fun. Farming is never boring.

All good farmers do likewise. You can't farm exactly the same way each year. It's not good for the earth or the food supply. You have to constantly adjust. For centuries farmers have been sharing what works and what doesn't, and even sharing plants and seeds. In my family alone, many of the plants in my garden originated as cuttings from the gardens of my aunts and uncles.

I heard yesterday that Monsanto is now trying to patent seeds. They claim that they've genetically modified them, so they've therefore "invented" them.

Consumers hear the words "genetically modified" and panic, but that's not what's scary here. Mankind has been genetically modifying crops since we switched from hunter-gatherers to agriculture. That's why there are 7500 varieties of apples worldwide instead of only the wild apple that originated in west Asia (the Garden of Eden, whichever you prefer).

The scary part is the thought of seeds as intellectual property, that any one entity can claim ownership to the very root (so to speak) of our food supply. Monsanto isn't about to share what they've learned, plus, if you dry the next generation of seeds produced, they could sue you (despite the fact that the next generation would again be genetically modified, simply because pollinators like bees aren't fussy about what pollen is stuck to their butts, and because natural mutations occur).

The thing is, the genetic makeup must keep changing for healthy crops. Adaptability is how life works.

If you want a writing analogy, free seeds, flowing among writers without restriction, is also necessary for the creative process. Imagine if someone had slapped a copyright on "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" back when it was first used as a plot.

So, I'm going to keep farming as long as I can, and supporting my local farmers. I don't want corporations owning my food supply and saying what I can and can't grow.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Night Lights

Night sky over Devil's Tower, Wyoming

When I was a kid, my mom used to leave our 15 watt hall light on at night (so none of us would take a header down the stairs en route to the bathroom). Since I was afraid of the dark, I'd sleep with my bedroom door open to let in all the luminescence I could from that dim bulb.

I created a character who's afraid of the dark for my Twins series. In researching it, I found that achluophobia is defined as a fear of the dark severe enough to be pathological. That implies that lesser fears of the dark are considered by society to be normal. Makes sense. We're taught from an early age to associate light with goodness, security and clarity. Darkness is seen as dangerous and evil. When we enter a dark room, even if it's a familiar space that we know with eyes closed, our first instinct is to turn on a light.

I recently heard an NPR program called "Lost in 'The City Dark'" about light pollution and the loss of the night sky. These days streetlamps, digital billboards, and flood-lit buildings and bridges have made it impossible to see stars in cities around the world.

My dad, brother and I used to stargaze a lot. From our backyard on very clear nights, you could see a faint, fuzzy Milky Way crossing the sky over our house. My brother had a small telescope, so we could check out the craters of the moon, rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy and the teeny nebulae of Orion. I bought a Scholastic book about constellations and learned to identify every one I could see from my yard. We'd stay up late for meteor showers, lunar eclipses, and the occasional comet visitation.

My current neighbors all have big spotlights. The streetlamps have brighter bulbs. The shopping malls on either side of town create a permanent glow on the horizon. All but the brightest stars are now veiled.

I just heard about an exhibit at a large botanical garden not far from me. They've set up colored lighting fixtures--I guess you could say light sculptures, in some cases--all over the grounds for night tours. A few of my friends have oohed and aahed about it, but my first thought was to morn the fact that no one will be able to see the lightning bugs, or moonlight on the blossoms, or, of course, the stars.

I've gotten over my fear of the dark. In fact, I like it. Darkness is energy-efficient. And as Charles Dickens said, it's cheap--always welcome in this economy. Yet we overdo lighting--we keep wasting fuel to keep our childhood fears away.

When I evoke memories of the most memorable night lighting displays I've seen, I think of the starry sky over the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and over Badlands, and over the little out-of-the-way-town of State Line, PA. I remember the first time the sky was so clear I could see individual stars of the Milky Way, at Kiwanis Girl Scout Camp. I remember my first night hike, when I found, to my surprise, that starlight was all I needed to see the trail after my eyes adjusted.

As filmmaker Ian Cheney on NPR program said, we don't raise our heads and look up anymore. We look down, at our phones, at our artificial lights. Cheney makes the case that "in losing the night sky, we're not only losing something beautiful, we're losing this reference point, a sense of perspective. And to think that most kids now will grow up without that perspective, without a sense of our place in space."

If you've got kids, please take them stargazing, and often.

Elena (who still has and uses that Scholastic book)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Did the Comma Ever Do To You?

Last week I was musing aloud about blog ideas in front of my brother. He told me to write about commas--about why you don't see them much anymore, and about why, at times, you NEED to see them more.

My thought was "Been done." Everyone gripes about the sad state of what amounts to bad editing of the published word.

Then I visited Lubriderm's website, to send them a note asking why their "Fragrance Free" lotion smells. I tried to be informative about the problem, explain that the scent wasn't as strong as the regular lotion. I asked if this was an error in the batch or if they'd changed their formula. I had a limit of 500 words to use in my complaint, and I said what I had to say, politely I thought, in less than 100. I hit "SEND."

A little red warning came up: "Illegal character used in comments."

Huh? I checked my wording to make sure I hadn't mistakenly inserted "&" or "#" or "}." No, everything looked fine. To be sure, I took out the one contraction I'd used, in case the apostrophe was the problem. Hit "SEND" again. Same message.

Then it occurred to me that they might mean commas. I went into denial. How could a comma be called an illegal character? Who wrote that law?

Yet, sure enough, when I went back and ethnically-cleansed the comments of commas, retyping them in short sentences that sounded as if they'd been written by 4 year-old, the complaint was accepted.

You must to be kidding, Lubriderm.

Or I suppose, to get through to them, I'd have to say "You must be kidding Lubriderm."

Which means something completely different.



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