WIP: What a Good Week Looks Like

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I’m behind in the Pot Luck department, and I apologize.  But I’m also going to be behind in the WIP department too if I play catch-up first.  So, today, more or less on time, I’m doing WIP.

And there’s plenty of WIP to talk about.  It’s been a great week!  My Tupperware container (see my WIP post on Job Jar:  “Who’d a Thunk It?”) has become my friend.  Such a friend, in fact, that I’ve taken to calling it Tup.

Thanks to Tup, I’ve made substantial progress on the novel since my last WIP post.  The day I printed out the Eighteen Crossroads ms, I had just under 55,000 words.  Today, I have just under 61,000.  For some writers, six thousand words in ten days isn’t a lot—and even for me, I suppose it isn’t.  I mean, it does only break down to a rather piffling 600 words a day.  But what I’ve done in the past ten days is manage to send my Inner Editor on (what I hope will be a very long) vacation and get my butt in the chair and write.

Every.  Single.  Day.

And that’s not piffle.

In addition to the Butt-in-Chair success, another reason the 600 words a day pleases me so much is that it doesn’t all represent actual writing, since some of what I’ve done this week is revision.  Not the kind of procrastinating, time-wasting revision I so often used to find myself doing, but some very effective revision.  I remind myself that what I have here is a net 600 words a day.

I’m aware that many writing gurus eschew revision while one is still working on a first draft; Holly Lisle is one of them, and I have great respect for her and her methods.  But those gurus’ primary concern, I think, is with writers getting bogged down in unnecessary revision, whereas the revision I’ve done this week, far from bogging me down, has helped to move the book forward, so I’m pretty dang pleased about it.

I’ve also added fairly considerably to four stories this week (Josef’s, Tessa’s, Amelia’s, and John’s) and started three entirely new ones (Stan’s and Daphne’s, both of which I’d been planning for years but had never been able to force myself to sit down and actually start writing before Tup came along, plus an entirely new one for Tanna, which I had never planned to write at all), and I’ve also made substantial headway in my planning for Emma’s and Chatón’s, which are the only two left that I haven’t actually started writing.

But wait, that’s not all!  I also received my copy of The Adventure of Creation this week, and have been reading that, too.  And I haven’t read a single story yet that doesn’t make me feel very, very honored to have had one of my own chosen to be part of this collection.

Oh, yeah.  It’s been a good, good week.

WIP: Dilemmas

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I went to Fed-Ex Kinko’s the other day and had them print out a hard copy of the Eighteen Crossroads draft, which is currently 178 pages long (just under 55,000 words).  This was not a task I wanted to do at home, since I wasn’t sure my printer could handle it, and in any event, I knew I wouldn’t have enough ink.

I handed my flash drive to the girl at the counter, and she asked if I wanted single- or double-sided pages.

I hadn’t realized printing this thing would present me with dilemmas.

Double-sided printing would make it look and feel more like a real book.  It was tempting.  But it’s not a book yet—it’s only a working draft (and an unfinished one at that), and I was printing it, after all, to work on it.

Single-sided, I said.

Then she asked if I wanted it bound.  Again, it was tempting; binding it, of course, would make it look and feel like a real book.  But again, I hesitated.  Remember your purpose here, I told myself.  But I pictured a box full of loose pages and knew that would be potentially even worse.

So I had her three-hole punch it and stick it in a loose-leaf binder.  (It’s a binder, right?  So it’s bound.)

I’ve been carrying this thing pretty much everywhere with me all week, and have been reading it just as if I were reading a real book—which means I’ve been interacting with it, interrogating it, engaging with it, and sometimes talking to it, either in writing (I always read with a pen in hand) or out loud.

It has a lot of good spots in it. . .  And a lot that aren’t so good.  Printing on one side was a good idea, it turns out, because in addition to writing in the margins as I usually do, I’ve been using the blank sides of the facing pages to write notes.

Lots and lots of notes.  In fact, that’s the only writing I’ve done this week.

There are only a few stories that aren’t drafted yet, and I wanted to get a feel for exactly where the novel as a whole was at before writing them.  Where am I now, and where do I need to go?  What do these so-far-unwritten stories need to do, in order for the novel to maintain (or even achieve) the coherence I want it to have?

A conventional novel, one that starts with a beginning and moves logically (and at least fairly linearly) toward a conclusion, generally has a pretty identifiable coherence to it.  But Eighteen Crossroads isn’t a conventional novel, and I’m finding it trickier to identify the degree to which the necessary elements are clicking together the way they’re supposed to.  The novel as a whole should certainly have an overall coherence, yes, but as this is a collection of short stories that also need to be able to stand alone, this is not a single linear story, and it’s not supposed to be.  Each stand-alone is a sort of vignette from an individual life, and collectively, they also have a larger meaning, a significance that reaches beyond this particular family.

Or that’s the plan, anyway.  And I’ve been surprised at the places where the book so far does, and does not, seem to be achieving the goals I’ve set for it.

There have been other surprises this week as well.  More than anything, I’ve been surprised to discover that reading the hard copy is different from reading the electronic copy I’ve been working with on my computer screen.  That is to say, I read differently, and I react differently to what I’m reading.  The story I thought was going to need the most revision, for instance, turns out in hard copy to be one of my favorites.  And the one that’s been my favorite all along is going to need more revision than I’d thought.

This “bound” hard copy, all in all, is a very different manuscript from the electronic one I’ve been writing.

And this made me wonder—with the popularity of e-books, of Kindles and Nooks and whatever other e-readers are out there on the rise, will people read differently?  Do they already?  And if so, in what way(s) do they read differently, and will writers need to find a way to accommodate this new way of reading?  Should the hard copy and the e-copy of a book differ somehow, and if so, how?  Does the advent of the e-book create dilemmas not just in publishing, but also for writing itself?

Suddenly my dilemma about going with one-sided pages or double-sided pages pales in the face of the questions that arise as I read and annotate the draft.

I don’t have a Nook or a Kindle, but I’d be very interested in getting feedback from people who do.  Have you found your reading habits changing in any way with the e-reader?  Do you enjoy books more, or less, now that you’ve made the switch?  Do you still read hard-copy (that is, printed) books, or have you made a complete transition to electronic reading?  And most particularly, can you think of any books that you’ve read in both print and e-book form, and what differences, if any, did you find in your reading experiences?

I hope you’ll take a minute to share your thoughts.  I really want to know!

GUMP: Three Grammatical Mysteries Solved

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Most well-meaning people strive to use correct grammar in day-to-day speech and writing, but sometimes the “correct” usage is a mystery, and we just sort of guess.  And unfortunately, a lot of us guess wrong.  So for today’s GUMP post, I thought I’d address three of the most common grammatical mysteries.

1.  Should I use WHO or WHOM?

You do not automatically sound smarter when you insert a WHOM into your speech.  Whom has very specific grammatical rules, and it’s probably because so many people don’t understand those rules that the word is not in common use anymore.  When in doubt, use WHO, and you will rarely be challenged.

However, if you want to use WHOM correctly, try this easy test:

Consider whether HIM or HE will fit into the sentence instead, and you’ll know immediately whether you should use WHO or WHOM.  Just remember the M.  If he is the correct choice, you’ll use WHO (HE and WHO do not contain M’s).  If him is the correct choice, then you’ll use WHOM (HIM and WHOM both contain an M).

Example 1:

The lady who/whom crashed into my car was drunk.

Now choose:  HIM crashed into my car.  OR  HE crashed into my car.

The choice is obvious:  HE crashed into my car is correct.

There is no M in HE.

Therefore you need WHO in the original sentence:  The lady who crashed into my car was drunk.

Example 2:

I wasn’t sure who/whom I should thank for the gift.

Now choose:  I should thank HIM.  OR I should thank HE.

Obviously, I should thank HIM is correct.

There is an M in HIM.

So WHOM is correct in the sentence:  I wasn’t sure whom I should thank for the gift.

Another easy rule of thumb:  If there’s a preposition, you’ll use WHOM.  To whom, from whom, behind whom, under whom.  To WHOM should I address my comments?  To HIM.

(I apologize for the apparently sexist nature of this advice, but the mnemonic just doesn’t work with SHE and HER.)

2.  Should I use ME or I

One of the most common mysteries.  In fact, it was my mom’s #1 pet peeve.  Between she and I, we’ve been fighting it for years.  Her estimation of a person’s intelligence would plummet the moment the error emerged from that person’s lips.  Which is a shame, since many very intelligent people do it.  I’ve heard newscasters and even English teachers do it.

Did you catch the error?  Didja?  Huh?  It’s there.  Read that paragraph again.

If you didn’t catch it, chances are pretty good that you might even do it yourself.

The Mystery:  “Between she and I,” which appears in the above paragraph, is an error.  Similarly, “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and I” is incorrect.  So is “This is a picture of my dog and I.”  It really bothers my mom and I when people do this!

The Solution:  You can check for correctness by taking the second person/other people out of the sentence.  Leave yourself in.

“Tom and I are going to the park” can be changed to “I am going to the park,” and you can see it works just fine.

But when you change “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and I” to “Tom is going to the movies with I,” you can see immediately that it’s obviously wrong, as is “This is a picture of I.”  And “it really bothers I” is just plain silly.

It really, truly is correct to say “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and me.”  Or “This is my favorite picture of my dog and me.”  (Or even “me and my dog,” though technically, the other person should come first.)

3.  Should I use ITS or IT’S?

Here’s the thing with this one:  IT’S is ALWAYS a contraction of IT IS.

Always.  Period.  No exceptions.

This grammatical mystery exists because we have been taught that when you add an S in a possessive, you need to add an apostrophe as well.

Most of us know to add an apostrophe to show possession:  This is Melinda’s blog.

So when we use the possessive of IT, we often add an apostrophe before the S, perhaps without even thinking.

But stop and think about it.  HERS, OURS, and THEIRS are all possessive, too, and none of them uses an apostrophe.  Possessive pronouns don’t use them.  They just don’t.

So the check for this one is another simple substitution.   If you’re not sure which one to use in a sentence, replace it with IT IS.

IT’S hot outside” becomes “IT IS hot outside.”  Ahh.  Correct.

And “the cow chewed IT’S cud” becomes “The cow chewed IT IS cud.”

Yeah, that pretty much makes NO sense.  The correct choice here is ITS.

There!  Three mysteries solved!  Don’t you feel better?

WIP: Magic

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What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. –Carl Sagan, from “The Persistence of Memory” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

Among my very earliest memories is a vivid image of my best friend and next door neighbor, Monica (then known as Mickey) and me drawing pictures of cats. In order to draw a cat (the way I first drew them as a child), I started with an M. The M was its ears.

The point is, I knew what an M was.

We must have been about three at that point, maybe four. I know I was less than five, because when I was five, we moved away.

This means I could write an M before I could draw a cat, and though this fact may not be enormously surprising (as my name, after all, begins with an M), it does emphasize the point I’m trying to make, which is that writing, in my life, has such early roots that I don’t remember learning to do it.

Similarly, I don’t really remember learning to read. I can’t recall a time when I couldn’t. As an only child, I often found books to be my best company, and from the time I could read by myself, I read everything I could get my hands on. Books, to me, were windows into worlds I would never see. Worlds their authors saw and wanted to share. Some of my favorites were Carolyn Hayward’s “Little Eddie” series and all the Beverly Cleary books in the third grade; Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret along with all the Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry books in the fourth, which was also when I scandalized the PTA by doing a book report for school on Arthur Hailey’s Airport; and Sid Fleishmann’s, Joan Aiken’s, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books in the fifth.

And the more I read, the more I wanted to write. Not just physical writing–printing or cursive–but writing as the transmission of ideas and the creation of worlds.

It was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Harrow, who got me started. Her specialty, fortuitously, was creative writing, and every Friday, she would post a full-page photo from Life Magazine on the board, folding it over to hide a crucial detail, and have us write a story that would complete the picture. In another exercise, she once provided a long list of items and asked us to pick three of them and write a story about how we would survive on a desert island with just those items. I recall one that I picked was a hubcap, which I proposed to use as a plate.

I may not remember much of anything else from fifth grade (so I’m probably not smarter than a fifth grader), but I do remember the writing assignments.

Mrs. Harrow liked my stories a lot, but found them frustrating because they rarely had endings. I had such trouble with endings in those days that she called my mom in for a conference to discuss it, thinking there must be some deep-seated psychological reason for it. I don’t remember if there was, or what solution they came up with, but my first complete story—a ten-page mystery-suspense short titled “The Intruder”— was the product of it. It was the first story I’d ever finished. Mrs. Harrow was quite pleased with it, and so was I. Being a pack rat, I probably still have it here somewhere, still buckled into its navy blue folder.

I still have trouble with endings—and sometimes beginnings and middles as well—but if I’m patient and keep my mind open, the ideas come.

Where do they come from? Where does writing come from? As I write the words on the page right now, what intellectual or imaginative force is at work to create a sentence, to transmit an idea?

I don’t know. It must be magic.

Pot Luck: Time Warp

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“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”
Dr. Seuss

My son was lamenting to me on the phone this morning about how quickly the time is going by as he watches his son grow.

“It’s going by too fast,” he said.

I laughed.  BAD Mommy!  But seriously, his kid is four months old.

“He was just three months old,” my son said.  “Just a couple of weeks ago.  And now he’s already over four months.  I don’t know where the month went.”

I forbore to point out how I feel, with my son himself now being over thirty and all.  Where did it go?

And honestly, I didn’t laugh because it was funny.  I didn’t laugh to be mean.  I laughed because my son’s remark means he now Gets It.

Life is short.  It goes by too fast.  And you never realize how fast it’s going by until well after  you hit all those milestones you held your breath waiting for, the ones you thought would never get here.

Ten:  Two numbers!  I’m a big kid now!

Thirteen:  I’m a teenager!

Sixteen:  I can drive!

Eighteen:  I can vote!

Twenty-one:  I can drink!

Twenty-five:  Uh oh.

Thirty:  Oh crap.

And that’s about when you start assessing your life and thinking the fun is all over.

It’s not.  But it does start going by faster.

I was just a couple years past thirty myself when I started to really notice it.  I mentioned it to a friend—“Why is it that life seems to go by so much faster as you get older?”  And he gave me the first and only logical answer I’d ever received from anyone:  “Because the older you are, each year that goes by is a smaller and smaller percentage of your life.”

When you’re ten, a year is a tenth of your life.  When you’re thirty, it’s a thirtieth.  When you’re fifty, it’s a fiftieth.  A fiftieth is a whole lot smaller than a tenth.  The speed of time is exponential.

The milestones change.  Forty.  Fifty.  Sixty-five (retirement?  Can I afford it?  Ack!).  Eighty.  Ninety, if you’re really lucky.  And all through these years you’re asking, What have I accomplished?  Have I set out to do all I wanted to?  Seen what I wanted to see?  Been where I wanted to go?  Said what I wanted to say?

You start making Bucket Lists.

All the things you tell your kids as they’re growing up—all the things your own parents told you as you were growing up—are true.  Or anyway, all the things in the category I’m considering here are true.

Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up.  You’ll be an adult for a lot longer than you’ll be a kid, so enjoy being a kid while you can.

But kids don’t listen.  They don’t believe you.  They don’t have the tools.  And by the time they do, they’re wearing the shoes you were wearing when you told them that in the first place, and now they’re saying it to their own kids.

Life is short.

It goes by too fast.

But—and this is a big but—it’s not over ‘til it’s over.

And the thing is, we’re so busy telling kids to enjoy being kids while they can, that not enough of us spend enough time enjoying being adults—that is, just being alive.  “Life begins at forty,” they say—but really it begins every day, the moment you open your eyes in the morning.

Every minute we get is precious, and we need to not take them for granted.  Our time here is not guaranteed.  The older I get, the more aware I am of this fact.

I don’t have a bucket list (yet) but I am hyper-aware that every minute I spend playing Candy Crush or doing something else equally brainless is a minute I won’t get back.  I’d better really want to do whatever it is.

And there’s so much I want to do.

“Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.”
Hans Christian Andersen

WIP: Who’d a Thunk It?

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When my kids were small, we lived in a constant state of clutter. Most moms can probably understand this. Not pigsty clutter, just three-little-kids-and-not-enough-time clutter. I was a full-time student, and to be honest, raising three little boys really is like nailing Jello to a tree. But over time, I came up with a couple of fabulous fixes for the perpetual problem of trying to keep the house clean.

One of them was Job Jar. I confess, the idea wasn’t my own—I found it in my beloved Mother’s Almanac (by Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons, 1975), which was, and in my opinion continues to be, the most useful parenting book in the history of publishing, though it’s unfortunately now out of print. The concept is simple: On Saturday morning (or whenever you feel like it), you make a list of all the household chores that need to be done. Write each job on a separate little slip of paper, fold them up, and put them in a jar (or fishbowl, hat, cereal bowl, whatever’s handy). Starting with the youngest family member, have each participant choose one slip at a time until the bowl is empty. Nobody can open their slips until they’ve all been handed out. After the hilarity dies down (“OMG, Tyler’s gonna mop the floor? He’s THREE!”), each person does whatever jobs are on the slips s/he has chosen.

Oh yes, that’s for real. I will never forget the time Tyler got to mop the floor.

There was something about Job Jar that made my kids almost enjoy it. It made work into a game.

It also resulted in quality family time instead of trauma and threats, and it taught the kids to do all kinds of things, and it lessened my own burden. I saw no reason why boys shouldn’t know how to do laundry, dust, vacuum, mop, wash dishes, clean grout, wash windows, scour sinks. All of it.

Of course I had to accept that not all of the jobs would be done perfectly. Most of them weren’t done perfectly, in fact. Expectations of perfection went out the window. But the time Tyler got to mop the floor, though it wasn’t perfect, he was pleased with himself, and it got done again the following week.

And the house always wound up cleaner than it started.

You are wondering, no doubt, what all of this has to do with writing. This is WIP Day, after all.

Here it is: I’ve mentioned before that I have Real Issues with Butt-in-Chair Syndrome. My WIP is a composite novel, aka a short story cycle. It’s comprised of eighteen stories, each told from a different protagonist’s point of view. Several stories are finished (or as finished as they’re going to get until I have a complete first draft); a couple are complete but in need of major revisions; several are started but stuck; and a few aren’t even started, though I do know the plot basics.

When I sit down to write, however good my intentions might be, I often don’t know where to begin or which story to work on. I often go back to my default (research is my default—one can never know too much) while I wait for inspiration to strike.

Waiting for inspiration to strike is a profoundly unprofessional way to write, I’m told. But on Saturday it stuck in a very unexpected way.

I remembered Job Jar.

And I thought, Well, why not?

First, I made a list of the characters whose stories are stuck or aren’t written yet. (I didn’t include those that are in any way complete.) I wrote each name on a separate slip of paper and folded them up, and then, lacking a jar, I put them in a Tupperware container. Then I asked my husband to pick one, so I couldn’t cheat.

Of course he asked what I was doing.

I explained my plan to him: I would set a timer for ten minutes, and focusing on that character’s story, I would write until the timer went off. No prep, no planning, no research. Just writing. Ten minutes at a time. Butt In Chair.

I thought it sounded great. But he saw a snag.

“You’re not going to like the one I pick,” he said. “You’ll just put it back and tell me to pick a different one.”

I promised I wouldn’t.

So he reached in and pulled one out.

The one he picked was one of the “stuck” stories. And he was right—I was tempted to tell him to pick again. But I’d made a promise, so I sat down and opened the file on my laptop, read it through, and started fiddling.

And forgot all about the timer. It never even made it out of the kitchen.

Which is just as well, because far from spending only ten minutes on it, I wound up writing into the wee hours of that night. And it was writing I was happy with. By the time I went to bed, the story had taken a direction I hadn’t expected, and it now has a purpose beyond what I had originally planned for it.

It’s still not done, but it’s no longer stuck—I know where it’s going, even if I don’t know yet exactly where it will end up. And I can’t wait to get back to it.

So yeah, Job Jar. Who’d a thunk it?

What do you do when you’re suffering from Butt-in-Chair Syndrome? Any ideas to share?

Pot Luck: Oooooh. Ahhhhhh.

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When I was growing up, there was never, ever any question about what my mom and I would be doing on the Fourth of July.  Watching the fireworks together was a tradition, and it goes back as far as I can remember.  My mom loved fireworks more than almost anything else I can think of.  She would pack a picnic, our favorite picnic blanket, and a couple of folding chairs, and we’d go to Reseda Park, or sometimes Balboa Park, and stake out a spot from which to join the thousands of other revelers in uttering oohs and ahhs.

We did that every year, all through the 60’s and halfway through the 70’s, until I was fifteen or sixteen, at which point I decided, as teens do, that I was too busy socially, and too cool, to spend the 4th with my mom.  Interestingly enough, I have no recollection at all of what I did instead during those years.

Which makes it fairly easy to fast-forward though them.  Not even a fast-forward.  More like a warp.

But of the mid-80’s through the 90’s, my memories are clear.  Now a mom myself, I would pack up my three boys and head down to San Diego, where my mom now lived in a beautiful townhome.  The morning of the 4th would find the five of us parked in folding chairs on Mira Mesa Blvd to watch the Independence Day parade—small-town parading at its best, really, with homemade floats festooned with bunting and paper streamers, moms pushing strollers, middle-school marching bands, uniformed Cub Scouts on bicycles waving flags, and local fire and police vehicles with lights flashing and sirens blaring—and then we’d go back to Mom’s house to nap or swim.

And then, as evening approached, we’d head for the park to stake out a spot, loaded as in earlier years with folding chairs and our favorite picnic blanket, but now also armed with a portable barbecue, hot dogs and hamburgers, and s’mores fixings.  The boys would play Frisbee or baseball while Mom and I tended to the feast, and afterwards, we’d toast marshmallows until it got too dark to see.  And that that point, a reverent hush would fall over the whole park as everyone positioned themselves facing West for the best view of the pyrotechnics.

Oooooh.  Ahhhhhh.

Those were good years.

I moved to Wisconsin in 2000, and Mom followed in 2002.  The boys by then had reached that teenage stage I remember so well—too socially busy and too cool to spend the Fourth of July with Mom and Grandma.  But Mom and Grandma didn’t sit at home on the Fourth of July.  Oh no.

For the first couple of years after she moved here, I’d pick her up after dinner, drive through Culver’s to get a sundae, and unload our folding chairs in the Senior Center parking lot, which afforded a pretty good view of the fireworks over Carson Park.  But more and more people showed up there every year with larger and larger fireworks of their own, and when an errant bottle rocket zipped past right under our noses one year, we decided it was time to find a new spot.

In her 80’s now and not so mobile anymore, Mom and I developed a new tradition for the rest of the 2000’s: We’d still drive through Culver’s and get a sundae (she’d get a Turtle and I’d get a Caramel Cashew), but then instead of setting up folding chairs, I’d park in a spot with a good view of the fireworks and we’d just watch them from the car.

Our quest for the best viewing spot took us to a new parking place each year, but to be honest, none of those spots was ever quite what we’d been hoping for.  Throughout the year, as I drove through town, I’d say to myself—“Hmm, this looks like a good spot for the fireworks.”  And come the next July, we’d check that one out.

I don’t think my mom ever knew how much these evenings meant to me.

My mom passed away in 2010, the day after Christmas.  We had discussed potential resting places beforehand, but hadn’t settled on anything before she became too ill to care.

It was up to me.

I chose a spot at Lakeview Cemetery, across Half Moon Lake from Carson Park, which is the home base of the City of Eau Claire’s annual fireworks display.  I explained my purpose to the cemetery manager, and the two of us walked all over the cemetery in search of a spot with the very best view.

We found a great spot.

So now there’s a new twist on the old tradition.  My eldest son lives in California now, but my two younger boys, now beyond the “too cool” stage, will sit with me tonight at my mom’s grave as the fireworks rise above the trees and explode over the lake in glittering showers.

It’s a fabulous view.  The best.

Oooooh.  Ahhhhhh.

I will never stop watching fireworks with my mom.

Pot Luck: Do it now. Whatever it is.

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I grew up on barbecue. Nothing fancy, mind you. Our first barbecue—the first one I knew personally—was a bucket-style cast iron hibachi. Here it is:

12th bday bbq 1970

That was my twelfth birthday party with my three best friends, Mickey, Diane, and Emily. In case you don’t recognize me, I’m the one hamming it up for the camera.

But the important thing in this picture is the hibachi. That’s what I learned to barbecue on. No bells, no whistles, just you and the coals, and a need to time them just right.

As an adult, I moved up a bit in the barbecue world and got a pretty red Meco that stood me in good stead for several years.

Since virtually every photo I’ve taken since 1989 is in one of several large boxes in my office (see Confessions of a Pack Rat), here’s a generic picture of a Meco like the one we had.

Oh, how we loved that Meco. It was there that I really learned the ins and outs of barbecue, from burgers and hot dogs to kabobs and chicken satay to our fabulous marinated tri-tip. By the time we moved to Wisconsin, we’d gotten into the habit of barbecuing several times a week, year-round.

You can’t do that in Wisconsin, by the way. In these parts, you get to barbecue from May to October if you’re lucky, and more likely only in June, July, and August.

And when I moved to Wisconsin in 2000, I left my barbecue behind. Not because I didn’t want to barbecue anymore, but because it just wasn’t practical to move the dirty old thing, much as I loved it. I told myself I could just get a shiny new one for forty-some bucks after we got to Wisconsin.

But when we got to Wisconsin, I couldn’t find one. It was September, and barbecue season was over. The idea of a barbecue season hadn’t occurred to me, but in any event I had to wait until summer rolled around again. And when it did, I couldn’t find a Meco anywhere. There were imitators, of course, but all of the other charcoal grills I found seemed either too flimsy or too fancy.

The fad in Wisconsin at this time was gas. Gas, with every imaginable bell and whistle.

I didn’t want a gas unit. It just wouldn’t be the same. The key in all of my barbecue history is charcoal. Ah, the smell of a fire just getting underway— To me, that is the smell of summer. (That and Sea & Ski, which they don’t make anymore.) And the taste of food cooked over a just-right bed of glowing charcoal simply can’t be compared.

But my well-meaning husband (then boyfriend) talked me into it. It’s cleaner, he argued. You won’t need to worry about disposing of the ashes. You don’t have to wait for the coals to be ready, and you don’t have to worry about leaving it unattended—you just shut off the gas when you’re done.  Plenty of good arguments in favor of gas grilling.

I had misgivings, but I went out and got the best dang gas barbecue I could find. Well, OK, the best I was willing to pay for. It was a Char-Broil with a side burner, which was very de rigueur back then, you know.

But I hated it.

HATED it.

It felt like cheating. I was always afraid I would leave (or had left) the gas on, it didn’t smell right, and worst of all, there was no ritual. Finally, no matter what I did, the food tasted all wrong.

Tom said I’d get used to it—I just had to use it more often, he said, and I’d learn to love it.

But I didn’t. Didn’t use it much, and hated it every time I did use it. Every time I was in a box store, I’d look longingly at the charcoal grills. But we’d spent enough on this one to have trouble justifying the purchase of another grill of any kind. It still worked fine after twelve years.

Yes, I said twelve years. But then everything changed. And the reason was seemingly minor: In 2012, my youngest son requested carne asada for his birthday dinner.

After twelve years, I’d gotten to the point where I barbecued only two or three times a year, and I didn’t enjoy it. All the fun and skill had gone out of it.

But I never refuse a birthday dinner request, and I decided I simply was NOT going to make carne asada on the gas grill. So I got out the flimsy little tabletop charcoal unit we kept in the RV and put it together.

Here’s his birthday dinner cooking:

carne asada cooking 5-16-12

And oh, the joy, the rapture I got from every single step! Stacking the coals just so, squirting just the right amount of fluid on them, starting them in six different spots, the satisfaction of watching the flames flare and then die down as the coals began to ash over.

(This is the point where inexperienced barbecuers so often think the fire has gone out, and they pour more lighter fluid over the coals and re-light them. It hasn’t gone out. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do.)

And oh, the smell, the wonderful smoky smell of that little barbecue—the smell of summer!

As I cooked that carne asada, I realized that I had wasted twelve years, that twelve summers had passed without the wonderful, incomparable, fabulous odor of charcoal burning. The finished product was just what it should have been–tender, tasty, cooked to perfection–and properly smoky.

I did use the gas grill a couple of times after that, but meanwhile I spent the whole of last summer also researching charcoal grills and keeping my eye on the box-store sales. I eventually found the grill I wanted (still no Mecos in these parts, but something I think will be even better), but by the time I found what I wanted, nobody had any of them.

But this weekend I found one. It’s a Char-Broiler 2929, and it was very reasonably priced, much cheaper in fact than the gas grill I bought twelve years ago. Tom put it together yesterday. Here it is, ready for its maiden voyage:

IMG_1692

I seasoned it yesterday afternoon and fired it up for the first time last night.  Stacked the coals, lit them, and went in the house to get the burgers.

When I came back outside, my very first breath told me I’d done the right thing, and had waited much too long to do it.   The whole world smelled like summer, the way summer is supposed to smell.

My middle son has gleefully taken possession of the gas grill, which still works just fine. But as for me, I’m sticking with charcoal from here on out. There’s just nothing else like it.

If there’s something you used to enjoy, that you think you’ll never do again, let me assure you, it’s not too late. Do it now.

Whatever it is.

Don’t let another day, week, or month go by. Do it now.

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