Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wish I Were A Writer Like...

I love reading books about writers.

Clarification: I love reading novels about writers. I admit it...I live vicariously through them, imagining that I too can have the fabulous house and exciting life...all on a freelance writer's salary naturally.

Case in point: Rona Parish, the heroine of a series of books by mystery writer Anthea Fraser. Fraser reminds me of a combination of Rosamunde Pilcher and Agatha Christie, with much of the book focusing on Rona's life and family, and the whodunit all wrapped up in just the last few chapters--if not pages.

Rona has an amazing life. She lives in a great house in Marlsborough, England, and has a dog, Gus, whom she takes around everywhere with her. (The number of restaurants in England that allow dogs must be enormous.) She's married to an artist...who lives in his own cottage just down the road three nights a week since he teaches night classes...so really, she has the best of both worlds. She's a twin, has a loving father and slightly kooky mother, plus great step-parents. Best of all, she and Max have an amazing life of going out to dinners and parties and three-week trips to Greece, all funded by Max selling the occasional painting and by Rona writing one--ONE!--article every few months for Chiltern Life--a local (not even a national) magazine.

In the meantime, of course, Rona stumbles across a murder and often has to fight for her life, but still.

I had a marathon Anthea Fraser reading session last weekend, and at the end of it, told my husband: "You know, Rona has been involved in five murders in the course of a single year!"

Now that I think about it, maybe that isn't such a great trade-off.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

First Day

I've always wondered what it would be like to live the life of a freelance writer. Now that I've taken the leap, put in my notice and started walking the five steps every morning to my new home office, I've found out.

I wrote the following a few days into my new life as a freelancer...now that I'm three months in, the rollercoaster of emotions is still about the same, but I'm still enjoying the ride:).

Day 1, 8:30 a.m.: Listen to my husband putter about getting ready for work while enjoying the feeling of the smooth sheets and our snuggly down comforter.

8:32 a.m.: Realize I don't really have to get up at all if I don't want to! Sweet!

8:40 a.m.: "Bye, baby," my husband whispers as he heads out the door. A moment of guilt, then determination, then out of the bed I jump.

9:15 a.m.: Ready and dressed in jeans, brown boots and cream sweater, topped by my camel princess cut coat. I feel particularly well heeled and imagine myself as a stay at home wife (which, in a way, I am!).

9:30 a.m.: Oil change! and time for me to sit in the lounge to make calls and write notes in my pretty new turquoise day planner. That takes about 15 minutes as no one picks up and I leave messages. Stare at the other customers for a while, who are either blankly staring at magazines or books or texting. Wonder if they're unemployed, like me. Feel depressed, which is not helped by the fact that the TV is blaring the People's Court. Is this what my life is going to be like from now on? I can't even get through to get clients and will sit at home all day watching bad court TV???

10:30 a.m.: Still waiting for my car. Read magazines to get inspired and psyched up about magazine writing. Feel a little better.

11 a.m.: Finally finished! And they washed and vacuumed! What a nice surprise! Off to Radioshack to get new phone batteries so I can successfully complete phone interviews.

11:15 a.m.: Twitch in line as the cashier takes minutes to read her customer's receipt, look over the merchandise she's returning, show her another option, chit chat with her and the other customers in line ahead of me. Hurry up!!

11:17 a.m.: Take a deep breath and realize I don't really have to hurry up, do I? I can just relax and enjoy. I begin to smile at small children and listen to the cashier. Wow, she really is offering great customer service. Think about a story idea about small businesses and customer service.

11:30 a.m. The cashier takes her time with me as well and as the customer, I appreciate it. And tell her so. Smiles all around.

Noon: Make my lunch with a friend. She pays. I'm poor now after all.

1:30 p.m.: Meet another friend who will help me with my website. I love having talented friends!

2:30 p.m. and on: Make more pitch calls, then obsess over my website and business cards during and after dinner. Bedtime!

Day Two:
9 a.m.: Late start today...feel a little worthless. But decide to work out to get a jump start to my day!

10:30 a.m.: It's 10:30 and I'm just now getting to work! The exercise high is wearing off and I'm feeling worthless again, but start to work through my to do list. Emails to possible clients coming up.

Noon: I've sent out several emails with my resume and clips. My husband comes home and starts making lunch. Feel guilty...isn't that what I should be doing since I'm home now? We decide to work together on lunch.

2 p.m.: Meet with a potential client on a large, potentially months-long project. Excited but cautious. This one-time project could eat up a lot of time and could I keep building my client base and working on other projects too?

3 p.m.: Start networking to determine pricing for this project. Awed at how nice and supportive all my friends and acquaintances are. Everyone wants to help!

5 p.m.: Ordered my business cards and started work on the site map for my website. I'm determined to walk away from my computer at 5 p.m. and am successful for a while, but after dinner, I'm back. My husband says it's because I'm loving what I'm doing. I think he's right.

Day Three:
7:40 a.m.: I'm up and brushing my teeth!

8 a.m.: I've decided this will be a robe day. I turn on the computer to find that my first story has been accepted and payment is on is way! Whoo hoo!!

8:30 a.m. and on: In delirious happiness the entire day. So excited and love this job!!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sometimes Scary Moves Pay Off

This year, I did the thing I was most afraid of....I (wait for it) quit my full-time, fully salaried job (with my own office, own bathroom...and did I mention the salary?) to move into freelance writing full time.

It has truly been the scariest thing I've ever done..scarier than jumping out of a plane (at least if that ended badly, it would be quick), scarier than my first kiss, scarier, even than the time the giant roach divebombed my face as I cowered, naked and wet from the shower, in the corner of the bathroom.

So far...and I say this with plenty of knocks on wood and handfuls of salt thrown over the shoulder, it's been good. Honestly, I absolutely love it. I find that I don't mind working til all hours or waking up exhausted. Because I really do love the fact that I get to write all day--and most of the time, get paid for it! It's a huge, huge thrill.

The gig that I love the most is that I was just named the restaurant reviewer for our local paper, the Augusta  Chronicle. My column is called Dine & Dish (a name I came up with all on my own!).

I promised myself that I would treat myself to a day at the salon with my first paycheck; while I was there, I chatted with my hairdresser, who competes on a dirt bike in his spare time. His whole face just was alive as he talked about taking the hills and turns at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. You could just tell that he absolutely loved it.

I think I know the feeling.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Cookies are Crumbling (But That Doesn't Stop Us From Eating Them)

My love of baking comes from my Aunt Dot. She owned one of those 1950s era Betty Crocker cookbooks bound in a three-ring binder with full color spreads of the most beautiful food I have ever seen.

Otherworldly, fanciful delicacies that I as the daughter of Chinese parents never saw. I was far more used to rice and duck and soy sauce chicken and bitter melon soup. Not rows upon rows of iced cookies shaped like snowmen and bells and rocking horses; or three-layer yellow cakes iced in white with flaming peaches on top; or brunches with fat doughnuts, sugar and nut crusted coffee cakes and pancake stacks heavy with syrup and butter.

My mom, being from Hong Kong, cooked mostly traditional Chinese meals; my Aunt Dot did too, but Aunt Dot had a strong streak of Southern in her. Aunt Dot wore printed shirtdresses, sounded like a Southern farmwife (she called scuppernongs scuffledimes) and introduced me to fried chicken dredged in a batter of flour and water then fried in an inch of oil. I loved her very much.

She was also the one who introduced me to the sweets I salivated over in her Betty Crocker cookbook. Having a sweet tooth herself, Aunt Dot's favorite Saturday afternoon pasttime was making cookies and I was always her willing assistant.

One of her best cookies was actually a recipe that didn't come from Betty Crocker. I'm not sure where it came from, but we still have the original, written in a flowing cursive with a slightly shaky hand. I love how she instructs us to bake the cookies at 350 or 375 degrees. These were the cookies she made for each of us during holidays or as college care packages.

I made them recently again for the first time in years. Pulling the sheets out of the oven with their familiar brown sugar, nutty smell brought back memories of Aunt Dot, all buttoned up in her red and blue kitchen smock, with a spatula in hand and a big smile on her face.

Cornflake Cookies

1 cup of unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 cup of white sugar
1/2 cup of brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp of vanilla
1 1/2 cups of flour
3 tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp of salt
1/2 box of cornflakes
1/2 cup of nuts

Preheat oven to 350 or 375 degrees (or compromise like me to 360 degrees).

Cream softened butter with both sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. Add flour, baking powder and salt and mix. Add cornflakes and nuts and mix one more time. It will seem like there are way too many cornflakes for the batter, but don't worry! It will mix in.

Using a large tablespoon, drop half spoonfuls of cookie dough on baking sheets. I usually fit 12 to a sheet. Bake for 15 minutes; cookies should have flattened and be lacy and golden brown.

Cool for a moment then remove from baking sheets. Yields about 4 dozen crisp, crumbly and delicious cookies.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Writing Envy

I wish I had written this:
"But my husband has seen me at my worst, at my most vile. And he has seen me at my best. He knows the things I don’t tell anyone, and the lies that I tell everyone but him. I have made sacrifices for him and been angry about it. Sometimes his flaws are so egregious, so blatant, they are all I see. And sometimes his kindness is so stunning that I am humbled."--Sarah Healy, "When the Words Don't Fit," New York Times

And this:
"I must learn to love the fool in me--the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my fool." -- Theodore I. Rubin, MD

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chasing Chitlins: A Thanksgiving Folk Tale

A couple years ago, I worked on a travel story for a local magazine. I had always wanted to attend the annual Chitlin Strut in Salley, SC, and this offered the perfect opportunity.

The chitlin, for the uninitiated, is the intestine of a pig. Rinsed, scrubbed, this white rubbery organ (I hesitate to call it meat) still is never quite released from the pungent odor that you might imagine it would hold after being intimately associated with, let's face it, pig poop. Yet, roughly 25,0000 people descend on Salley (pop. 398) every year at Thanksgiving time to ride carnival rides, shop for arts and crafts, and eat literally miles of the stuff.

As Asians, you can imagine we've dined on our share of innards. My aunt and mom have served us pig stomach (tripe), chicken feet (with the fingernails still on!), deeply burnished ducks that stared back out of one glaze-covered eye. My mom once gave my husband, who is not Asian, a pig tail in soup, and like a trooper, he ate it.

So the whole family caravaned to Salley to try our luck at chitlins. As we crept along downtown Salley's narrow streets, narrowly missing striking pedestrians, my husband rolled down his window and shouted out to the crowds filing past, "Where are the chitlins?" And they shouted back, "This way." "No, over there." "Try that church over there, they're the best!" We were surrounded by hordes of helpful tourists who seemed to know what they liked and were eager to initiate us.

We soon found ourselves standing on a crowded lawn ringed by food vendors of all description, but classified in that category known as fair food. Where were the chitlins? While my husband and brothers went to investigate, the rest of us scoped out and staked our claim on a patch of green grass.

Success! in a rectangular styrofoam box! And terror! as my sister exclaimed, "Oh my gosh, I thought that smell was the port-o-potties, but it's the chitlins!" Yes, the rank smell that we had caught a whiff of every now and then was eminating from the innocent and attractive box of deep fried nuggets (with a side of hot sauce).

My sister, my brother and my husband all made it through one bite and one hard swallow. I spat out my mouthful after two chews. My second brother on the other hand, snacked his way through an entire chitlin nugget and even went after more. My sister, looking at the photos later, said, "He smiles his biggest smile ever...while he's eating a chitlin?"

Yes, the fair food was there to wash down the taste once you tried the chitlins. Yet we couldn't tear our eyes away during the first annual Chitlin Eating contest, where contestants were given small buckets of boiled (yes, not even given the helpful flavor and crunch of breading), bare, hideously white chitlin tubes, that they shoved down in massive quantities.

The Salley Chitlin Strut is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--not to be missed, for the bragging rights alone. But the takeaway? Know your limits, always carry hot sauce, and when in doubt, don't stand downwind.

The 46th Annual Chitlin Strut takes place in Salley, SC, on Saturday, November 26. The event features a parade, bands, carnival rides, tractor show, chitlin eating contest, hog calling contest and strut contest. For more information, visit their website at www.chitlinstrut.com.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Even though it's still pushing 90 degrees here in Augusta, I'm unabashedly embracing fall, pulling out my sweaters, thinking about soups to cook (already made my first bouillabaise!), and looking forward to the holidays.

Two of my favorites--which you won't see on any calendar--are "Leaf Day" and "Bird Day." I was so thrilled when I found out my husband had already found out about these holidays. There's always one day every fall when suddenly the air is full of falling leaves. I've been lucky enough to be outside for this day only a few times in my life...at the house where I grew up, at recess at school, even at college. But it's been years since I've caught that day.

The second is the day when birds flying south for the winter decide to make their pit stop in Augusta, and suddenly our yard, our neighbors' yards, and the grassy median in our section of Olde Town is full of roosting, calling black birds.

I'm full of anticipation--maybe this year will be the year that I'll get to enjoy both! Do you have any special traditions or "holidays" you celebrate this fall season?