Nope, I did not make this. But isn't it pretty? Makes me happy just looking at it--and writing about it.

Just a quick note to say hello because you all know I’m on a deadline for the additional chapters for Cherries in Winter: The Paperback. (Don’t worry, that is so not the book’s new official title.) Here’s the latest:

* I’m writing about cake, one of my favorite subjects (see above).

* My Jamie Oliver obsession is reaching new heights. Last night I made his chicken stroganoff recipe from Jamie’s Food Revolution, and I can’t wait to watch the TV show of the same name. Because I was a good girl and got an entire chapter finished this morning, I treated myself to watching the sneak preview here. I was surprised at how hard this show is to watch; people’s strong desire to eat unhealthy food makes me sad.

* My half-marathon training has fallen off the rails, but at least it’s not because I’m being lazy–just trying to meet the aforementioned deadline. I may have to walk the race, but I’ll be in it.

Okay, back to work! But first, some chicken strogie leftovers for lunch…

No more baking this week! I have to write!

Sorry no post yesterday, and it wasn’t just because I was overcome with advance excitement about Jamie Oliver’s new Food Revolution miniseries. Although certainly I could pull a near faint over this. I heart Jamie, I heart his Food Revolution cookbook major (the salmon stir-fry last night: to die for), I heart that he’s trying to save America’s unhealthiest not by making them diet but by asking (politely, because he’s British, after all) to eat real food. This six-episode series will definitely be more popular in this non-Nielsen-rated household than The Biggest Loser fer sher.

But no, that’s not why I’ve been slow to post, and will be for the next few days. As I mentioned, I’m trying to write additional chapters (with recipes containing real food that Jamie Oliver would probably approve of) for the paperback version of Cherries in Winter. What was the key word in that last overlong sentence? “Trying.” As your mother may have told you once or twice, “trying” and “doing” are “two” different things. Perhaps she didn’t put the air quotes around “two,” but I think you get the point of my message.

So, beloved visitors–and I do heart each and every one of all ten of you–I’m going to be a little quiet for the next few days as I try to go from “trying” to actually “doing” or, just for a change, “writing.” I will check in so you know I’m alive, but please lower your expectations for a new essay or banana bread recipe. To tide you over, look up the previous banana bread recipe and add two heaping tablespoons of unsweetened baking cocoa to it for a mocha-cocoa-loco banana bread.

Okay, back to work for me! After all, I’m trying…

I know–“I Heart” week was a while ago. But it helps to indulge in little things I love on days when I’m feeling very much like Bette Davis’s character in Now Voyager (if this reference is unfamiliar, please Netflix this classic, stat).

This was, for those who are still carefully scratching their bouffants about the meaning behind the title of my book, is why Nana bought those cherries in the wintertime. They were a little pricey–fruit out of season in the late 1950s/early ’60s must have been–but it was worth it to spend the money on a small, affordable indulgence. Was this not the entire pre-Recession raison d’etre for Starbucks’ existence–affordable luxuries? Before they started selling cheapo coffee in order to survive, I mean.

You’ll notice I flung about a French phrase, because I’m about to segue into my version of cherries in winter. Sometimes it’s the French raisins from Fairway, but last night it was a lemon tart. I was walking by a small patisserie that had in its window beautiful pastel-colored macarons (as well as coconut macaroons), cookies carefully polka-dotted with chocolate chips, and this lemon tart. This was an extraordinary-looking tart, too–a small pastry of the same sunny, deep yellow as a classic smiley face, which made me happier just by looking at it. It glowed, I tell you, and it was topped by two tiny, artfully arranged chocolate batons. The care that went into making this delicate little thing was evident not only by how beautiful it was, but also by its cost–five dollars and fifty cents. (If that doesn’t sound like much, you must still have a job. Congratulations!) Sensing that the tart would be worth every penny, I gladly handed over the money and thought about Nana enjoying her cherries.

BTdubya, the pastry was sheer perfection. Not too sweet, not too tart–just the way you want life to be. The Hubbins said he had too much fatness from dinner to eat it, but one look at this special thing and he changed his mind. There weren’t but six perfect bites to it anyway.

Usually, a sugary indulgence triggers some caloric guilt in me. But recently, I read a great passage about this in Confections of a (Closet) Master Baker by Gesine Bullock-Prado. She writes about the joy of quality over quantity: “One of our regulars, Claude, gets a scone every day. He’s lost over fifty pounds since we opened [her fabulous bakery]. I’ve noticed the same kind of conscious consumption at the dwindling small pastry shops around the States. When kids have the experience of choosing something from a pastry case and knowing that the little tart they’re going to take home was baked today, just a few steps from where they’re standing, they’ll savor that small treat, instead of thoughtlessly devouring the entire contents of an economy-sized Acme brand bag of cookies.” Amen, Gesine, because yesterday I was that kid.

(Full disclosure: Gesine and I are represented by the same literary agency, and in fact, I’d recently asked–okay, begged–her to write the foreword for the paperback version of Cherries in Winter. She had to turn me down because she’s working on her next book, so this was not me trying to win her over. I just like the way she thinks.)

What stops you from starring in your own version of Now Voyager?

I’m supposed to be writing additional chapters for the paperback version of Cherries in Winter, which will be out in mid-October. However, I’ve been doing everything but that, and I can’t even blame it on procrastination, the only sport at which writers excel.

No, this is plain old garden variety interruption. During the Nor’easter, we mopped our leaky living room constantly. Post-storm, the flooded basement had to be cleaned out, which required several visits from the man with the water extractor. And each time, guess who had to let him in? Me, otherwise known as Ethel Mertz.

Then there’s a dog to be walked, mud from the dog walk to be cleaned up, laundry to be done, a Hubbins to be fed (thank you again, Jamie Oliver, for the kedgeree recipe). All this with an hour gone thanks to daylight savings time, the point of which is lost on me and the entire state of Arizona, which refuses to recognize it. I got so miffed and frustrated I almost went right back into my “feh” state, despite the sun shining for the first time since our four days of nearly Biblical rains.

I was driven to pick up my copy of The Merry Recluse, a compilation of essays by Caroline Knapp. She was one of my favorite writers–she was witty while being very truthful, and she had a profound impact on my desire to write memoir and non-fiction essays. (That, and the fact that burnt toast writes fiction better than I do. You’ll see when I post my unpublished novel, one page at a time, this summer.)

I randomly opened The Merry Recluse to a list of things Caroline hated. One of them was errands: “Don’t you feel sometimes as though life is simply the stuff that happens during the few small spaces when you’re not doing errands?” she wrote. Another was returning stuff you get from catalogues–which begat another errand. “It is disappointing enough to order something from a catalogue and have it fail on you (wrong size, wrong color, bad fabric), but then you have to repackage the whole thing, schlep it to the post office, and pay to have it shipped back, which not only adds insult to injury but also involves an errand.” And then Caroline hit the nail on the head with my favorite F-word: “Feh.” No wonder the woman is one of my literary heroes.

I’ll admit that this is the first time I’ve opened The Merry Recluse in the several years I’ve had it, even though Caroline is one of my favorite writers and inspirations. She died in May of 2002 of cancer, and, knowing that not much more of her work would be forthcoming, I’ve been hoarding this collection of her essays.

Until now, that is, when I’m being driven mad by errands, when all I want to do is utter “Feh” with the same gusto as Caroline Knapp did in her heyday. If I can’t write because of all the stuff that’s going on around me, I can read what she wrote in between the errands.

Three weeks ago, The Hubbins and I adopted a Bella, a beagle who’d been abandoned in Tennessee. Around that time, I was hell-bent on adopting a dog, and our experience with our neighbors’ beagle, the petite and charming Isabel, prompted me to find a pup of almost the same size, temperament, and even name. Holy doppelganger, Batman.

I can’t even remember why I needed to get a dog so badly, especially now, when actually having one has almost driven me crazy. Not that Bella makes me insane; she’s a very well-behaved dog. But I’m used to having cats, among the lowest-maintenance creatures on the planet. You open the can, they eat, and then they sleep for the rest of the day–until the other can is opened. Then they rub up against you, purr, and go back to sleep.

The dog, though, required almost constant maintenance at first. Where was she? What was she chewing/eating/destroying? Did she know that we were going outside for a reason other than stretching her beagle bones and taking in the air? Did she understand my point about rugs being decorative and not functional (ie, a rather large beige toilet)? Did she realize that I was begrudging her chicken bones because they might cause her serious internal damage, and not because I was just being a puppy party pooper? She most definitely not get the fact that whatever she found on the street was edible. She looked very confused when I repeatedly pulled whatever thing–sometimes identifiable as food, sometimes completely unidentifiable–out of her mouth.

And yet, three weeks and many walks later, I’m slowly learning that Bella is a teacher. While I’m busy rehashing the past, chewing it the way Bella attacks her Nylabone, and forecasting the future with nearly zero accuracy, Bella is very much in the moment. She brings me back to the present, this little flappy-eared Eckhart Tolle, by snacking on street yucks; either I pay attention, or I pay for a trip to the vet for emergency chicken bone extraction.

Unlike me, Bella does not spend her days fretting. Witness a week in the life of a beagle:

Striking a glam pose.

Monday.

"I refuse to give up all worldly possessions. I am a beagle, not a monk."

Tuesday.


"'Cat' bed, you say? Not when there's a dog in it. Then it's a 'dog' bed. Specifically, my bed."

Wednesday.

You get the picture(s). It looks like this for a few hours a day in between walks every day.

I’m trying to take a cue from this Zen master, who seems to have only a few desires in life–kibble, toys, a couch, and to walk without me pulling on her and constantly saying, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” Go where? That’s what I realized this morning: If I’m walking Bella (or, to be more accurate, she’s walking me), is that not her walk, her time, on her terms? Where is it that I need to go? If she wants to stop and sniff the pee on the roses, shouldn’t I let her?

So, I’m learning from my little tri-color teacher. Zen master or not, though, I’m drawing the line at those chicken bones.

Maybe it was the seven or so Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies I ate last night. Maybe it was listening to Black Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling” five times in a row (and knowing it’s okay to go for six). Maybe it’s because I did yoga every day this week (not going to yoga in a studio; just doing it myself, on my living room floor–nothing fancy).

Whatever it is, I feel the polar opposite of “feh” today. I was totally “feh” last week, and I went through a few days of “blah,” but now, for whatever reason–different day? The hormone goddesses are with me?–I feel a combination of great, energized, happy for no reason, and relieved.

Ahhhhh. That’s how I feel. That’s the opposite of “feh.”

I love this feeling because it’s not contingent on anything in particular. Nobody promised me a rose garden, a new car, an easy time of it, or anything other than a very rainy day. But after a nice cup of tea, Bella and I went out for walkies (her word, not mine) and I didn’t kvetch about the wetness or the mud in our fetid neighborhood dog park. Instead, I thought, Well, I’m lucky that Bella and I are out before the downpour starts. After the dog park, we went for a little jog; that felt totally great. I didn’t mind the chilly mist–in fact, I thought it was probably good for my skin. At that point, I knew something was up, because I usually hate being cold and wet.

Aside from external influences that are either positive or negative, I’ll never know what makes me think that one day is “good” and another one is “bad.” I’ll paraphrase my friend Amanda, who used to say, “Who died and made you the arbiter of what’s good?” (Jeez, she’s blunt.) I only know that on “bad” days, I can re-start my day as many times as I want. I had to re-start Wednesday at least three times, and I had a new breakfast every time I did it. Eventually, things got better.

So, last week: Feh. Mid-week: Blah. Today: Ahhhhhh. Tomorrow: Not going there. I’m sticking with Ahhhhh for at least the rest of the day.

Last night, I joined my first Cherries in Winter book group discussion with The Beach Babes of Akron, Ohio (not Baltimore, as previously reported–my bad). Due to the high cost of travel and my low level of glamor, I wasn’t able to be there in person, so the Babes and I did the next best thing: We video-called each other on Skype.

I know, I’m having my own little Oprah moment similar to when she did a whole show on that crazy, newfangled Twitter thing. I’m a little behind with Skype, as was evidenced by the hour or so it took me to figure out how to do it. Even my Dad was like, “You don’t have Skype yet? I’ve been Skype-ing with your brother for months now!” I know I need to do some major catching up when my father is more geek-savvy than I am. Then again, Dad’s no dope, and I’m so tech-know anemic I could be Amish. I think I’d look great in one of those bonnets.

This could be me! Then I'd work in Reading Terminal Market and eat apple dumplings for lunch every day.

The point is that I had a great time with the Beach Babes, and not just because they were talking about my book. It was so cool to “be” there with them as they described the dinner they’d had, a chicken meatloaf adapted from Mom’s Meatloaf recipe in the book. We talked about where we lived, the idea of instilling financial responsibility in kids from an early age, the difference between thinking one deserves something and the good feeling of earning it… You know, life.

So, thanks to a slightly vexing but ultimately cool online video calling site, I got to spend an hour with a group of awesome women in another part of the country. Many thanks to Lory and the rest of the Beach Babes for asking me to join in their discussion of Cherries in Winter and for reading it in the first place, and to Skype for making it possible. (That’s just props, not a plug.)

If you have a book group that’s reading Cherries in Winter, I’d be happy to Skype my way in to your discussion. But only if you want me to.