Mid April

So far April has been cold and snowy.

But Mr. Goldfinch’s drab gray feathers continue to give way to his yellow courting plumage.

This afternoon it’s 31 degrees with 17 mph winds, and, yes, there’s a windchill.

But Mr. Goldfinch believes summer is coming–his feathers are more yellow today than yesterday.

Two to four inches of snow are predicted for Sunday night.

With her back to Mr. Goldfinch, Mrs. Goldfinch is waiting until he has all his yellow feathers.

Perhaps she’s not sure about summer’s arrival.

Tree Guy’s Nose Is Safe

The rescued schnoz, slightly damaged at the top

On March 29, I dug Three Guy’s nose out of the icy snow. It took me awhile because I worked like an archaeologist on a dinosaur dig, gently, slowly, never getting too close to the nose with my excavating tool. I’ve never wanted to be an archaeologist because it’s hot, dusty work, at least according to all the pictures and documentaries I’ve seen that depict archaeologists laboring in the field. I don’t even want to take a vacation and sit on a beach, in the sun, in the heat.

In high school, I read a book on zodiac signs. After reading that a Pisces was more likely to be found perusing a book on a park bench rather than at the beach tanning in the sun–which totally described me–I embraced astrology as science and read my horoscope daily.

Next, I read about Cancer, the sign of the boy I’d fell in love with when I was twelve. In high school I wrote his name, surrounded with hearts, all over the inside of my folders. We were supposed to be highly compatible water signs, but our upbringings gave us different views of the world, and neither of us budged. After high school I fell in love with a Scorpion, also a highly compatible match for a Pisces, but that romance failed because he fell in love with every pretty girl he saw. I kicked astrology to the curb.

Scraping ice pellets, layer by layer, away from Tree Guy’s nose, gave me time to think about random stuff, free-floating thoughts cobbled together by tenuous threads. I stopped periodically to check if I could lift the nose from its icy clutch. Nope, nope, nope. I kept scraping because a storm was coming and because small bits from the top of Tree Guy’s nose had already crumbled into the snow.

The day after the nose’s rescue

After I freed the nose, I placed it on my husband’s workbench, so it could dry out. It would need the coat of paint he’d suggested. Later that night the winds carried in rain, which morphed into ice, then converted to snow, enough for some area schools to cancel classes on Wednesday. After work my husband asked if I’d picked up the nose before the storm came. I gave him the update.

I don’t need to check for Tree Guy’s nose anymore—it’s safe. But every night before I go to bed and every morning after I wake up, I’ve been checking my phone for news about Ukraine. I want to read that Putin has called off his war. I imagine him waking up and finding his nose is missing. He’s dashing around the streets, looking for it, eager to repair his visage. I imagine he promises to be a good despot, if only someone will return his nose.

But life isn’t a story. Dictators don’t change or learn their lessons. Because sociopaths brood and lie and plot, then seek vengeance for perceived slights. Winning and power are their only divinities.

And in case you’re wondering, Putin is a Libra and Volodymyr Zelenskyy is an Aquarius, making them highly compatible air signs. But life ignores astrology.

Excavating Tree Guy’s Nose

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy, Tree Guy Update, Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing, and Another Tree Guy Update.]

Pictures of snow in March look like bad abstract art.

This morning I went outside to retrieve Tree Guy’s schnoz. I tried to pick it up but discovered it was frozen into the icy snow. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I got out of bed at 6:30 this morning, it was 9° with a 9-mph wind. And if that were a mathematical story problem, the answer would be a windchill of -4°. (Don’t ask how this would change if one train was leaving Grand Central Station at 9:00 a.m., traveling at 60 mph, and another train was leaving Union Station at 10 a.m., traveling at 55 mph. I didn’t care when I was in school, and I still don’t care.)

I didn’t try to muscle the nose out of the snow. Increased force is usually the wrong answer to most problems. I found a stick and scrapped snow away from the sides of the nose. I tried to lift it again, but it wouldn’t budge. The nose appeared to be intact, so I decided against digging underneath it because it might break. Impatience is usually the wrong option for most situations.

I hoped the space I created along the sides of the nose would allow the sun’s warm rays to melt the snow from under it. On Tuesday the temperature is supposed to reach 41°. If the icy snow hasn’t released the nose by that evening, I’ll cover it with a bucket because it’s supposed to snow on Wednesday and Thursday.

Tree Guy doesn’t want his nose to be buried again. At this point in his life, he doesn’t appreciate history repeating itself.

Another Tree Guy Update

Tree Guy

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy, Tree Guy Update, and Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing.]

This evening my husband walked into the house from the back yard, tapped his finger on the side of his nose and said, “I saw the nose. I saw the nose.”

I wanted to ask, “You saw Kovalyov’s nose?” But I didn’t. My husband doesn’t read Russian short stories.

So I said, “What?”

He grinned, a very big grin. “I saw the nose.” He used his silly voice. “I saw the nose.” He kept tapping the side of his nose.

Because I reread Gogol’s “The Nose” a few days ago, I pictured a gigantic schnoz dressed in uniform. But I knew my husband didn’t see Kovalyov’s nose because you couldn’t pay him to read Russian short stories.

So again I said, “What?” because I still didn’t know what he was talking about.

“The tree’s nose,” he said. “I can see it in the snow now.”

The blob in the center is the back side of Tree Guy’s nose.

Turns out, I haven’t been the only one walking to the edge of our deck and looking over the side. I should’ve known. After all Tree Guy was my husband’s idea.

I couldn’t believe I thought about Kovalyov’s nose before thinking about Tree Guy’s nose. And I’d forgotten to look for it the last couple of days. I’ve been distracted, and it’s been cold.

But neither of us went outside to retrieve the nose this evening. The wind was whipping, the temperature was below freezing, and the windchill was a single digit. I was sitting on my couch with a wool scarf wrapped around my neck. Neither of us wanted to climb on the unstable snow pile. Two days ago our grandson climbed that pile and got his foot stuck. When he yanked his foot up, his boot stayed–buried six inches down. I rescued the boot by digging it out of the snow with my bare hands.

Tomorrow I’ll save Tree Guy’s nose because more cold and snow are predicted next week. March wants to go out like a lion.

My husband will give the nose a fresh coat of paint if needed. Then he’ll reattach it to Tree Guy’s face. Like it had never been missing.

Reasons to Attend an Author’s Book Chat (Even If You Don’t Write Books)

My terminal to the World

If you’re writing a book, and even if you’re not, you should listen to authors talk about their books. I’m not writing a book, at least not yet, and maybe never. But when the COVID lockdowns started, I discovered I liked attending virtual author chats and book launches. Over the last two years, I’ve listened to over twenty authors discuss their books, and I’ve noticed some reoccurring themes and ideas.

Writing is Tough

All writers have moments of doubt. One author almost gave up but decided the only way she could fail was to not finish her novel. Others talked about a manuscript they considered a learning experience then buried it in a drawer. Some took a break from a book they were writing before finishing it. All of them said, “Just keep writing.”

When the pandemic lockdowns started, many writers talked about feeling too anxious to write. When I heard a published author admit this, I realized my anxiousness and inability to sit at my desk and write was normal. I stopped thinking something was wrong with me. Another author found it difficult to write because she wasn’t out in the world, watching and listening to people, gathering material to take back to her desk. I could relate. I never appreciated how much inspiration I brought home, until I didn’t leave home.

When a member of the audience thought things must have gotten easier after a writer published a book, the author said, each book was like starting over and her second book was tougher to write. Hot dog! I write short stories and essays, and I find the same to be true. If published writers flounder occasionally, why wouldn’t I struggle at times?

Writing Takes Work

But take chances. Experiment. Play. Listen to your characters. If something doesn’t work, revise.

Read, read, and reread. Most authors talked about the importance of reading books from the genre they write in. And rereading those books helped them analyze how they were put together.

Research is important, even when writing novels or memoirs. One historical nonfiction writer spent almost a month living on a sixty-foot sailboat in the Arctic in order to research the setting for her book. It gave her confidence to write her book because she had knowledge and experience.

Once the manuscript is done, the revising and editing starts. Get feedback from writers and beta readers. Be open to suggestions, but know when to trust your work. Many authors said revising was as much or more work than writing the book.

Getting Published

Work on building a writing resume by submitting short pieces of writing. Polish them until they’re shiny, beautiful baubles. And submit! One author submitted a story to a university journal, and they loved it so much they asked her if she had more stories like it. She did, and they published a book of her short stories. (This makes me think about Lana Turner being discovered while drinking a soda at a malt shop.)

Hire a good line editor before you submit to agents or publishers. Make sure the manuscript is as good and as error free as it can be. Learn how to write a query letter. Some authors shared helpful resources.

Potential agents and publishers want authors to have a social media presence and a website, even if it’s simple. One author attended an online pitch event on Twitter with agents. A publisher liked her pitch, asked to see her manuscript, then published her book.

Fight for your work. Sometimes an editor is right. One author talked about cutting a chapter from her memoir. Even though she wanted to keep it, she understood the editor’s point. Other times the author is right. Another author fought to keep the opening dream scene in her book, and the editor eventually agreed.

Understand a contract before signing it. Think about hiring an attorney who specializes in publishing contracts. One author warned, “Don’t let excitement about a contract cloud your judgement.”

So, Sign Up for an Author’s Book Chat

You’ll learn what worked and didn’t work for authors, and some of that wisdom will be useful to you. When writers talk about their struggles, it’ll give you perspective about your struggles. As they celebrate their newly published books, you’ll believe that someday you’ll celebrate yours. Finally, almost every author chat and book launch that I’ve attended had a Q & A, and the author answered questions about his or her journey to publication. But best of all, for an hour or two, you’ll be part of a community of people who love to write.

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[Looking for a Book Chat? Lake Superior Writers hosts a series called Book Club for Writers, which is free and open to members and nonmembers. Our next author will be Brian Malloy who will talk about his book The Year of Ice on March 29, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. For more information: Book Club for Writers.]

Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy and Tree Guy Update.]

Tree Guy can’t smell a thing.

For the past week, the snow has been disappearing fast. So, for the past week, I’ve been looking for Tree Guy’s nose. Each day I look over the side of the deck, hoping that enough snow has melted to reveal his schnoz, but it’s still missing.

He doesn’t look bad without his nose, but he’d like it back. If I don’t find it, I’ve promised to buy him two hanging baskets of flowers, one for each ear. With colorful blooms gracing the sides of his face, no one will notice his nose is gone. It’s amazing what people will overlook if something glitzy captures their eye.

After work, I looked for his nose again. No luck. It was too cold today for snow to melt. The wind whipped at 38 mph—and that was the sustained number. The gusts were over 40 mph. The air temp was 35° and the windchill was 19°. Freezing rain, snow with blizzard-like conditions, power outages, and hazardous travel are predicted over the next couple days. Or what I like to call, Springtime in the Northland. March is fickle with an attitude, and I’ve lived here long enough to know that the springs of northern Wisconsin are not the springs of Milwaukee.

I’m beginning to think Tree Guy’s nose is a goner, but there is still snow around him, so maybe his nose is buried deeper than I thought. The mystery of it all makes me want to reread “The Nose” by Gogol. I keep imagining Kovalyov’s and Tree Guy’s noses calling an Uber and gallivanting around the city. The frigid air will make the noses run; hopefully, they have hankies.

Cabin fever has set in.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Yesterday, a conversation with writers reminded me of the first time I had a character in a story who wouldn’t cooperate with my plot. I wrote this blog after that experience.

Writing Near the Lake

[“Whose Story Is It Anyway?” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blogon July 9, 2020.]

At the end of the 1946 romantic comedy, Cluny Brown, Adam Belinski, animated by a flash of insight, tells Cluny, “I’m going to write a bestseller, a murder mystery.” Belinski and Cluny agree the victim must be a rich man because it’s pointless to murder a poor man, and Cluny asks, “Who killed him? Who did it?”

My first initial written in the bark

“For 365 pages, I will not know myself,” replies Belinski, “but when, on page 366, it finally comes out, will I be surprised and so will millions of others!”

The first time I heard Belinski tell Cluny he’d write a mystery without knowing who committed the murder until the last page, I laughed. Ridiculous, I thought. Of course, he’ll have to know who the murderer is when he starts…

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Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

Last Monday when I took my nearly twenty-year-old sewing machine to be tuned and cleaned, I looked at a new machine that was the same brand but a step and a half up from the one I own. I’m not sure I would’ve considered buying a newer model if there hadn’t been a pandemic.

The finished quilt top: I will machine quilt it and bind it, then give it to my sister-in-law. My next project will be another T-shirt quilt.

When the lockdowns happened in the spring of 2020, being able to quilt kept me sane. I was home alone during the week because my husband worked in a business that was deemed essential, and I couldn’t see my children and grandchildren because we all stayed in our own bubbles. With all the death and uncertainty, dicing up fabric and sewing it back together was familiar and calmed my nerves. I could quilt without leaving the house because I have a sizable stash of fabric. I made a T-shirt quilt, two lap quilts, and two wall hangings and gave them to family and friends. I made a throw pillow and gave it to my dogs for their stuffed chair. I wanted a second machine because if there’s another lockdown, and something happens to one of them, I would be able to keep quilting.

The new model had features that would make machine quilting and appliquéing easier, helping me expand my quilting skills. But I wanted to sleep on it, so I left my old machine for a tune up and postponed buying the new one. Long ago, I made a rule for myself: All big purchases could only be made after I slept on it for a night. Over the years there were many purchases I never made but very few regrets about the ones I did make.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, I was still enthusiastic about the new machine, so after lunch I went back to the store and bought it. When I returned home, I unboxed it and put it on my antique dining room table, which I use for sewing. (Don’t shudder. The table isn’t dainty.) The new machine looked especially modern and sleek on the old oak surface. It stood among a cutting mat, rulers, a rotary cutter, and fabric, becoming a part of the quilting landscape. I turned my back on it and did some writing, cleaning, and cooking. I stayed out of the dining room and away from the new machine. My old one sat in a shop, waiting in a queue for service, unaware it had been replaced. Regret seeped into my psyche. My old machine and I had pieced many quilts together: quilts for family and friends; quilts to welcome new babies into the world. By suppertime I stood in the kitchen and cried, wishing I had waited two nights instead of one.

Would I actually do more machine quilting or appliquéing just because I bought a new sewing machine? For the rest of the evening, I left it untouched. I kept picturing my old one sitting on the technician’s workbench. When it came home, I’d have to store it in a closet instead of returning it to the oak table because I knew it would become the spare.

On Wednesday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and thought about the new machine with deepening regret. I decided to hide it in a dark corner of the closet and shut the door. An absurd idea. So, I set a goal for Wednesday: make friends with the new machine by making a quilt. I have a closet full of fabric and quilt kits that I’ve purchased over the years since I started quilting in 1994. I never had a sleep-on-it rule for buying fabric.

I selected a package of precut strips because I had a simple pattern for a Jelly Roll Race Quilt that would allow me to use all the strips to create a quilt that was quick and easy. (At the speed I sew, I should call it a Jelly Roll Stroll Quilt.)

I sewed a test strip with two short scraps. The new machine sewed a perfect quarter-inch seam. An essential feature. Then I sewed my strips together making one long strip. The new machine has a bigger work surface, making it easier to sew fabric together. A solid improvement. The redesigned quarter-inch foot did a better job of keeping the fabric in place as it passed through the feed dogs, so I didn’t have to keep repositioning it. A welcome timesaver.

Best of all, the new machine sounds like my old one because underneath its modern, sleek exterior, it has the same motor and frame as the old one, which I’d used for almost twenty years. Hopefully, I can use the new one just as long. I’ve got a lot of fabric in the closet.

The first quilt off the new machine will be a gift for my sister-in-law. The package of precut strips was originally purchased by her sister Jen who passed away from cancer in 2018 before she could sew them into a quilt. Jen gave me the strips before she died because she knew I liked to quilt. I’m piecing together the gift from Jen as a gift to her sister, connecting the past to the future while listening to the old familiar rhythm coming from the inside of the new sewing machine.

My new machine and I are going to be friends. But I will keep my old one. Perhaps each one of my grandchildren would like to sew a quilt, and my old machine will make new friends. I know where they can find some fabric.

[To find the instructions for making a Jelly Roll Race Quilt, click here. To read about one of my pandemic quilts, click here.]

Writing’s Daily Worries

Originally posted on October 9, 2020

Writing Near the Lake

[“Writing’s Daily Worries” appeared on Brevity Blog on December 18, 2019, and on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on January 9, 2020.It was published in the anthology Many Waters: St. Croix Writers Stories and Poemsin 2020.]

Thanks to writing, my worries have shifted. (So has my ability to make sure I put the milk in the refrigerator instead of the cupboard, but that’s another blog.)

I take a break from writing to get some water. In the kitchen I discover dishes are piling up and all the cereal bowls are dirty. But I worry about a story I want to submit to a contest, so I go back to my desk. I reread the story and forget to start the dishwasher. In the morning I’m handwashing cereal bowls.

“The truck needs an oil change,” my husband says.

“I’ll call,” I say, as I worry if a clause…

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