On First Jobs and Marigolds

I love the cheery faces of marigolds. They don’t seem to mind the sweltering heat that has decided to stay for a while here in Texas (and I think everywhere else on the planet).

I plant marigolds whenever I can, either as just pops of yellow and gold decoration in a planter, or as a bug deterrent next to tomato plants. It really does seem to work. Pests like whiteflies and disgusting tomato worms seem to not like the strong, peppery scent marigolds give off. They also keep your soil healthy. I am a gardener at heart.

I’ve occasionally eaten marigolds in salads, but always with a slight tinge of guilt. They are our allies, after all.

My very first job at eight years old was snapping the dead heads off of marigolds in front of my father’s downtown office. If you snap off the dead heads, they continue to grow and produce more flowers. The same thing is true of basil, by the way. If you want delicious leaves to add to your meals or make into pesto, don’t let the little white blossom heads linger, just snap ‘em off. The plant seems happier too.

I have vivid memories of taking a large white bucket and wearing a sun hat and working in those front beds in the early morning hours while it was still relatively cool. The clods of dark earth usually had plenty of worms, but they’ve never bothered me. It was relaxing, moving from flower to flower, taking off the finished blooms, leaving the rest to flourish. That peppery scent, the satisfying snap as another dead head came away. I think my dad paid me a dollar an hour, and it seemed as if I was making all the money in the world.

He thought I might be game to pluck the disgusting, writhing bagworms off of our evergreen hedges for the same price, but not a chance. This girl has her standards. Ugh, it still gives me the heebie-jeebies thinking about them.

I had other under-the-table “first jobs” as well. I started out babysitting at eleven and continued that right up through college in Chicago. Back then, there was a “jobs board” in the dorm, and local parents would drive to fetch you so they could have a night out. I think back then the going rate was $7 or $8 an hour.

I had one family who became regulars. They lived in an enormous, rambling house up on the North Shore. The kind that has a welcoming porch and polished hardwood floors and good art. I sat for them for a couple of years. They had three kids. The oldest was a girl named Oona, who was four when I started sitting for them. She had big dark eyes and an old-soul vibe. She told me on our first meeting that she’d told her mother her name in the womb, and that she was the reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin’s last wife. All the hairs on my arms stood up when she told me this. I believed her.

Her little brother was maybe three, and a terror. He was a climber. One time I was making supper for the kids, and I swear he translocated to the top of the refrigerator in less than five seconds. It was a big fridge. I got him down okay, but I think that was when my first grey hair sprouted. Later in life, I had a climber myself, but was ready for it with this early training.

The youngest was a sweet little baby boy, maybe six months old when I first started sitting for them. He always smelled like sweet cereal milk, the last slurp in the bowl of Lucky Charms. He also had enormous brown eyes, but he never got around to telling me if he’d told his mother his name in the womb.

I loved babysitting those kids, once or twice a month, on a Friday or Saturday night if I wasn’t in a show. The dad would come fetch me and make awkward conversation as he drove me up to the house. The mom was one of those effortlessly elegant women who couldn’t have been nicer or more appreciative. I thought of the parents as being old back then, but now that I think back, they were probably early 30-somethings. I’d bring my homework (all analog, no computers yet, you wrote your essays longhand, and then typed them out) to do when the kids were asleep.

The parents would head out around five-thirty. I’d feed the kids dinner, let them play with their toys for a while, and then at 7pm, it was story time. The parents had ALL the books, so we read “Frog and Toad,” and “Babar the Elephant,” as well as the Berenstain Bears, and Dr. Seuss stories. Then came my secret sauce. I’d let them tell me what they’d like a story about, and I’d make a new one up just for them. They loved it, I loved it. I’d hold the baby on my lap, while the other two leaned in on either side of me under a soft Afghan on the big leather couch in their den.

They’d head to bed by 8, not without a bit of a tussle. Water at the bedside, nightlights on, the baby monitor on, doors cracked so that if they needed to, they could call out and I’d be there. I’d do the dinner dishes, and then settle in to do homework until midnight or so when the parents would come home in a swirl of perfume and alcohol. The mom always told me I was the kid’s favorite babysitter, that felt good. They always paid me well, $80 for the night, and then the dad would drive me back to campus, letting out jaw-cracking yawns.

I’ve wondered at times what happened to Oona and her brother and the baby. After graduating, I lost touch with the family. I like to think perhaps the three all grew up healthy and happy, and that they tell their own children stories on big sofas, wrapped up warm and safe.

On Shepard’s Pie and Dino Porn

Yes, I didn’t know there was such a thing either. And I ain’t talkin’ about the Shepard’s Pie, which you’ll get a recipe for below.

You might be asking yourself (I certainly would be) how this topic ever came up. Well, a few weeks ago a writer friend and I were discussing how we’ve learned there are quite a few authors who make boatloads, scads, literal buckets of money writing niche smut. Disclaimer here… I have no judgement about these writers or their readers. You do you. It’s nothing I am interested in doing, you understand. I’m just fascinated that Dino erotica exists. I didn’t believe it at first, I thought my friend was pulling my leg.

Go ahead, google it, I’ll wait. You can go incognito if you’re feeling shy.

Looking through the book blurbs, I determined there are a lot of scantily clad women back in the prehistoric era who get a workout. Most of the books are super-short, some 20 pages or less for your $2.99 spend. Maybe there’s only so much you can describe about dinosaurs and their sex drive. (And do their tiny little arms get in the way?) (I just don’t see dinosaurs as being cuddly afterwards either. They’re just so… reptilian.) (And you know, extinct.)

Now, about that page count. I write in a genre (YA/NA Dark Fantasy, might be edging over into Magical Realism) that usually needs a lot more pages than that to be taken seriously by fans of the genre. My books are all at least 275 pages in 10-point font. My current work in progress is 360 pages, looks like we are heading over the top of 400. Don’t worry, my characters are just gabbing away at the moment, as happens as you get to the end of draft one. I’ll fix it in draft two.

So, given all that extra time and effort crafting words and creating memorable characters… I have to ask myself as a writer who wants to make this her third career, the one she can retire comfortably on, maybe travel a bit… would I be smarter to write something, you know… less time-consuming? It takes me at least 2 months to write one, plus another month of rewrites, Beta readers and proofreads to make it better. Because my books are also technically Historical Fantasy set in Medieval Times, I spend hours researching facts so that no one gives me a 1-star rating on Goodreads and snarks that everyone knows they didn’t have lace-up boots with eight grommets in Medieval France in 1450. Anybody who’s serious knows they all only had six grommets until 1452.

Oh, I’m not kidding. I learned about the relentlessness of smart geeks when I worked on Star Trek Voyager years ago. All the writers knew there were plenty of fans who knew the ins and outs of the ship and warp drive far better than they did. Any time we got to a place where tech was needed, we’d just insert “Tech Speak Here,” and let the science advisors take it on.

So my sincere question of the week is: Would you write Dino Porn (or something else niche smut) for the money? Love to hear your take on this.

Now, on to Shepard’s Pie, which was on the menu for my folks this week. We’ve been dropping off extra meals now that Mom is back at home. Dad has only a small repertoire of dishes he can make for them. I really like Shepard’s Pie. I don’t make mine with lamb, as (clearly) was called for in the original recipe, because all the shepherds I know herd sheep, not turkeys or cows. This recipe serves 4, along with a nice salad. I recommend oatmeal-raisin cookies for dessert. You know, the ones off the Quaker Oats lid. Add a bit more oats than is called for if you like a firmer cookie.

Or if your favorite dinosaur bed partner does.

SHEPARDS PIE

½ large onion minced

1 T olive oil

1 pound ground turkey or beef

1 cup Frozen peas

6-8 Yukon small gold potatoes (or a couple of chonky Idaho’s are fine if that’s all you’ve got on hand.)

Worcestershire Sauce and salt and pepper to taste.

2 Tablespoons of butter, chopped into bits

Dash of milk

Peel your potatoes and boil. Mince onion and brown in the olive oil on medium. Set aside, and brown your meat in the same pan, pouring off grease as it cooks. Add back the onion when meat is done, and turn off heat. Add the peas straight from frozen, the residual heat will cook them perfectly. Season with a good dollop of Worcestershire and salt and pepper.

Drain potatoes and mash with the milk (I actually use a bit of the potato water too.)

Put the meat mixture into an 8×8 baking dish, and “ice” with the mashed potatoes. Dot the top with bits of butter. Put in the oven on broil until the tops of the potatoes brown and that butter sizzles. Serve hot.

Hot like your Dino friends.

On Hospital Food and Modern Dance

My mom has been in the hospital for nine days with pneumonia at UT Southwestern here in Dallas. She’s on the path to recovery thanks to a lot of really great modern medicine and doctors and nurses. My dad has been with her frequently, but now he’s at home having picked up some sort of bug himself. She’ll need oxygen for a while, and a machine and tanks and long green hoses now sit in our dining room where this picture was taken last year on her 91st birthday.

Going to the hospital is not my favorite thing. I’m sure I’m not alone. Over the years I’ve spent many days in them, wandering the halls when such things were permitted, strolling the grounds, eating in the cafeteria.

This particular hospital has decorated its halls with lovely modern art and has window-filled areas you can go to when your loved one is having a procedure done. It also has an excellent cafeteria. I can almost see meeting someone there for a tasty, inexpensive lunch, even if there’s no one we need to visit or bring flowers to. Parking is $3, but there’s plenty of space to sit and eat and talk.

My stress level has been high the past nine days, so my food choices have been a little off. Sometimes the only thing that will do is a Diet Dr. Pepper and Sun Chips. I’ll make up for it later in laps and steps and smoothies.

Speaking of steps. I saw some great Modern Dance this past Friday night at the Moody, which is a lovely space in downtown Dallas. It was a tonic to be in a theatre and see something new, beautifully staged and crafted. I had to write them a rave. You can see my extended review of B. Moore Dance here: http://thecolumnonline.com/review/07-11-2022_B-Moore-Dance-Season-3-Finale/ I am always grateful for my gig as a theatre critic that allows me to see all sorts of different performances.

It made me feel better to see those dancers in fab costumes follow vibrant choreography, extending and creating beautiful lines that evoked emotion. Between that and the curated efforts of the hospital to make what can be a terrible-awful place into something showcasing both lovely art and tasty food made my week infinitely better.

I hope you have some moments to enjoy what others have created from their thoughtfulness or talents this week as well.

On Finding Distractions When the World Just Gets Too Big

My goodness, it seems there are a lot of awful things happening. I am feeling weighed down by all of it. My anger wants to get the best of me, gnawing away at my insides and wanting to flash outwards, which would add to the problems.

The reversal of Roe v. Wade has made me oh-so-angry. Mostly because of the re-relegation of women to become human incubators, no matter what they think about it, of course. Speaking as someone who nearly died from an ectopic pregnancy, I can tell you it’s radically unfair to label that an ‘abortion’ and put me in jail for it once I heal up. It’s devastating all on its own, trust me. Don’t need jail time and shaming on top of it. Yep, that’s what several states have mandated. But it also chaps that several of those SCOTUS peeps when they were nominees lied about “established law.” Another just outright stated he’s still angry about his confirmation hearing, so he’s going to do anything and everything to “burn the libs.” Great. There’s who I want on the highest court in the land.

And then they ham-strung the EPA even though combating climate change is a pretty important issue.

 The shootings of children and shoppers and parade goers are gut-kicking. It makes me livid that there have already been 307 mass murders so far THIS YEAR. You cannot convince me that normal people who are not soldiers fighting in a war need rapid-fire AK-anythings. It’s ludicrous. I don’t believe the desire to own one or several is more important than children going to school safely. I also know I will not change anyone’s mind. And no, I’m not lumping handguns and rifles in there.

And it’s insanely hot. And my mom is in the ICU. And my car’s air conditioner quit working this morning.

I cannot control any of this, except my car’s air-conditioning. I’ll need to gear up mentally and emotionally to deal with that, as I always think car mechanics laugh at my ignorance once my back is turned.

Here’s what I do to distract myself and/or practice self-care so that Overwhelm and its sister Despair don’t swamp me and paralyze any forward movement.

1.       Look at Zillow for new places to live. Currently looking for houses on at least 1 acre, so there’s room for a garden and a granny flat. Maybe room for fences, turrets, and a moat, too. Depends on my mood. Must have a Trader Joes and a swimming pool nearby. And at least four seasons, not one really long, hot one, followed by a short less-hot month or two.

2.       Watch “Unexplained” type TV shows about world mysteries. I’ve watched all those ones about aliens (on the History Channel, which always makes me laugh) and Unsolved Mysteries. My new favorite is Bill Shatner narrating the UnXplained (yes, they spell it wrong). It’s exactly like that really old show that his pal Leonard Nimoy used to narrate called “In Search Of.” I find that so meta.

3.       Read recipes for cakes and pies. Maybe re-watch the British Baking Show. Except right now it’s too hot to turn on my oven, and I don’t like no-bake things, so not really doing this one right now.

4.       Watch Alligator reels. (I know!) I just don’t understand why people would go near them. They are not remotely cuddly. That said, one of my bucket list items is to go diving with sharks, so take it all with a grain of salt.

In terms of self-care:

1.       I try to get my writing done as early as possible so the little words knocking around in my head don’t get the best of me and I stay on track to publish 7 books this year. So I get up at 4.30am. Yep.

2.       Exercise nearly every day, sometimes twice a day. Swimming and walking at the moment.

3.       I do my best to drink a lot of water.

4.       Reading. I love books. I just wish I had room for a lot of bookshelves. Thus the looking at new places to live, see how that all ties together?

5.       Naps when possible. Several years ago, a girlfriend took me to see the Dalai Lama be interviewed. When asked about his solution for the world’s woes, he said, “Everyone get more sleep.” I have to agree.

What about you? What are your go-to’s when the world just becomes too much for one body to handle?