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The Delaware River in her many moods extends a never-ending invitation to be photographed. Just three houses away, I’m able to easily see whatever weather-inspired beauty is happening on the river on any given day.

One of my favorite views is after rain or snow, when the fog in the area has cleared, and a cloud all her own has settled on the river.

I’d already started my work, but when I looked outside, I couldn’t resist, so slipped out with my camera down to the edge of the road.

There’s just such a moodiness at this time of year to how that cloud sits low, and the wintery colors are as rich in their own way as the green vibrancy of spring. If I were able, I could happily just pull up a chair and sit for hours.

This very old concrete structure had something to do with the railroad tracks and the trains that once ran here, I imagine. Oddly enough, I’ve never inspected it more closely, and today that ground was a field of mud beneath the leaf litter.

An ancient twisting tree of the sort that inhabits mysteries and horror stories. One of the joys of the winter months is in appreciating the skeletal silhouettes of so many different types of trees.

Rising from the misty shrouds is a ghostly white hotel on the far river bank in Pennsylvania, appearing to be much closer than it actually is.

On drier days, I can go over the tracks and much closer to the river’s edge, but the muddy ground was soaked, and on the bluff overlooking the river at this point, undoubtedly quite slippery. So I just counted myself lucky to live near such beauty, and returned, inspired, to my work

… is today, February 13th. Not every year, for it falls on the same day as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, whatever you want to call it. It’s the day before Lent. And while giving up something for Lent is not a tradition I partake in, I do like the idea of Mardi Gras.

 

And breakfast for dinner? Really, how far wrong can you go? `Nuff said!

The Winter Olympics are here, and I’m a fan! Make no mistake, I am not a sporty person, but I greatly admire and appreciate the athletes that compete and achieve in sports. I also only watch the Winter Olympics for a fairly ridiculous reason. They do stuff that in my wildest dreams, I could never do.

See this? Wayyyy too high in the air. Not happening!

And this? Downhill racing. Do you know how fast these people are going?? In a car maybe … out there all by myself? Never!

And then this … I am a highly coordinated person, but the grace combined with athleticism of figure skating? Not that coordinated! Or brave.

So the Winter Olympics are filled with challenge after challenge that I can only vaguely imagine, and they get me cheering on each competitor, whether in the snow or on the ice.

Now does this mean that I don’t appreciate the accomplishments of the Summer Olympics competitors? Not at all. They are all amazing athletes, too, but here’s that ridiculous reason I mentioned earlier. I can imagine myself doing – or have participated in – those sports. Of course, not on their  level of achievement, but … I can swim; (well, I can’t high dive); I can run; even the gymnastics – I was a cheerleader (yes, that still surprises me, too) for years and have the battle scars to prove it.

I could never be – or could have been – anywhere near as phenomenally accomplished as those in the Summer Olympics, but if I’m going to park myself in front of a TV for a couple weeks, well … I want to trip the light fantastic.

Let the games begin!

 

 

Those Who Save Us

The jury is still out on this one. There were several points along the way in reading Those Who Save Us that I felt I could have put the book down and it would have been OK. Yet I didn’t. It’s not a case that it wasn’t a worthwhile book, but there was something about it that did not pull me in and engage me as I would have liked. As a writer, Blum has an excellent command of the language. You kind of knew where the book was heading – or at least, you hoped it was – but my total investment wasn’t there. Why not?

For one thing, I don’t think Blum made me love her characters enough. Trudy, the daughter, lives a rather empty life emotionally. I understand why, but I still wanted more from her. Same with Anna, the mother. I certainly understand why she became stoic and blocked emotion, but how do you write about two such characters and still make us care? Anna went through some excruciating experiences; I should have loved her deeply. I also didn’t feel the story building with the kind of momentum that I felt it could have to a real climax.

The novel is told in alternating groups of chapters about Anna and her past and Trudy in the present. Blum weaves them together to bring Anna into the current time in Trudy’s life. The story begins in Weimar, Germany in late 1939 when the Nazis had taken control of the city and started taking Jews. Anna is a girl of eighteen, living a very comfortable life with her widowed father, who is cold, demanding, and solicitous of the Nazis’ favorable opinion. Her father’s dog becomes ill, and Anna, fearful of making the journey to the German vet across town, takes the dog to the closer veterinarian who is Jewish. The two take a liking to each other despite an age difference, and she ends up hiding Max in her large and elegant home, practically under her father’s nose. They fall in love, she conceives his child, but comes home one day to find him gone. The father has suspected and turned him in, at which point, Anna leaves home.

Hoping for some word of Max, Anna remains in Weimar, hidden by a baker, Frau Mathilde Staudt, who helps the Resistance.  There, Anna gives birth. In making a secret run to hide bread in the forest for the starving prisoners, Anna is spotted by the Obersturmführer, Horst. To save her life and that of her daughter, she complies with the SS Officer who demands an often cruel sexual relationship with her.

In the current day, Trudy is a college professor of German history. Following the burial of Anna’s American husband, Trudy is putting her mother in a nursing home after a fire in Anna’s house, its source being suspicious. In picking up her mother’s belongings, Trudy finds what appears to be a gold cigarette case with a swastika on the front, and inside, a photograph of the Obersturmführer with her mother seated in front, Trudy on her lap. Trudy has always been angry with her mother’s refusal to tell her about her early childhood in Germany, but now believes her father was a Nazi. In her search for some sort of enlightenment, Trudy decides to do a special project interviewing Germans who lived through this time, and recording their views of the Holocaust in retrospect. She is shocked by the answers she hears, but also meets more than one person who will impact both her and her mother’s lives.

The story continues, weaving the lives of mother and daughter together, past to present. Despite the forward momentum of these intertwined stories coming to a resolution, I didn’t find myself on what could have been a taut and gripping journey. And yet, I never stopped reading. So the jury is out.

If nothing else, this book is a reminder of how we, who have grown up in the free world, unscathed by events such as those in World War II, can never begin to understand the torture, horror, and pain of those who lived, died, and witnessed the Holocaust. In that regard, the book never fails to be both brutally honest and a cautionary tale of what may lie beneath the surface of even the well-intentioned.

It’s been a very long time since I wept so at the end of a book. And I mean wept. Even I didn’t see that coming. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is an outstanding novel, told in the first person by Enzo, a dog. But don’t think that this is just some dog story – it’s not; it is skillfully told through the keen observation, devotion, and insightful outlook of a narrator who just happens to walk on four legs.

The main character, Denny, to whom Enzo has been deeply bonded since a small pup, is a race car driver, so periodically, there is background and information about racing. But don’t think this is a story about racing either – it’s not. Racing is a metaphor for life and how to live it, particularly racing in the rain, of which Denny is a master.

The first chapter begins at the end of Enzo’s life, where he wishes to be released with dignity. From watching “too much television” (according to Denny), Enzo has learned of a Mongolian belief whereby a dog who’s lived a good life will become human in his next incarnation. This is what Enzo aspires to, and despite his periodic dismay at not having speech and being unable to communicate what he knows, or to have been denied opposable thumbs, Enzo does his best to live a model life.

The second chapter begins the story of Denny, his love, Eve, their child Zoë, and the journey of their lives together. From Denny and Enzo watching race tapes on the TV, with Denny explaining all the details to Enzo, to Eve’s illness, to the in-laws overbearing attitude and ultimately cruel shattering of Denny’s life, we are drawn into a story – sometimes funny, sometimes tragic – of a life that could be anybody’s. It’s always set against the backdrop of Denny’s aspirations to be an accomplished driver, and his teaching Enzo the subtleties of mastering the track. Enzo gets it. “Your car goes where your eyes go. Simply another way of saying that which you manifest is before you.”

You do not need to have ever had a dog to appreciate Enzo or his telling of Denny’s story. But if you have ever loved a dog at any time in your life, you will be greatly enriched – and moved – by Enzo, and all that he is. Likewise, those familiar with racing will have the extra bonus of understanding the racing world references. But you don’t have to know anything about racing – as I do not – to understand the story, for again, in the end it’s not about racing, but life.

While we knew from Chapter One where this book would end, the impact is unexpectedly profound; the epilogue, deeply touching. If nothing else, Enzo is a remarkably skilled writer. I had not realized how invested I was in this story … and in Enzo … until the end. The Art of Racing in the Rain is a keeper.

It wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day without something a little sweet, right? How about an adorable pied Frenchie who’s discovered some just-frosted sugar cookies? (And is about to do something very naughty!) That’s sweet x 2!

Order these sweet French Bulldog Valentine’s Day cards on my website or in my just-opened Etsy shop and put a smile on the faces of the special someone(s) in your life.

One of the shortcomings of we creative folk, I find, is that we generally don’t share our gifts proudly with others, or even give ourselves a pat on the back all too often. Writing a blog, and especially if it includes our own artwork, photography, videos, or images of our various accomplishments, is one way we do that. Even so, many of us only shyly take credit for the beauty, wisdom, intelligence, and creativity we put out into the world through our blogs. We all deserve a pat on the back, so please – give yourself one!

A corollary to this is if our creativity is available to others … as in a business. For those of you who check in on me regularly, you are likely to be aware I’m a graphic artist. But how many know that I actually promote my graphic design services on the web? Not enough, I’m sure, so I am taking this opportunity to introduce you to my graphic design blog – Jeanne Balsam Graphics. Please take a toddle on over and see what I do. I am growing my business, and have a particular interest in helping people self-publish by putting an attractive and professional product out there. (The picture book above is my design/layout, and includes some original artwork, as well.)

With the advantages of the internet, working together is no longer limited by our physical proximity. I have local clients as well as in California, the mid-west, and more. Maybe I can help you or someone you know with a fabulous design piece. If so, you can contact me anytime through my graphics blog.

OK, so that’s me finally patting myself on the back a bit and sharing more of what I do. Now it’s your turn!

One of the wonders of nature is the movement of large numbers of animals in a synchronization we can only observe in awe. In fish, we see schools, in insects, swarms, and in birds, we see flocking. It is a mesmerizing dance. Above we see crows, below starlings.

In the video linked to here, titled The Starling and Falcon Dance by Nick Dunlop, set to the most perfect music, we see thousands of European Starlings migrating south. They have attracted a prime predator, the Peregrine Falcon, and in attempting to evade him, they fly in synch and create amazing patterns in the sky. As fascinating as these photos might be, they cannot show you the magic created by the birds in flight.

Please take a look at one of nature’s miracles.

 

On Christmas Eve …

The sun attempts to break through an almost white sky. The weather report tells me that this is the best it will do today. Some high winds later on, and for Christmas, perhaps a dash of snow in the morning. This suits me fine – my days of longing for a white Christmas vanished as soon as I had to drive in it. As I looked out the window, I searched inside for my Christmas spirit. I found it to be a little lacking, having been pulled in many directions the last week. I knew one remedy, of course – images and words that bring a smile and/or inspire.

So here you see my gentle snowman, standing at my front door, ready to greet you. His candle lights at dusk, and he blows it out at dawn. But tonight it will burn steadily and all through the day on Christmas.

Inside, the beautiful oak washstand of over 100 years shines as always, with silk poinsettias, my very favorite ice balls holding tea lights, and just a peek at the photo of my Mom and Dad’s wedding portrait.

And though from a winter past, the snowy roofs and lightly dusted bare branches put me in a festive mood.

But what about words that inspire? I remembered some years ago, my Christmas present to loved ones was a print of the piece below, a longtime favorite of mine, to which I added original artwork of forest animals in each season in each of the print’s four corners. I felt my contribution was small in the shadow of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata. I share it here with you, with my warmest wishes for a Christmas filled with the sparkle of magic, hope, and peace.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

~ Max Ehrmann

The internet is an incredible source of so many things, and some incredibly wonderful. This is one of those, and brings tears to my eyes each time I watch it. So simple, so beautifully and brilliantly done. Just 3 minutes you won’t regret. Go full screen.

Homer Simpson’s a pretty wacky guy, but you have to say he’s right on the money in his effusing about pie.

I decided to make a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, but wanted something a little different than the same ole, same ole. So I perused my collection of recipes (the size of which would have you thinking I was cooking/baking 3 meals daily every day of the week. Hah! Not quite.) I decided to make this yummy pie called “Paradise Pumpkin Pie.” You’ll get why in a second.

All the ingredients gathered to make the process go efficiently and smoothly.

I know this probably looks fine, but to me, it was kind of raggedy. It’s been a while since I made a pie crust, and I felt like I’d lost my magic touch (said the perfectionist.) This was a basic all-butter crust.

Now here’s what drew me to this pie and why they call it a “Paradise” Pumpkin Pie. This is the Paradise layer – a smooth mixture of cream cheese, an egg, some sugar, and vanilla. In essence, a layer of cheesecake to go under the pumpkin. Yum, right? Wait …

Don’t you love mixing up the pumpkin and all those spices? The smell alone is so delicious!

So here’s the pie right out of the oven. Not at all what the recipe photo looked like, and I admit I saw this problem as a potential right away – that the cheesecake layer could easily permeate the upper pumpkin layer. So I ever-so-carefully ladled – not poured – the pumpkin on top, doing my best not to disturb the Paradise layer. However, the result was a bit more like some kind of algae-blooming pie!

And here in the cooled slice, you can see the problem – exactly what I anticipated is what happened. The pie, instead of looking like a standard pumpkin pie with a surprise layer viewed when cut,  showed where the cheesecake layer had pushed up when the pumpkin was ladled over.

That said, the pie was delicious – the seasoning excellent, and the filling super creamy. Would I make this again? Sure. But now I’ll think of it as an “Almost Paradise Pumpkin Pie.” Then again, so many recipes, so little time.

p.s. After I put this post together, I realized I had actually made this pie – and posted about it – once before! Not only that, but it came out just fine 5 years ago. (A sure sign of a weary mind, but hey – now you can see what it should look like!) Check here for the recipe and an earlier version.

`Tis the season, and while you – or friends and family – are thinking of purchasing cards to send, it’s my season to give you some options!

Consider these two adorable Frenchies who have made it up to the kitchen table to have themselves a small feast of Christmas cookies. Anyone who has dogs – or cats – understands the possibility of coming into the kitchen and finding just such a scene. Have a counter surfer in your house? This is just a variation on a theme!

You can find these and other holiday cards on my website, as well as charming blank notecards that would make great gifts. Please shop!

 

roughwighting

Life in a flash - a weekly blog on daily living

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Mainly non-fiction book reviews. Science, nature, memoirs, history etc. Also fiction

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Some thoughts from author and agent Marie Lamba

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