Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Rereading

If you're familiar with this blog, you've seen my reading list section, which names every book I've read since 2011. I've kept this record more for my own edification than anything, but I feel it can also serve as a jumping-off point for anyone searching for a tome to consume or interested in what a writer actually takes in (short answer: everything).

But my list took a nosedive in 2017. The number of books I read last year was considerably lower than it had been in the past--fewer than my usual goal of one book per week. On the one hand, it is true that I slacked off, partly due to changing circumstances but also thanks to a newfound inability to concentrate on anything for very long (thank you, depression, for making it difficult for me to focus). On the other hand, I also decided to take time in the final quarter of the year to re-read five books that mean something to me.

It started with Steve Almond, whose (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions brightened my grad school days and which I wanted to revisit for its instructive wit and keen observation. His meditation on Kurt Vonnegut triggered in me a need to spend time with favorite novels of my own. So I went on to Robert Coover's Briar Rose, still a thrilling novella to behold some ten years after I first encountered it. The suffering lovers at the center of Coover's tale, of course, made me think of Thomas Hardy's exquisitely painful plots, so The Return of the Native called out to me. 

It was also October, though, and with Halloween upon the doorstep, I put Hardy on hold to tackle House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski's intricate tale of fractured humans and the things that haunt them. After that, it was back to Hardy, and then of course I had to round out the season with Fahrenheit 451, my long-standing favorite.

I could have gone on, poring over other novels that have influenced me along the way. In fact, I have no doubt I could make an entire career of living inside fictional worlds I've already encountered. More than likely, I will halt my new-to-me progress again this year to re-read more old loves.

Because it only feels right. In spite of the march of progress and the never-ending supply of new material (as well as my bad habit of going on book-buying binges), I feel I owe it to myself--and the novels, in a way--to look back. After all, what is the point of saying something like, "Oh, yes: The Bell Jar had a profound effect on my writing" if the details of that book are getting hazy and I can no longer cite specific moments that set me on fire? And anyway, re-reading gives you that same feeling you get when you go home for the holidays: relief, comfort, and anticipation of the good things ahead. (Side note: if this isn't how you feel about going home for the holidays, you have my sympathies, and also my permission to insert your own analogy here.)

As for what I re-read this time around, I can say the following:

- I relate to the characters in The Return of the Native better now than I did when I was 17, which made this a richer reading experience for me.
- Although House of Leaves didn't scare me this time (it terrified me as a 16-year-old), it still caught my attention and left me wanting the next page.
- Steve Almond is bae just as much today as he was when I first saw him in Cambridge, MA in 2011.
- Coover's work is every bit as magical as I remember.
- Fahrenheit still feels like my forever book, and I hope that never changes.

And I'm curious to know: what books do you like to re-read? Tell me in the comments. 

-Cate-

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

New Year, New(ish) Project: Food Food Food

Back in the day, when I was working on my first blog, What We Covet (RIP), I decided to branch out into food blogging with a venture called Food We Covet (double RIP). This endeavor was short-lived, due to several factors, including an unfortunate phobia of mine (triple RIP), but it came in handy when I took a course about food writing in grad school. One friend in particular--I'm not naming names, BUT YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE--has made it known that she desires the return of Food We Covet.

While I can't (read: won't) make that happen, I am able to start a new feature here, starting today with a story about a disaster that occurred in October.

Like many mothers, mine has a stockpile of old cookbooks, though some of hers are hidden away in the basement. So while I was waiting for my laundry to finish up one day, I started perusing the titles when I found a slim little volume of pumpkin recipes; I later learned that she didn't even realize she had it, which is why it had been tucked away so long (the receipt inside indicated she purchased it circa 1993). 


As it was Halloween month, I was pretty pumped (no pun intended, or maybe a little), and I decided to dive right in. Obviously I chose the toughest thing possible: a pumpkin soufflé. Soon enough, though, I asked myself the relevant question: WHAT THE FUCK WAS I THINKING.

Up until I got to the butter, things actually went pretty well. Canned pumpkin wasn't ideal, perhaps, but it was a nice way to save time. The ground ginger and nutmeg scents burst through my nose and immediately put me in the holiday mood. Even grating orange zest without a grater proved possible, if annoying (I used the ever-so-delicately serrated part of a table knife for this step, and my upper arms got a nice workout). 

But then the butter wasn't as soft as I thought it was, so it wouldn't blend with the other ingredients, and I wound up with tiny shards of butter in the batter, visible even without my glasses. This is the part where I almost cried, but I hadn't gotten to the eggs yet, so I had to pull myself together in order to separate the eggs in precisely the manner you're told not to separate them, which is to say by pouring the albumen and yolk back and forth from one half of the shell to the other. This is, naturally, the way I wound up with yolks in the white and vice versa. But hey--nobody's perfect.


It turns out, though, that the separation itself wasn't the problem. Rather, it was the fact that no one has ever shown me how to "stiffly beat" egg whites, or more precisely the fact that it is difficult to do this by hand. The short version of this story is that they were not stiffly beaten, although I think it's fair to say they were vigorously swirled around. I'm 99 percent certain this is what went wrong with the recipe.

I say that because the soufflé was well on the way to rising. When I cut into it, the texture was too dense, too wet, and I knew it hadn't gone my way, but it was also spongy, and I could see that the outside walls of it had started to fluff up.


Because the batter hadn't fully set, the whole thing fell apart as I tried to serve it up to my parents. Mom, understandably, abstained after her first bite, and I agreed that it was wrong--the flavors were off because the texture was bad, and it felt more like eating mangled pumpkin stew than anything. Dad happened to enjoy it, so I bequeathed the rest of the entire dish to him.

At any rate, it was nice to be back in the kitchen after not really setting foot in one for awhile, at least with any intention behind it. And while I soufflailed--as I told my friends--it was worth the effort to learn a lesson about how not to do a thing. Maybe I'll never attempt another soufflé, though.

-Cate-

PS For copyright purposes, I won't be sharing the exact recipe here, but if you're interested, e-mail me at CateIsMilesAway@gmail.com for more information.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

New Year, New Playlist: 2018

I had a tradition on my first blog, What We Covet, of starting each new year off with a playlist of music I intend to take with me throughout the year. As with the previous lists, the songs were culled from my current collection. Most aren't recent, but they certainly sound good to me, and that's really the goal of any playlist I ever make. They come to you in no particular order. I hope you'll check them out, if you're not already familiar with them. Enjoy!

***

2017 was shitty, y'all. I mean really, truly awful. In the interest of never having another year like that, let us proceed with fun, happy music!

1) "Barbara Ann," The Beach Boys

While I fully recognize that this song was specifically engineered to find the right balance between talent and fun, I don't care: it makes me really happy that it sounds like a jam session at some beach party, with the background noise and ashtray improvisation and everything else. Listen to it and you'll know why people think Brian Wilson is a genius.

2) "Just Dance," Lady Gaga

I'm gonna go ahead and tell you right now that I have scream-sung these lyrics into a phone in the past. Was I under the influence? I decline to say. Was it a good night? It certainly was.

3) "Happy," Pharrell Williams

This song is literally called "Happy." No way was I going to leave it off the list.

4) "Can't Stop the Feeling," Justin Timberlake

Is this song cheesy? I honestly can't decide. But even if it is, it makes me want to dance, and I think it's pretty uplifting, as well.

5) "The Way You Make Me Feel," Michael Jackson

Justin Timberlake's musical godfather Michael Jackson was, in my opinion, at his very best when he was protesting, such as in "They Don't Really Care About Us" or "Scream." But neither of those songs is cheerful at all. You know which of his tracks makes me smile the most? This one.

6) "Holiday," Madonna

Speaking of superstars from the '80s, here's Madonna imploring us all to take "some time to celebrate." With the new year here, why not take her advice?

7) "For Once In My Life," Stevie Wonder

Is it just me, or does Stevie Wonder always sound a little bit elated, even when he's singing sad-ish songs? I suppose the question is moot, as he's singing a genuinely happy song here.

8) "Cheap Thrills," Sia

There's something great about songs that declare, "I need you and that's it," as long as they don't have a creepy tinge to them. Sia only wants to be on the dance floor; it's her happy place. Let the lady hit her groove.

9) "Your Love Is My Drug," Kesha

Let me first say that I am so glad Kesha is back after all the upheaval and drama she experienced for a few years there. It's not that I miss glitter-bomb Kesha; it's more that I look forward to hearing her sound as excited about life as she does on this track.

10) "Like a Feather," Nikka Costa

It is absolutely criminal that Nikka Costa is not more famous than she is. This song alone should have done it: an anthem about letting go and relaxing for once--something I need to learn to do.

-Cate-

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Holiday Hiatus

Y'all, I am beat.

I'm not just tired in my body. I'm tired in my soul. And I want to take a break, go into hibernation like the animals do. Instead, the most I can manage is taking a holiday hiatus from this blog, which I hardly work on at all in the first place.

Here's hoping 2018 will be better, because I know I'm not the only one who needs to hit the reset button. 

-Cate-

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

On Adulthood

You remember when you were a kid and being an adult seemed so legit? You would get to vote and drive a car and use credit cards, and you wouldn't have a curfew because you'd be in charge of your own damn self. Your mom wouldn't pick out your clothes anymore, you could buy the food you wanted and none of the healthy stuff your parents thrust upon you, and you could finally--finally--live the life you thought you'd have (based on the happy endings of the films you loved).

Well, children, I am *cough*sputter*cough* years old, and I am here to tell you what you have undoubtedly gleaned for yourself: being an adult is bullshit.

I'm not just saying this because I'm in a bad place right now, although that is certainly a contributing factor. I'm also saying it because I've seen it reflected in the faces of friends and colleagues lately. But more importantly, I'm saying it because sometimes life as an adult sucks because you yourself suck.

This isn't my way of accusing anyone else of being lame or terrible. It's actually me acknowledging how awful I am myself, or at least how heinous I can be at times. Last week, when I wrote a post about youth being awesome, it was partly because I truly feel that way, and partly because I was hoping to find a way back to that good, boundless spirit young people often have. 

This past summer was foul, and it bled over into autumn, in no small measure because I've made two huge mistakes this year that altered the course of things and contributed to a deepening of my own depression. The first mistake--job related--is something I may be able to fix in the long run, if I can manage to recapture the drive I had in simpler, younger times.

The second mistake, a personal one--well, it looks like I won't be able to rectify the situation, which is at least 50 percent my fault and sent me into a spiral of self-doubt, anxiety, and pseudo-regret (I say pseudo because I don't actually regret this thing, just the way it turned out). Maybe someday I'll be able to claw myself out of that hole, but I can't count on that, because adults are stubborn and our brains aren't as easily rewired as they were when we were young, and it appears that no amount of passion, belief, or longing can change this.

Because of my brain chemistry, I've never been a naturally optimistic person, as I'm sure you can all tell from reading this. But I said it last week and I'll say it again: it would be great if we could learn something about having an outlook for a more hopeful future from our young people, because adults as a group could use an injection of that from time to time, so we don't end up constantly despairing about our lives.

-Cate-

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

On Youth

People often have trouble believing that I am *cough*sputter*cough* years old. It turns out that the single genetic gift my parents bestowed upon me (sorry, but it's true) is a young-looking face. Sometimes this works in my favor, such as when I was employed by a high school and needed to be able to connect with teenage students. Other times, it's a burden; people decline to take me seriously because I must have less experience or education.

Speaking as someone who is old enough to have finished grad school in 2012(!), though, I assure you that I've been through some shit (both personally and professionally), and the government has been trusting me to drive, consume alcohol, and vote for some time now. I've suffered through my quarter-life crisis, and my childhood pets are long gone. And I've reached an age that even adults consider to be adult-like.

But on the other hand, let's not discount youth! Young people--let's say 16-26--often have insights that full-blown adults do not, simply because adults have too much baggage and experience behind them to look at certain events or problems with fresh eyes. They are also full of energy, and some of them still have that boundless capacity for love and friendship that the rest of us have lost. Oftentimes, I've found that the creativity of young people far exceeds that of adults, because they are still at a time in life when others actively encourage their unusual points of view or their creative bents. 

I think youth is a good thing, and young people are an asset to our society. Let's not give them such short shrift. After all, as Whitney said, the children are our future.

-Cate-

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Process, or, Cate Hates Craft Books

Thanks to some excellent teamwork between Dunes Review, the official publication of Michigan Writers, and Traverse City's Brilliant Books, the unofficial coolest bookstore around, I was recently able to participate in both an in-store reading and an online interview as the author of a poem--"Rn (86)"--featured in the most recent issue of Dunes. Caitlin Marsh, the social media manager at Brilliant Books, gave me the option of answering some or all of the questions she posed, and I exercised my right (write?) to ignore a few of them, because I didn't think I had good answers. They were all about the writing and manuscript-sharing parts of being a writer.

Turns out I hate to talk about process, because it's boring. Not unimportant, mind you: mundane, uneventful. This is probably why I rarely made it to the end of any craft book ever assigned to me (five years out of grad school, now I can say things like this with impunity). Except for John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist. Fuck that book, which I stopped reading on its own (lack of) merit.

This is undoubtedly coming across as a little hypocritical of me, seeing as how much of my blog content stems from me trying to give advice about how to write. But I'm doing it in a way that makes sense to me: a little at a time, one topic at a time, not unlike the way Writer's Digest and other periodicals address craft. Too much, and it feels either preachy or stifling.

But I recognize two things here: first, that process IS important to all of us who write, and we can't ignore it. Second, that writers are lucky to have people who can--and are willing to--talk about it so we can deepen our understanding of the writing life. Many thanks to those people (yes, even John Gardner). You do important work, even if some of us are stubborn about addressing it.

-Cate-