Sunday, December 30, 2018

That New Year's baby had better be smiling.

I thought I had a topic all set for this week's blog post. I mean, here we are, in the liminal days between Christmas and New Year's, when the Lord of Misrule is in charge, and...yeah. Turns out I wrote about that last year

Which is too bad, because 2018 was quite the dumpster fire in a lot of ways -- worse than 2017, which was pretty terrible, and way worse than 2016, which only got super sucky toward the end. Remember our 2016 dumpster fire ornament? Boy, did we ever jump the gun.

Now 2019 is looming around the corner, and Baby New Year doesn't exactly look like he's ready to give us a joyous smile.

For me personally, I'm pretty sure this coming year will be better than the last few. We're in a much calmer living situation, for one thing, having fled the continuously-under-construction apartment building this past spring. (It's still undergoing renovation. Unbelievable.) And we're coming up on the one-year anniversary of the denouement of the decade-long saga of my mother's house and estate. (For more information on that, go here.) I thought publishing the memoir would be the end of it, but old family stuff never dies. I've spent the better part of this past year processing that, along with a bunch of other stuff.

But I'm ready to start writing again. I won NaNo last month, after all. And by the way, I want to thank y'all for your kind words the short-short story I posted last week. I'm going to dive into editing Rivers Run and writing the sequel as soon as I finish posting this. No, really. 

And for those of you following the #escapevelocity countdown, today's magic number is 341. 

Have a terrific New Year's celebration. See ya in 2019!

These moments of anticipatory blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A holiday tale for my readers.

Alert hearth/myth readers will recall that last Yule, I wrote a short, holiday-themed story for the blog. I had so much fun with it that this year I've done it again.

The main character is Raney Meadows, who also happens to be the protagonist of Rivers Run, the NaNo novel I wrote last month. This story is a prequel to the novel, but not by a lot. Hope you enjoy it. 

Happy holidays!

Copyright glayan |

So here’s why I gave the ex the old heave-ho. I refer to it as the Christmas mermaid incident.

Don’t look so surprised. Elementals celebrate Christmas, more or less. My mother, who’s an undine, knows Water Elementals who were there when Moses parted the Red Sea. They weren’t acquainted with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, of course, since they lived in the desert and all. But the sylphs of the Air carried the story to the Land, Fire, and Water Elementals, although some details might have gotten lost along the way. Sylphs are Air-headed, my mother always said.

Anyway, the point is that Elementals do celebrate human holidays, particularly when they’re passing as human, as Mam and I were. I’m half human anyway, and Mam thought the best way to keep my father from finding us was to live as if we weren’t Elementals at all. “Hiding in plain sight,” she called it.

I didn’t learn why we needed to hide from my father until much later.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Focus, Raney! Do you want people to think you’re a sylph?

We moved around a lot when I was a kid. Mam would get a feeling that my father was closing in on us and she’d whisk us off to a new place. A lot of the time, we left in a hurry, with not much more than the clothes we were wearing. But Mam always made sure we saved one thing: a Christmas ornament in the shape of a mermaid. Now this wasn’t one of those Disney princesses, or some sexy siren in a coconut bra. This lovely lady wore a black off-the-shoulder bodice with white trim, and her blond hair was in marcel waves. I thought she was the most beautiful, most elegant creature in the world. She’s probably the reason I decided to become an actor. I wanted to be just as beautiful and elegant as her.

Anyway, wherever we washed ashore, she was the first thing we hung on our Christmas tree. Mam said if she was there, we were home.

When I got my big acting break – the lead in a TV crime drama – and I bought the beachfront house in Malibu, Mam gave her to me. “She’ll like it at your house,” Mam said. “It will be like going home for her.” She pretended she wasn’t crying, so I didn’t say anything. I just got a stand for her and put her on a table in the living room that overlooked the ocean. That’s where she was when the ex moved in.

I don’t want to say his name because it might draw him back, but you know who I mean. Our relationship was in all the magazines. He was tall and hunky, and I was short and cute (I could do beautiful, but not without a couple of hours in a makeup chair). Unfortunately, he knew how good-looking he was. And the only thing he was really interested in was money.

Why did I let him move in? It was the classic Hollywood story: We shot a movie together, during which we spent several hours every day in and out of bed. Pretty soon it felt real.

The trouble started the first time he didn’t see me in the pool. As an undine, I have an affinity for water. Which is to say that when I’m in it, I can become one with it.

It’s not a thing I let many people know about, because they tend to react the way T&H did: “Where did you come from? One minute the pool was empty, and the next, you’re climbing out of it naked! It’s like you materialized or something!”

“Or something,” I said. “Hand me that towel, would you, sweetie?”

He struck a pose and smirked. “Maybe I’ll just let you get out on your own.”

It took several months, but eventually he got the full story out of me – and then he started pestering me to go public with it. “You should tell Sid,” he said one day as we sat on my sofa together. The French doors were open to the pool deck and the ocean breeze.

Sid was my agent. I got cold chills just thinking about what Tall and Hunky was suggesting. My father was still looking for my mother – if he heard about the undine in the movies, it wouldn’t take him long to track me down, and then her. “That would be a bad idea,” I said to T&H.

“Why? You could make millions of dollars from this gimmick!”

“It’s not a gimmick,” I said. “It’s part of my nature.”

“Nature, schmature,” he jeered. “You just don’t want to be rich.”

“I thought we were doing pretty well already,” I said, pointing to the view. The conversation was giving me an urge to run out onto the deck, pass the pool, and swan dive into the waves. Strong emotions do that to me.

“I’m sick of this, Raney,” he said, pulling out his phone. “If you won’t call him, I will. What’s his number?”

I took the phone from his hand – he was strong, but I was Elemental strong – and tossed it out onto the deck. “No!” I said. “It’s too dangerous! You don’t understand what you’re asking me to do!”

He stared hard at me. “Oh, I understand, all right,” he growled. Then he pushed past me – to retrieve his phone, I thought. But he snatched the mermaid ornament from its stand. “You care more about being a mermaid than you do about me!” he said, clenching her in his fist.

I gasped in fear for her. “I’m not a mermaid,” I said. “Give her back.”

“Call Sid!”

“Not until you give her back!”

An evil smile lit his face. He wound up like a major league pitcher and threw the ornament out the open door. It sailed in an arc over the pool and the deck beyond, and was gone. “You were never gonna call him,” he said.

I was so livid, I didn’t stop to think. Instinct caused me to call upon the water in the pool. It rose up in a towering wall and, with a surgical strike, swept T&H off his feet and out my front door.

I followed and watched him tumble down my driveway to the street, screaming all the way. “And don’t come back!” I called. “I’ll ship your junk to your wife!” I slammed the door and locked it.

Then I sat on the sofa, trembling, as loss and relief tumbled around inside me. True, I’d averted disaster for my mother and me – but at what price? The man I’d spent three years loving was gone. He’d proven himself unworthy, but still. And I’d lost the mermaid ornament – my only tangible connection to my childhood.

I walked to the other side of the deck and peered over the side. It was a sheer drop of hundreds of feet to the surf below. Nope, she was gone for good.

I turned and and bleakly regarded my empty pool. If I hadn’t been so upset, I would have thought to leave enough water in the bottom for a soak.

My bathtub was a poor substitute, but it did the job. I submerged and dissolved, letting the water leach my overwhelming emotions from each individual molecule.

Sometime later, after I’d reassembled and gotten dressed, I called Sid. “Look,” I said. “I need to get out of town for a while and clear my head. I’m going to…to…” My eyes lit on a Blu-Ray that T&H had left behind: A Walk in the Woods. I smiled and said, “I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail.”

Now? Can’t it wait ‘til shooting wraps for the season?”

“No, it can’t,” I said, thinking fast. “If I want to start in Georgia, I need to go now, before it gets hot.”

He gave me a long-suffering sigh. “Okay, Raney, I’ll call the producer and see what he says. But you know the show’s teetering in the ratings. If you take off, the network might just cancel it.”

“I won’t be gone long,” I said. “I just need to get out of town for a while.” Long enough for T&H to convince himself I wasn’t magical – just crazy.

As I ended the call, I thought I heard a giggle and a distant splash. Puzzled, I walked into the living room – and stopped. 

A watery trail led from the deck railing to the table where the mermaid used to hold court. To my surprise, she was back – dripping wet, but otherwise undamaged. I swear she winked at me.

I rushed to the railing and yelled, “Thank you!” into the wind. I wasn’t sure what I’d done to deserve the mermaids’ favor, but I was grateful anyway.

Little did I know that payback time was coming. In just a few weeks, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, I would find the body of a kayaker who wasn’t a kayaker but who was definitely dead.

But that’s a story for another time.
These moments of damp but festive blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Cookie weekend 2018.

This year's spoils. One more batch to go!
This weekend was my annual cookie baking blitz, and I am happy to report that the Awesome Kitchen that came with the new apartment has performed every bit as spectacularly as I thought it would.

For my holiday cookie recipes, I rely mostly on old favorites, as I suspect most people do. I've been using the same recipe for Toll House chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies for 40 years now; I got it from my mother, who used it for as long as I can remember.

Every now and then, though, I try something new. Sometimes it works (the gluten free almond-cardamom snowballs are really good) and sometimes it doesn't (the chocolate molasses cookies at the far right are meh). But I'm struck by the differences in the way recipes are written now. Come with me as I don my Old Farts hat and compare a recipe of today to one of yesteryear...

Let's take those almond-cardamom balls. Basically it's a shortbread cookie with spices and stuff mixed in, except it uses gluten-free flour that has xanthan gum already added so it behaves like regular flour. The result is still kind of crumbly, but shortbread is mostly butter anyway, so it's not as noticeable here as it might be in other cookies.

My mother's Betty Crocker Cookbook (copyright 1950) has a recipe for almond crescents that's pretty similar, so I'll compare it to the almond balls I made today. That recipe came from our local grocery store. 

The snowballs call for confectioners' sugar instead of granulated in the dough. I have no idea why, unless it's to make the ingredient list a little shorter. Betty calls for less flour -- 1 2/3 cups to 2 cups of GF flour -- but that's not a huge difference. 

The big difference is in the directions. Betty's are very short: "Mix together thoroughly" the shortening, sugar and ground almonds, then "stir together and work in" the flour and salt. Then, "chill dough," she says. Her directions for forming the cookies and rolling them in confectioners' sugar are similarly perfunctory. 

The directions for the snowballs, by contrast, take up half a column and assume you're an idiot in the kitchen. Step 1 is to use a food processor on the nuts "until very finely chopped but not pasty." Step 2 tells you to use a hand mixer or stand mixer to mix the dough, then "cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight." Step 3 starts with, "Remove cookie dough from refrigerator" -- no, really? Then you're supposed to line your cookie sheets with parchment paper (they're full of butter -- what's the parchment for? It's not like they're going to stick to the pan) and then, "with mini cookie scoop, scoop and roll dough into 1-inch balls." Step 4 is to bake them; step 5 is to roll them in confectioners' sugar. Of course, the directions are far more detailed than that.

I know kids today don't have to take home ec., but wow. 

I was a rebel. I used a hand chopper for my nuts, a hand-held pastry blender to cream the butter and sugar, and a spoon to scoop my dough. The cookies still turned out fine.

Here's the recipe, with the directions re-written for those of you who aren't idiots. It's from the December 2018 issue of "Savory." 

Gluten-Free Snowballs (Almond-Cardamom Variation)

Cream together:
1 c. (2 sticks) butter
1/2 c. confectioners' sugar

Mix in:
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

Work in: 
2 c. all-purpose gluten-free flour
1 c. chopped almonds
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt

Chill dough for 2 hours or overnight. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and place on cookie sheets 1 inch apart. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes, then roll in confectioners' sugar. Let cool thoroughly and roll in confectioners' sugar again.

(The recipe says it makes 28 servings but neglects to mention how many cookies are in a serving. I got 4 dozen cookies. You do the math.)

These moments of sweet baking blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Hark! A madrigal or two.

One of the joys of the holiday season for us is taking in a performance of the Christmas Revels. There are a number of Revels organizations around the country -- our local branch is the Washington Revels -- but in all of them, everyone involved is a volunteer, and every year they put on a holiday show that features a different historical era or nation or both.

In DC, this year's show is set in Elizabethan England. There's a very loose storyline -- Elizabeth I travels to the town of Norwich to celebrate Yule with the country folk, and there runs into Will Kemp, a former member of Shakespeare's theater troupe. Kemp has just completed a marketing stunt: he has Morris danced the 100 miles from London to Norwich (which really happened, just not at Yule). Anyway, the point of a Revels show is the music; the storyline is a convenient scaffolding on which to hang a bunch of songs and dances. And they make the audience get up and sing, too. (One of these years I'm going to nail the arpeggio in the third part of "Dona Nobis Pacem," I swear it.)

Fun fact to know and tell: I went off to college intending to major in music. My first semester disabused me of the idea pretty rapidly, but I did gain a few things, among them an appreciation for Renaissance music. So I was pleased, but not really surprised, during yesterday's show when I found myself fa-la-la'ing along to a song I recognized because I have a recording of it.

I couldn't have told you the name of the tune, however; I had to look it up. It's a madrigal called "Hark all ye lovely saints above" by Thomas Weelkes. Wikipedia says Weelkes was the organist at Winchester College around 1600. Then he moved to Chichester Cathedral after earning a music degree from Oxford. He is best known for writing vocal music -- madrigals as well as music for Anglican services. He also apparently had a drinking problem and was a "notorious swearer and blasphemer." That last bit endears him to me, but apparently not to the church elders, as eventually he was fired. He died in London at the age of 47.

Okay, so what's a madrigal? It's a type of secular choral music developed in the Renaissance and featuring up to eight people singing in harmony. The part about harmony is important. Until medieval times, every piece of music was monophonic -- in other words, it had a melody and that was it. Gregorian chant, for example, is monophonic. But in the Middle Ages, composers began introducing a second melodic line as a counterpoint. By Weelkes' time, 400 or so years later, things had gotten crazy. In fact, the Elizabethan age is considered to be the greatest era for music in English history. (Until the Beatles, I guess.)

The thing about Weelkes is that he created moods with his music. Here's "Hark all ye lovely saints above" with the lyrics so you can follow along. The song is in a major key, but when he gets to "why weep ye?" it switches to a minor key. The same thing happens later, on "ere ladies mourn." It's a little like a tone poem. (Think of the fa-la-las as the Renaissance version of shoo-be-doo-wop and they won't seem so weird.)

This is not the recording I own, by the way. Mine is on Welcome Sweet Pleasure by the Waverly Consort, an album that was never released on CD. As it happens, the title tune from that album is another madrigal by Weelkes. Here's a version of it. (Fair warning: More fa-la-las ahead...)

On that happy note, have a great week!

These moments of polyphonic blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Welcome, Yule!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

All I want for Christmas.

You may have seen the meme that's begun floating around Facebook about the difference in the nature of holiday wish lists. Here's the version I saw today:
Christmas is so much worse as you get older. It's like, "What do you want?"
"Financial security. A career. A sense of purpose. A nap would be nice."
I can relate.

When my daughters were small, the rule was that they had to make their holiday wish lists when the TV was turned off. The idea was to have them put down things they actually wanted, and not whatever new shiny thing was featured in whatever commercial they happened to be watching at the time. It wasn't that they never asked for a thing they'd seen advertised on TV, but at least the desire for it had stuck with them after the show was over.

Then they wanted a list from me. I had several problems with this request:
  • I knew how big their allowances were.
  • I was doing the "simple living" thing, or trying to, so I didn't want to encourage anyone to buy me a bunch of stuff I didn't need and wouldn't use -- least of all my kids, in whom I was supposed to be instilling values and whatnot.
  • The stuff I actually needed -- grownup things like a new car or enough money pay off a credit card -- I knew they couldn't afford to get me.
  • And to make things even more complicated, my birthday is a little over two weeks before Christmas, so I had to come up with enough realistic gift ideas for both occasions.
So I would compromise. I would list a few things I could use that I knew they could afford, and then I'd add some ringers. World peace made the list every year. "An end to hunger" did, too. Sadly, I never got either one.

Now that the girls are much older, we still exchange wish lists -- but these days, filling them out is usually a matter of poking around on Amazon plus a hobby-specific website or two. Too, we try to buy local and support small businesses. And as I head closer to retirement, I'm once again considering stuff with an eye toward whether I'll want to move it in a couple of years -- not to mention whether I'll have space for it when I downsize.

But two things will always make my list: world peace and an end to hunger. Who knows? Maybe some day I'll get 'em.

A nap would be nice, too, though. Too bad Amazon doesn't sell them.

Speaking of holidays, Hanukkah starts tonight. We here at hearth/myth wish peace, joy and love to those who celebrate it -- and everybody else, too, for that matter.

Oh, by the way, I won NaNaWriMo. And the book has a name at last. The series title is Elemental Keys and the title of the first book is Rivers Run. I've already started writing book two, which shall remain nameless for now, mostly because I came up with the title before I wrote the book outline and now I'm thinking I might change it. Stay tuned...

These moments of bloggy generosity have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.