“Thriving on Neglect”

Spring is just a few days away, although it seems New England has not received the memo. Yesterday was blisteringly cold, with a wind chill in negative territory in some spots. It’s times like this that having a little green in your life—or home—provides some much-needed reassurance that spring is somewhere on the horizon.

But if you’re like me, trying to keep a plant alive can been more difficulty than shoveling your car out from under three blizzards’ worth of snow. That’s why I sought out Lyndsay Maver, the creative mind, and hands, behind Lynzarium terrariums. Lyndsay’s been working at her art (and her process is definitely more that of an artist than a gardener) for years, and her work has even appeared on one of my favorite shows “CBS Sunday Morning” (no judgement).

Photo Courtesy of Lyndsay Maver

Photo courtesy of Lyndsay Maver

Lyndsay swears that terrariums “thrive on neglect,” (I feel that could be a metaphor for Bostonians this winter) and I took that not only as reassurance, but also a challenge. Could I possible kills this little natural piece of art? We will see.

Now, more about Lyndsay. The fact that she started her own line of sought-after terrariums almost seems predetermined. She grew up in Beverlt, MA with two gardening parents. She studied studio art in college and then like any smart New Englander, she headed to Cali. In the land where plans thrive outside all year round Lyndsay started planting flowers and plants wherever she could, even in coffee cups.

Photo courtesy of Lyndsay Maver

Photo courtesy of Lyndsay Maver

Lyndsay moved back east and Lynzariums were born. She now works out of a studio on the North Shore and takes orders for private clients, corporate events, and weddings (think how amazing it would be to take home a centerpiece that would last longer than two days. How brilliant!).

Courtesy of Lyndsay Maver

Courtesy of Lyndsay Maver

As Lyndsay described her working style to me it really sunk in that this is indeed an art form. Lyndsay uses a variety of elements: succulents, cacti, and air plans along with locally sourced drift wood, rocks and shells she finds on the beach. Then there’s the sand and dirt she arranges in patters and swirls at the base of her terrariums. Amazing. She chooses a vessel and then starts to create, placing items in the vessel, arranging and rearranging. I imagine a painter would have a similar approach, seeking different angles to admire (or criticize) their work. She described how after sometimes hours of tweaks and adjustments, everything seems to come together (or, she admits, she takes everything out and starts again).

Photo courtesy of Lyndsay Maver

Photo courtesy of Lyndsay Maver

What I find amazing about her work is the balance that she finds, even when there may literally be no balance. Here’s what I mean: she finds a away to incorporate different textures (sand, rocks, shells, plastic mushrooms even), colors (a variety of greens, pinks, deep reds in some succulents) and sizes. If you saw them in any other setting you would think that they would not go together, or that you would need a pair of each to find “balance.” But Lyndsay’s creations are perfectly imperfect. It seems the elements were made to be together.

“Using the creative part of my brain and having fun with it is great,” she told me. “But then to have people appreciate is pretty cool too.” And appreciate it people do. In addition to her work’s appearance on TV, she has been featured in The Boston Globe, and bloggers like Erin Gates have featured Lynzariums on their Instagram feeds.

Like many of the talented folks I have interviewed, Lyndsay loves the fact that she is able to do what she loves. “I don’t mind work. It’s my escape.”

So now as the wind howls outside my window, and I worry that this winter of Boston’s discontent will never end, I have a beautiful terrarium sitting on my coffee table reminding me that spring will eventually arrive and things will be green again…just like my lovely Lynzarium.

My very own Lynzarium. Look at that sand and dirt swirl!

My very own Lynzarium. Look at that sand and dirt swirl!

A view from above

A view from above

Many thanks to Lyndsay Maver for sharing her story with me. I was not compensated for this post.

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An Old Fashioned Path to Love?

There are many of us out there looking for love. We try bars, we accept any and all fix-ups, some of us dabble in online dating, and some try apps (don’t try to deny it, I know you swipe). But in this day and (technological) age, does there come a point when we should leave all those modern devices behind and attempt to find someone special in a more traditional way? For my friend, who I will call “Suzy” for the purposes of this post, putting her romantic fate in the hands of her parents and a matchmaker reminds us all it’s never as easy as it looks.

(note: while I did change Suzy’s name this story is true one)

cuffed

Let me set the stage, Suzy and I were having a drink, we had traded texts and emails over the preceding months, but it was probably six months since our last face-to-face catch up. “What’s been going on?” I asked, not realizing how substantial her update would be. “Well, I was recently engaged for three months,” Suzy replied nonchalantly. When last we saw each other she did not have a steady boyfriend (although what is that these days?) so I was understandably shocked. I mean my chin hit the floor and I let out a prolonged and painful sounding “WHAT?” Then Suzy launched into her story which made me laugh hysterically, then think deeply about cultural nuances, and the criteria that we all use to judge who would make a good life partner for ourselves and those we love.

Suzy took a sip of her martini and began by explaining how her mother (who, along with her father, split time between New York and Taiwan) had grown frustrated by Suzy’s inability to find a suitable husband. At 35, Suzy’s mom thought she was old and on her way to being a spinster. Her mother decided to take matters into her own hands and work with (i.e. pay thousands of dollars to) a matchmaker to find Suzy a nice, successful, Chinese husband.

The parents of her soon-to-be finance, a 40-something New York City dentist, must have felt the same way. They paid the same matchmaker a lot of money, hoping (I can only assume) that it would bring their child happiness…and them piece of mind.

I’m not sure if I was more surprised by the fact that Suzy’s mom thought she was in such a tough spot, (it had not occurred to me) or the fact that this was the prescribed remedy. Matchmaking with the expectation of a date is not uncommon, I even wrote a post about a high-priced matchmaker. But matchmaking with the expectation of marriage is a practice that I had assumed had gone out of style, at least in America, a hundred years ago.

Disclosure: based on Suzy’s description and my own research, it is much more common in Chinese culture for parents and matchmakers to be involved in helping singles find spouses. This type of matchmaking happens informally (and not always with an exchange of money) in many other cultures as well, even in 2014. So despite my initial disbelief that this was Suzy’s real life and not a sitcom, this is not be quite as crazy as you may think. But Mom and Dad don’t get any ideas!

When Suzy’s mother told her about the matchmaker, instead of being offended and outraged (which is what I would have done), a very practical Suzy said why not. If she was not having luck finding her soul mate on her own, maybe it was worth a shot to see what an expert could come up with.

And with that, a first date was set…with both sets of parents, in from China, in tow. I asked Suzy what one wears to a blind date/betrothal dinner in 2014. “Well, I went with business casual,” she stated matter-of-factly. Who was I to disagree?

Suzy got a ring and a succession of dates with her new fiancé. She described him as “fine” and “nice.” But after three months, and a few make-out sessions, she realized this was not a love connection. Despite the fact that they had many cultural and intellectual similarities, he was not the one for her. She said that when she explained this to him, he didn’t put up much of a fight; he seemed to know it too. Despite their seeming compatibility, there was just something missing…shall I be cliché and say…chemistry?

Suzy’s mom was furious. She spent a lot of money to find her this perfect man, and I can only assume she thought Suzy didn’t truly appreciate the opportunity. I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe Suzy did appreciate the opportunity, but realized she wasn’t right for her.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Dating stinks, it really does. I think anyone who says that it’s fun is lying (or just on Tinder). You spend a great deal of time and energy on a stranger just to realize you don’t really like his jokes (or more importantly he doesn’t get yours), or he can’t carry on an intelligent conversation on mid-term elections, or he gets so drunk you wonder if he has a problem. After so many lousy dates, I can see how having someone perfect for you (in theory) dropped in your lap would be appealing.

But if we didn’t have to weed through all those bad dates, those painful conversations and those head-scratching moments (Didn’t he say he was 5’10” in his profile?) would we really appreciate when we find a good one who laughs at our jokes, and teaches us something about the new Majority Leader, and is 5’7” and we don’t care?

Well, I’m not really sure, I’m single, but I will let you know when I find out.

 

Thanks to my dear friend Suzy who let me write about her life. And a shout out to my creative partner in crime Bill Knight for creating the visual for this post. It’s good to have friends in high places.

Tough Love

Do you ever have one of those experiences that suddenly casts everything in your life into doubt? Good, I hope you never do. I don’t wish it on anyone…or then again, maybe I do.

I recently had one of these experiences, it was a conversation over lunch that sent me reeling and had made me rethinking my life and my choices. If you read this blog regularly you know I do have moments of self-doubt (don’t we all?), but usually these periods of self-pity self-analysis are passing and I’m able to find the silver lining in any situation pretty quickly. This one was tough to shake off.

On a recent trip back to my former city, NYC, I visited my first professional stomping ground: the CBS Radio network newsroom on 57th Street. This newsroom contains a lot of history, both for the profession of journalism (it’s where Walter Cronkite delivered his nightly newscasts) and for me personally. I was actually supposed to go in to CBS on September 11th 2001, but after smoke started rising from lower Manhattan (visible both on TV and out my window), I walked downstairs to use a pay phone (remember those?) on 78th Street I left a message for the woman who would hire me a few days later. The message went something like this:

“Hi Linda. This is Emily Mahlman. Obviously I know you are really busy this morning. I’m not sure if you still want me to come in. I don’t think the subways are running, but I can walk. And even if you don’t have time for the interview, but if you need any help in the newsroom, I’d be happy to come down, even if it’s just to help you answer the phones. Thank you!”

I started the next week, at a distinct moment in history, working long hours, nights, weekends, and loving every minute of it (although on the day of my visit, Linda said she remembered me crying a lot, which I have absolutely no memory of. I’m such a drama queen). I learned so much from the amazing journalists in that newsroom. I also made some great friends. One of them is named Ingrid. She still lovingly (I hope) refers to me as a pilgrim (my going away cake referred to me as “Mayflower Madam”), I hypothesize because I was (and still am) so pale and have the lexicon of an octogenarian.

That day, after a decade away, I managed to find my way to the newsroom (the hallways of the CBS Broadcast center, which used to be a dairy, are so narrow, long and uniform that it really was a miracle) and was hit with a wave of nostalgia. Familiar sounds, smells, and smiles. After delivering hugs and updates to my former colleagues in the newsroom, Ingrid and I crossed 11th Avenue to have lunch.

Photo Courtesy of Charlie Kaye

Photo Courtesy of Charlie Kaye

Ingrid is also a writer, a very talented one at that, so as we caught up on life, talk naturally turned to writing. Ingird doesn’t sugarcoat things; it’s one of the things that makes her such a valued friend. As our meals arrived, she asked me if I regret leaving New York. She recited all the reasons I had given her, over another meal five years prior, for why I was moving to Boston (wanting to slow down the breaking news pace of my life, wanting to have more time to write what I want to write, wanting to make more time for a personal life) and asked me if I was happy with my progress. She basically called me out on my shit. I didn’t know what to say, and she was waiting for an answer. I did a quick survey: at times I am just as tightly wound as I was when I was a journalist, I still haven’t written the book I’ve talked about for years and I’m not married.

As she waited for me to answer, my voice started to quiver and my eyes filled with tears. “Are you disappointed in me?” is all I could croak. I was being confronted with the reality of a huge life choice, one I can honestly say I never regretted before that moment, and suddenly I was worried I had made a terrible mistake.

She insisted that she was not disappointed in me. She is a devoted follower of this blog, and acknowledged that it would not exist if I had stayed in The City. But that did little too quite the suddenly excruciatingly loud voices in my head.

“Are you crying?” Ingrid asked, as if she could not believe I was reacting this way. I tried not to blink. I didn’t want the moisture welled in my eyes to be forced down my cheeks.

Weeks after this conversation–weeks of inactivity on this blog—Ingrid again doled out a dose of tough love in the form of a Facebook post.

Take 3

Her message was loud and clear: even if I had made a mistake (still deciding, may be deciding the rest of my life), and even if I was lacking the free time and inspiration to keep this blog up the way I like to, I just have to suck it up and keep going. I may not have accomplished everything I set out to when I got behind the wheel made my brother get behind the wheel of that U-Haul headed to Boston. And every post on this blog may not be a work of art in prose, but that’s ok. I’ll just keep moving forward, and eventually I will get there, wherever there is. And if I don’t, because circumstances or priorities change, that’s ok too. I’d rather my life be a zigzag than a straight line.

Thank goodness I have friends to give me a swift kick in the butt when I need it. Thanks Ingrid!

 

 

My Next Adventure

Drum roll please…this is my 100th post!  I know, where did the time go?

It’s been 100 adventures: some smaller in scale, some larger, some had me (and you) laughing, some made me cry. But one thing all my adventures have in common is that they all taught me something new, and usually that something was about myself. I have been surprised by what I’m capable of (remaining calm while bee keeping), and humbled by my very obvious limitations (of the vocal variety). But each week I put myself out there—comfortable with possible failure and potential public embarrassment on an ever-growing scale—all in an effort to find what I am truly passionate about.

I’m constantly developing, and soliciting, ideas for what to try next. Sometimes these ideas come from you, sometimes I come up with them myself after reading or watching someone incredibly interesting, and sometimes I’m inspired by my friends…some of whom you have met on this blog in the past.

A few weeks ago, while I pondered the milestone that this post represents–and what goals I want to set for the next 100 posts–I watched a documentary that was stunning, both visually and emotionally. The Other Side of the Ice is the story of one family’s adventure sailing the Northwest Passage, the icy route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and which hugs the arctic. Full disclosure: my friend Chauncey Tanton not only field produced the film, he also takes on the role of moral compass during a critical part of the journey that he set off on with his siblings and stepfather. Having made documentaries myself, I know how challenging filmmaking can be. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to make a film while navigating one of the most dangerous waterways in the world.

This is a family of adventurers, and that is what inspired me most. I call my weekly escapades “adventures,” but I’m being very generous using that word to describe what I do. Watching The Other Side Of The Ice made me hungry for a real adventure. I spoke with him as I started brainstorming what I could and should do, to find out what a true adventurer thought of my novel plan. I was excited that Chauncey was full of ideas for me.

“When you step into the unknown, that’s where adventure begins,” he told me, and he’s right. An adventure for me, may not be an adventure for someone else, and certainly not for Chauncey. Whenever we as individuals step outside our comfort zone, whatever that may be, it’s an adventure.  It crystalized for me when Chauncey described adventures as “where itineraries don’t exist.”

Photo courtesy of Chauncey Tanton

Photo courtesy of Chauncey Tanton

Chauncey describes this trip as “the adventure of a lifetime,” not only because it was so grueling and so remote, but because they were blazing a trail in many ways. He and his family were under near constant stress. He said the stress manifested itself as the feeling you get right before riding a roller coaster…for six months straight. They were making critical decisions about icebergs and polar bears all day, every day. But for as difficult as it was, it was hugely rewarding both because it brought his family closer together (one of the most powerful story lines of the film in my opinion), but also because they went where only 24 other boats had ever been before. That is a spectacular accomplishment.

And in yet another example of how the biggest challenges lead to the biggest rewards, two weeks ago, The Other Side Of The Ice won an Emmy for best topical documentary.

Now let’s be honest, I don’t think I have a six-month-long arctic expedition in me. But I’m going to find something that truly pushes me past my limits…and for longer than just a day. So far I have one vote for climbing Kilimanjaro (a friend said he hiked it with a 13-year-old, so I should be able to survive), and Chauncey suggested I find someone to let me tag along on the seasonal boat migration from Newport to a warmer winter destinations (he did warn me that I would be considered “dead weight,” so this may require some sweet talking on my part), but I’m also looking for other suggestions. So bring the adventures on! This will take some planning, so this may not happen next week, or even next month, but I am pledging to do it…and write about it.

Chauncey, too, is embarking on his next adventure. This guy, who has already lived a very adventurous life (professional snowboarder, conqueror of the Northwest Passage, with a little high finance sprinkled in for good measure), is now poised to take on New York City. As a recovering New Yorker myself, I have no doubt that he will make his mark on the city where every day is an adventure in some way. After all, as he told me, he sets lofty goals, focuses, and doesn’t give up until he achieves them. Sounds like someone else I know…

Photo courtesy of Chauncey Tanton

Photo courtesy of Chauncey Tanton

Thank you to Chauncey Tanton for sharing his story with me. The Other Side Of The Ice is available on itunes and Amazon, and obviously, I highly recommend it. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

Me Write Pretty One Day

I am one of the millions of people who are making cursive the endangered species of writing.  As The New York Times observed over a year ago, for many Americans especially those currently in school, cursive is less than common, it can be a downright mysterious. Let’s face it, more and more we like to print. And if cursive is dwindling in popularity, then calligraphy (a style of highly decorative handwriting with many flourishes) is truly a lost art.

I walked into a calligraphy lesson with the lovely and talented Mindy Barber not realizing how much of an art calligraphy actually is. Mindy has always loved handwriting and had a calligraphy set as a child. She taught herself some techniques, and then, as an adult, built upon that foundation through lessons with accomplished calligraphers, including a “Master Penman” (how’s that for a title?). Mindy now practices for her own enjoyment, and also creates beautiful wedding invitations and envelopes for family, friends and those lucky enough to fit into her busy schedule (she has a wildly successful full-time career as well). Her calligraphy has appeared in Town & Country Weddings and the wedding website The Knot.

Mindy hard at work

First Mindy introduced me to all the tools we would use during our afternoon of practicing calligraphy, including the pen holder; the long cylinder that a calligrapher holds in their hand (and that the rest of us would likely think was the actual pen). On the tip of the holder is the pen, which is removable and holds the ink until it is pressed to paper and the ink is released from the tip of the pen, or the nib. For our lesson we used an oblique pen, which Mindy said would allow me to better see the letters I was writing.

Oblique pen holder and pen

Mindy patiently explained the two basics of calligraphy: thick and thin lines. The downstrokes should be thick and the upstrokes thin. Lines are made thick by pressing down hard with the nib. A lighter touch will result in thinner lines. Sounds simple enough, right? Weeeeellllll, easier said that done.

Before we got started, Mindy’s wisely suggested we warm up. Just like stretching before a run, this would get us ready for our activity…or at least it was supposed to. We started by drawing circles over and over again; this would form the basis for many letters and their embellishments. Mindy’s circles were perfectly circular. Mine were irregular and lopsided. This exercise proved to be my first hint that this was not going to be as easy as I first thought. Then, as if ripped from the aforementioned Times article, I had to review cursive letters after I forgot how to form an “f” and struggled with a “b.”

Working very hard at drawing beautiful letters

My light-bulb moment came when Mindy explained that many master penmen consider calligraphy an art form; in this vein we would be drawing letters, not writing them. This made me feel much better about struggling with an act that I do every day of my life. If calligraphy is an art, then it’s only logical that it requires instruction, talent and a great deal of practice. I watched Mindy elegantly move her pen across the paper. She briefly picked it up off the paper over parts of certain letters that serve as contact points of multiple pen strokes (like the middle of an “f”) so that there would not be a blob of extra ink to mar the letter. This is just one example of the subtle skill needed to draw beautiful letters. Mindy has been practicing for years, making me feel silly to think I would be able to succeed after just one lesson.

But luckily I did not succeed at all, so I didn’t have to ruminate on that for long. Proof can be found in my alphabet, doodles, wobbly circles and name below.

And here’s Mindy’s beautiful version of her name (notice the thickness and thinness of the pen strokes):

While I may not have gained a great deal of calligraphy skill during my afternoon with Mindy, I did gain a new and powerful appreciation for the art of calligraphy and for calligraphers, like my dear friend. Like a painting hanging in a museum, calligraphy should be appreciated as the art that it is. So next time you receive a wedding invitation in the mail, after you rip it open, take a moment to pause and appreciate the effort and skill that it took to draw such beautiful letters. I know I will.

Many thanks to my friend, Mindy Barber, not only for taking the time to try to teach me the art of calligraphy, but also for creating the beautiful header at the top of this post. Her patience and good humor are always appreciated. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

Toyidermy

What is Toyidermy you ask? Good question. To get the answer I spent Sunday afternoon laughing and crafting with the creator of Toyidermy; the blogger and my friend, Kelly McAuley. In the simplest terms Toyidermy is like taxidermy, but with toy animals instead of dead ones. Kelly’s creative juices started flowing after she saw a set of golden animal place card holders for sale at Anthropology. Crafty since childhood, the set’s price tag made Kelly wonder if she could make her own. She purchased a jug of rubber animal toys and got to work. She dubbed the result Toyidermy, and her creations are sweeping, if not yet the actual world, at least the etsy world!

Great Wide Open place card holders

After creating her place card holders, Kelly branched out to wall mounted animal heads – and butts – business card holders, pins, coasters and even wine stoppers. She is customizing some species for football fans (think the Auburn tiger), and with the election and then holiday season right around the corner I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

During our afternoon together Kelly let me make my own business card holder. She asked me what my favorite animal is, and although she did not have a llama (which seems to be popular only with me and other Sesame Street kids from the 80’s), my giraffe was clearly an amazing second choice.

We started by doing a little surgery on my own personal Sophie (please note, no plastic animals were killed in the writing of this blog). This was more challenging than it sounds. I learned I am not the most graceful or efficient with an exacto knife. I got a little intense while sawing my giraffe, which made both Kelly and me laugh once she broke me out of my stress-trance. Leave it to me to get bent out of shape over a rubber animal. But I snapped out of it, and quickly got back to having fun.

My mostly-painted giraffe

We created a shelf-like back section to hold the business cards and then started to paint! First we slathered on a white base coat, let it dry while we sipped some bubbly, chatted and touched up some other member’s of Kelly’s menagerie. Then the tough part: choosing the perfect color for my toyidermy masterpiece.  I went with a metallic gold, which I am loving, but Kelly has every color of the rainbow and then some. While I managed to get paint all over myself, I was also able to coat my giraffe as well.

I am really concentrating on painting…

On Monday my new friend from the jungle was situated on my desk with my business cards gently nestled in it’s back. I work in a “creative environment,” one in which I’m sometimes not sure I exactly fit, but my toyidermy seems to be earning me some much-needed imaginative street cred.

Finished product on my desk

Another aspect of the afternoon that was great was hearing more about Kelly’s toyidermy odyssey. She started creating these little creatures on a whim, but despite the serendipitous nature of the beginning of the toyidermy tale, Kelly is making it work and toyidermy is selling like hot cakes on etsy. She carves up animals late at night and paints them before work, and enjoys every minute of it. That is something I can admire!

Kelly, the creator of toyidermy

Check out more of Kelly’s creations:

The toyidermy menagerie

Lions and tigers and bears…oh my indeed

Dinosaur pins

Kelly’s cat Louise, making friends

My giraffe

Lion wine stopper

Cat coaster

Many thanks to Kelly McAuley for letting me spend the day with her. You can check out more of Kelly’s toyidermy on her website. They make great gifts and she takes custom orders. You can also check out her blog, Gets Me Every Time for more of her DIY projects as well as killer taco recipes.

Nibble on This

From time to time I tell you about people who inspire me on my search for my next passion.  I choose to write about these people because I hope their stories will be an inspiration to you the way they have inspired me.  Becky Munsterer is just one of those people.

Becky and I became fast friends while attending Colby College. Even then she was a great writer of both analytical essays as well as hysterical top-ten lists that usually included either her romancing an attractive celebrity or The New Kids on the Block. Becky went on to study creative writing and earned a Master’s Degree from Dartmouth.  She and I have many things in common — not the least of which is our love and admiration for Willie Geist. Additionally, neither of us like to write just anything.  We like to write what we like to write.

The novelist Becky Munsterer

What Becky currently likes to write is “The Stonehouse Caper” a novel that she is writing — and releasing via novelnibble.com — one day at a time. Every weekday a new page is posted and we learn a little bit more about Rosie Stonehouse, the book’s heroine who is being led on an epic scavenger hunt by her grandfather. Her adventure is reminiscent of “This is Your Life,” which allows the reader to get to know, and root for,  Rosie quickly.  The concept behind Becky’s literary endeavour is fresh and unexpected, but its origins may surprise you.

Becky developed the idea for Novel Nibble after a colleague complained that her favorite daytime soap opera had been cancelled.  For her, that soap was a daily escape which she had relied on for years. Becky thought that people might enjoy reading a story one page — and day — at a time. It could become their own daily escape while simultaneously inviting readers into an interactive community of literary lovers.

Becky is writing this novel in real-time, one page at a time and you can get involved…literally. She will, at times, extend a scene according to reader feedback (please note: I have already cast my vote for Rosie to end up with her high school sweetheart). Becky has written the book’s ending, but the roads her characters will take to get to their happy (knock on wood) endings evolves page by page, day by day.

As a writer myself, the most impressive part of Becky’s novel is that each page is crafted so that it can stand alone.  Sentences do not run from one page to the next. The first line of each page draws readers in, and the last line keeps them coming back for more. It is quite impressive and certainly unique.

Photo courtesy of Vermont Public Radio

She has more than 2,000 readers each month, and that’s all organic; she doesn’t advertise. She has received great feedback from readers and other writers and she says that feedback keeps her motivated and inspired. She has even earned the attention of Vermont Public Radio.

Like me, Becky is following her literary dream in addition to holding down a full-time job. She expects to be writing “The Stonehouse Caper” for about a year, so you have time to jump on the Novel Nibble bandwagon (as of this writing we are on page 70), and I hope that you do. All of us who are taking risks and following our hearts need to support others in our exclusive club. So click here now and start reading!

I was not compensated in any way for this post

To Be 18 Again…

I was recently home in Philadelphia for a long weekend filled with family, friends, birds and an impromptu 10-mile road race.  On Friday night, the main event:  my high school reunion.  I am too vain to say which one, but it will become obvious as you read on. I attended an all-girls school that gradually morphed into a coed curriculum by the end of high school. I feel incredibly lucky that some of the girls I graduated with, and have known since we were 12 (some of them had gone to school together since kindergarten!), are still among my closest friends.

Leading up to my reunion I stumbled upon a tattered envelope containing a questionnaire that I filled out just before graduation. My mother says she remembers me filling it out, but I have absolutely no recollection. It was given to us at our last reunion five years ago and I must have tucked it away some place very safe because it survived the move from SoHo to the South End. In this questionnaire my classmates and I were asked some of our fondest memories of Springside, our favorite teachers, who our friends were at the time (my list still stands up). The final question was the doozy: THINK CAREFULLY BEFORE YOU ANSWER.  WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WILL BE DOING OR WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR LIFE TO BE LIKE IN 10 YEARS?

Come on!  Why did the teachers think this was a good idea?  Did they want to drive us to the bar at our ten-year reunion?

I read my answer, which I will not repeat verbatim, because if you haven’t already assumed, the 18-year-old version of me got very specific about her future. My answer included living in Philadelphia (Chestnut Hill to be exact), my level of education (graduate degree), job (working in government or as a professor), I would be close with my parents (Awwww, I was such a sweet kid) and it detailed my anticipated marital and parental status (I thought I would have both a husband and a child by that point). I can understand how 18-year-old Emily would think 30 was a long way off. It was, I packed a lot of amazing and exhilarating experiences into my 20s, but did I really have to write “If I’m not married by 30???”  Please note, I used not one, but three, question marks as if the world would end if I blew out 30 birthday candles without a ring on my finger. Again, I forgive my younger self for not being able to anticipate the whirlwind of a life she would have over seven glorious years in New York, or all she would accomplish.

Having said that, I had to wonder if I could somehow tell 18-year-old Emily that instead of all these things on her life list she would move to New York City hoping to become the next Katie Couric, but find her true passion behind the camera as a writer and producer, associate produce an Emmy-nominated documentary on U.S. Marines in Iraq, write for the longest-running (not to mention most loved) anchor team in the city, make amazing new friends, and keep the valuable old ones (old as in known them longer, we all still look pretty darn young if I do say so myself, see below), then leave it all by picking up and changing cities and careers – what would young Emily say?  Would she be amazed or disappointed with the trajectory of her life?  I can barely recognize myself in the girl who filled out that questionnaire years ago, so I may have to accept that she would not recognize herself in the woman I am today.

Me and some of my to-this-day besties circa 1991…

…and many years later, enjoying cocktails, something we never did in high school…of course

So I wasn’t married at 30, and I am still not married at 33. I may get married at 35, or heck, I could meet Mr. Right tomorrow and run off to Vegas before anyone even reads this post. I have had the most amazing journey thus far, filled with amazing friends, relationships that have taught me a great deal, an ever-supportive family, and accomplishments — large and small — that I am infinitely proud of.  Most importantly, and in part through this blog, that journey gets more and more interesting every day.

Brewmaster Part II

When we last saw our heroine she had left her glass jug full of beer in a dark corner to ferment, and ferment it did.  I checked on my beer several times over the two weeks it was fermenting, each time half expecting for something dramatic to have happen.  It did not.  It foamed at the top, then the foam dissipated.  One day it would seem to be darker in color, the next it would look lighter.  I had no idea what it was supposed to look like at this stage in the process, so when my friend Matt showed up and said it was “looking good,” I was relieved.  With him, Matt brought two bottling contraptions that would help me get my beer ready for mass consumption.

We transferred the beer from the glass jug into a plastic bucket with a spicket using a long piece of tubing. Then we added one of the most important ingredients: priming sugar.  This is what carbonates the beer once the bottle top is sealed shut. We added it to the nearly five gallons of beer we had brewed and started bottling.

Bottling contraption

I have to say, bottling is my favorite part of brewing, maybe it’s because it is the most active part of the process.  One by one we sterilized the new empty bottles I purchased (some people use empty bottles after they have drunk their store-bought beer, but because it was my first, and perhaps only batch, I wanted the bottles to be neat and free of label residue from their former life) and filled them up with my brew.  I then used a red bottler to seal the bottle top on. Using the bottler took a little bit of effort, but not enough to tire from (even when bottling two cases of beer). I got a huge sense of satisfaction with every “THWAMP” the red contraption made.

After we filled 50 bottles, the moment of truth had come… I was finally going to taste my I.P.A.  I was infinitely nervous about this.  What if I had over hopped my wort and it was too bitter?  What if the yeast didn’t get enough sugar and it had no bubbles?  I had talked a big game and invited dozens of people over to try my beer, what if it was disgusting? I took a slow sip…mind you, I am not a huge I.P.A. drinker, so I wasn’t exactly sure what it was supposed to taste like, but you know what?  It tasted like beer, and that was enough for me!  Matt, who does drink I.P.A.’s, said that it was good, it was at that point I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  At the very, very least I won’t poison anyone.

I am super excited to share my brew with my friends, I will report back after the mass taste-test!

Why yes, that is a custom koozie!

Brewmaster Part I

I have drunk my fair share of beer over the years, but usually it’s light in color and equally light on taste. So when my friend Matt Javitch, a fellow blogger and all-around great guy, told me that he had started brewing beer, I thought maybe I would actually enjoy drinking a beer if I tried – and tried to make – a dark craft beer.

So to honor my Irish heritage, and coinciding with St. Patrick’s Day, I set off on a brewing adventure!  I like to bake, how different would this be? If I really enjoy the process, I imagined mass producing my brew with a catchy name, like “Miss Type A IPA,” to something equally witty.

Matt gave me a shopping list and I picked up our supplies at a The Homebrew Emporium in Cambridge. On the day I was there the store was busier than the Apple store on the day the ipad 3 became available. I finally found someone to decipher my shopping list for me and help measure out all the ingredients which were organized in buckets, refrigerators, and on shelves in a system that resembled a small town library that still subscribes to the Dewey Decimal System.

Soaking the barley-filled cheesecloth

The next day Matt arrived at my place with a monstrously large stainless-steel pot, a glass jug, a plastic jug and a curly copper contraption. We started by packing cracked barley into cheese cloth and soaking it in boiling water. We transferred that to a larger pot, added more water and kept it at a rolling boil.  This concoction is not beer at this point, instead it is known as “wort.” Appetizing, I know. The brew is referred to as wort until yeast is added, and that is the very last step in the brewing process.

The copper chiller at work

As the wort boiled we added a thick goop that resembled — in both consistence and taste — maple syrup. Then came three rounds of hops, the first was to bitter the beer, 40 minutes later we added another dash to add flavor and a third to add aroma. Hops in this form look like the pellet food I used to feed to my guinea pig, Violet, circa 1989.  They dissolve in the wort and leave behind this greenish sludgy substance that stick to the sides of the pot. Once the hops are in we had to bring the temperature of the wort down.  That’s where the copper contraption came in. We moved our brewing operations to the laundry room (which had a more accessible plumbing) so we could pump cold water though the copper chiller. The chiller is similar to the medical device used to induce therapeutic hypothermia (I saw that on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”) circulating cold water through the wort so we could bring its temperature down to under 70 degrees.

We then strained the wort to remove all the sludge the hops left behind, poured into a glass jug, and added the yeast. I was thinking we were saving the best for last, but the addition of the yeast turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic. We just poured it in and put a stopper in the top and left it alone. Technically it was then beer, but it will take two weeks to ferment before we can bottle it.

Straining the hoppy sludge from the wort

If this sound to you like a lot of steps and a lot of time you would be correct. It seems to me that you have to really like the person you are brewing with because there is a lot of down time and chit-chat involved. With the wrong person that could be painful…even more painful than the pace of the brewing. I am more of a get up and go gal, so sitting around waiting for a pot to boil took a lot of patience, not to mention a lot of my Sunday afternoon.  At moments I was pretty antsy. I think as a society, and certainly me personally, we are used to a fast-pace, and certainly more interested in instant gratification than the alternative. Many of my previous adventures have been this way. I swung on the trapeze and then fell on my ass, but at least I knew I was a terrible trapeze artist in that moment.  Brewing beer is like the SATs, you do all this tedious work, and then you wait, and wait, and wait to see if it was a success or if you have to go through the torturous process again.

One important rule I learned was that when brewing beer you have to sterilize everything. This is because you are dealing with live bacteria. I never really thought of beer in this way before. If there is more bacteria than there should be in the wort than that bacteria will eat more of the sugar (in the syrup we added) and grow and grow. For some reason this reminded me of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and I became wary of trying my own beer. But I will…in a few short weeks! I am planning on bottling it and serving it at a re-launch party for this blog. I have purchased a new web address, one that is not quite as long and complicated as this one, and I am in the process of making it pretty for all of you.  Stay Tuned and get ready to drink up!

And it is beer! It will ferment for two weeks before we bottle it