Wednesday, November 20, 2019

How to Feed a Writer

Sujata Massey

I am on deadline for the next 22 days. That is, racing to finish the third Perveen Mistry novel. Because this upcoming deadline is an extension from the original one set in early fall, I am intent on making it. So today, as I work my way through the aha-catching-the-murderer! scene, I am replaying an oldie-but-goodie for you. 

No matter what a writer's still got to eat, and I am powering my way to the end with healthy home cooked food. Much of it can be prepared in a few minutes or is pulled from the jars in the freezer and re-heated.  My needs are so simple: oatmeal with stewed cinnamon apples and walnuts; kale salad; slow-cooked beans with tomatoes, brown basmati rice tossed with lots of parsley, scallions and cilantro.. The healthier the plate, the longer I stay full and focused. 

I love making my own food, just as I love making my own stories. Enjoy!

black coffee, blackberry jam, and a dark story

M.F.K. Fisher, the great American food writer, once stated:"A writing cook and a cooking writer must be bold at the desk as well as the stove."

In the 1930s and '40s, when Mary Frances began her concurrent explorations of cooking and writing, most writers did not cook, probably because these writers were primarily men. And the earliest published women writers who were lucky enough to have the space and time to do this work--Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and the like--were typically upper class and had household staff to feed them.

I love to write, and my escape from the stress of writing is cooking. if you follow my blogposts, you've seen me wax rhapsodic about mushrooms, about Parsi eggs dishes, and all kinds of food.

In my quest to spend more time on writing, I am striving to be more balanced in the kitchen--and to also explore whether certain food powers my brain to focus better. I've read several cookbooks with recipes promising better neurological health, but my goal is not to work with cookbooks as often as I've been doing.

This year I asked myself: what is the healthiest way to fill both the stomach and the imagination? How can a person too easily diverted by cooking avoid such temptation when she's alone at home?

pumpernickel is a powerful base for a breakfast sandwich

Plenty of writers have decided it makes sense to write outside of the house--and to eat there as well. In this era, they are mostly at Starbucks. I prefer to think of Dorothy Parker striding into the restaurant inside the Algonquin Hotel for breakfast and lunch with her friends. Not that she used a pen at the table! It was all about joking, drinking, and probably not getting much done in the afternoon.

Okay, let's return to the present. Have you ever tried going to a real restaurant with your laptop? While it's nice to have eggs and toast brought to me at the table, once I'm finished with my plate and continue to write, I feel like a barnacle on the side of the establishment. And how does the writer handle bathroom breaks in the restaurant? Do I leave the laptop containing my big project on the table, or carry it to the potty the way I'd bring my purse?

There's nothing wrong with dining at home on food prepared elsewhere. However, to undertake this needs a good deal of planning, and the food choices that look the most beautiful are often destructive. A sugar-dusted doughnut is tempting with morning coffee, but it will make me shaky and unable to concentrate within a few hours. Gourmet sandwiches from stores often stand six inches high and are made from such thick bread that they also put my insulin into overdrive. And don't get me started on full-sized entrees from proper restaurants. If you'd like to see me snoring through the afternoon, just serve me a delicious, heavy lunch.

This year, I am streamlining my dining at home. My goal is not to spend longer than 30 minutes cooking anything during my workday. Here's the M.O.

For breakfast I toast good brown bread from a local bakery, and I top it with a quality cheese or jam, and several times a week the toast topping is an egg scrambled with vegetables. I take vitamins and calcium on the side, and I try to drink a couple of glasses of water. I am seriously dehydrated, all the time.

Ahh, the antioxidants in cherries!

After that, I try to write at least two hours. Fresh or cooked fruit is the second energy shot that I take around 10 in the morning. After that, I break for some activity at the gym.

Lunch is always eagerly anticipated. Like breakfast, I eat it by myself, so I don't have to worry if anyone else likes what's going on the plate. A fridge full of leftovers means various cups of soup, beans, small cooked vegetables, kimchee, and rice. Sometimes there's even a half-serving of chicken or fish or a couple of meatballs. So, how is my meal different from tapas? I can imagine Dorothy Parker poking fun at my lunches, especially since they are washed down with a glass of water and a couple of Vitamin D gummy raspberry chews for dessert.

A simple homemade carrot soup

Chicken curry, rice and a melange of potatoes, yams and green beans

I work again. Around 4 p.m. I'm often craving salt. The standard snack to fill the void used to be crackers and cheese, but now that I am trying to reduce dairy, I dip raw vegetables or plantain chips in hummus or munch some almonds or cashews. If I have a sweet craving, I might slather peanut butter on a toasted waffle (I keep a few homemade ones in the freezer) or Nutella on a digestive biscuit.

A homemade waffle with almond butter, banana, and chia topping

The writing day is done by five and cooking is once again allowed! I I relish the chance to sway between the fridge and stove and bend to lift up pots and pans. I usually cook meat or fish with vegetables and some form of rice. Usually it's Asian or Mediterranean food--easy dishes flavored with spices and herbs--true friends with benefits.  I often use the InstantPot to pressure cook dried beans or to concoct a dal that can be eaten at a few different meals during the week. My husband likes this kind of food. My children do not.

You might have noticed something missing in my diet. It is coffee, the infamous element in a lot of writers' rituals.

I drink about one and a half-cups of locally roasted coffee made in a French press at breakfast. I might have another cup in the mid-afternoon if I'm dead-tired and have to go out and drive the carpool or drive to a faraway book signing. But chain-drinking coffee does not make me feel grounded and focused on work--it gives me the jitters. Some therapeutic drinks that work for me throughout the day are water, black tea, green tea, mint tea, and before bed, the venerable chamomile.

Writing a book is slow work, and in my experience, it can be detrimental to the body. There have been years when I would sneak downstairs from my study to snack as a way to escape the half-written page. I'm no saint--if I know there's chocolate in the cupboard, I may have an afternoon binge. But overall, I take a great deal of pleasure in eating this way.

Am I feeding my mind?

I don't know about that--but I do feel sated.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Le Cyrano

There's a little Parisian bistro, more like a boit à nuit, around the corner from Place de Clichy. It's le Cyrano on rue Biot and takes you back in time.

 I think the déco dates back to 1914 when it was called Porcherons and includes huge mirrors and gorgeous mosaic tiling on the walls and a long elegant bar
Historically the clientele complimented the decor. Picture the surrealists who met here; André Breton,  Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Dali. 
Nowadays there is a double happy hour from 18h to 19h, another from 22h to 23h. The only fault of Cyrano, apart from the one less desirable toilet, is the lack of seating.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, November 18, 2019

My Best Punchlines—#1

Annamaria Back Here on Monday

Having produced a serious blog only few days ago, thanks to the MIE birthday celebration, I am not up for anything earthshattering today.  Given the general state of things, amusing is the best I can hope for, and that will be a stretch.  So here comes a true story out of my past that gave me a real-life opportunity to deliver a punchline.

Sometime in the early 80’s 

One of my clients, a huge international manufacturing firm, had offices and plants all over the world.  In the US, though the headquarters was in Stamford, Connecticut, most of the plants were in the south.  My contact at the company, the director of training, was a wonderfully bright and warm woman, a great colleague in every way.  We had many, many life experiences in common.  The only time our relationship strayed from delightful was when we traveled on business together.  You see she was terrified of flying, something we had to do with a fair amount of frequency.  She came by this terror honestly.  Several of her fellow employees were involved in the worst ever crash in JFK airport history.  Three, as I recall, were among the five survivors.  They suffered injuries but eventually recovered.  What saved them was that they were in the last row in the plane.

As a result of this, Adele (let’s call her) insisted on sitting in the very last row of any plane we flew on.   On the early spring day in question, our destination was a noon meeting in Chattanooga.  We would make it with forty-five minutes to spare by leaving LaGuardia at around 8 and changing planes in Atlanta.  In those days, the saying went, even if you were going to hell, in the Southeast, you would have to change planes in Atlanta.  The trouble was that Atlanta was prone to fog, especially in early spring.  And it was then and is still at least two miles between wherever you are and any place else you need to be in the Atlanta airport.  

Until we got into Atlanta airspace, the flight went as usual.  I did my best to distract Adele with funny stories, while she gripped my right forearm with both hands.  If the plane hit even light turbulence, her fingernails got into the act.  Since I was the consultant and she was the client, I did not wince.

When the pilot told us that Atlanta was fogged in and we would be in a holding pattern for a while, I wondered how long my right hand could survive without blood circulation.

Our flight landed forty minutes late, cutting our time to change planes down to about twenty minutes.    Except that Adele and I were the last ones off our flight.  Make that twelve minutes.


The monitor said the flight to Chattanooga was leaving from Gate 10.  It was during that sprint through the airport that I realized that, despite the programs enacted in the previous decade, women would never achieve equality with men in business until we got rid of the high heels and narrow skirts.  Guys were zooming past us!  Unfair!!

When we arrived at Gate 10, we found a LONG line snaking through the waiting area and quite a way down the hall.   As we neared the boarding door, we realized that on that line with us were scores people going, not only to our destination, but to Nashville, Louisville, Birmingham, and Baton Rouge.  So we were about to get on a plane that was going where????

I was worried.  A beleaguered airport staff member confirmed that we were in the right place.  But.  But.

As we exited through the boarding door, we discovered a semicircle of airport mini vans to take us to our plane, but there was no indication of which bus was going to which plane.  To my question, a member of the groundcrew waved vaguely at the identical vehicles to our right.  I chose one at random.  I stuck my head in the door.  Around the periphery of the interior were a dozen or so men, seated with their attach cases on their laps. 

I said, “Pardon me, boys…”

 Everyone laughed but my client.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Water, Water, Everywhere: Flooding

I’ve just come back from a trip to south Wales (old rather than New) with either the cleanest car bottom ever, or the dirtiest—not sure which!

There was a huge amount of standing water all over the main roads and dual carriageways. And even the A-roads had deep puddles lurking at corners, or full flooded sections in the dips. As for the B-roads, well, I managed to get within about half a mile of my destination before I was confronted with a lake where the road should have been.

As my car is not blessed with the greatest ground clearance in the world, I decided discretion was definitely the greater part of valour. This involved reversing along a watery single-track lane for about 300 yards and finding an alternative route. Mind you, even the navigable way meant driving along several miles of what seemed to be a muddy river bed.

A glance at the UK government Flood Warning Information Service website on Saturday evening shows 106 Flood Alerts in place, meaning flooding is possible and should be prepared for. It also shows 72 Flood Warnings, meaning flooding is expected and immediate action is required.

UK government flood warnings on November 16 2019
According to the figures, there are more than five million people living in areas of the UK vulnerable to flooding every year. They used to talk about such events as happening ‘the first time in living memory’ or ‘once every hundred years’. Now they seem to have become almost annual.

I remember our home being seriously flooded while living on the Lancashire coast as a child. A high spring tide conspired with an onshore gale to send my parents’ brand new car bobbing merrily around the car park. It was not the only victim. An Isle of Man Steam Packet ship called the King Orry IV, broke its mornings and was forced aground further up the Lune estuary. It remained there until the tide level was next high enough to refloat it. 

The 'King Orry IV' forced aground at Conder Green during flooding, 1976
In the UK over recent years, Cumbria, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Berkshire, Somerset, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire and even the middle of London have all suffered severe flooding. Here in Derbyshire has been hit, too. The dam at Whaley Bridge—which was holding back an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of water—started to wash away, threatening the nearby town. A woman was swept away at Darley Dale only a few weeks ago after a couple attempted to drive through water that proved too deep for their car.

The flood-damaged dam at Whaley Bridge
In the Don valley of South Yorkshire, devastating floods hit. In the last twelve years, this is the third time some residents have lost everything. Many of them could not afford the increased insurance premiums.

Flooding not only brings straightforward water damage. It can also bring the three ‘S’s—salt, silt and sewage. All of which will prove highly injurious to just about everything unfortunate enough to be soaked in it. That brand new car I mentioned was an insurance write-off at less than a month old.

Recent flooding in Yorkshire
(pic The Guardian)
Quite apart from the disease implications of having everything soaked through in effluent, however diluted, salt water kills electronics, fabrics and prevents buildings drying out without extensive remedial work. Silt ruins just about everything else that wasn’t ruined by the first two factors.

People underestimate moving water in the same way that many underestimate fire. One cubic foot of water weighs 62.43 pounds. Just six inches of fast moving water will knock your feet out from under you. Two feet will sweep away a car. Even elephants at the Nameri game reserve in India have been taken by flash flooding.

According to the National Weather Service in the US, more people are killed by flooding each year than by tornados, hurricanes or lightning. Half those who lose their lives are in vehicles at the time.

Up to a third of bridges which have experienced severe flooding are structurally unsound so that the chances of a vehicle making it to the other side are only 50/50.

Flash floods are usually caused by intense heavy rainfall and can occur at any time of year. Where I lived in the Lake District was flash-flooded in the middle of one July. However, if the ground is frozen or already saturated, or a river is blocked by storm-damaged trees or ice, this type of flooding is almost inevitable.

Increasing urbanisation—building on floodplains—leaves properties in danger of river floods when a river bursts its banks. The clue can often be found in the old English name of the place, however. There is currently a Flood Warning in operation at Fishlake in South Yorkshire.

I have made a mental note never to buy a house anywhere called Waterside Meadows…

This week’s Word of the Week is noyade, meaning an execution by drowning, like the mass executions carried out between November 1793 and February 1794 at Nantes, France, during the Reign of Terror. From the French noyer, to drown, and the Latin necāre, to put to death, from which root we also get necro-.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Guest Blogger: Jo Perry--In Las Vegas Everything Happens

Photo by Patsy Dunne Access One Photography


Jo Perry writes a dark, comic mystery series I simply adore. It’s about a dead guy named Charles and a just as dead dog he calls Rose solving mysteries together. Yeah, I know, that’s not your normal dynamic duo, but believe me when I say Jo’s work transports you to a mesmerizingly different and addictive plane of thought. That’s why I was so excited when she agreed at Bouchercon to write a post about an astral plane of a different sort, one wildly active, in plain sight, and available to us all: Las Vegas.  It’s a unique perspective offered by a unique writer.  As for Jo’s references to another writer named Perry, Tom to be precise, yes that’s mystery writer Thomas Perry, better known in some quarters as Mr. Jo Perry.

Jo earned a Ph.D. in English, taught college literature and writing, produced and wrote episodic television, and has published articles, book reviews, and poetry, along with her Dead is Better, Dead is Best, Dead is Good, and Dead is Beautiful series.  Her latest work, a novella titled Everything Happens, has been described by our very own Tim Hallinan as “Classic American noir with a contemporary outlook” and a book that he “loved.”

Paired in a tete beche edition with “Death Of A Sinner” by Derek Farrell.
Welcome, Jo.

"Red Rock Canyon" by ChrisMRichards is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The sedimentary landscape around Las Vegas exposes deep time via strata of speckled gray and rust. The gray juttings poke up from the floor of a six hundred or so million year old sea; the toast-colored and smoldering red sandstone cliffs constructed themselves grain by grain of sand loosened from dunes almost two hundred million years old. 
Viewed from inside cooled cars or through airplane windows, the arid surface compels us to contemplate the massive and indifferent inhuman forces unmaking and making the world that we pretend is ours.

I recently wrote a novella that takes place in Las Vegas and realized that to write about or to experience a place is to occupy layers of time, space and meaning all at once.  When Thomas Perry’s great creation, Jane Whitefield––a contemporary Seneca woman who guides people from danger and into new lives and new identities––jogs through her western New York neighborhood, she simultaneously travels through a present where she warily watches for enemies––and at the same time she passes through the world of her Seneca ancestors who named, inhabited and made the fictional town Perry called Deganawida sacred.

Every place has an additional layer that exists outside time and space like an aura––its idea. The idea of Los Angeles is that it’s possible to actualize your dream, to make it big, and live illuminated always by cosmic sunshine. This is an idea that I write about in my mystery series and which often causes disappointment, harm and even death to those who believe in it and whose credulity or bad luck can be cruelly exploited because they do.  

The idea of Las Vegas––that we can exchange the quotidian, right-and-wrong, yes-and-no constrained, human-scaled world for a wide open, lawless, blurry primal zone––asserts itself before we reach the Mojave Desert or arrive at McCarren Airport. The chalky Parthenon fakes and “Best GYROS In The USA” sign at the Mad Greek Café, the Area 51 alien tableaux at the Alien Fresh Jerky gift shop, and The World’s Largest Thermometer (broken) in Baker, California––the last gas, pee and lunch stop for LA-to-Vegas drivers until they cross the Nevada state line––and the deep purpling distances make us feel weird and small and anonymous and free. 

"File:Baker-CA-thermometer Raffi-Kojian IMG 6303.JPG" by RaffiKojian is licensed under CC BY 3.0
These feelings prepare us for the liberating anonymity and mega-weirdness, mega-everything of Las Vegas, home of the Stratosphere, “the tallest building… in Nevada and the tallest free-standing observation tower in the United States.” Are there observation towers that aren’t free-standing? Do we care? Only excess matters. 

Place is scale, geology, infrastructure, architecture and statistics––as of November 1st, there have been 71 murders in Las Vegas.  Place is an accretion of histories. In Las Vegas it’s Pueblo and Paiutes, the Spanish trader who named the once-green and fertile place “The Meadows.” It’s commerce––gambling, organized and disorganized crime, and show business. It’s catastrophes––the MGM fire and the Mandalay Bay mass shooting. It’s beauty, ugliness and mythology––Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, Howard Hughes, the Rat Pack and the loyal patron who died of a heart attack right outside Heart Attack Grill.  Place is also psychology, truth and lies, i.e. “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” 
"Heart Attack Grill, Fremont Street Experience, Las Vegas" by holidaypointau is licensed under CC BY 2.0
What happens in Las Vegas ––the idea place––not the “real” Las Vegas of schools, libraries, dentists, The Vegas Valley Book Festival, sanitation departments, PTAs, etc.––is an id-driven, lizard-brained, all you can consume––The Heart Attack Grill invites you to “Gain all the weight you want,” offers an 8,000 calorie burger with “Endless Flatliner Fries” cooked in lard and serves anyone over 350 pounds for free––quadruple X, vice- and impulse-gratification, all the Wagyu beef or $2.99 steak and egg breakfasts you can devour, all the pricey handcrafted cocktails or three-foot tall bargain margarita slushies you can chug, all the spare change or big bucks you can wager, all the souvenirs, outlet mall shit or cashmere and Coach you can carry, all the guns you can shoot, and all the people you can fuck buffet. 

Prostitution is legal in most Nevada counties, but not in Clark County where Las Vegas is located. Brothels like The Chicken Ranch––which, Wikipedia notes,  “…[a]pproximately 60 courtesans call ‘home,’”––are a short drive away. 

Feel like destroying something?  For a fee, a Humvee will haul you to “Battlefield Vegas” where you will “crush a car with a tank,” or fire automatic weapons at The Gun Store.
"Jenny and Kevin take a gondola" by Kevin Hutchinson is licensed under CC BY 2.0"M4A1" by big-ashb is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Eiffel tower "Las Vegas 2015" by usareisetipps is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0"Luxor Las Vegas" by Andrew Milligan sumo is licensed under CC BY 2.0
A scorching one hundred-and-eleven-degree stroll and bingo––you’re half-awestruck below the half-sized Eiffel Tower, or the second tallest Statue of Liberty, or the one-third tall New York skyline and Brooklyn Bridge, or you’re contemplating mortality at King Tut’s replica tomb inside the 36-story Luxor pyramid with a Sphinx twice as big as the original out front, having the royal treatment at the Royal Treatment Spa in the Excalibur “castle,” or riding a gondola along a chlorinated “Venice” canal that meanders through an underground shopping mall under a cloud-dappled, perpetual sunset as your gondolier sings and people eat gelato in “St. Mark’s Square.” Or maybe you’re downtown in the Golden Nugget, stepping through the smoky coffee shop and around a corner where you behold the world’s biggest chunk of gold––named "Hand of Faith”–– “weighing almost 62 pounds”and “the size of a baby.” 

That’s a Vegas baby, baby.

"Hand of Faith" by lancehenry is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Not totally amused or fully sated? Play the slots below live circus acts, breathe perfumed hotel lobby air, see Renoirs and Picassos, watch chocolate churning, visit secret gardens, white tigers, dolphins, wave pools, dancing fountains, pirate shows, shark tanks, a Soviet-themed frozen ice bar, or take selfies with wax effigies.

Johnny depp wax "Vegas Feb 2008" by mr.throk is licensed under CC BY 2.0"Scooby Doo Man" by Omar Le Fou is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The Las Vegas idea is to do anything you want whenever you want. Anything except feeding the pigeons or feeding the homeless––an infraction punishable by a $1ooo fine. Oh and don’t sit or “rest” on a Las Vegas sidewalk. That’s illegal, too. Just ask any of 14,000 low rollers, especially those living in drainage tunnels beneath the Strip they cannot see and that glows so brightly that, according to NASA, it is the brightest spot on earth.
"Las Vegas Areal" by MCW Student Wellness is licensed under CC BY 2.0
In the seventies architect Robert Venturi visited Las Vegas with his wife and a student and wrote Learning From Las Vegas, a book challenging and repudiating postmodernism’s  emotional remoteness, minimalist and elitist aesthetic. 

The book explains how casino interior design stops time, eliminates day and night and creates an impersonal, humming, womb-like perpetual twilight; and how ornamentation communicates, invites, provokes.  What Venturi learned from Las Vegas is that, no matter how sleek and efficient “less” might be,   “Less is a bore."

"Monte Carlo Casino Gaming Floor, Las Vegas" by holidaypointau is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Las Vegas is designed to entice, built to facilitate what happens in Vegas, which is everything––impulse consumption, risk-taking as entertainment and instant access to everything, especially divorces and weddings like the $99 Valentine’s Day Pancake Wedding Special at Denny’s which included ceremony,  “silk presentat0on bouquet, boutonnière, champagne toast, and certificate.  For an additional fee couples received “Pancake Puppies,” cake pops with a pancake filling. 
"Wedding Information sign from the Neon Museum in Vegas" by Lachlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My parents honeymooned Las Vegas in April, 1950. After this photo was taken, a terrible sunburn confined my mother to their hotel room for the duration, and my father got word that he’d been hired to be a joke writer in Hollywood. Their life-altering trip was little more than a year before I was born, just short of a year before the Nevada Test Site––about as close to Las Vegas as the Chicken Ranch–––began decades of atmospheric and underground nuclear bomb tests. The end-of-the-world blinding flashes and hellish mushroom clouds drew bomb tourists to Vegas and radiation invisibly contaminated people, aquifers and the toxic clouds that didn’t stay in Vegas drifted all the way to Los Angeles. The test site is still one of the most radioactive places on earth and my beloved parents’ marriage remains radioactive even after their deaths––I still feel the seething afterglow.

""XX-34 BADGER" atmospheric nuclear test - April 1953" by The Official CTBTO Photostream is licensed under CC BY 2.0
When I wrote Everything Happens, a novella about a young woman heading to Las Vegas for the fast divorce she hopes will fix everything, and about her soon-to-be-ex husband in Vegas to celebrate scoring some serious cash and new a girlfriend, I realized that the promises we make, the lies we tell, and our sincerest efforts to be the best person we can be can sometimes become crushing burdens we find it necessary to briefly dump. The sensory and impulse overload and obvious vulgarities that happen in Vegas free us––temporarily––from boredom, limitation, aspiration, shame, and guilt.
What happens in Vegas is the fantasy-idea that failure can be nullified, that feeding desire will kill it, that losing enough will make us win, and that giving in to restlessness will bring us peace.
Mirages are what happen in Las Vegas––beautiful sky-reflecting silvery pools that vanish when we get close to them as we travel the long, overheated roads and make our escapes.

Calling a tow truck when our car broke down on the way to Las Vegas.  Photo by Thomas Perry
—Jo in for Jeff