Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018

IMG_1382

Feel like speed dating? The agents above will be at next week’s conference.

Here it comes again, ’round the corner of summer, and I’m wading through stories on my computer I hope my friends might like, or help me make better, pulling excerpts from a mystery novel that I want to test on critical minds, feeling nervous and definitely behind. Didn’t do my homework in time. Happens every year that I attend.

Last year was possibly the hardest, because I’d not been for nearly ten years, and I felt really out of step. Would anyone even remember me enough to share a drink? But it didn’t matter, I’ve written before, that at an event like this you go through a few days and it all slides back into place, the personal anxiety changes to pride that you are part of this larger effort, and you feel a joy in every person who has dared to come and share their work, expose their weaknesses as writers as well as their strengths. It’s never about me. It is always about us.

We come to learn and also to teach. If you attend, your job isn’t merely to have your stuff read so you can gain ideas about how to hone your own craft. You need to step up and offer your  ideas and insights about your fellow writers’ work. What worked for you, what didn’t and how might it be tweaked to communicate better, more powerfully, more clearly.

Sometimes the critique session is so crowded that the best gift you can give other writers is to listen carefully and jot down notes to hand over afterwards, because if you try to hold forth and explain all your reactions to their work out loud, you’ll hold up the process. An advantage of notes is also that if you write your critique, the writer gets to keep your commentary and think it over at leisure, maybe even when at home. When I’ve just read a piece of my own, my ears and nerves are jangling after, and it’s hard to hear every word offered in critique, however kind. And yes, writers and instructors, at least at this conference, are kind. The very definition of constructive criticism starts and ends with thoughtful honesty.

So, I’m planning to engage in a transforming experience, yet again, and my hopes are high. Six days of reading writing, talking, critique, jokes bad and good, laughter and tears. But not much sleep. I told you before about the pirate sessions…not much sleep.

Starts on Sunday in Santa Barbara. See you there?

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under blog, education, experiences, writing

Lazy Bread

Hob

How many of you watch ‘The Great British Baking Show’? I do, I’ve been known to binge-watch it, trying to second-guess each move and enjoying myself a great deal. However, I don’t cook like a chemist or physicist, though I believe in the science of baking. I cook with my hands and the touch of my fingers. 

Bread is a deep pleasure, and I haven’t used a recipe since… I can’t recall. I throw it together– it’s a lazy bread that I make! The dough can be kept in the fridge for when you want it, for about a week.

There are in my mind five basic ingredients. Gently warm water, dry yeast, salt, olive oil and flour. To this I frequently add dollops of honey and several tablespoons of psyllium husk to up the fiber content and the moistness. The flour content is variable, since I’m fond of mixed grains. Dark rye flour at about an eighth to a quarter of the total amount of flour is nice. With that I often will use about half whole wheat flour, preferably Indian Attah, but almost anything will do. The last quarter is white bread flour. All purpose flour is fine, though given a choice I will head for a bread flour with its extra gluten. 

I have a Hobart mixer named ‘Hob’, since none of the non-commercial mixers have the mixing moxie to stand up to the heavy labor of bread making. Actually let’s be honest, I have burned out a succession of Kitchenaids on cakes and cookies (I knew better than to even attempt kneading bread with a Kitchenaid.) I really do try to take care of my machines, never to ‘horse’ them or force them. But even the big Kitchenaid is not a professional piece of equipment, in my opinion. Hobart is the source of the Kitchenaid but the interior housing of the Kitchenaid motor is liable to cracking.

For those of you who have been reading this blog, you know I’m serious about hosting large parties, and working with massive amounts of ingredients. Wedding cakes for a hundred fifty guests, that sort of thing. The Hobart is up to my lifestyle. Before I had one, all yeast doughs were mixed and kneaded by hand. This makes for good shoulder muscles, by the way. I can mix a dough in fifteen minutes without my Hob.

I throw in about two to three cups of warm water (not hot, or it will kill the yeast,) a scant tablespoon of yeast, 3/4 teaspoons of sea salt, three tablespoons of olive oil, optional dollop of honey, five cups of flour and put the kneading hook on low until it’s all mixed. No, I don’t bother to check my yeast– I cook so often that I know already that my yeast is alive!

Look at the dough, touch it with a dry finger tip. If it clings to your skin and doesn’t rub off easily, slowly add another cup of flour, any kind of flour, while running the machine or kneading by hand. If doing this by hand, have it out on your counter for the kneading process.. If still sticky, add more flour and knead more But if there is an elastic resilience to it and it doesn’t adhere longingly to your finger, unplug your mixer, take off the dough hook and turn the bowl on to whatever surface you use for kneading, if you’re not already there. Keep your flour duster close to hand. The dough should be a little sticky, but it should be possible to rub off your fingers. Knead it and slap it on the counter for fun, adding a little flour when it starts to come apart and cling. Five minutes, possibly eight. Let rest under a clean tea towel.

Now in my kitchen when I had the counter re-tiled ten years ago, I chose square tiles, big enough to roll out a whole pie crust on or knead bread dough on. Most kitchen designers make the error of planning little tiles, four by fours, for example, for their counters. If you can stop them from doing that to your kitchen, do it. Big tiles mean far less upkeep, a pleasantly simple aesthetic and no horrid bits of grout grunge in your kneaded doughs.

bread dough

poked bread dough focused

You can let the dough proof (or rise) for an hour or up to two, under the tea towel before you shape it. But if time presses, just form your loaf without bothering with that extra wait. The bread texture will be coarser, but it will still taste good. Leave your shaped loaf in its greased pan to rise between an hour and two and when it retains the impression of a finger poke, bake it in a preheated oven at 375 or 400 degrees Fahrenheit until it sounds hollow when rapped with a knuckle. I find I get my best rise when I roll the dough. So make a flattened rectangle once you have kneaded your dough, and roll it up firmly before fitting it into your baking  pan to rise, covered with a tea towel.

If you do the slower method and let the dough rise for an hour or so before progressing to the shaping,  knead it down before your shaping of the loaf. When shaped, let the loaf rise until the dough retains the indentation of a poking finger. Then bake, and test doneness by rapping on the crust as above.

Let the loaf sit about five to ten minutes before turning it out of its greased pan; it should come out easily.

bread in square pan

If you want a fast lunch, try pan bread. Take a double fistful of dough and pat it into a rough circle, to fit the bottom of a middle sized cast iron pan.. Heat that pan, well-oiled, on the stovetop  and when hot, place the dough in the pan. (Sometimes to be dramatic, I throw it. That’s fun.) Turn the burner down to the low setting and cover with any lid that fits. Leave to rise and cook in this improvised oven for about ten to fifteen minutes or until the upper surface is no longer sticky. Then flip it over and continue to cook five to ten minutes more, until lightly browned on the bottom. Eat hot with butter, or with sauteed vinegared red peppers and onions with fresh goat cheese or pickled artichoke hearts or… whatever you like. I’ve been known to sit down with peanut butter and this hot bread for a fast lunch. It tastes different from oven baked bread, and while it can be a little sticky inside, or dense, it has a lovely immediacy and nuttiness.

Want a particularly spongy soft interior texture in your bread? Take the water from boiling potatoes and use some in your warm water when you make the dough. That will give you a softer resilient crumb in the final loaf. Love a soft crust surface? Rub butter over or spray the crust with oil when you take it baked, from the oven.

And yes, before you ask, you can stretch and roll this dough out to make a pizza if you like, but if you’re doing that, crank your oven to 500 degrees, do a full pre-heat, don’t overload the crust with sauce and additions, and do use a perforated round pan for a crisper crust… I recommend caramelized onions and gorgonzola with a crumble of walnuts and rosemary across the surface.

Enjoy!

2 Comments

Filed under blog, cooking tools, food, recipies, Uncategorized

At Los Banos

Two Trees Los Banos copy

Every time I have come here, the wind was blowing, and never seemed to stop. Shining oatgrass, under an open sky. In the night the gray shining grain moved in waves, like some moonlit sea. It made me think of a Ray Bradbury story I read long ago of a house set among wide fields where however long you stared, no other features but grass and sky were seen. The men inside that house floating in the grass were isolated like a crew upon a ship, the illusion of sailing unending.

We have camped near the slope I painted in the picture above, several times. An owl frequented the place, you could hear the calls over the susurration of the grass. Never when we were there did we see more than a few other folk, all seemed content to give a token wave from the distance and let the grass blades speak.

Leave a comment

Filed under blog, camping, plein air

Lamb Satay

satay cropt

Mistakes happen. I thought I had a chunk of pork in hand when I took it out of the freezer, but when I checked how it was thawing, guess what, lamb! A fine piece of boneless lamb. So the play of flavors I’d been envisioning for dinner had to shift, and I pulled out an old favorite recipe for satay that has evolved with me over decades. I cut the lamb into 1/2 by 1 inch chunks, deleting what fat there was, and marinated it for six hours in this mixture, which reads as spicy to hot, depending on whether you lean on the peppers, which I do.

———————————————

2 Tb ground coriander seed

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 teaspoons hot chili oil

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

3 cloves of garlic well chopped

4 Tablespoons soy sauce

3 Tablespoons lime or lemon juice

1 Tablespoon to 2 Tablespoons red onion

————————————————

Whir all of the above in a chopper, blender or Cuisinart, using about half to flavor the lamb. Place vegetables such as raw button mushrooms, chunks of raw onion, pieces of red or green pepper, and whole cherry tomatoes in the remaining half of the mixture.

Light grill and bring up to heat while stringing the meat and all the vegetables except the tomatoes on skewers. Brush lightly with olive oil. As you will see in the photo, I place the finished meat and vegetable skewers inside a grilling basket to limit the loss of pieces that might get lost and try to immolate themselves in the flames.

Place the tomatoes in another grill basket.

Grill meat and vegetable skewers until done to your preference, putting the tomatoes on late in the sequence so they don’t get overdone. A trick I use is to undercook the lamb skewers, and hold them in the over at about 250 Fahrenheit while finishing the tomatoes. Serve with rice or other vegetables as it pleases you.

3 Comments

Filed under blog, cooking tools, food, recipies

Ice Cream Bananas, and other Fruit

I ate five bananas this morning. I know that sounds piggish but truly, they were the size of your little finger, if you have small hands. They came from one of our plants in the yard here, our second variety. We’ve been ripening the fruit on their stem for a month or more, and today we had a few for breakfast.

P1050307

Living here in Southern California means you can grow an amazing variety of fruiting plants, from bananas to apples (and don’t let anyone tell you it’s too warm for a good apple here. I grow Granny Smith, Pettingill, Fuji, Harrold, and Gordon in what Sunset calls Zone 24.) The first banana we purchased from the Banana people in La Conchita, wonderful gardens now long gone, has no label left. It’s a chunky, reasonably good producer, best cooked, because it has a starchy not so sweet flavor. Whatever its name, that banana grows like a weed and I am kept busy chopping off its unwelcome advances into other parts of the yard.

A friend gave us a slip of the Ice Cream Banana, and it has taken years to nurture. My feeling is that it is delicate, more prone to frost than the first variety we grew. (We frost for one to two weeks of the year, enough to burn leaves, and these nights are not in a block but scattered through the winter, usually ending by March 1. You should see our yard on those nights, with plants shrouded in old blankets and sheets to protect them.) Several times Ice Cream attempted a stalk of bananas for us, and various accidents played their part in frustrating our expectations. Replacing the in-ground gas line was one of those events–not an episode of ‘delicacy’ on the part of the banana. Another time, the wind knocked down the bearing stalk before the fruit had sufficiently matured. But do remember that we are gardeners who ascribe to the survival of the fittest school, so when you look at our yard, it’s a jungle out there.

When the banana stalk has ceased to set new fruit, it’s time to cut it down. Hang the stalk in a cool dry place and wait for the bananas to ripen, which they will show by a quiet transition to a yellowish hue marked with brown or black. Then you can cut off the hands of bananas, so they are convenient to handle. As you see by the photo above, this stalk was a short one– I had already cut off about three hands to give away before I thought to take a photo to share.

The first taste of Ice Cream Banana was rewarding. A very firm, acidic and sweet banana, it reminds us of the standard Cavendish from the grocery store. Familiar, but better. Stronger in the acid, fragrant and possibly sweeter as well. But tiny—it reminds me of the bananas we used to call ‘Lady Finger’ in West Africa, which were charmingly miniaturized. If you are in the right zone, I strongly recommend it. But if you are undecided between growing a cherimoya or a banana, grow the cherimoya. You’ll gain higher yields than a banana, which only fruits once per growing stalk, and our perceptions say that the cherimoya is far more rewarding in flavor than any banana we have yet met. I have had good results with Booth cherimoya but there are many varieties. Some folk have been daunted by the idea that cherimoyas need hand pollination, but we have not troubled with that and in season have more fruit from our tree than we can eat by ourselves.

Leave a comment

Filed under food, gardening

Don’t Let the Big One Get Away

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Too many people avoid painting a big canvas when doing plein air work. Don’t miss the fun! The seven foot canvas is one of my favorite things— makes my blood race. I feel I am in jeopardy every stroke of the way. You need to know you are not safe.

Here are the rules

  1. Take care of yourself. This means hat, long sleeves even if you think that makes you hot, or if you must do short sleeves and shorts, grease yourself to whiteness with sun screen. Jug of water. gloves. (I’m bare-handed in the photo because I’m sketching in schoolroom chalk, but the moment the paints come out, so will the nitrile gloves. Sweat will fill those gloves— it’s uncomfortable and you’ll need to change out every so often when they get too full of sweat. Sweat will run down your fore-arms. Yuck. But the amount of sweat is your warning to drink, because the sweat on your body is being constantly dried away by the wind and sun and your clothes wicking it from your skin.
  2. Be bold. Commit to the canvas as a whole— the broad sweep of the land must be caught on your canvas. Don’t mire down in detail, or some cute corner that charms you. Cute is the enemy of good work. Remember to get the shadows sketched in as though they were ‘things’ they are part of your essential composition and matter as much as any rock or hill.
  3. Stop when you have the sketch. Look at the shapes the canvas has been divided into. Are they good shapes? Do all of them hold your interest? Do they ‘talk’ to each other across the extent of the canvas? You are looking for power in this sketch. Settle for nothing less.
  4. Don’t stop. Many people will say you need to step back from your work to assess how it goes. I have two answers to that. One is a  3/4” wide brush on the end of a three foot stick. Duct tape is your friend. After the chalk sketch I take brilliant Indian Yellow or a Quinacridone Coral, with turpentine to loosen it, and sketch using this extended brush arrangement. Because the length of handle allows it, I can truly see what I’m doing in terms of the entire composition. Second, too many stops to look and edit what you do, make for a stutter in expression, tentativeness. These things won’t help you cover the territory. Consider my number two. Commit. Lay down paint, rich thick paint. Once you have serious paint going down, put off stepping back and thinking too much. Let the brush work, let your hands do the thinking. Only step back every half hour or hour to see what’s happening. Sometimes I hardly look until I’ve been at it for hours and have a third of the big canvas covered.Massing Hills II
  5. Get lots of rich buttery hues on your palette. Don’t water it down, don’t over-mix. Over-mixing physically breaks down the brilliance and purity of the paint. Fiddling about trying to get the color exactly right has two things going against it— first it doesn’t matter, only the value matters.. Two, it can’t be done within the context of dashing at a plein air work. The colors of real things are too complex for a batch of paints in tubes to match. Don’t ‘scrub’ paint thin on the canvas or board. You have no time for approximations— the world is changing. There are few common experiences other than painting en plein air that force you to realize as keenly that the world is turning. Slap down the pigments, keep the colors clean. This is the stage where I break brushes. This is why I buy cheap brushes.
  6. KEEP YOUR MEDIUM CLEAN. I’m sorry I shouted, but I can hardly emphasize this one too much. This is your one chance to get the colors pure and strong. Overpainting later never can recreate the clarity. You will never have good colors if you wash your brushes in your medium. So what to do with a dirty brush? Either set it aside for when you will need that color again, or dip it in turps and scrub clean it on paper or rag, re-dipping in turps as needed. Turps are for underpainting and cleaning brushes. Medium is for painting and glazing. Do not wudgle the rag or paper up and do not litter. Flatten the soaked dirty piece out to dry and put a rock on one corner. Later you will take these bits home and dry then thoroughly outside before discarding. These are the materials that spontaneously combust and are the reason why studio fires are a thing.
  7. Think about value. Not money values, but the blackness and whiteness of the landscape. Try to imagine you are mentally photographing the land using black and white film, and you will see the values then. You want to have a sense of how dark or light regardless of what color your shapes of landscape are. If you are in doubt, turn your canvas upside down and see if the composition works in the imagined black and white ‘translation’ in your mind. We humans see predominantly in value tones — know that a painting that works across the span as a black and white will be a successful one. The range of color blindness in human beings is amazing, it is more likely than not that we are all seeing something different when we talk about color. Color is trivial.RMG#577 Haze in Hills copy
  8. That said, paint boldly, using bright light colors. You think of the pigment white as very full of light, it’s the most so of all your paints. Light as white may be, hold it up against the sky or better yet, the brilliance of reflected light on a straw on the ground and you will see that what you have on your brush  is muddy and dull by comparison. You cannot paint as light and bright as the world can be.
  9. Take note of the darkness in your eye. This is a phenomenon that occurs in a great many painters’ work, making dull, unengaging paintings. The world outside is full of light so your eye physically closes down to protect itself. Like a camera lens it closes down to a very small aperture. This means that you stop seeing a great range of what is visually around you. You’re shut out. So you must use your brain to re-imagine what the world around you was like before your eye created this abbreviated perception. Compensate. Put back in those high values and bright colors— they are still there even if you are partially blinded by your own physical adaptations. One of the reasons I use atmospheric hot colors like orange and pink to sketch my composition at the start is to remind myself not to go dark. Even so, you may be dismayed by the end of day when you take your work which seemed so full of light, back in to the studio and see a sooty sky and dull hills with black trees.magenta and blue
  10. Don’t stop. You should be able to get the bones of a seven foot by three painting down in three to four hours with enough color notes slashed in that if you can’t come back out to finish, or the weather changes, you will have a complete guide to the premise of the work.
  11. Now step back. You will see that in many ways what you have made lacks subtlety and actually has only a rude sense of the reality. That’s what we want. Only God through nature can make a landscape, and only an artist can be so inspired as to translate it in to his or her individual language.

So you will have some questions, like, if the nitrile gloves are so uncomfortable, why wear them? The answer lies in the chemistry of your materials. Every oil paint and medium has toxic elements, some more than others. These can be absorbed through your skin. When you are a full time painter, there is no reason to marinate yourself in toxins. They may not make you sick today, but many accumulate in your liver, neural tissues, kidneys and other organs. It’s not glamorous to go insane from poisoning. It’s not adventurous to need a kidney transplant and it won’t make you popular when you’re asking for a piece of liver from your friends. So, why not use water based oils? Because even if you bypass some of the toxins, others still are there in the compounds that create the hues. What many folk don’t realize is that water color and pastels also contain toxic elements. Be careful, don’t confuse daring with foolishness. Know your ingredients. I’ve said it before and shall again, ignorance never saved anyone.

This means of course, never eat or drink without using extreme care when you are painting. Smoking also. Indeed, I don’t allow food or drink in the studio, but outdoors the need to keep hydrated demands more flexibility.. You do not want to ingest by any accident any of your paints or painting materials. I heard a rumor that Vincent Van Gogh ‘pointed’ his brushes in his mouth as he painted. Given the many toxic compounds he had in his palette— heavy metals, arsenic, lead, mercury, he may have had many reasons to be ill and have neurological symptoms.

I used to love to paint bare-handed, putting my fingers into the work for certain effects. Making dirt or pebbled soil look real by dabbing down high contrast values and then patting my palm across the surface. I do it with gloves now even though I admit it’s harder. But the more you hone your skills, the less it matters.

A side comment to the rant I just gave about the vital importance of value and the relative frivolity of color. Some days I will change all the colors on my landscape, paint pink hills and orange sky, purple trees and aquamarine shadows. If I get the values right the painting will have the authority it needs to assert pink hills and aquamarine shadows. It will look ‘right’.

A brief mention here about atmospheric perspective. When you are standing outside painting, remember this basic law. More distant objects generally look paler and grayer than the same colored objects up close. The values are higher, lighter. Think about all the air between you and those more distant things. Think about all the dust in that air, the veiling layers drifting between you and the far things. All that dust catches and diverts the light, thus graying out the intensity of value. Be aware of this in your work.

RMG#787 Following the Fence

What about using a colored ground? You can, but if you do, keep it thin and light in hue. Over time your paints will become slowly more translucent, and if you use a dark ground, every value in your painting will become more and more identical until, in sad cases, a lovely work ends up a brown soup. Too thin to satisfy. Yes, a colored ground will solve your paint harmony issues because every hue you put on the colored ground will be subtly harmonized by its influence. I feel it’s a bit of cheating as well as potentially compromising the quality of your work over the years or centuries to come.

I like a white ground, it makes me think and correct the color I use, every step of the way. And I know that should my painting survive for thousands of years, it will be close to what I made here, upon this day when the world was young.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Moonlight under the oaks

1 Comment

Filed under blog, painting

Of friendship and death

Joshua_Fry_Speed

We are too little moved at parting, blunting our feelings with the expectation that tomorrow will be like today. We will never say goodbye forever, not like this, on a sidewalk without warning. Tomorrow we will meet again, or perhaps the day after. There will be time enough.

Reading of Lincoln’s first meeting with Speed and the quick emphatic friendship that sprang out of that encounter, is full of pleasure to me, but I flinch back when the writer reports theories that they had sex and were lovers. The fact that they shared a bed is given as suspicious. The tone of open tender affection in their correspondence is interpreted as carnal.

I have a different take.

Two things I want to note. Aside from the historical economically enforced intimacy of whole families sharing beds in Lincoln and Speed’s times, (as well as with so many people today, who cannot afford privacy,) we’re looking at the fact that one feels differently in worlds of the past and present, when we know our time is driven by death, and filled with loss. We should know we have no time for dissembling. In Lincoln’s time, ignoring that urgency was an unaffordable luxury.

I remember same sex couples strolling down a village street in Africa arms entwined, fingers interlaced. I think that, yes, there is more than a mere difference in customs displayed. But, sorry, all you curious prurient-minded Americans, it’s not only carnal desire that drives expressions of love. It’s a mistake to reduce this closeness, this passion of feeling for the comrade, the friend, the chum, to an allegation of venereal desire.

In America these days, we feel we can afford to indulge our wish to forget mortality. By comparison the losses a twenty-year old man in Lincoln’s time suffered, I suspect, to be very like in number to the human losses suffered by the young Africans walking, arms entwined. We are talking about brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts dying young, often suddenly. We are talking about lives wrenched by death, a death that triumphs usually without a hospital battle, that springs by surprise out of a fever, an infected cut, a lorry running off the road, or a heart murmur from measles.

Friendship is a bond full of risk, taken at the edge of loss. When the average life-span before the Civil War for a white male was late thirties to mid forties, childhood through young adult mortality ran appallingly high. You found your friends and cleaved to them, because you knew your time was short. The next meeting might not come.

What in these days in this country do we know of death? Who among you readers who live in America have touched your beloved carrion? We have hospitals and nurses, morgues, caskets and the crematoriums to keep our hands clean. Death when it happens, we luxuriously consider an unnatural insult, unless the lost companion happens to be very old indeed. Then, we say it’s natural. That’s a lovely conceit. We all know at some level, our sense of protection isn’t solid at all. We’ve seen the evidence—cancer, automobile accidents, suicide, murder—the young die also.

So perhaps a dear friend may be held all the closer when you know you live under shadow. The rage of protective love might be allowed expression without embarrassment, because of this knowledge. All of us are like soldiers in trenches, death ever hungry, lurking underfoot, within, coming in from the sky, or from a side road. Pay attention. If you will stop looking away from death, it may lead you to share another hug on the street corner, to look with honest love upon a friend’s face, to watch the parting stride— saving images deep in memory long before this meeting is the last.

As for Joshua Fry Speed? He saw his beloved friend buried, years before his time.

6940169_1038944480

2 Comments

Filed under friends, social and anti