Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's got nothing to do with politics . . .

I called my sister last week, on what is still unfortunately referred to as Columbus Day.  I asked her what she was doing.

“Paying bills, doing laundry, cleaning house.” 

“I’m taking the dogs to the vet,” I said.  Then there was silence. Contented silence.

Every year for the past twenty-one years I’ve called my sister or she has called me on Memorial Day and Columbus Day.  The routine is always the same.  What are you doing?  Not much.  You?  The usual.

This little ceremony is in memory of the twelve years we were innkeepers on Cuttyhunk Island, when the calendar from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend meant our lives belonged 24/7 to the Allen House Inn.

Memorial Day weekend was the start of the season.  We’d scan the harbor anxiously, waiting for the boats to come in.  We’d praise sunny days and curse fog and rain. 
photo nina brodeur
And we’d wait both dreading and hoping we’d get slammed with too many people.We never had more than a  skeleton staff that early in the season, but we needed the cash.

We took out a startup loan at the beginning of every year, and breathed a sigh of relief when it was paid off and we began to make money.  We busted our asses eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, from the end of June until Labor Day.  
photo courtesy A. Hinson

Then the business dropped off as we headed toward the end of the season; but so did most of our staff, who had to get back to school or jobs or both.  The length of the day stayed the same, but our duties were more varied as everybody who stayed on took on any chore that was needed.

Then, finally, Columbus Day weekend.  That last grand slam of business, and the incredible relief with which we saw the harbor empty out on Monday.

A week of intense cleaning always followed, the scrubbing of every surface of the kitchen down to bare wood or metal, washing and bagging up linens, tablecloths, curtains, putting everything a mouse might want to chew into a container that hopefully a mouse could not chew through.  But that last week, difficult as it was physically, was incredibly satisfying emotionally.  We had made it through another season with our bodies and minds mostly intact.
photo A.Hinson
Almost twice as many years have passed without the Inn as the number of years we ran it.  I rarely have the dreams anymore, the ones where I wake up in a sweat because it’s Memorial Day weekend and things are not done.  My sister rarely wakes up wondering who is on the schedule to close at night.

But we remember.  We remember the good, the bad, the crazy.  As the years pass the good gets better and the bad slowly fades. 

And twice a year we call each other and talk about the lives we used to have, that we were so glad to have, and that we are so glad have moved beyond. 

We remember.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

You know when . . .

somebody you love says something, and all of a sudden you have a brilliant idea,
but that idea is gonna cause you a LOT of extra work, so all of a sudden you don't love that somebody quite as much as you used to? 

You know that feeling?

But the idea really is a good one and it will make the book so much better, 
except you are going to have to re-write large portions of the book you though you had just finished.

Yeah. like that. Exactly like that.

Only backwards and in high heels.

Ya'll may not see much in the way of brilliant and original thought here for a while while I hammer this puppy out.

(metaphorically speaking, I would never hammer an actual puppy), but I will endeavor to keep you amused and informed with the brilliance of other people.

The salt mines await.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Why Bayberry Island,

you may ask?

Well, because, bayberry. It's all over the east coast. It's on a lot of islands. And I wanted my island for the Summerhood Island series to be an island that could be anywhere, or at least more places than specifically off the coast of southeastern MA that could be seen from Aquinnah if you put a quarter in the binoculars at the edge of the cliffs and looked to your right.
Yeah. That island. Only a little broader in scope. 

So that's why I chose Bayberry out of all the names suggested to me for Jessie's island. And here's  a little discourse on the bayberry plant. You don't have to read the whole thing. You may skim. You have my permission.

Waxing eloquent on wax myrtle

·         Thursday, October 2, 2014
The Narrow-leaved Candleberry Myrtle 
One of the most popular (and prolific) trees in the Lowcountry is the wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera). This aromatic shrub grows everywhere – behind the dunes line on beaches, in woods along the marsh edges and in the natural thickets that often surround our shopping centers and building lots. Since it is unusually hardy and will take salt, wind and heat, the wax myrtle has become an extremely popular landscaping ornamental. There is hardly a landscaping plan that omits the versatile myrtle, especially for high-abuse places such as parking lot entrances and along roadways.
The wax myrtle has as many names as it has uses, and a remarkable historical record. It is variously known as Sweet Myrtle, Sweet Bay, Bayberry, Waxberry, Wild Tea, Tea Box, Tallow Bush, Merkle, Mucklebush, Mickleberry and, last but not least, the Candleberry Tree. For centuries, Lowcountry cooks have been using the slender, pungently “sweet bay” leaves to flavor stews and broths.
Yet, if we lived a century or two ago, the myrtle would have a far greater significance to us than mere food flavoring. It was not given the name “wax” myrtle for nought. The tree’s berries provided the wax to make the bayberry candles so popular for their aroma.
If you get up close and personal to a wax myrtle right now, you’ll find that it is chock-filled with clumps of small, round, greyish-blue berries. It was from these berries, harvested in the fall, that the wax was made for candles. The berries were placed in boiling vats, and as the wax rose to the top, it was skimmed off and strained. This process was repeated again and again until a cake of bayberry wax was formed. Enormous amounts of bayberries were required to produce a single pound of wax.
In 1732, English naturalist Mark Catesby described the annual fall ritual of harvesting bayberries and making wax from the bush he named the “Narrow-leaved Candleberry Myrtle.”
Wrote Catesby, “In November and December, at which time the berries are mature, a man with his family will remove from his home to some island or sandbanks near the sea, where these trees most abound, taking with him kettles to boil the berries in. He builds a hut with palmetto leaves, for the shelter of himself and family while they stay, which is commonly three or four weeks.
“The man cuts down the trees, while the children strip off the berries into a porridge pot; and having put water to them, they boil them until the oil floats, which is skimmed off into another vessel. This is repeated until there remains no more oil. This, when cold, hardens to the consistency of wax, and is of a dirty green color. They then boil it again, and clarify it in kettles which gives it a transparent greenness.”
In olden times, candles were generally made from two types of material, tallow and beeswax. Those made from natural beeswax burned with a more pleasant odor and generally gave off a more stable light. Tallow candles were usually made from fat extracted from beef and mutton but had a lower melting point and burned faster. Bayberry candles were considered better than those made of tallow and were probably the most familiar type of candle used in colonial America.
English explorer John Lawson praised them, writing in 1700, “the Berry yields a wax that makes candles the most lasting and of the sweetest smell imaginable. Some mix half Tallow with this Wax, others use it without mixture; and these are fit for a Lady’s Chamber.”
The wax myrtle was also esteemed for its medicinal properties. Root bark from the tree was collected in fall and boiled in water, producing an astringent and stimulant thought to be both a headache remedy and a curative for scrofula, jaundice, diarrhea and dysentery. A tea made from the leaves was thought to relieve a backache and would also “clean out the kidneys” and “overcome chills.”
Bay leaves were also thought to be an excellent insect repellant. Leaves were placed under and over beef at slaughtering time to keep flies away. Branches were strewn around houses, chicken coops and in beds to repel fleas. Rich in tannin, they were also used for tanning leather during the Civil War.
All in all, the wax myrtle is a simply wonderful shrub. It grows in sand; it will take both sun or shade. It looks wonderful when it is pruned ornamentally and just as good when it is left to its own abandon. Birds love the tree, both for nesting and for its berries. It even smells good.
Of all the wonderful natural abundance we have here on our coast, the wax myrtle is right up at the top in my estimation.
Next time you smell the alluring scent of a bayberry candle, give the valiant wax myrtle an appreciative nod. It has been doing good duty to both man and nature for a long time.

Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

National do something good day . . .

Is today
October 5th.

And right now you are saying, well, great, yeah, now she tells us. 
Wow about a little warning?

Well, I've been busy.

And maybe I just found out myself? 

And maybe I can't help it if it is tomorrow and you are just reading this post?

Oh, the guilt. Already I can feel it pouring in.

Now I don't even want to hit the publish button.
But I will. because I want to do something good for you.
so there

and besides,
shhh, it's a secret-
(you can make any day you want national do something good day)
doesn't have to be anything big. 

I am gonna give my new friend Lou a book. 
One of mine, of course.
It is the thought that counts.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

And now . . .

You must be tired of me blathering on about my progress on the next book.

I know I am.

So I am just going to post some interesting things i've found trolling the web.

gifs of how things are made.
just cause it’s so cool

what authors did before writing
In 1977, author-illustrator Simms Taback designed and illustrated the first Happy Meal box for McDonald’s.
  • One of the first professional ventures of author Florence Parry Heide was to attempt a hot fudge sauce company with a friend, but a dislike of cooking put that project on the back burner (so to speak).
  • Illustrator Ted Lewin’s 1993 book, titled I Was a Teenage Professional Wrestler, is all about how he was … well, a teenage professional wrestler, all to raise money for art school at Pratt Institute. He lived what he called his “double life: Renoir, Rubens, and Picasso by day; headlocks, hammerlocks, and flying tackles by night.”
  • The great Sid Fleischman was once a magician, having taught himself sleight-of-hand from books. As a teenager, he toured the country with such vaudeville acts as Mr. Arthur Bull’s Francisco Spook Show.
  • Author-illustrator Virginia Lee Burton intended to make dance her career but married a well-known artist, fell in love with the artistic life, and brought us Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel Mary Anne instead.
  • YA author Terra Elan McVoy was once an editorial assistant at Blue Sky Press, an imprint of Scholastic, and assisted with answering fan mail for the Captain Underpants books. “Though there were a lot of things I enjoyed about my job, I have to say that getting to write to an enthusiastic Captain Underpants fan, and choosing what exact thing to send to him or her, was definitely one of my favorite tasks. Sometimes, I even got a thank you letter back!”
  • Author Scott O’Dell once worked on a citrus ranch.
  • Author-illustrator Sergio Ruzzier was once an un-folder and re-folder of Persian rugs.
  • Author and poet Eve Merriam was a fashion editor atGlamour.
  • Author Ayun Halliday once had a gig as Bert of Bert and Ernie at a suburban shopping mall when she was “an extremely underemployed actress. It gives me a lot of sympathy for the poor saps currently peering out the eyeholes of Angelina Ballerina, Captain Underpants, and Clifford the Big Red Dog.”
  • YA author Lisa Yee wrote the slogan, “Pass the Old El Paso”; wrote jingles and Red Lobster menus; had a Hollywood gossip column; invented cereals and ice cream flavors; and was once a hand model.
  • During World War Two, author-illustrator Robert McCloskey invented the machine that allowed lieutenants to flip over large training charts in a high breeze.
  • Author-illustrator Don Brown was once a professional clam digger.
  • Before she brought us The Indian in the Cupboard, author Lynne Reid Banks was the first woman reporter on British television.
  • One of YA author Cecil Castellucci’s first jobs was to insert time codes into the transcriptions from documentary footage so that editors could get to the footage easily. For The Matrix DVD, they interviewed a girl, age 15, who dressed up as Trinity. Cecil was also a film extra and was once called in to interview as a child ape in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. She didn’t land the role but got to try on ape masks at Rick Baker’s special effects make-up studio. The 15-year-old girl later became the character Egg in her novel Boy Proof, and the make-up studio inspired her to make Egg’s dad a special effects designer.
  • Author Bruce Coville was once a gravedigger. “Consider it hands-on research for a scene I once wrote in The Ghost Wore Gray,” he told us. “It was nepotism – my grandfather ran the cemetery. It was a small country cemetery, and we still dug graves by hand. So I know what it’s like to lie down at the bottom of a grave and look up. (I mean, when else would I have the chance?) There was something peaceful about digging graves, and I found it a good time to think.” He joins the ranks of author Meindert DeJong, no less, who also once dug graves, as well as Allan Ahlberg: “I became a gravedigger by a process of elimination. I vaguely wanted to be a writer and I didn’t want a career. I had been a plumber’s mate, a soldier and a postman. I was looking for a job in the open air where they left you alone.”
  • To support himself in college, author-illustrator Marc Brown “took a job at a television station. My first assignment was to make more people want to watch the weather report…I decided to dress the weather reporter, Shirley, up as a weather fairy; she’d swing onto the set on a big swing with her gossamer wings flapping behind her. My boss didn’t see the humor: he gave me a free Christmas ham—and fired me.”
  • Young Adult author Gabrielle Zevin once sold bras, which was “excellent practice,” she told us, “for getting into the heads of adolescent girls. Essentially one long Judy Blume novel.”
  • One of author-illustrator Roxie Munro’s first jobs was as courtroom artist for television/newspapers, her first trial being Watergate.
  • Illustrator Karla Gudeon once worked for The Erotic Bakery in New York City.
  • Young adult and middle-grade novelist Todd Strasser once owned an X-rated fortune cookie company.
  • Before he became a children’s poet, J. Patrick Lewis was a Professor of Economics for thirty years. “So, changing fields was tantamount to transgender surgery,” he told us. “I had to undergo a very delicate operation.”
  • Author David Elliott once worked as a cucumber-washer in Greece and a popsicle-stick-maker in Israel.
  • Newbery winner Maia Wojciechowska, who was a fan of bullfighting, once was a matador in Mexico.
Author-illustrator Barbara McClintock sums it up well when, asked if she’s ever had an unusual or eccentric job of her own, she responds: “I think that’s a pretty accurate job description of what I’m doing now.”