I've become obsessed with the redbud trees that seem to be blooming all over Houston these days. If there ever was a symbol of hope and rebirth, I really believe these trees are it.
In other news, God bless Mir Kamin. Yesterday, she took a near-hysterical phone call from me, as I was about to succumb to a severe case of writer's block, and lo, she unblocked me, like so much Ex-Lax (and despite what it sounds like, I mean that in the most complimentary way possible). As a result, I feel like I'm really on a roll with this second book, and I might even have something to turn in to my agent this week (as long as I keep on rollin'). Thanks, Mir, I owe you.
Also, and rather randomly, I wanted to mention to you the book I recently read on my flight to San Francisco: The Butcher and the Vegetarian, by very popular food blogger, Tara Austen Weaver. Tara sent me an advance copy of her brand new book, and to be honest, I read it to be polite: I like Tara, but I don't generally read romance novels, and judging from the cover of the book and its tagline, I assumed that by reading her book, that's what I would be in for. I could not have been more wrong.
Despite appearances, this book doesn't have a drop of romance in it: it turns out that Tara is a lifelong vegetarian (she was raised by a vegetarian mother), but because of doctor's (and holistic practioners') orders, she was encouraged to begin eating meat. Thus began Tara's adventure into the culture of meat, and this book is a beautifully-written, very even-handed look at both vegetarianism and the meat industry. She's done a lot of research here, and she's a solid writer who presents the pros and cons of both omnivorous and vegetarian lifestyles to both incredibly entertaining and intelligent effect. I could not recommend this book more, to meat-eaters and vegans alike -- and I promise you, it's not going to try to convince you to adopt one lifestyle or the other. I raced through this book, reading it in about two hours on the plane. Really brilliant work -- and I say this without any reservation (or urging on Tara's part) whatsoever -- I strongly recommend you buy it.
And finally, speaking of books, according to Random.org, the winner of Katherine Center's latest novel, Get Lucky, is katie, who commented, "At this moment, I'm sitting in my dorm room in San Diego, Ca and to my left is lip balm, a remote, and lotion :)." Congratulations, katie! I'll contact you via email to get your snail mail address, to ship the book out to you as soon as possible. And thanks to all of you for participating in yesterday's giveaway -- it was so awesome to see glimpses into your world (even your world, Denise, despite the fact that you were apparently indisposed in the bathroom at the time of your commenting. You get mad props for being so open about your ... ahem ... location).
Thanks again, everyone. With that, I'm back to the book.
Thanks for all the kind words yesterday, everyone. I'm writing slowly but surely; in addition, I got some good advice from a friend and things should be going a bit quicker. Fingers crossed.
So, anyway, I need to get back to it. In the meantime, however, yesterday I received an advance copy of my friend Katherine Center's brand spanking new novel, Get Lucky. As it happens, Katherine had already given me a copy (and I've already torn through it -- that Center girl, she just keeps getting better and better, she does!), so I've got this beautiful, new, pre-released copy just sitting on my desk.
Just sitting here, crying out to be given away.
So here's what we'll do: if you'd like to receive this advance copy of Katherine's book (it doesn't actually come out until April 6), just leave a comment below, stating (a) the city and country where you're currently reading this blog and (b) what is located immediately on your left. For example, in my case:
(You can, of course, tell me something else about you, too, but you don't have to if you don't want to. I just love glimpses into your world.)
I'll pick a commenter at random to receive this copy of her book. I'll take comments until 12:00 am Wednesday morning (March 31), and announce the winner in Wednesday's post.
Awesome. And don't be shy: even if you might not want to read the book yourself, I guarantee you one of your friends does, so comment anyway. I mean, just think how good a person you'll look when you give it as a gift!
Besides, I can't wait to see what random things are to your left.
So I neglected to mention, through all the Beauty of Different excitement and traveling and what-not, that several months ago I managed to land an agent for a second book. This, as you can imagine, blows my mind and excites me to no end -- which, I suppose, in a certain way explains why I haven't mentioned it here, what with the possible jinxing and all.
The thing is, my agent would like this book to be more memoir-y and less photo-y, and it turns out that I have very little experience in writing more-memoir-y-less-photo-y-type books. The pathetic result is that I've been putting off deadline after deadline, somewhat paralyzed with fear about the whole thing.
No more. After all, a few years ago, I managed to crank out a (truly horrible) novel in 30 days, thanks to NaNoWriMo -- if I can do that, I'm hoping I can surely churn out a couple of decent chapters actually based in truth this week to submit to my agent for my deadline of April 2nd.
Anyway, I hope you'll forgive me if I'm a bit light on words this week, although I'm sure I'll be consistent with the photos -- with all the words I'll be writing, I anticipate a strong need for taking a break by shooting something at some point. Also, sorry about not mentioning all of this sooner -- but hey, did you notice the picture I took of the pretty flower in Berkeley, above? Look, here's another one!
I had already decided to use the top 10 exporting countries, rather than the top 10 producing countries, because I figured that the exporting countries are the ones who are probably actually making good money for their wines, and therefore I'd be more likely to have a positive experience. Based on this somewhat dubious logic, for the purposes of my life list, the countries I plan on visiting and having that local glass are Italy, France, Spain, Australia, Chile, United States, Germany, Argentina, Portugal and South Africa.
Of course, I could've had a glass of American wine back home in Houston and been done with it, but I think most people would agree that Napa and Sonoma counties, just north of San Francisco, are really the regions in the United States that are most popular for their wine, so I had been saving the experience for the next time I was in the Bay Area. Naturally, when I bellied up to the bar on Monday, I was ready to tackle my life list right then and there.
"Hi," I said to the smiling bartender. "I'm hoping to have a glass of local wine -- can you recommend one?"
"Red or white?" she asked.
"Hmm..." I thought. "White."
"You're in luck," she said. "It's happy hour, and I have one I'm trying to get rid of."
"It's a blend of both Napa grapes and Sonoma grapes, so I figure you get two in one," she mentioned as I took a sip.
It was delicious -- wonderfully refreshing, not to sweet, not too dry. A really good representative of American wine, I think, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Since there was no one else in the bar, we struck up a conversation, and I mentioned my life list to her. "In fact," I said, "one of the items on my list is to taste 50 rums -- you wouldn't happen to have any exotic rums, would you?"
"Actually I do," she said.
"Awesome. I don't want it now, but when I return from dinner with my friend, perhaps I'll have one before I go up to my room. What do you have?"
"Oh, I have this amazing one," she gushed. "It's called Flor de Caña. But it's really expensive."
"Yeah?" I said. "How much?"
"Sixteen dollars a shot."
"That's all right," I said. "Where's it from?"
"Huh. I didn't realize that they made rum in Nicaragua," I said, skeptical.
"Oh it's wonderful. After your dinner, come back. You'll see."
I finished about two-thirds of my glass of wine, paid the bill, and left for dinner with Andrea. I returned to the hotel by about 10 o'clock. The bar was more crowded then, but on seeing me, the bartender smiled and poured me a glass of the Flor de Caña without question.
Now, you know me: I don't like to say unkind things here on Chookooloonks, but Lordy, I did not like this rum. "Ragged," is the only word I could think of to describe it -- the kind of alcohol that feels like it's scraping the inside of your throat. I've done a bit of online research, and it appears that this rum is actually widely considered one of the best rums of Latin America, so I'm fully ready to admit that when it comes to rum knowledge, I'm a true neophyte; still, this definitely wasn't one of my favourites.
I left most of the rum in the glass and went to up to my room to bed.
* * * * * * *
The next day, as I mentioned, I went to spend some time with my sister. When we arrived at her house, she offered me something to drink, and I involuntarily cringed at memory of the previous night's rum -- but still, I wanted to try a different rum, to see if, in fact, I really didn't like it, or if that's just how rum tastes, and I'd have to suck it up.
"Hey," I said, "you wouldn't happen to have any really, really good Trinidadian rum, would you?"
She looked at me as if she was weighing whether or not to drive me to the nearest AA meeting. Then suddenly, her face cleared.
"Your life list!" she said, laughing.
"Yes, I've got a couple. Come."
She walked to her little liquor cabinet and pulled out two Trini rums: one I'd heard of, 10 Cane, and the other, Scarlet Ibis rum, I'd never heard of. Since it was new to me, and the scarlet ibis is actually the national bird of Trinidad & Tobago, I felt moved to try that one (I've since found out that The Scarlet Ibis rum was made in a limited batch, and there is no intent to distill any further bottles, so I'm feeling a bit bad about drinking from their rare, precious bottle):
Now, this was a much better rum. In my (again, admittedly inexperienced) opinion, a really good rum should taste almost like a brandy -- slightly sweet, very warm, and really smooth. This wasn't as good as my all-time favourite rum, Angostura 1919, but it was close. Delicious.
John, my sister's husband, didn't arrive until quite a bit later that evening, and after we got the kids to bed, we sat around talking. Conversation got around to the life list, and I mentioned that I'd had some of his rum.
"Which, the 10 Cane?"
"Oh, no, the Scarlet Ibis," I said. "I'd heard of the 10 Cane, so I decided to go for the one I didn't know."
"Have you ever tried the 10 Cane?" he asked, a sly smile, creeping across his face.
"No, I don't think so ..."
"Dude, you have to try the 10 Cane," he said, getting up before I could protest. Enabler.
He came back with a glass, and I had to admit, it was really good -- on par with the Scarlet Ibis, I think, and at least as smooth. It was the perfect way to wind down the evening before I had to head back to the hotel.*
And on that note, have a great weekend, everyone. Me, I'm just planning on drying out.
* The reason there isn't a picture of the 10 Cane is because by the time John had come home and we'd sat down, the sun had gone down, and there wasn't any good natural light. It is NOT because I was too tipsy to take a photograph of it. No sir.
I'm back from San Francisco. This trip was really rather sudden: the result of an unexpected instant-message about two weeks ago from someone asking if I would like to speak at a marketing meeting hosted by her company on social media. I was happy to agree, I had the opportunity to meet and listen to some really fascinating folks in the health-care industry -- I hope they got as much out of what I had to say as I did from listening to them! It was a really great event.
The talk aside, this was one of the best business trips I've ever had, mostly for what occurred on my off-time. I flew in on Monday, arriving in the afternoon, and on a whim I called my friend Andrea to see if she might be up for an impromptu dinner. I admit I was a bit surprised when she agreed -- it was such late notice. We decided that I would come out to where she lives in Berkeley, so after a little down time at the hotel, I hopped the BART and headed out.
(A quick aside: to those of you who live in cities that have rapid transit, I want you to take a moment now to thank your stars for your luck. Oh, how I envy you! Houston has no real rapid transit to speak of -- with apologies to the cute little train that runs from the Med Center to Downtown -- and it's one of the things I miss most about London. It is for this reason that anytime I get to travel to a city with a subway system, it's one of the first experiences I try to grab when I arrive. And honestly, I'm of the firm belief that a rapid transit system in Houston is all it would take to transform this city to a place where people would fervently clamour to live.
But I digress.)
Once I arrived at Berkeley and met Andrea and her beautiful husband Matt and deliciously sweet son, Ben, Andrea decided to take me on a walk to The Edible Schoolyard. For those who aren't in the know (and I certainly wasn't), The Edible Schoolyard is an acre-large organic garden that is on the grounds of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. The garden is there to teach the kids how to grow organic food, and then the facilities include a kitchen to teach them how to cook healthy dishes from the food they've grown. I'm so glad I had my camera with me, because let me tell you, this place is magical:
To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure that I didn't dream the place up.
After the sun faded, we walked to Andrea's favourite place that serves exclusively vegetarian sushi (vegetarian! sushi!) and, as Marcus would say, had "a good natter." It was so lovely catching up with her, and I'm forever grateful to her for spontaneously coming out with me and showing me a part of the Bay Area I might not have otherwise seen.
The next morning I met a few other friends at a very funky little coffee bar, Sugar Cafe, to catch up over some hot beverages. My presentation wasn't until midday, and a couple of the friends I wanted to see are women who I generally only visit with once every year in Oregon, so I was thrilled to see that they are positively radiant with the good in their lives:
The morning raced by far too quickly; but still, it was so great to see them, for even the short amount of time that I had. Although we often send email to each other, really nothing beats looking your friends in the eyes and hugging them, and seeing for yourself that they're doing really, really well, does it?
After my presentation, I rushed to get ready for some down time with my sister, who lives in San Francisco. She picked me up at my hotel and I spent the evening with her and her family at their home, eating Chinese take-out. It was so nice just to hang out with them and play with mountains of Legos and get schooled on faeries and woodnymphs and pixies, because I'm sorry, but it must be said that my niece and nephew win for Cutest Niece and Nephew of The World:
You will never be able to convince me of otherwise.
On a serious note: it occurred to me, as I was processing these images tonight, that these photos were all sort of my personal proof that love is, indeed, all around us: from friends who will drop everything to connect with you, to little ones who insist on your tucking them into bed, to beautiful magical gardens that appear in the most unlikely places, evidence of the focus and gentleness of caring hands. I love the idea that you can be going about your mundane day (or even be on an exhausting, whirlwind, ostensibly-strictly-business trip), and reminders of love are always there. Always.
Last week, I received an email from a student asking to interview me for a paper she was writing. I happily agreed, and within days, she sent me a list of questions. For the most part, the questions were easy to answer, but I'm embarrassed to admit that one of them made me pause:
What does "beauty" mean to you?
Isn't that funny? I've written an entire book about the beauty of different, and yet I found myself struggling for an answer to this question: I'd never actually taken the time to define "beauty" before. How horrifying.
So I sat for a bit, and finally started writing. Here's how I ended up answering it:
I think beauty is anything that's pleasing to the soul. It's more than being pretty or aesthetically attractive; it's about something or someone or some attribute that stirs something deep inside of you. It's for this reason I'm convinced that we're all beautiful, because we all have something about us that can stir another's soul.
There. Not the most eloquent of answers, I suppose, but certainly one that feels authentic to me.
With that, I'm actually out of here -- I'm leaving for a quick business trip to San Francisco, but will be returning Wednesday afternoon. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments, below -- what does "beauty" mean to you?
(P.S. I'm becoming more and more enamoured with the camera apps for my iPhone, so even though I won't be updating here until I return, I'll likely be updating over here. In case, you know, you want to know what naughtiness I'll be up to, realtime.)
I have a theory about family vacations, and it is this: it is not a vacation when you go visit family.
Do not get me wrong: it's not that I don't like visiting family -- quite the contrary, we've had some lovely holidays visiting moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins and the like when we go to England or Trinidad. Traveling to see long-lost kinfolk can be lots of fun; however, it's rarely restful. There's always someone that you have to visit or something that you have to do, and there's never enough time to do it all. And I've found that for me, it becomes essential at least one time during a 12-month period for Alex, Marcus and I to disappear on our own for some concentrated family time, with very limited outside influences.
Enter Lost Parrot Cabins. I have no idea how I found this place, but I'm so glad I did: it's this little grouping of the most amazing little cabins, down a dirt road, outside of Austin, in the middle of nowhere. As a strict rule I am not a camper, although Marcus is -- these cabins, therefore are the absolute best marriage between rustic and luxurious that could possibly ever be. I mean, look at this:
This is the cabin we stayed in this past weekend -- how can you not love that?
(Funnily enough, as I was processing this image, it suddenly dawned on me that this cabin looks amazingly like so many of the houses that dot the hills in Trinidad, albeit a bit more colourful. It's no wonder I feel at home here.)
The cabins are equipped with full kitchens, have DVD players and little electric fireplaces, and even come with free WiFi. They're nestled in the tree-covered hills around Austin, so sitting out on your hammock-bedecked balcony feels like you're living in a treehouse. There are little trails going all over the property, and there's even a band on Saturday nights. Truly a getaway, and this was the fourth time we've stayed here as a result.
But the best part?
Total photo porn. The place is completely decorated and dripping with Mexican Day-of-the-Dead tschotchkes and Central American kitsch, with bright crazy colours everywhere. Alex and I couldn't get enough.
Cat, the owner, told me that this "girl" is named "Katrina." You can't tell, but she's holding an umbrella. Awesome.
There were parrots all over the place. Lost parrots. Get it?
Around the hot tub was the most extensive collection of rubber duckies I have ever seen. Cat gave Alex an Alice-In-Wonderland one, and a Barack Obama one. She hasn't put them down since.
Okay, maybe sharing all these crazy colours isn't doing a great job to prove to you that the setting is calm, but trust me, it so is. Besides, there were lots of lovely peaceful, quiet moments, too, like:
One of the blooms on the peach tree. I see a lot of peach canning in Cat's future.
Seriously, it was a wonderfully quiet, restorative time. And on this Love Thursday, as the weather starts to improve all over, may you carve out some wonderfully quiet, restorative times for the people you love as well.
We're back from Austin. It was such a whirlwind trip: I flew up to Austin on Friday morning, in time to do my SXSW panel on Friday afternoon...
... which, if I do say so myself, went well -- but with a title like "8 Ways to Deal With Bastards," and co-panelists like Bryan Mason, Jason Shellen and LoriMcLeese, I wasn't particularly worried. Seriously, these are some pretty impressive folks, the kind who make you realize you're learning a lot just being in their airspace. But more importantly, the funny, man -- they know how to bring the funny. It was a such good time.
Then it was back into the city for some more SXSW-ing, then Marcus and Alex, who drove in from Houston, picked me up downtown, and we drove out to our favourite cabins ... but I'm getting ahead of myself. After all, I need to save some photos for a later post!
So anyway, now we're back in Houston. And while I feel like there's a ton of stuff that I need to get done this week after all this wonton loafing, I'm illogically feeling pretty good about doing it all, and I'm feeling really happy about life in general. Lucky, even.
And on that note, Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone.
Song: I wanna be a cowboy, by Boys Don't Cry. As Laura was driving me back into town from her house, we stopped at the one stop light in her tiny country town, and this song came on the radio. Of course.