Seize the day

Not long ago, I helped to organize the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, which brought together talented published authors, writers who wished to learn from them, and appreciative readers who sought to immerse themselves in writing at the longest running conference for women in the nation.

But I’m not going to talk about that today.

I bring it up, though, because it was this conference — and the book written by acclaimed author Bonnie Jo Campbell  — which led me to hunker by the size of a busy road yesterday morning, in the polar conditions of autumn which bore down upon the Commonwealth, and pick two giant mushrooms the approximate size and weight of my head.

cu growing photo Photo10-24-13101237AM_zps64088be4.jpg

Back in the spring, I dove into Once Upon a River, which tells the compelling story of a young girl driven by circumstance to live by her wits and considerable outdoors acumen along a semi-wild river near Kalamazoo, Michigan. The author, Campbell, was due to appear at our conference in the fall.

It was shortly after reading this book that I practically became Bonnie Jo Campbell’s sister — yes, it’s true. But that’s a story for another day.

This day, I point directly to Once Upon a River as my first exposure to Calvatia gigantea or the giant puffball mushroom, which our heroine harvests and dines upon as she literally lives off the fat of the land.

Giant puffballs growing wild. And edible? I had my doubts. But she could shoot the eye out of a buck — and attract any male who may or may not be a card-carrying member of the NRA — so I tended to trust her on the issue of free-range fungus.

Fast forward to yesterday morning.

Driving home after taking my son to school, I spied on the side of the road, two large, round white shapes which could have been:

A) used diapers chucked from a car traveling the adjacent New Circle Road (a local bypass);

B) Styrofoam blown out of the back of a pickup used for who-knows-what unholy purpose; or

C) actual, bonafide giant puffball mushrooms.

I slowed down for a closer look. And then I drove home and, like most people in 2013, posted about my discovery on Facebook.

Were they these fabled things that me, a girl raised in semi-rural conditions, had never observed, let alone ingested? Were they something that I could harvest, like dandelion leaves and poke sallet, and eat from the side of the road and call it actual food?

Or were they some other, more nefarious form of fungus, intent upon poisoning me with their plump charms — the deadly I Will Kill You in Horrible Seizing Agony mushrooms, which present identically to the giant puffball shroom?

At home, I applied mascara and pondered. I would never know what they were, I thought between eyeliner applications, unless I stopped for a closer look.

As you can see in the photos, they’d already been munched by some resident fauna, and I flicked one off before pulling them up. (A slug! Eww!)

 photo d115ea9e-0d6a-4e98-a6f3-46f7ea0033c3_zps02b36be9.jpg

They came out of the ground easily and they really are surprisingly heavy! Maybe not as heavy as my head (filled with all these brains, you know) but pretty hefty for something that goes by the name of puffball.

I put them in a plastic bag, braced myself against the buffets of passing cars, popped myself back into the Prius, and off to work I went.

But were they actually edible? I got confirmation from Bonnie Jo herself, via Facebook, that I did indeed have two gorgeous puffballs on my hands and I should prepare them with lots of butter and invite all my friends.

At this point I wasn’t sure I was going to convince a Doubting Husband that I brought something home from the side of the road that we can actually eat. But, gamely, I cooked one of the things up last night, and as I mentioned earlier, documented the whole process on Facebook for the entertainment of my far-flug friends.

Sink mushrooms photo Photo10-24-1355907PM_zps7f1517e8.jpg

Yes, from Kentucky to Rhode Island, and North Carolina to Texas, people were following  the Great Potentially Death-Inducing Mushroom Saga, hoping I presume, that I would live to cook another day.

I won’t doubt that there were some expecting I would experience violent vomiting at the bare minimum, with seizures, coma, and death a distinct possibility.

No such luck, you guys!

This is the mushroom I prepared, shown here cleaved in two on the cutting board in my kitchen:

 photo 17f3fd86-3d04-4c53-a80b-483f832b9c49_zps550fbb46.jpg

Cubed and ready for the sautee pan:

Cubed photo Photo10-24-1374656PM_zps0cbe5b0d.jpg

Cooking:

Sauteeing photo Photo10-24-1373134PM_zps7e91a1b7.jpg

I assure you I did not fail to eat some of these cubes, atop my spaghetti, but I did fail to take a picture of it. Doh!

Since nobody touched the things except me — despite the fact that they were drenched in butter, olive oil, garlic and salt — I put the remainder in a bag and tossed them in the freezer. The Internets told me I could.

I am here to report that I am in fact alive. Although for all I know I’m a zombie, Walking Dead in the wake of my mushroom induced-death, getting my just desserts for daring to eat something that wasn’t purchased at the grocery store.

And if you ever see any giant mushrooms that resemble severed heads along the road, you too can take them home and cook ’em up. They’re delicious — especially around Halloween.

Advertisements

Rock on

I’ve recently returned from a trip to North Carolina, and my experiment with posting from my phone wasn’t a particularly resounding success. The pictures looked fine on a three-inch screen, but blown up in all its PC glory, the blog came off a bit puny.

So now I’m subjecting you to the afternoon I spent with my two boys in Chimney Rock, NC, which is moderately famous for having been the location for many of the scenes in Last of the Mohicans. (The main attraction of this film, though, as every red-blooded American woman knows, is Daniel Day-Lewis. Sooo much sexier than Abraham Lincoln, and I’m speaking as someone who almost majored in history.)

Anyhoo, juicy Hawkeye notwithstanding, the scenery of Western North Carolina is beautiful, and equipped with camera and offspring, we ventured out to view some of it.

Here is the aforementioned Chimney Rock, around which a state park has been constructed.

It’s large, don’t get me wrong, and somewhat more impressive than this picture presents.

Of much more interest to the members of our little party, though, was the Broad River, which runs alongside the road leading to Chimney Rock Park and behind the row of shops and tiny tourist cottages that line it. (Not to be confused, by the way, with the French Broad River, which sounds as though it were named for a character in Moulin Rouge!)

The trees may be bare but the weather was warm, and much time was spent hanging out on the rocks and skipping stones.

Also posing for photo ops. He was, he informed me, sitting as he would for a school picture, but with a real backdrop.

Older brother decided to go with a Mohicans stance.

It might have been only early spring, but there was quite a bit of evidence of new life along the river. Here we found some lamb’s ear growing wild. Though I didn’t include anything in the photo to provide scale, you’ll have to trust me that this was about the size of a cabbage.

Nearby was a bush struggling with some new growth.

Speaking of growth, growing boys need to touch, jump, run, and otherwise terrify their mothers around rushing water.

I know this doesn’t look all that scary from your safe vantage point there in front of your computer screen, but trust me, he’s running.

After some quality time on the river, we crossed this actual rock bridge (not a particularly unusual sight if  you’ve been to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, but still, this was a nice example) and made our way to Cutseyville.

Here is one of the sights you may behold in Chimney Rock, instruments of torture!

I lie; they are pieces of antique rock-climbing equipment. Nobody expects the Spanish Rock-Climbing Equipment!

We stopped by Chimney Rock Gemstone Mine, a nice little store featuring rocks of all sorts, some wrought into jewelry, others laying about for the simple admiring. Now, Trassie, when he’s not scaring me to death by leaping across uneven terrain, can be found playing Minecraft, an interesting single- or multi-user game that’s been described as “Legos for adults.” As the name suggests, the Minecraft world requires a lot of mining, in addition to building, so naturally Trassie is interested in rocks and gems.

He is the proud new owner of a hunk of emerald calcite, which he paid for with his Own Money. (Amusingly, at least to me, that link goes to a site called Kids Love Rocks.)

Not to be outdone, Christopher also made an Own Money purchase, but I didn’t have a presence of mind to document his acquisition of a deadly weapon, er, pocket knife. Is is, however, an “assisted open” knife, which as best I can tell is a polite term for “legal switchblade.” He’s been mockingly threatening to cut me ever since, and every time he says it, I hear Rocky saying “cut me, Mick.”

Documentation of this trip wouldn’t be complete without some evidence of my presence, so here for your admiration is a shot of me loafing on a rock, clad of course in my most comfortable boots.

As it turns out, they aren’t a particularly good choice for sure-footedness on slippery river rocks but who cares? I LOOKED GOOD.

And no trip with two sons would be complete without snickering at something. In our case, it was one of the stores in the village, which proudly presents, in cartoon form, a happy Chimney Rock. As I began snapping away for this photo, Trassie started to ask why I was taking a picture of the store, but the words died on his lips and he collapsed into a fit of snickering worthy of someone who can’t say “balls” or “nuts” without extended periods of mirth. Yes, we all three stood in the street laughing like 15-year-old boys, and only one of us had an excuse.

Yes, I am the mother of boys.

We never did make it to the boot store; a closed Harley shop promised it had another store somewhere along the (one) road through town, but I never saw it. Which means of course it doesn’t exist, for can you believe there was a shoe store within a few hundred yards that I couldn’t smell out? Of course not. So no new boots or boot yearning for me. Although I did notice, upon our return to Lexington, an billboard advertising a boot store with a gorgeous pair of Luccheses about a mile high.

But I digress.

I took more silly pictures of the boys.

And a little more scenery.

We got some cokes at the Ye Olde Store and we felt we had DONE Chimney Rock.

Let me tell you: We had a ball.

A guilty woman’s tour of New York

There are lots of ways to see New York. As a tourist, you go to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Central Park. If you’re an art lover, you head straight to the Metropolitan Museum and, especially if you like saying it out loud, MOMA.

If you’re me, you eat a lot, discover a whole lot of what you don’t know, and feel guilty about both.

Take this for example.

Wouldn't we all

Thanks a lot, David Barton Gym. This is supposed to be motivational, I know, and in a world where there are TV series featuring serial killers as heros and chemistry teachers making meth, I shouldn’t be surprised. The sign looks a bit strange because like a lot of New York buildings, it’s being renovated and the scaffolding protects passers-by. Who presumably have murder on their minds.

But of course, after a couple days taking huge, salt-and-butter laden bites out of the Big Apple, I was starting to think such ghoulish thoughts sounded good.

Visiting my sister Cara, chef of a darling restaurant, Cafe Ghia in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, means eating. A lot. She and our other sister, her twin Leah, are only 30 years old and ridiculously active. A few 1,000 calorie “starters” (what we in New York are now calling appetizers) sit lightly on their yoga-trimmed and cycle-pared thighs. Add 18 years and a lot of sitting around on your ass blogging, and such delights tend to drag down one’s derriere considerably.

So there’s that guilt trip: eat your way across New York and no matter how much walking up and down stairs to the subway you do, you still arrive back home in Kentucky with a newly minted double chin and a drawer full of jeans you can’t zip.

Chelsea HotelHere’s something else: The Hotel Chelsea. Heard of it? Maybe? Well, maybe I had too.

“It’s famous for something,” Leah allowed, as we walked past it to get to the Doughnut Plant next door. (Mmmm doughnuts. See above.)

“Well, it’s also closed,” I announced, seeing the sign on the door.

“Probably bedbugs,” was my mother’s Regis and Kelly-informed opinion.

Well, as it turns out, it too was being renovated, as a group of pretty good-looking guys rolling giant iron carts to the curb told me. Their accents were as thick as the iron too. I felt like I was in On the Waterfront. They couldda been contendas!

As it was, they approved of my photographing the building, wisely acknowledging its fame. I snapped away, wondering, what for?

Leonard Cohen! I know right?Ah, how good of the Chelsea, to provide historical-markeresque plaques for the rubes from the hinterlands. Reading along, I learned this was the famous hotel where writers would go to write, holed up in their New York-fueled frenzy, churning out Pulitzer Prize winning novels and one Great American Novel after another.

Welcome to the ChelseaGuess what? Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey while at the Chelsea and oh, who else stayed there? Just a few nobodies like Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road there.

Good stuff! Why then, the guilt? Oh, because I majored in LITERATURE for Pete’s sake! Literature of the English language! The literature written by people like Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. You’d think the name “Chelsea” might have penetrated my consciousness at some point. Not to mention all the musicians who flopped, dropped acid, or were murdered within its walls (Nancy, girlfriend of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Viscious was found murdered there.) I SAW SID AND NANCY!

Ah well, I’m an older, wiser, and more well-traveled woman of the world now. I may have to slap on the Spanx and hold my breath for 15 minutes to get into my jeans now —  but by golly, I’ve eaten octopus and rabbit in Brooklyn and consumed pizza and fried dough in Manhattan. And I’ve stood on the sidewalk before the buildings where John Lennon died (the Dakota) and Nancy Spungen expired (the Chelsea).

Maybe it’s not necessary to do any killing to look better naked. Hanging around  New York literary hotspots might just make me thin by association.

The tyranny of punctuation

It seems like it’s the smallest things that lay people low. An insignificant droplet of blood causes the biggest man to collapse into a dead faint at a paper cut.

The tiny word “no” sends a kindergartner into the stratosphere, howling about the injustice of being denied a cookie five minutes before supper is laid upon the table.

A simple three-pointer, if made by the other team at the buzzer, can slay a full one-half of the population of a state.

And so it is with punctuation, particularly the apostrophe.

Apostrophe abuse is rampant in this nation, and I used to feel sorry for the poor little thing. I thought of starting a non-profit to combat its prevalence.  The Apostrophe Abuse Association, I’d call it, and hand out fliers decrying this new menace sweeping the land.

For everywhere I go, I find cases of egregious apostrophe abuse. But as much as I feel sorry for it, I’m beginning to think that it’s the apostrophe itself — and its cousin, the quotation mark — that’s running roughshod over the population and whose tyranny we should fight.

The thing is, the rules are so horribly confusing and completely impervious to memorization that people are scared to frickin’ death of punctuation. Take the sentence in the paragraph above. There are at least a couple punctuation situations that might strike terror in the heart of the causal writer, were they to undertake the superhuman job of writing clearly and simply.

Now, take example from above: “I’m beginning to think it’s the apostrophe itself — and its cousin, the quotation mark — that’s running roughshod over the population.”

Look at that. Two separate instances of a word that may look similar but one has the dreaded apostrophe and the other doesn’t. A real horror show, no?

With that little “now you see me, now you don’t,” the apostrophe terrorizes the land.

Let us now consider the quotation mark. People are paralyzed by them. They have no idea where they go, so they just sprinkle them around indiscriminately, hoping one or two will land in the proper place.

The maker of this sign, however, has risen to new highs of punctuation fear. He’s afraid to use anything except quotation marks. So of course they are used wrong.

This is on the coffee machine where I work. It gives me a little chuckle every time I wander into the kitchen. Clearly, when making out the sign, our man identified that there could be a problem with the word two. (Or “2” as it’s rendered here.)

“What would happen if people thought the cups held two cups of liquid?” he wondered, panic rising. “They’ll be furious when they see the tiny little cups holding 2.62 ounces of liquid and demand their two cups’ worth!”

Then, the light-bulb moment.

“Why, I’ll use quotation marks!” he says, inspiration mixing with wonderment in his voice.

“Then … then they’ll know that there are, in fact, two cup sizes! Not one cup size that holds two cups! They’ll know! I just know they will!”

See, if you wish for something hard enough, it’s bound to come true.

Actually, the correct sentence would read merely “Two cup sizes.” If you were actually offering a coffee cup that held two cups, then you’d write “two-cup portions” or something similar. But like our guy, most people are held hostage by the tyranny of punctuation and, afraid to use the proper one (or none, in this case), they grab for the curlicue, decorative quotation mark to dress up the whole shebang.

Of another instance of the red-hot dictatorial proclivities of the quotation mark, sadly I have no photographic evidence. It was a restaurant with a name something like Krabby O’Mondays (an establishment you’ll recognize if, like me, you’ve seen every episode of Spongebob Squarepants eleventy-million times).

But instead of an apostrophe in O’Mondays, this sign, emblazoned upon the strip mall in four-foot-high letters, read Krabby OMondays. I swear, to quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up. When I went back, the sign was down at the business closed. Behold the power of the evil quotation mark.

I’m not fussing at people who have trouble with this, honestly I’m not. I’m just wagging my finger. I’ve got most of the rules literally at my fingertips since I spend a lot of my time writing (they do pay me for it, after all). So, it’s in my interest to know the correct way to convey my meaning so that at least a few people will get the gist of what I’m saying.

Rather, I’m encouraging you to free yourself from the shackles of periods, exclamation points, apostrophes and the big meanie quotation mark. Go ahead, be bold! Use a hyphen between two words when the two words, together, form a single-meaning adjective (like that). Bug-eyed girl. Bitter-tasting coffee. Smug-faced blogger.

And write the word its without fear. You can do it! I have every confidence in you. Its means possessive. But — and this is what makes everyone cower in fear and go crazy — there’s no apostrophe, like in normal possessives. Ellen’s blog. Nobody’s business.

And the reason? Why it’s simple! To distinguish it from the word it’s, which is a contraction. Like don’t. Don’t fear the reaper! It’s means it is. It’s true, I swear. It’s a fact.

So workers, go forth and punctuate. Throw off the shackles of the tyranny of punctuation! You have nothing to lose but your mind.