Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Heighten Five Senses: Touch

Your brain receives signals from 200,000 temperature sensors and more than 500,000 touch detectors. According to artist Leonardo da Vinci, most people "touch without feeling." In the book "The How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook" by Michael Gelb, the author explains that the secret of sensitive "feeling" touch is an attitude of recpetivity, learning to "listen" deeply with your hands and whole body.

Here's a touch self-assessment:
-- I am aware of the "feel" of the surfaces that surround me daily, such as, the chairs, sofas and car seats I sit on.
-- I am sensitive to the quality of fabric that I wear.
-- I like to touch and be touched.
-- Freinds say I give great hugs.
-- I know how to listen with my hands.
-- When I touch someone, I can tell if they are tensed or relaxed.

The book also contains some terrific journal exercises. One of the exercises concerning touch takes you outdoors to commune with nature. Explore the different textures of the needles of a pine tree, rocks and stones, flowing water, the wind, and the earth at your feet. Record your observations in your journal. ◦

Monday, December 11, 2006

Goji Berry Ginger Healing Tea

During my two-week sojourn earlier this year in the Culinary Suite of The Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, I focused my cooking experimentation to juices, smoothies and hot drinks.

Over the past week, my son suffered from the flu and missed several days of school. Yesterday, he noticed that his body aches and fever were ebbing away but a sore throat and congestion were taking their places. He likes eating foods with cayenne pepper, so I decided to create for him a hot, throat-soothing tea also using cayenne. I placed about a teaspoon or so of Ginger Wonder Syrup in a coffee mug, also threw in a ginger teabag, added five or six dried goji berries and finished with just a dash of cayenne peppper before adding the hot water. Steep time: five minutes.

I had already made myself the test cup to try it out before he did and I had added too much cayenne pepper (one shake). Some powdered cayenne is more firey than others, and the stuff at our house could practically burn a hole through metal. So I added just a smidgin to his cup -- probably something like 1/16 of a teaspoon. After I padded up the stairs to his bedroom and presented it to him, he took one look at the goji berries floating in the cup and asked, "What is this?" But after he sipped the drink, he said it tasted good. Before long, he finished it up, goji berries and all.

Both the ginger and the cayenne are supposed to battle symptoms of a cold, warm up your system and help you "sweat it out." The goji berries, that puffed up like juicy raisins in the hot water, were placed in the tea because they are good immune system strengtheners and, according to Asian tradition, just "make you happy," and my son needed to get back to happy.

I borrowed the idea of floating something in tea from a Korean restaurant that had floated pine nuts in my ginseng tea. It gave me something hot and soothing to drink, but also a little something to eat. ◦

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Heighten Five Senses: Taste

A sense of taste, like any other sense, can be developed. According to "The How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci Workbook" by Michael Gelb, you can self-assess your sense of taste through the following statements:
-- I can taste the "freshness" of fresh food.
-- I enjoy many different types of cuisine.
-- I seek out unusual taste experiences.
-- I can discern the flavor contributions of different herbs and spices in a complex dish.
-- I am a good cook.
-- I appreciate the pairing of food and wine.
-- I eat consciously, aware of the taste of my food.
-- I avoid junk food.
-- I avoid eating on the run.
-- I enjoy participating in taste tests and wine tastings.

No one becomes a good cook or an afficiando of the world's great cuisines overnight. Like first poems, your first attempts on the stove-top might likely end up in the trash can. Mine did for many years -- in both cases. I believe two elements you need to develop a keen sense of taste is a spirit of adventure and a willingness to make mistakes.

It's the same as approaching any other creative aspect of your life, be it writing, skiing, cooking or traveling. You'll never know what octopus tastes like until you try it, or how ginger might enhance an apple dessert until you make one yourself. I'm not a good enough cook to create my own recipes from scratch or just "throw things together." Maybe I'll be able to someday. I have, however, enough "taste" experience to imagine what a dish will taste like just from reading the recipe. So recipes and cookbooks are my friends. I sometimes cross reference two or three recipes for the same dish and make a hybrid of it, or simply "tweak" a recipe, usually because I lack a certain ingredient or two and would rather substitute with something I have on hand. It does take a little kitchen experience to know which items can suffice as substitutes. But it all comes with time, as does a seasoned palate. ◦

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Heighten Five Senses: Hearing

I'm continuing the series on developing the five senses, based on "The How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook" by Michael Gelb. Try this sense of hearing self-assessment:
-- Friends describe me as a good listener.
-- I am sensitive to noise.
-- I can tell when someone is singing off-key.
-- I can sing on-key.
-- I listen to jazz or classical music regularly.
-- I can distinguish the melody from the bassline in a piece of music.
-- I know what all the controls on my stereo system are for and can hear the difference when I adjust them.
-- I enjoy silence.
-- I am attuned to subtle changes in a speaker's voice tone, volume and inflection.

However, I personally wouldn't agree that you have to proficient in all of the above to be considered attuned to the sense of hearing. I can't sing, but I consider myself a good dancer. I took dance lessons, not music lessons, as a child for seven years, and subsequent Irish and Brazilian dance classes as an adult, not to mention flat-out dance induction on the disco floor back when.

I cringe at Kathy Smith exercise videos. She's got a white woman's disease something fierce. I can out-and-out say I am appalled at the lack of rhythm of many of the step, power and kick-boxing teachers at my health club today -- even the Latino ones! One teacher, though an excellent instructor, says, "I just watch the lady," meaning me, to translate her instructions through the beat of the music -- or more particularly, when to wait for the music cue in order to begin.

I think being aware of rhythm is essential to my poetry as well as song lyric writing, though you wouldn't want to hear me personally sing any of the songs I've written. I've never been good with the bass or treble controls on either my car or home stereo (is this really a guy thing?), but am acutely aware when a spoken word performer, whether reciting poetry, prose or drama, is just missing the emotional points and high and low subtleties of the piece. This is particularly sad when he or she is the actual author.

Stretch your hearing awareness. If you do like to listen to jazz and/or classical music, you might want to play a game of "guess the composer" with your friends and family that we enjoy at my house. ◦

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Heighten Five Senses: Vision

To continue this mini-series on the five senses, which is both inspired and adapted from the book "The How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook" by Michael Gelb -- let's now take a look at what we see -- with impressions on the mind's eye leading to true vision. Can you identify with the following:
-- I am sensitive to color harmonies and clashes.
-- I know the color of all my friends' eyes.
-- I look out into the far horizon and up to the sky at least once a day.
-- I am good at describing a scene in detail.
-- I like doodling and drawing.
-- Friends would describe me as alert.
-- I am sensitive to subtle changes in lighting.
-- I can picture things clearly in my mind's eye.

Don't think that journaling or even drawing, for that matter, needs to end up as finished works of art for all to admire. Look at Leonardo da Vinci's methods -- he didn't necessarily draw to please others but because he loved to draw. Most of his drawings are contained in his "unpublished" notebooks. He valued process more than product. By first observing, followed by writing or drawing, we can enhance our capacity for "saper vedere" or knowing how to see. ◦

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Heighten Five Senses: Smell

The best writing employs the use of the five senses to explore metaphor, to show instead of just tell. In the book, "The How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook," the author Michael Gelb poses this self-assessment test to help you become more aware of your sense of smell:
-- I have a favorite scent. (What is it? Why do I like it? What does it remind me of?)
-- Smells affect my emotions strongly, for better or worse.
-- I can recognize friends by their scent.
-- I know how to use aromas to influence my mood.
-- I can reliably judge the quality of food or wine by its aroma.
-- When I see fresh flowers, I usually take a few moments to breathe in their aroma.

Gelb also suggests making "smells" a theme for a day. This could be a perfect journaling "date." Record what you smell and how it affects you through the course of a day. Spend a half hour at your favorite florist. Inhale the aroma of ten different perfumes or essential oils and describe your reactions.

Others have suggested smelling a crayon, chalk, a rubber ball or other simple items from childhood. How does smell affect your mood or memory? Write down your observations. What does each scent remind you of? Comparing sensory reactions to real life experiences or memories is the core of metaphor and image. You might want to even create a poem out of these images. ◦

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Mud Street, Spring Street, Blue Spring

More journal notes written during my stay at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, October 2006: I caught a trolley and headed downtown to get the lay of the land. Found the coolest place in town as if by magnetism -- The Mud Street Café. A downstairs, hippie, French-feeling cafe'with an art gallery, perfect poetry venue with Coltrane in the background and the best chicken waldorf salad I couldn’t imagine creating myself. Lounged on a corner couch and enjoyed the music, art and art magazines. It would make a perfect live poetry venue. It's what the Guild Complex and Lower Links in Chicago always wanted to be, but never quite could muster. Unfortunately, the place closes at 3 p.m.

Afterward, Carlos called and it turned out we had somewhat parallel days. He spent the morning cleaning and organizing the refrigerator at home. Hooly looked inside and said it looked like a page out of Real Simple magazine. And my culinary suite kitchen at the colony that I inventoried and stocked is truly out of Renovation Style magazine, snce they did the actual renovation. Carlos went to a coffee house in Chicago for lunch and had a sandwich, much as I did at the Mud Street. I wish he were here. We have to come back together.

The streets were packed with visitors attending the town's annual folk festival. Impromtu and scheduled troupes played outside in Basin Park. Arlo Guthrie and his family had appeared at the auditorium the night before and played a lot of old Woody Guthrie tunes, from what I heard. Sorry I missed the concert by only one day.

I visited a native store that is run by Tony and Belinda, a hippie-type white couple in their forties who are sincere and easy to talk with. Told me Mud Street Café has the best coffee in town. Duly noted. I didn’t let Tony know that I had just been there. Belinda is a herbal afficionado, grows her own herbs and sells several books on the subject. She is deaf, but reads lips. They live about 10 miles outside of town in the country and make leather moccasins. Talked about the Blue Spring Heritage Center, a spring that nurtured the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. The shop had cute, funny names for some of its teas. SeeLessO’Me tea is for weight management. BearInTheWoods is an herbal laxative tea.

Made the rest of the grand circle of the historic loop around Spring Street on foot. Eureka Springs streets are a lot like New Orleans but sort of in a western style way, have the hilly twists and turns as they do in St. John, Virgin Islands, but with a mid- to late-19th century American look. The dimly lit walk back up the hill led to the forested area surrounding the writers’ colony main house. Tony had told me that rare large, pileated woodpeckers are in these woods. I saw a large bird that looked like a pterodactyl(sp?) fly through the woods across from where I walked. It wasn’t a hawk, eagle or crow. Even unto now imagined extinct ivory-billed woodpeckers have been seen in the Arkansas woods. Reached my door just as the sun was setting at 7 p.m. Found the coffee grinder and cleaned up the blender for tomorrow’s smoothie. ◦

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ginseng Research Lunch

I recently visited the unusual and local Korean ginseng restaurant for lunch, located on Lawrence Avenue east of Elston on the northwest side of Chicago. Large glass cylinders six-feet tall hold dozens of fresh, scrubbed ginseng roots suspended in liquid throughout the restaurant. The menu features several ginseng items such as hot ginseng tea with a few pine nuts floating on top, which I enjoyed along with the house specialty, ginseng chicken soup.

A large bowl holding boiling broth, a whole boiled chicken and a six-inch ginseng root was placed before me. Six or seven small dishes of condiments also arrived for me to create my own soup mixture. Seasoned seaweed, kimchee cabbage, sliced steamed peppers, spiced carrots and other root vegetables, brown rice and beans, radishes, a rough salt -- one by one I added the items to the soup, tasted, stirred and removed the chicken bones and skins as I mixed with chopsticks. The waitress helped me identify the items I didn't recognize. It was then time to enjoy. Ahh. It was some of the tastiest chicken soup to cure what ails you and enough for two people. I ate my fill and brought the remainder home to share with a lucky family member.

Before I left, I bought a small bag of dried, steamed, sweetned ginseng that I can chew when I need a pick-me-up at work on stressful days. I also bought a box of panax ginseng extract in handy single-serving tubes at a remarkably inexpensive price.

I told the elegant, beautiful waitress who served me that I was doing research on ginseng and my visit to the restaurant was an exceptionally enjoyable portion of this process. She disappeared behind the counter to emerge with a small book in Korean and English on the virtues of ginseng, which she gave me as a gift. I will read and treasure it. This told me that it pays to be outgoing, to ask questions, make observations and tell strangers about yourself. Blessings often take place as a result of it. ◦

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What's your journaling style?

Journaling is an important element on any scrapbook page, but there's no right or wrong way to tell your story. There is only your way! You can tell your story any way you like. If you need a starting place, take this fun, little quiz from Elsie Flannigan's book, 52 Scrapbooking Challenges.

1. You want to touch base with a friend. You:
A. Call
B. Send a text message
C. E-mail
D. Instant message

2.You're going out tonight. What do you wear?
A. Something trendy
B. Something casual
C. Something pretty
D. Something comfy

3. How many hours do you spend on the computer a day?
A. Less than one
B. 1-2
C. 3-4
D. 5 or more

4. You're sending a friend a birthday card. You:
A. Write 'Happy Birthday' and sign your name.
B. Write a personal note and sign your name.
C. Sign your name.
D. Slip the card into the envelope and send it off.

5. What's your favorite kind of test?
A. Short answer
B. Multiple choice
C. Essay
D. I don't like any tests

Tally up your scores and take a look at your results here.

If your quiz results were:

Mostly A's: Try writing down bits and pieces of conversations with friends, journal with favorite quotations, or do a back-and-forth journaling exercise with a friend, where you write one thing and she writes the next thing. Be on the lookout for journaling inspiration everywhere you go (think billboards, signs and magazine advertisements).

Mostly B's: Try journaling in lists or making up your own fun journaling code. Use stickers and scrapbooking embellishments. Write fill-in-the-blank journaling. Journal with just an assortment of randomly-selected words that describe a favorite photography or something you love.

Mostly C's: Try journaling like you're telling a story to a friend. Or think about journaling as a creative writing exercise. Your journaling is probably already pretty interesting to read—keep challenging yourself to make it real and keep it as fun as possible!

Mostly D's: Try creating your own journaling shorthand. Use your favorite abbreviations as often as you'd like. Think about making a little guide to these sayings that you can put in the front of your album (your grandkids, for example, might not know the LOL means laughing out loud!).

Get more fun quizzes and challenges in 52 Scrapbooking Challenges by Elsie Flannigan. ◦

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Shamaness encounter and another green drink

More journal notes written during my stay at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas: Yesterday I met a tall, thin biker-type woman, Janet, at a party on Beaver Lake who is a "missionary alternative healer," (using her words) with a "whole body ministry." She works out of Fayetteville and uses Christian prayer, massage, herbs and muscle testing in her practice. Evidently, she has helped heal a large number of people and even medical doctors recommend her to their patients with little to no hope. Janet walks with a cane as she is recovering from a accident and I helped her get up and down the boat ramp. She smokes and drinks, which doesn't seem too beatific, but nonetheless comes off as a true shamaness. She is so down home and real, I don't think she knows how much she exudes the aura of blessedness. she is one of the most unusual, loving and committed people I've met down here, and I mean unusual in the best sense.

As an afficiando of deep purple, seedy, crunchy berry smoothies, I've nonetheless been exploring a lot of green drinks on this trip. I made a great kiwi, pear, green grape and liquid lecithin smoothie before going to church at the Thorncrown Chapel this morning -- turned out really excellent. However, lunch was mediocre -- a blender soup of tomato, avocado, yogurt, lemon juice, rice vinegar and a little cayenne. It called for balsamic vinegar, which I didn't have but was probably the right choice for this recipe. Was a little too acidic this way. The gazpacho I made earlier this week was 10 times better. Ate a little cornbread and two Ak-Maks on the side. ◦

Spices, herbs, culinary suite at Dairy Hollow

Some journal notes from my stay last month in the culinary suite at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow: Took the spice/herb inventory. It’s almost 8 a.m. Drawers and racks of spices – and among the standards, some stand-outs: banana extract, brandied pepper, whiskey rub, Quebec steak seasoning, black sesame seeds, Hawaiian sea salt (red), Celtic gray salt, lavender, African bird pepper, chipotle chili pepper, and pink, green, black and rainbow peppercorns. They have all the spices for the recipes I’ve planned. I’m shocked, not. But only about a teaspoon of cinnamon left. Multiple bottles of cinnamon extract, however.

The culinary suite is exquisite. Everything was newly remodeled by Renovation Style magazine and looks very HGTV. The large living room has a cozy sitting area next to a real woodburning stone-faced fireplace. A pull-up table is also available for meals. The office includes a large desk and bookshelf along the south wall with multi-lighting options. In fact, lighting and dimming options throughout the suite are stunning, in addition to the natural skylights in the living room and bathroom.

Sage green, off-white, painted wood walls and natural stone and wood make up the décor. A large, luscious acrylic painting of two red and two white onions graces one wall, visible as you enter the front door.

I am working in the most smashing, up-to-date, impeccable full kitchen anyone can imagine; fully equipped, almost all KitchenAid appliances -- a six-burner stainless stove with hood, double oven, outdoor gas grill and sink on the adjacent deck, dishwasher and restaurant grade monster refrigerator and freezer, also blender, juicer, food processor, coffee grinder and mixer. Lots of storage space, Cuisinart cookware, glasses, dishes, gadgets, food staples from the previous colony residents. Hardly anything a cook could fall short of. Plan to take as much advantage of the kitchen as my writing schedule allows. ◦

Monday, November 06, 2006

Smoothies, juices and soups from Dairy Hollow

Some journal notes/letter from my culinary suite stay at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, last month: Spent a lot of time researching ginseng today and will try to work on a poem before I go to bed. Rosaleen brought Irish whiskey to dinner and I couldn't help but try a few nips. My typing's still o.k. so all is well, thus far.

Did some non-cooking cooking today, too. I made, get a load of this, an avocado, Bartlett pear and yogurt smoothie, with some vanilla extract and raw sugar. It turned out to be one of the best smoothies I've ever tasted. A green tea boost would make it perfect, because it was the color of green tea ice cream to begin with. My lunchtime cucumber, celery and lemon smoothie/cold soup didn't fare as well as it turned out an overly cold, sour slop.

While I was at it, I pulled out the food processor (I've never used one in my life except for my mini-Cuisinart chopper back home) and whipped up some gazpacho I plan to serve as a prelude to the colony dinner tomorrow. Cucumbers, white onions, green onions, celery, red peppers, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, tabasco, lemon juice, some V8 low sodium, Hawaiian red salt, rainbow ground pepper. Will garnish later with limes. Tastes good so far -- letting it meld overnight.

Another concoction on the agenda: Theobrand: Food of the Gods, Montezuma II -- a blend of cocoa, cayenne pepper, vanilla, cornstarch and hot water. Thought of making it tonight so I can stay up a little later to get some work done. Is this what Montezuma drank 30 cups of a day? ◦

Monday, October 30, 2006

Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow

I was among the fortunate 50 this year to have experienced and utterly enjoyed a writer's residency at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow, located in a pleasingly woodsy section on the historic loop of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. There, I spent two weeks during autumn-kissed October writing poetry, reveling in the quaint and Victorian town and the ecologically diverse terrain surrounding it, and completing valuable research for my writing with friendly, local experts and the resources at the town's authenic Carnegie Library.

Many writers' haven't yet heard about the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow because, unlike other colonies with decades of history and a thick coat of New England ivy, WCDH was only launched four years ago in the off-the-beaten-path Ozarks. However, once there, you might feel as I did that you are in the center of something special and the rest of what's floating around in other U.S. locales might be overly-worn and too world weary.

WCDH is the only writers' colony that specifically supports culinary writers, as well as poets, novelists and short stories writers. I stayed in the exquisite culinary suite, a former bed-and-breakfast living room, office, bedroom, bath and kitchen transformed HGTV-fashion by Renovation Style magazine and KitchenAid. The fully-stocked, state-of-the-art kitchen was my workshop to experiment with many of the items that appear in my poems. When I filled out my application several months ago, I put down that I could reasonably finish eight poems during a two-week stay. In actuality, I completed 16, and still had time to take hikes, try out new recipes, make friends and have fun in this artistically-diverse town.

Besides the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow, my recommendations for those visiting Eureka Springs: Opal Fly and the Swatters jazz/blues combo which regularly appears at Eureka Springs venues; Rogues Manor tavern, a tiny quaint bar that has a windowed view of the side of a mountain and spring, museum-style; Carnegie Library, a limestone-fronted, wood-paneled interior tiny masterpiece of a library initially funded by Andrew Carnegie; the garden next to the Crescent Hotel, where you will experience one of the best views of the breathtaking Ozark Mountains right in town; Thorncrown Chapel, a wonder of glass and wooden beams in the middle of the forest, which the American Institute of Architecture recently placed fourth on its list of top buildings of the 20th century; Fire Om Earth Studio, a fabulous place on 15 acres just outside of town where you can drop into a bellydancing or Tai Chi class for $10, or admire and purchase the owners' handmade Celtic and native-style drums, flutes and ocarinas. ◦

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What If God Was One of Us?

As Alanis Morissette sings, "What if God was one of us?" I recently attended an interfaith church service in which the leader asked the same question. I don't think he asked it in a way that begged a definitive answer, or any answer for that matter, and I think most people in the church felt comfortable with that. But I didn't feel comfortable with it, because I know the song and I feel that each line of that song strongly suggests the person of Jesus Christ. Take a look:

Song: What if God was one of us?
Bible: Psalm 8:5 For you made him a little lower than the angels, crowning him with glory and honor.

Song: Just a slob like one of us.
Bible: Isaiah 53:3 He was despised, and rejected by men, a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease.

Song: Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.
Bible: Matthew 8:20 Jesus said to him, "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

Song: If God had a face, what would it look like?
Bible: Isaiah 53:2 He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire him.

Song: What if God was one of us?
Bible: Phillipians 2:7 But made himself no reputation, and took upon the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.

A small, but silly note: The copy editor in me just has to say..."What if God were one of us?"


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Classical Music for Journaling

For journaling, or any other creative pursuit, the busy mind needs to be cleared and calmed. This will help allow your own special associations and brainstorming notions to flow through. Listening to classical music (or jazz, how about a little John Coltrane?) can set the stage, or your worktable, for creativity, whether it be for an hour, an evening or a weekend.

According to music experts, as mentioned in the book "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci" the top ten greatest works from the classical canon are:
1. Bach: Mass in B Minor
2. Beethoven: Symphony #9
3. Mozart: Requiem
4. Chopin: Nocturnes
5. Brahms: German Requiem
6. Mahler: Symphony #6
7. Richard Strauss: Last Four Songs
8. Debussy: Preludes
9. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
10.(tie) Verdi: Aida and Puccini: La Boheme

Creative listening! ◦

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Journal Writing at Lake Austin Spa

My husband Carlos Cumpian and I just got back from a family trip to Texas which included the two of us making presentations and staying at the Lake Austin Spa Resort. I presented a journal writing lecture and workshop and Carlos presented Native American coyote stories, along with his drum and sweetgrass smudge accompaniment.

Besides being one of the best spas in America, Lake Austin Spa Resort is also big on hospitality and a myriad selection of activities and services. From dock activities on Lake Austin to indoor exercise classes, and from a delicious spa menu in its dining room to the spa and beauty services in a new, vast, posh complex, the resort also offers feng shui lectures, culinary demos and poker tips. We stayed in one of the spa's standard rooms, which by any other definition would be considered luxurious. Its bath area also includes two closet and dressing areas, a separate vanity, double sink and twice-curtained shower/tub area.

Some recommendations: Tom, who hosts the walks and docks on Mondays and Tuesdays offered a great orientation to kayaking before leading our small group on a 40-minute trek up and down Lake Austin (which is actually an area of the Colorado River dammed on two sides). Moving indoors, the Foam Roller techniques were easy and utterly effective, which I used to stretch and soothe my muscles. This 45-minute class expertly led by Kathy.

Kayla gave me the perfect pressure massage under the mantel of Lemongrass Ginger Pick-me-up and Carlos' achey shoulders were eased by the talents of Michael, who had his own share of shoulder issues from playing baseball. Trisha Shirey, veteran Lake Austin Spa Resort landscape artist of 22 years, has probably personally planted every green and flowery thing on the property that wasn't there when she arrived. She has a deep knowledge and appreciation of herbs and only uses organic methods throughout the properties.

Still considered part of the city of Austin, I'd truly consider Lake Austin Spa Resort part of hill country, as it is so surrounded by nature and water. ◦

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Send Yourself a Postcard

When you travel, you might traditionally send a handful of postcards to family and friends. How about sending a postcard to yourself? Use the best picture postcard you can find and write to yourself about the most interesting person you met on your trip (or on each stop in your itinerary). Most postcards cover where you went and what you saw. A postcard to yourself about an engaging, unusual or compelling person you met can capture what makes travel so interesting -- the people!

Over the years, the "postcards to yourself" can serve as a collected journal of the special people you crossed paths with in your travels, plus photos and cancelled stamps to also remind you of your journeys. ◦

Monday, June 26, 2006

Weekend at The Heartland Spa

I had the good fortune to appear as a speaker/lecturer at The Heartland Spa this past weekend. This desination spa is located about an hour and half south of Chicago in Gilman, Ill. After the spa's heart healthy dinner of asparagus and leek soup, salmon with avocado salsa, brown rice, and three-berry whole grain crepe on Saturday night, I spoke to a roomful of guests about the various forms of journal writing, including Japanese haibun and naikan.

If you want to get away from it all, The Heartland Spa is an excellent choice. Tucked deeply into the back roads of Illinois cornfields, the spa is a hidden gem of Midwestern hospitality. Its myriad massage therapists and program leaders possess solid work-ethic honed skills bolstered by great openness and humor.

There are no televisions, telephones, Internet or alcohol at The Heartland Spa. I could receive messages on my cellphone, and was able to retrieve an important one from my son, who simultaneously was getting away from it all by camping in Wisconsin at an alternative energy fair, to let me know he made it to the camp O.K. in spite of car troubles. But I could not get an outbound signal to call him, or anyone, back. Of course, in an emergency, the office phones are available.

I was able to spend two nights at the spa and woke every morning at 6:30 a.m. to bolster myself awake, freshen up and dress for the 7:15 a.m. two-mile wake-up walk. Saw a lot of corn, soybeans, ponds, oak trees and local birds, not only cardinals, swallows and meadowlarks, but also turkey vultures and hawks soaring overhead. One empty crossroads reminded me of the country path Dorothy walked with Toto to reach her Kansas farm. But we weren't in Kansas, but part of an Illinois melding of the rural with The Heartland Spa's Oz-like beauty treatments in its posh multi-story barn at end of the gray gravel road.

Gayle, former local farmer and county assessor turned massage therapist and reflexologist (with a securities license waiting in the wings) gave me an alternately deep tissue and relaxing massage, concentrating on my shoulders and back, just like I'd asked. She later presented a hands-on lecture on reflexology (demonstrating on the feet of a guest volunteer) in the cozy, booklined, wood-paneled lecture room where I staged my journal writing talk a few hours later.

Over the course of my stay, I never felt hungry. The spa serves three healthy square meals a day with lots of variety, in addition to fruit smoothies, berry cups, strawberries dipped in chocolate sauce, and air-popped popcorn snacks at strategic times of the day, with ubiquitous fresh fruit, bottled water and gatorade on hand around the clock.

By the end of the weekend I had logged four miles of hiking, several trips to the separate women's steam bath and co-ed jacuzzi and participated in physical activity classes: Qi-Gong, Pilates, a Mini-Boot Camp of aerobics, fitball and punching bag, Dynabands and Xeribands, and Yoga.

I enjoyed sitting at different tables at breakfast, lunch and dinner and actually became acquainted with nearly all of the 25 weekend guests. I heard some great stories. For example, two sisters at the spa hoped to lose some weight because a certain brand of sleeping pill had turned both not only into sleepwalkers, but also "sleep-eaters" who had slapped on pounds without remembering eating anything come morning, yet finding their beds full of empty pretzel bags and cookie crumbs. We discussed natural alternatives to sleeping pills like Valerian herb, but not before each person at the table related his or her own sleepwalker (son, daughter, husband, cousin) story. One woman's husband, who served in the Vietnam War, needed to be tied to a bush by his fellow soldiers during the night so he wouldn't sleep-wander from camp and get shot. Little did he know he could have been given a 4-F deferment if the army knew he was a sleepwalker when he was drafted, she said.


Monday, June 19, 2006

Predictions for 2026

There's another type of journal entry, which instead of looking back at the past or reveling in the present, contains predictions for the future. It's not a entry that uses clairvoyance or any other type of hocus-pocus, but serves as a written platform to air your own personal perspective about what might happen 20 years from today.

Why make predictions? First of all, it's for yourself. You will learn more about the values and beliefs you hold today by the predictions you make concerning tomorrow.

Another excellent reason for logging your predictions is to leave something for those who come after you. Your children and grandchildren. Your nieces and nephews. They will learn more about you and your entire family through your views and predictions. And it will just be darn interesting to see if your predictions came close, were offbase or hit the nail on the head.

But here's the key. The most important part of writing down your predictions are not really in the predictions themselves, but in the reasons WHY you believe they might take place. Answering the "why" part of any issue is the most revealing and delves the deepest into who you are and what's important to you. If you think the world will be a more ecologically balanced society in 2026, WHY? How will everyone in the world make it so? If you think there will be areas of nuclear devastation by 2026, WHY? What will make nations and their relationships with one another be different in the future than they are today...and so on.

I'd like to close my post on journaling predictions with a predition, or at least a special hope. That you will not only write down your predictions, but live to see how they work out. ◦

Friday, June 16, 2006

You Are What You Prefer

Who are you? The complete answer, if there is one, is complex. But you can get a better insight into the stuff you're made of by journaling the activities you prefer and don't prefer. Make a record of music you listen to, movies you watch, books you read, and what you think of them. What better critic or celebrator of what transpires before you than yourself?

As the years pass, you can return to your journals and rediscover what may have been vitally important to you at one time and how that has expanded or changed. ◦

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Reread Your Own Journal

Many times, writers don't take the time to go back through their journals. According to Brandi Reissenweber in her article "Making the Most of Your Journal," a writer might find a creative spark today in something written in his or her journal in the past. Take a second look before dismissing old entries because they didn't come to anything immediately. You may find that you connect with something after you've written it in a way that you didn't at the time you actually write it. ◦

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Build Bridges with a Thank You

Do I sound like Emily Post if I ask poets to extend a special thank you to their reading hosts? And by that I mean to handwrite and mail a thank-you note.

You have given a featured reading or writing workshop at a poetry venue, bar, community center, school, library or bookstore. The host invited you, made all the arrangements, and drummed up an audience. The audience took time out from their schedules to give you their attention, and maybe approach you after for some chit-chat and shop talk. Some audience members even bought your book or chapboook, if you have one. And you likely did say a warm thank you to the host and the venue, perhaps as you opened your set and again personally before you left for the evening.

That's cool, and more than enough, right? Look at it this way. In the small world of poetry, there are few rewards. Organizing a poetry reading doesn't draw big bucks for any organization. The event definitely won't make its month, and it might even break it. Any effort to promote poetry, at least in today's environment, is a labor of love and based on a love of literature. Your host isn't making any (or much) money on you. And although you took center stage, your host stood behind the scenes. He or she needs strokes, recognition, gratitude and feedback. "What really happened that night, or was it just another reading among many?," the host may ask him or herself.

During the event, you may not have much time or chance to really pay attention to the person who invited you to read. And after a day goes by, you might give more thought as to what actually happened over the course of the evening, the kind of responses you got on your work, and what you may have discovered about your performance.

In these instant messaging days, sending your host a handwritten note about how the evening went for you makes a pronounced impression. Having been a sometime organizer and editor myself, I know that poetry promoters of all stripes often get little to no feedback after the door closes or an issue is mailed out. Is anybody out there, we ask. Your thanks and opinions will stand out and reassure, even if you point out some things that might need to be improved at a venue.

Mail your note within a few days and no longer than a week after the performance and include your personal literary business card, so the organizer knows how to contact you again. I'll write another post on creating literary business cards and websites sometime soon.

Even if you have some constructive comments to make after an event, don't burn your bridges, build them. When you add your personal touch in treating your reading hosts well with a handwritten note of sincere comments, it will likely result in being invited again next time, or even being referred to other venues looking for good talent.


Monday, May 22, 2006

What to Wear for Your Poetry Performance

Although this blog is mainly to showcase various journaling tips and suggestions, I devote a sizeable portion of my posts to the topic of writing poetry and how to survive as a poet.

When someone reads one of your poems on the printed page, all they see of you are black words on white paper. Don't, however, adapt this same color scheme for a live stage performance. Nothing plays more neutral on stage than white (according to my stage set teacher back when) and wearing a white shirt/blouse/t-shirt on stage is about as exciting as a glass of skim milk.

Ditto black or very dark pants. What is this, a noh drama? Are you a non-entity from the waist down? I don't care if you're fat, skinny, big-breasted or flat chested. You are putting yourself, your poems, your heart and your soul out there on stage, whether at a one-poem open reading slot or a 20-minute feature. So show your colors!

I don't mean Ringling Brothers colors, Halloween costumes or Vegas glitz. But show a little style. Your style. And if your ordinary style is a white t-shirt and torn jeans, then try out your fantasy style for one night. You're having fun. Wear a hat, a scarf, some wild earrings. Make your voice, presence and poetry memorable.

One of my books, "Swimmer's Prayer" carries the aqua mosaic pattern of a swimming pool on the cover. I'll sometimes match up my outfit with the same mermaid-aqua colors to carry out the theme.

If you're a mama falling out of her bra, you might want to bypass a low-cut top, and even wear a strategically tied scarf to fall in-between your breasts. Take a tip from the female flamenco dancers. Visualize how they tie shawls in front of themselves while dancing. They want their audiences to focus on their feet, dancing and costume, not on the jiggle show. And you want the poetry crowd to look at you while you perform, not at your breasts.

Flat-chested and self-conscious? A ruffled blouse and a structured jewel-colored velvet jacket conceals and feminizes at the same time. Adding casual pants and pointy shoes can make a hip contrast.

Guys with a big gut? The jacket thing works for you, too. But don't wear a v-neck white t-shirt underneath, especially if you're hairy. Think crew-neck and color.

Dressing up doesn't mean dressing conservatively or predictably, and dressing down doesn't mean you should reserve your imagination for your poems only.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Southwest Spas That Offer Journal Writing Sessions

The American Medical Association has released a study showing that keeping a journal can literally improve your physical health.

And a growing number of medical, destination and resort spas are incorporating journal writing seminars into their special event agendas.

This post explores spas in Arizona, Texas and Mexico that offer journal writing as a special feature on their calendar of events.

"It would be interesting to know how the science of journaling is connected to the body," says Nancy Linnon, who lectures on writing and health at Canyon Ranch Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona. "I haven’t found one person who said journaling didn’t help them."

Miraval: Life in Balance, Destination for Mind, Body & Spirit in Catalina, Arizona offers cooking demonstrations and nutrition counseling. They also provide courses on photography, journal writing and how to live a more serene life. Miraval was declared one of the top 40 spas in the United States by Conde Nast Traveler and #1 spa in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine.

Lake Austin Spa Resort
and its Lake House Spa in Austin, Texas sponsors speakers who present journal writing techniques as does Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Journal Writing at a Spa

You can write in your journal anywhere just as you can live anywhere. But both are better at a spa. My husband and I spent the most fabulous weekend at the Sundara Spa in Wisconsin Dells for our 20th wedding anniversary. It was all very feng shui and more posh in a minimalist, native American way than any place I've ever stayed. It cost a few dollars, but for the special occasion that we were celebrating, it was well worth it. My husband was a little apprehensive about spending more than a few hours at a "spa," but ended up loving it and now keeps telling our friends about it. And I so inspired my sister-in-law that she is planning to spend her honeymoon there next month.

In between the stone cherry body wraps, aromatherapy massages, catching up with each other, enjoying the spa's delicious berry smoothies and natural food entrees that were arranged like artwork, the two of us were also able to volley some ideas for a creative piece I was working on. In such a relaxing atmosphere I couldn't help but direct some solid attention to having fun with a writing project -- actually a commissioned short play for children. And my fellow poet husband, whose opinion and feedback are more than valuable to me, was right next to me and very available.

If you're part of a long-time couple, you know that some weekends (and weeknights) can find the two of you often running in different directions (just to get things done) which often makes sitting down and talking "creativity" a precious commodity. A spa visit can be an opportunity to stop your crazy world and open it up (at least for awhile) to do exactly what you want to do.

Another inspiring spa is The Heartland Spa in Gilman, Illinois. It's actually a farm-like arrangement set in the middle of a cornfield, but has all the wondrous accoutrements, menus and services of a spa as well as endless yoga, aerobics and weight-training classes in spacious, well-appointed studios.

Every Saturday night, spa guests gather in the old world-style library around the fireplace hearth in leather chairs for the weekend's Heartland Institute. I have had the good fortune to present an hour-long journal writing seminar there last year and am returning in June to make an encore presentation. I'm not sure who has more fun, the guests at The Heartland Spa or being a presenter who's also treated like a welcome guest there. Midwest hospitality and friendliness at its best.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Poor Poet's Guide to Being a Performance Poet

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The Uptown Poetry Slam started in Chicago at the Green Mill Jazz Club, circa 1986, and soon became an international phenomenon. So anyone from this town who has anything to do with poetry does, or has done, performance poetry on stage. We need to set an example around here!

Otherwise, you might as well be some suburbanite sitting in a basement by yourself with a stack of envelopes and postage stamps, nursing a plastic tumbler of boxed wine.

Performing poetry doesn't mean just giving a poetry reading. It means breaking the fourth wall and leaping into the crowd with your poetry, if only figuratively.

How do you "perform" poetry or get into the "perfpo" scene? I started in church. Praying helps. But I also volunteered as a commentator and got lots of practice in front of my audience, i.e. the congregation, by presenting field-tested material, i.e. biblical passages.

Simultaneously, I also volunteered to read at least one of my own poems at every open mic reading I attended, which at one time, were legion.

I also took voice and breathing lessons at St. Nicholas Theater Company, in between serving as a volunteer there as well, though you may find this unnecessary.

Memorize at least one of your poems. A performance has to mean you lose the page. Once you get past dwelling on the words, you can move on to your oral and dramatic interpretation. The poem is then released from the mind to the body. The words go on automatic pilot and the actor or actress takes over to transform and deliver the words to the audience emotionally.

I eventually memorized 10 or more of my own poems and actually created a charm bracelet of these poems. My bracelet comprised silver charms I bought on ebay, each one symbolizing an important feature in a given poem, whether it be a sardine can, mermaid, owl, etc., which I attached to a slim bracelet, also purchased on ebay. I wore the bracelet to performances to remind myself on stage which poems I might care to perform, without the need to riffle through pages of a book or peek at an odd index card in case I went completely blank.

But the biggest breakthrough I experienced as a performance poet was to study different accents (there are tapes at the local library) and apply them to a couple of my poems. I read one poem set in Ireland with a Dublin accent. Hearing Frank McCourt read the entirety of "Angela's Ashes" on audio also helped me master some of the subtleties. For another poem, set in the south, I ply a Carolina accent. When I perform these poems, in particular, I really get outside of myself and feel as if I enter the world of the poem, in the purest and most complete sense. From the reactions I've received, I think the audience does, too. ◦

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Poor Poet's Healthy Beans, Rice, Salsa Diet

Most of the world, in contrast to the U.S., consumes a very simple diet that usually includes some form of carbohydrate such as rice or noodles and some form of bean, be it pintos or lentils. Even the bible recommends simple foods in contrast to the lush feasts of the wealthy.

Fast food, processed flours and sugars, and artifically colored or flavored foods, since their arrival in our culture, has resulted in elevated cholesterol, heart disease and cancers, and pun intended, widespread obesity.

As a poor poet, one of the best investments you can make is in a 25-pound sack of organic short-grain rice and another equal size sack of organic, dried pinto beans. Add some chunky, fresh salsa and you can make complete meals for weeks.

Easy cooking tips:
RICE -- Match two-and-a-quarter cups water with one cup of brown rice, bring to a boil, immediately reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 45 minutes.
BEANS -- Soak beans overnight in water to cover. When ready to cook, drain water to get rid of a lot of the gas and replace with fresh water in cooking pot, just enough to cover beans. Add chopped garlic and onions if you wish as well as a little salt. Bring to boil then immediately reduce heat to low, cover and cook for an hour. Keep checking to see if beans are soft enough. When they are, remove cover, mash beans, raise heat a little and continue to cook and mash until water is absorbed and beans look like "refried beans." No oil was used in the process -- mucho low-cal!
SALSA -- Chop tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, avocados, cilantro, maybe a little garlic and add lime juice, salt and whatever seasonings you prefer. A healthy pico de gallo with kick!

Like a poor poet's wealth in words, here's food that's good, healthy and cheap! ◦

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Be a Poet, Not a Hoarse

While this is a journal writing blog, it is poetry, poetry writing and reading poetry aloud that are my original, closest and dearest disciplines.

Have you ever tried reading at an open mic or a featured 20-minute reading with a whopping case of laryngitis?

Jitters can occasionally tighten my vocal cords, too, and make it harder to deliver without sounding hoarse or more faint. There are a few natural measures you can take to alleviate hoarseness before a reading. One of the best throat coaters and soothers is room-temperature pineapple juice. Drink it throughout the afternoon and bring a couple of cans to your reading.

Another tried-and-true voice reliever is slippery elm. There are several teas available. The smell (and taste) remind me of country straw, but it is an acquired taste that grows more pleasant the more often you drink the stuff. Unfortunately, the slippery elm lozenges available are fairly awful tasting, but work well.

Of course, drinking pure room temperature water keeps your throat hydrated. You might think a glass of wine, or maybe two, might lubricate your throat while also loosening your delivery. But, actually, liquor just might dry you out even more and you might end up slurring the words of your poems. Believe me, I know from experience. ◦

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Journal Images Become Poems

One purpose your journal might serve is as depository for collections of different metaphorical images that can eventually be used in your poems. As an "investigative poet" I often write on themes that need some research. When planning a poem on garlic, for example, I combed books, magazine articles and the web for information on the background and uses of garlic, both in cooking as as one of the oldest medicines in folklore. If I found a certain informational or historical tidbit interesting, I "turned it on its head" and made a metaphorical image out of it. For example, I compared the off-white waxy nature of garlic cloves to eagle's talons.

My plan was to look at garlic every which way and create a lyrical ode in honor of one of my favorite seasonings. Before starting my venture, I was deeply inspired by Pablo Neruda's odes, and "Ode to Tomatoes" in particular, which I feature in my workshops on lyrical poetry writing.

After overwriting and gathering more images than I would ever use in one poem, I let the images speak to me and come to my assistance as I wrote my text. In the course of writing, I used only about one third of the journal images but rewrote them as I went along so they would flow naturally into the piece. And these images gave rise to new images on the fly. Sometimes only one image might stand out from your journal laundry list, but it might act as rudder for the complete poetic direction of your piece. ◦

Monday, February 13, 2006

Writer's Block? Say Yes to Herbs.

Some of the greats who couldn't write without artificial stimulation, who chummed up to the bottle but ended up at the bottom of the barrel or, worse, at the bottom of the sea, are memorable: Edgar Allen Poe, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Hart Crane. Others smoked opium for inspiration, or mainlined heroin to their detriment.

One way to enhance the creative experience without destroying yourself is through the use of herbs. Ancient Chinese Taoists, Ayurvedic Hindus and American Indians have taken cues from nature, experimented with various local herbs and plants, with efforts that have uncovered cures, immune builders and tonics for their peoples.

During a typical American workday, we devote eight hours of attention to an employer, then push home to attack meal planning, work out personal relationships, and address scores of household details, often leaving a spare hour or two to devote to higher pursuits such as writing. But often those precious minutes or hours are fizzled away by fatigue.

Writer's block can be more than just a mental crossroads. It can include the lack of mental and physical stamina to address the empty page. Some tried and true "tonics" to help keep you alert and energetic without side effects include Korean or Siberian ginseng, cayenne pepper, yellow dock root, licorice root and garlic. Bee pollen, a superfood rather than an herb, provides energy, amino acids, and most known vitamins and minerals, which alfalfa does nicely in these respects as well.

Of those of the above short list, the one that makes the most dramatic difference to me personally is white Korean ginseng. Ginseng doesn't "energize" you in a caffeine kind of way, but instead is an adaptogen that helps you "adapt" to stress and a busy day wihile still maintaining the energy you started out with. Everyone, however, responds to herbs differently.

Think of herbs as food, which they actually are, and realize that their effects are usually attained over a period of time, at least three to 10 days. However, I will only take ginseng for 21 days at a time during a particularly stressful and intense time, and then let it alone for six months or more.

Jeff Kronick, herbalist, said, "One dose of the right herbal formula can add as much as 300 times the nutritional energy of a perfectly balanced meal designed for a similar effect."

Herbs that are regarded to have an influence on mental capabilities include most seaweeds (dulse, kelp, spirulina), blessed thistle and gotu kola, an herb from India. In a book called "Helping Yourself with Natural Remedies," author Terry Williard describes gotu kola as "probably the best herb for memory." Fo-ti, a Chinese herb used for mental depression and memory processes, is also considered by the Chinese as a wonder herb to lengthen life. And the herb damiana, a nerve tonic and antidepressive, is also a traditional aphrodisiac.

Some people like St. John's Wort for depression, stress or mental upset. My husband, an inner-city high school teacher and fellow writer, and I both prefer the amino acid L-Tyrosine (not to be confused with L-Tryptophane).

But the best detour around writer's block is attitude. And according to some writing experts, a sense of play over duty is the way to go. Have you ever known a child who might approach a pint-size easel only to say "I can't fingerpaint today, I'm blocked." Neither have I. Using your own innate sense of curiosity and the spirit of fun and adventure as your secret creativity weapons. ◦

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Poor Poet's Stock Picker

"Without guidance, people fall, but with many counselors, there is deliverance." Proverbs 11:14.

My husband told me that he was surprised I wasn't a Republican, because I worked so hard for every penny I earned, between my day job, writing workshops, tutoring, and various and sundry other side creative professions I might take on.

And, in a way, I thought it might not hurt to think like a Republican after all, i.e. start investing in the stock market. But it was still important to act as a good Democrat would, i.e. invest in socially and environmentally responsible companies.

First of all, I thought of Mr. Money Bags of Monopoly fame. He invested in real estate, railroads, electric companies and waterworks. So I invested in railroads (hauls more and uses less fuel doing it than airlines and trucking companies), the electric industry (not using coal power, but solar power) and waterworks (water utilities that do good things like filter and distribute potable water). Real estate? I bought my own home instead of rented. But stock-wise I chose a cement company that received an environmental consciousness award and a builder that received a governmental contract to help rebuild New Orleans.

Along the way I listened to audiobooks about Warren Buffett's philosophies, watched Jim Cramer's Mad Money tv program, created dummy portfolios which I tracked on Yahoo Finance and Zacks.com, and read e-mails and articles from The Motley Fool.

Some of Warren Buffett's guidelines include:
-- Choose a company that is the leader in its field, or better yet, has a corner on the market (i.e. Apple Computer's iPods) Jim Cramer would concur.
-- Don't invest in companies that sell on price or discounts. Avoid airlines and auto manufacturers. Today's headlines will also reveal this.
-- Choose a company with a hefty Return on Equity. Something like 17 percent or better sounds good.
-- Choose a company that doesn't have a lot of debt and has a sizeable cash flow (I can't say any of the railroads are here, though).
-- Here's the easiest one. Use your eyes. Look at the company's chart over the last year, three years, five years. If it's on a steady upward slope, you're onto something (check out Hansen Naturals or Franklin Electric) on Yahoo Finance.

And my tip of the day: listen to the advice of many counselors, including yourself once you get the hang of it. It beats picking a stock based on the advice of just your Uncle Harry. ◦

Monday, January 30, 2006

Poor Poet's Budget

There are times when your watch stops and your world stops, too, because the need to buy a new battery could throw off your whole budget. This cruel world can nickel and dime you to near death. While you may have staved off the need to pinch actual pennies, there are times, however, when you might be lucky to rub two quarters together. Not to fear. It is time to transform your finances, however meagre, into a financial future crafted by your own poetry-writing hands.

No truer words were spoken when someone said you need to have money to make money. Nothing plus nothing leaves nothing. So start with a little something. If you can manage to scrounge $1,000 together (and it may not be easy), don't put it in a savings account or let it drift as a line item in your checkbook. Invest it in the stock market. Avoiding risk is for the wealthy. They need to protect the millions they spent so much time accumulating. The late poet, artist and friend Carlos Cortez once said, "No one fell out of a basement window." Meaning, if you don't have anything, you don't have anything to lose. But you do need a little something to win. More about this in a later blog about stock picking.

Meanwhile, as you build some investment-worthy cash flow, find ways to live richly without spending much money. Hover in art museums, libraries, parks, zoos, lakefronts, conservatories and churches in which others have spent millions to build and maintain. They are there for you to enjoy. Take walks, fish, swim, collect leaves, watch birds, enjoy your kids and pray for wisdom.

Keep your eye peeled for the special used car gem from the little old lady from Pasedena. I drive a 15-year-old European turbo beauty which I purchased three years ago from its original owner. She had put only around 50K miles on it and maintained it regularly. It was spotless when I bought it and it remains one of the best cars I've ever owned. But then again, I've never owned a new car.

After my husband and I lived for years paying landlords, we finally scraped together the 3 percent needed as a down payment on a house in a working class neighborhood. Family members on both sides were incredulous as to why we moved where we did. Not much later, we were both laid off from our respective jobs and the housing values in our new neighborhood began to dip downward. We, too, began to question why we had taken the plunge and stopped renting. But we didn't question for long. We both found new jobs and persevered. Fifteen years later, in addition to a few repairs and updates and a lot of love, our house is nearly paid for. A few doors down from us, a house just completed by an area builder is selling for six-and-a-half times what we paid for ours. This would have never happened had we still been renting. When it comes to real estate, buy whatever you can afford.

My husband is a poet as well. We are often seated at our own computer laptops, writing, of course. But a nice cheap date is to cook dinner at home, then cuddle side-by-side in front of one computer, surfing the web and sipping a glass of wine. We challenge each other by taking turns finding goofy websites, such as mullet.com. ◦

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Poor Poet's Luxe Wardrobe

Living the life of a poor poet allows neither the time, money nor ambition to stroke the draperies of the high fashion catwalks. While poem rewrites might be in abundance, it's dress once in the morning for work and it darn well better work well into the evening whether you end up at a poetry reading in a darkened basement corner or find yourself perched on the second floor of a brightly lit bookstore sipping an expresso at the picture window.

As a child, I toured the Universal Pictures lot in Los Angeles with my parents. Our group eventually moved from the sound stages to the worktables of Edith Head, the great film costume designer. We learned that Ms. Head, an Academy Award winner known for her elaborate period costume designs rich in colors and textures, would personally wear simple clothes in three colors -- black, white and camel. At the time, I thought, "What a killjoy. The woman's left nothing for herself after all her brainstorming for others."

Today, I've changed my mind about both her and her attitude. I think she was the wisest dresser and an example to us all. I look at old photographs of her and she never looks out of style, never looks dated. Her elegant simplicity is perennial.

That's because taste, fit and line are what count. Your body is the strong foundation. The black, white and camel pieces are the elegant plaster walls, hardwood floors and cushy leather sofa of any look that can be dressed up or down. Last of all, accessories are the pieces that make the look your own as do lamps, bookshelves and paintings in your home.

The key is to replace your main clothing pieces every few years or so to keep your look current. Are you wearing high waisted, pleated pants with tapered legs? You've waited too long. A lowrider, boot cut is back, but not like the hip-hugger bellbottoms of the late 60s. That's really waiting too long. Though skinny pants of another breed seems to be coming back in. Nothing actually comes back into style completely, although vintage can be fun if you know what you're doing.

Here's the short list: A few pairs of pants, in black, brown, camel and a pair of jeans is sufficient. Always wear a belt if your pants have belt-loops. A feminine skirt in black or brown. A crisp white blouse, a perfect black t-shirt, a camel sweater are staples. Want to really save money? Never buy prints, only solids. Prints get dated as fast as lightning and are harder to mix-and-match. Solids never go out of style, although colors do. The hot pink and teal of yesterday may look awkward today, but as Edith Head emphasized, black, white and camel are classics. Ditto your shoes, although I frown on white shoes. Trying to attract flying saucers?

Before you get bored with your staple wardrobe, hit the costume jewelry display and sock counter and get wild and au courant with whatever strikes your fancy. You have the neutral pallete of black, white (perhaps brown) and camel as a backdrop for your madness. You don't have to spend much money, but update your accessories annually to give your classic look the cutting edge. Sometimes scarves are in and I love when they are, because they can be tied to dramatically alter an daytime outfit or create a posh evening look. And oh yes, scarves can and should be in the latest prints.

Anyone can start with these simple, clean-lined, inexpensive pieces, but it takes a poet to use one's imagination. A poor poet knows how to wear the most basic L.L. Bean button-down oxford shirt and make it look sexy. ◦

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dream and Steam

We all have those special times of day or favorite locales that help inspire our writings. I am a highly visual person and get distracted by what I see. I am always craning my neck to look at different pieces of architecture, I live in a city full of architectural history. I even got so distracted that I crashed my car once, with my front end landing on someone's lawn in Oak Park.

When I'm conceptualizing, as well, it's good if I don't fender-bender my ideas or writings with distractions.

What I need more than a walk or ride down a city street to clear my head is a steam room.

Whether I visit the local Korean steam and hot tub, or visit the neighborhod gym, there a steambath invites me to lie its misty clean slate before my eyes, ready for my musings.

Today, for example, I was struggling to revise the "arc" of one of the main character's in a children's musical I'm working on. My collaborator phoned me the other night to point out that what my character actually got at the end of the play isn't necessarily what she had asked for when the curtain rose.

I wasn't sure when I would be in the mood to settle down and mull that one over. I hit the gym. And after every workout,I usually end up for a 15-minute visit to the steambath.

In a steambath, there isn't very much to do, or look at or even listen to besides the hiss of the vapors that turn on and off every few minutes. The steam's heat kept my blood moving which only seemed to fuel my thughts and open the path I was struggling to venture down. I wrote in white chalk on the white slate before me. It was invisible to either one of my brown eyes, but surely visible to my mind's eye. I made mental notes and not only came up with a series of events to revise the character's arc, but her changes brought a new motion and clarification to a couple of other characters' arcs.

That mysterious monastery shrouded in fog, that Chinese hut in the mountain clouds, that steambath where enlightment or an enlightened notion or two might swirl and and bring answers to your questions or insight to your dilemmas. The steambath. What better place to dream with your eyes open. ◦

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poor Poet's Luxe Lifestyle

Choosing the life of a poet and writer didn't generate tons of money, particularly in my early, studio apartment, years. What I didn't possess in cash resources I tried to make up for with a little creativity and a touch of style. If things were going to be simple, they might as well be simply elegant.

Strictly enforced eating rules: No matter what I drank, be it water, then-affordable cotes du rhone or gatorade, I drank from a wine glass. And no matter what I ate, I used chopsticks, be it healthy Chinese stir-fry, over-salted ramen noodles or a broiled steak. I also cooked with chopsticks since I had no cooking utensils, mixing spoons, serving forks or ladles.

As soon as I arrived home from work every day, I slipped into a Japanese kimono-style robe for the remainder of the evening, if I were staying home. If it were cold, the robe went over my sweater and skirt. I sewed my own "sofa" using a Butterick pattern, heavy canvas and bags of foam rubber purchased from the corner wholesaler.

My cheap little FM clock radio spewed soothing waves of classical music, my shelves were hefty with classics and poetry books from the library, and the walls held either inexpensive posters or original art created by friends willing to give me a sizable discount. I bathed by candlelight.

I needed no car. Work was accessible by elevated train, friends were within walking distance and family was a bus ride away. The beach was two blocks over. I attended and/or performed in poetry readings two or three times a week. I wrote sheaves of poems and consumed underground comic books as trash reading. Another trashy habit was smoking, but which has since been crushed out of my life, for good!

Thus was life in one room plus. Rents were smaller then, and my paycheck was even tinier. But those years were among the richest I can remember. ◦

Monday, January 16, 2006

Among the top five healthy ways

Technorati Profile

According to Julie Deardorff at the Chicago Tribune (Sunday, January 8, 2006), keeping a journal if number five among her "10 Ways to Improve Your Health in 2006." This excellent habit even beat out stopping smoking and practicing yoga.

Her comments on journaling includes, "Do the write thing. Save thousands of dollars in therapy by keeping a journal."She also cites medical doctor and proponent of alternative medicine, Deepak Chopra, who calls journaling, "one of the most important tools we have to transform our lives."

"Don't know where to start?" asks Deardorff. "Write what you eat every day (It could help you lose weight.) Write what you do. Write what you feel. Eventually, journaling will become a natural habit, a conversation with yourself." ◦

Monday, January 09, 2006

Response to Letter Writing

One of my coworkers, Carlee, read my January 7 blog on "Birthday Letters to Your Children." Carlee wrote, "I really can relate to your most recent post on writing letters to your children. One of the things I most treasure is a letter my father wrote me when I went off to my freshman year at college. It was the only one he ever wrote me in which he told me how much he loved and missed me." Since that time, Carlee's father has passed away, but his letter still remains among her prized personal possessions.

In addition, Carlee said, "I like the blog a lot and will add it to the list of ones I check out regularly." ◦

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Birthday Letters to Your Children

On today's new "Real Simple" television show on PBS, a woman spoke about the letters she received from her father at each one of her birthdays. He wrote her the first letter the day his wife delivered his daughter at the hospital. Arriving home alone, he sat down at his desk to write the type of letter that would become an annual tradition. Every year, his letters held more detail as he told his daughter what he believed in, what he valued, how he felt about what she did that year and how much he loved her.

She loved her dad and his letters. She thought things would stay the same forever, but after she reached her 14th birthday, her dad died. The woman couldn't look at the letters for years, it was too painful. But on her 21st birthday, she pulled out the box filled with them and read them one by one. She even tried writing a letter back to her father to tell him how she was doing and what his letters, all she had left of him along with her fond memories of times together, meant to her. However, she left his last letter unopened and plans to reread when her first child is born. Perhaps she will begin the tradition again with her new son or daughter.

We never know how long we may be around. Tell your children how much you love them in letters and they will always treasure them. ◦

Monday, January 02, 2006

More Fill in the Blanks

Today picks up where yesterday left off with more fill-in-the-blanks journal entries for your personal year in review. See my January 1st post. Many thanks to Mary Schmich of The Chicago Tribine for her enlightening column...

I regret buying...
I will never regret buying...
even though with that money I could have bought...
I...way too much
I didn't...enough
...drove me crazy
Was...crazier than last year? Or was it me?
The most relaxing place I went to was...
I feel so...when I write it down.
Why did I go to...
The best thing I did for someone else was...
The best thing I did for me was...
The one thing I'd like to do again, but do it better, is... ◦

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Personal Year in Review

Mary Schmich at The Chicago Tribune ran a recent column (Wed. Dec. 28, 2005) about looking forward to the new year ahead by looking back and filling in the blanks concerning the last 12 months. This way, according to Schmich, "you'll realize some things about your 2005 [or any given year] you had only half registered before."

She said you'd be astonished by how much happened or changed. And how much didn't or hasn't. New year's resolutions from last year? You may laugh or sigh to notice how you life may remain its usual jumble of contradictions.

Writing might be organized. Who said life has to be?

Personal Year in Review (Fill in the blanks)
Last year, I gained...
I lost...
I stopped...
I started...
I was hugely satisfied by...
And frustrated by...
I am so embarassed that i...
Once again, I...
Once again, I did not...
The biggest physical difference between me last December and me this January is...
The biggest psychological difference...
I loved spending time...
Why did I spend even two minutes...
I should have spent more time...

And that's about the half of it. The rest of the list appears in tomorrow's blog.

Happy New Year y'all. Eat something healthy and different this week like steamed kale, which can then be sauted in a little grapeseed oil with chopped garlic and onions, and finally sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and a little sea salt. ◦