On Writing

Many words written in journals and on scraps of paperI’ve been addicted to the written word forever.  I blame it on my father’s mother, who read to me soon as I was old enough to appreciate it.  She sat me on her lap and followed the words with her finger, and that’s how I learned to read (for a very brief while I could read some Swedish, too).  

I’m not sure when I started writing, but it wasn’t long before I submitted my first story to be published in my school’s creative writing publication.  That was a long, long time ago, but I never stopped either reading or writing.  I’m not sure I could do so and stay sane because TV and movies just don’t make it for me.  I haven’t lived with a TV in my house since 1993 and I don’t stream either.

photo URL https://public.fotki.com/hypoint/arabians/arabian_album_cmk/bennasrif17317378cs.html

Me & Ben Nasrif on the endurance trail in the 1980s

I wrote about horses a lot in the 1980s and 1990s because we were breeding and endurance racing our Arabian horses then.  Somewhere amidst all the junk I’ve got stored I’ve got stacks of magazines with the equivalent of blog posts in them — mostly stories about how I screwed up, since that seems to be the most entertaining kind of story of all.  Like the time we drove half a day to a ride camp, only for me to discover I had forgotten to bring my saddle.  Ha ha. I was the camp entertainment as I walked from rig to rig hoping someone had brought an extra saddle that would work for me and my horse.

It was around then that I ventured into my first self-publishing experience, creating trail guides for the biggest, toughest 100 mile endurance race in the world — The Tevis Cup — which uses the trans-Sierra portion of the Western States Trail. I sold more copies than I expected and actually recovered the publication costs.  

It wasn’t till after 9/11 that I turned pro — and that was only because I couldn’t stand one more day of my brief stint as a substitute teacher (sorry, but I just do not like kids).  I have no idea why the newspaper hired me, but suddenly I was a reporter and feature story writer for a weekly regional here in western New Mexico. My beat was the county I live in — all 7000 square miles of it.  I attended every meeting I could get to, showed up at every accident that I found out about, covered every oddball incident I could discover — but best of all, I interviewed a lot of… um… fascinating locals.  My county is full of them.  

Fast forward to spending about a decade writing for a natural resource research and analysis institute in southern New Mexico, and then a few years after that of working as a contract writer for my county (and several others). The politics of it — OMG. It was worse than being around kids all day. So I waved goodbye to a real income and, with the help of NaNoWriMo, plunged into writing novels.

Note that breaking into the field of fiction writing is not something I recommend for anyone who plans on supporting themselves or their family.  I could do it because I was by this time a senior citizen and receiving Social Security.  It’s not going to be a get-rich quick scheme for me, since I only recently found a publisher for one of the two novels I’ve completed (Evolution Device).  But besides a few self-published chapbooks and two (2) short stories , that’s it.  And yet I’m writing all the time.

Writing is not what I do, it’s what I am.  A state of being. Lines of dialogue and narrative float through my brain as I scoop horse poop, a mindless task that has become a kind of meditation for me.  Some of what free-associates its way into my consciousness is actually useful. Sometimes it just gets lost, like dreams upon waking. Ideas come from all over the place. I’ll be standing in line at the grocery store and get caught staring. I smile and find something else to look at, but I really wasn’t staring so much as forgetting to look away.  A story has captured my attention, you see — sparked by the person, or the conversations around me, or who knows what — and it’s unfolding in my mind and I’m lost to the real world.

I have a tiny field notes book with me almost all the time, though I seem to more often end up scribbling ideas on the backs of envelopes, receipts, or paper napkins. I’ve found that dictating my thoughts to my phone as I hike works, too. When I get home I put the phone’s speaker next to my laptop’s mic, open Google Docs to a new document, click on Tools/Voice Typing, and let Google do the transcribing.  Oh yes, the transcription is ugly — Google is a riot with its interpretations of what I’ve said, not to mention all the oh sh*ts and ums and backtracking and such — but at least I’ve got someplace to start.

I may have been born to write, but that doesn’t make it easy. Those words bubbling around inside are delicate things that need to be lured onto the screen or paper. Skittish things that will dissipate if handled roughly. Elusive and shy, even when they demand attention. They can’t be forced, but they can’t be ignored, either.

Writing is like being a slave to words. 

Evolution Device – a novel of magic and music

 

Mock-up of Evolution Device coverI am absolutely thrilled to let you know that my novel, Evolution Device, will be hitting the bookstores late this summer.  

Evolution Device is the story of British rock guitarist Eddie Edmunds in the wild times of the 1970s. His muse, Lily, is an entity of pure energy drawn into physical existence by what some might call magic.   She is the only one who recognizes the other side of the energies that Eddie flirts with:  if he doesn’t face the music, all the drugs in the world won’t shield him from the danger of uncontrolled power. 

This baby’s been a long time coming.  My first file save was in 2011, so the late summer release date will make it a 9 year labor.

Evolution Device will be published under the Positronic Publications Imprint, which has published authors like George R. R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, and Roger Zelazny.  

I’m SO EXCITED!!!

 

Rosie and me – settling in

Here it is nine months since Rosie came into my life and I am pleased to tell you I have nothing special to report about her.  As the weather gets warmer I do have to be more careful about letting her come with me on walks, given her compromised respiratory system.  She’s way better now than before her surgery, but she’ll never be an athlete.  I can’t take her far and I can’t expect fast.  Heat + effort + a partially blocked trachea  = potential for over-stress.  For Rosie it could be fatal.  When I take her with me I plan on short, slow walks, with plenty of stops to wait for her to catch up on her own time.

I am still taking it slow and careful when it comes to how I behave around her, too.  No harsh words.  No thoughtless actions.  She’s still automatically submissive, but I’d like to think maybe not as much as she was.  I don’t expect this aspect of our relationship to change much over time.

Rosie is settling in nicely.  She appears to feel this really is her home and that means she’s bolder.  She’s become more demanding about getting attention, which I take as a positive.  She barks more, which I also see as positive — though I must say I don’t always have a clue what she’s barking at.  But she doesn’t take anything too far.  She only once chewed a shoe.  She doesn’t go in the garbage, though she seems to feel the compost pile needs thorough and regular examination.  No cat chasing.  No horse chasing.  Bunnies… well, that’s another story.

She also has taken it upon herself to remind me when it’s time to do things.  Time to get up.  Time to feed horses.  Time to feed Rosie.  Hurry up and feed those blasted cats so Rosie can get fed, would you Lif?  Time to lay her night-time bed on the floor.  Time for a treat.  Time for a pet.  Who knew Rosie would be such a task-master!

All in all, I’ve got a good little dog here.   She’ll likely never be “normal” but so what.  Neither am I. 

I have other news to report.  Check out my next post!

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Life in time of COVID – Sourdough starter

Or, what I was looking for wasn’t what I thought I was looking for

© 2020 Lif Strand

Years and years ago I started trying to bake the perfect loaf of sourdough bread. In spite of the fact that I still lived in California and could buy freshly-baked San Francisco sourdough bread any time I wanted to, I just had to do it myself.

If you’ve read anything else about me, you know about my having to do things for myself. Too often, the hard way.

Back then I was more into cooking than I am now. It was still a relatively new thing to me. I was in my own kitchen, nobody hovering over me expecting me to cook or bake the way they thought I should. All that mattered was I had to like the end result and that whoever I was feeding should like it, too.

That was just food.  The sourdough bread thing was different.

It wasn’t for anybody else. I had an inner vision of smell and taste that I wanted to create, of the perfect tang and chewy crust. It was my personal challenge. It dragged on in fits and starts for years. As with many quests, though, what I was looking for wasn’t what I thought I was looking for.

My quest wasn’t really about bread. That was just the prize. My grail was a perfect starter — for without it there would be no sourdough bread.

Over time I began to believe that starter is a sad story of dreary obligation to one-celled organisms. I had a love/hate relationship with every one of my starters. I didn’t like the bread they made. First I thought I was getting bummer yeast. Then I thought I didn’t have enough yeast lurking in my kitchen. There was even the possibility I was simply a terrible baker.

I began to fear that if I kept going the way I was I’d be chained to a kitchen for the rest of my life. Starter is a living thing, a kind of pet that demands regular attention. Unfortunately, any starter that entered my house was doomed to die of neglect. Too often my only reaction was good riddance.

But yet it would start again. The urge. I swear, I never learn.

Over the years I have nursed too many sourdough starters along that got me no closer to my goal. Many arrived into my kitchen in little packets of yeast powder that cost way, way more than commercial yeast. Sellers claim their dried starter descends from yeast used by gold rush miners in Alaska in the 1800s. Or from yeast that traveled with pioneers over the Oregon Trail. I figured okay, a little expensive, but they’re guaranteed to be the real deal, right?

As I killed off starter after starter, niggling doubts would enter my mind. First of all, how would anyone know the provenance of 100 year old starter? I mean, I know there’s a DNA test that can point to where a given yeast came from, but I doubt anybody but the most scientific of folks is into the time and expense of doing so. And then what’s all this measuring by grams business? Maybe those grizzled old miners in the Alaskan gold rush carried gram scales around with them. I’m betting that 99.99% of explorers, pioneers, and the like didn’t. Unless it was for making gunpowder. Maybe not even then.

Anyway, I could not see those overworked pioneer women messing around with finicky starter. They had hungry families to feed. There were bugs, dust, flood, blizzards, snakes, marauders, limited fresh water, and weevils in the flour to deal with. Who had time to fuss with something as basic as bread?

Fast forward to nowadays – I mean to now when COVID has people convinced they’ve got to bake bread. For all that’s awful that’s going on, there are some good things, too. For one thing, there are biologist Sudeep Agarwala and gastroegyptologist (his term) Seamus Blackley out there on Twitter, encouraging us all in our bread-making efforts.  But wait!  There’s more!  They’re describing how to make wild-captured yeast! How to make bread out of so many things other than wheat flour! And they don’t mind stupid questions!

Right around the time I started following them I came across a great webpage on sourdough starter troubleshooting, the subtitle for which said everything that mattered: What does it take to kill your starter?

Now I’ve decided this whole sourdough starter thing is built on misunderstanding and, let’s face it, taking advantage of people’s ideas that old is bad and new is always better. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Forgotten jar of starter

Forgotten starter

It turns out that yeast that’ll make great sourdough is everywhere — sorry San Francisco. Also, yeast is tougher stuff than you’d think. Don’t believe me? Check out that jar of starter I discovered when I was cleaning out my fridge last November or so. That starter was last fed sometime in 2018. When I came across it I went ewwww and put it outside to empty into the compost pile. Then I forgot about it.

I mean, still in the jar, still on the porch.

I took the photo today, half a year later. That stuff in the bottom looks pretty good, actually. Could it still be viable? What would bread I made from it taste like? I haven’t figured out how to get the good part out of the bottom. I don’t want to contaminate it with the nasty black goo on the top. I haven’t even opened the lid yet – but when I do I’ll let you know what happens.

Meanwhile, in spite of the two jars of commercial yeast on my shelf I once again had a burning desire to make my own homemade bread starter yeast. The first try was uglier than the jar from the depths of my fridge. I blame it on juniper berries. No offense to juniper trees, but… gin. The alcohol that gave me a hangover so bad when I was a teen that I can’t stand the smell of gin to this day. And what is gin distilled from, my friends?

Juniper berries.

So all right. Possibly some prejudice on my part towards the juniper berries I made starter from. I take responsibility for the starter going moldy and gross before I could even try it in dough. I was going to go for it again and this time it was going to be different. This time, following directions gleaned from the tweets of the two above-named gentlemen, I used raisins. I like raisins.

happy bubbly sourdough starter

Bubbly starter

I had a happy, bubbly starter in no time at all.

The next challenge was adapting my no-knead bread recipe for starter instead of dry yeast. The recipe makes good but not sour bread. I’d been making loaf after loaf using that recipe for long enough that memories of hockey-puck bread had faded.

Not so with the sourdough starter. My dough ended up as a goopy nasty mess that I had to pour into my improvised Dutch oven. It left sticky globs of dough on me and everything else. The resulting bread was tasty but a little too close to hockey-puckness to suit me. The clean-up time cast a pall on bread-making. My enthusiastic starter was demanding that I make more and more bread. I could see where this was heading.

STOP!

I’m already tired of baking. It’s already warm here in the southwest and I don’t want to heat up my house baking bread twice a week. I don’t need to consume that many carbs anyway. Besides, I can get wonderful fresh-baked bread delivered once a week these days. Jennifer’s bread looks better, tastes better, and I don’t have to do anything but slap some butter on a slice and eat it.  Why bake?

Ah, but there’s that starter.

I made it myself. It’s good starter.

I don’t want another science experiment in a jar in the back of my fridge.

I don’t want to keep feeding it and then throwing out the excess to feed it again. Yes, people do that. Not me. Not when it’s a 60 mile round trip to buy more flour, assuming there is any in the store. Not when it’s such a frivolous waste to throw good food out.

So… back to Google.

To quote one website I looked at, starter is flour and water. It’s not some magical alchemical substance that can only be used for one kind of ritual. Yes, friends, sourdough starter can be used for plenty more tasty bits and bites than bread!

The mind reels.

I found a great recipe for sourdough starter crepes. I like crepes. The recipe uses a cup of starter. If I don’t feed my starter great honkin’ amounts of flour every few days I could have crepes once a week and not an overload of starter. Forget baking bread for a while.

Yay!

The recipe calls for milk. I don’t keep milk in the house because it goes bad before I get around to doing anything with it. I do have powdered milk, but that stuff is nasty. There’d have to be a zombie apocalypse going on before I would bother with it and even then I’d use it to chase off the zombies. So I used a wee bit of evaporated sweetened milk (why not?) plus some water. Everything else was as the recipe called for.

three crepes on a plate

Three malformed crepes on a plate

The result was more like wimpy pancakes than real crepes. Thinner batter would have been better. But so what. They were pretty. They were sour and yet sweet. I tried one with organic blackberry jam. Yum! I had another with honey. Yum again! The other two — well, three — I ate as-is, soon as they were cool enough to handle.

I’ve got one left but I’m too full to eat it [note: by the time I posted this it was long gone]. No problem! Crepes are great cold, too. I’m thinking a fruit and yogurt filling later on when I’ve got room for one more.

Let’s hear it for starter!

Let’s hear it for not-bread!

Crepe held up to the sun and blue sky

This is what it looks like if you hold a crepe up to the clear blue sky