Cooking As Artistic Expression

I got home from the gym around 9 tonight and found my youngest son in the family room watching the season finale of Master Chef. I had never seen any part of the show before last week when we were on vacation in Rohoboth Beach, and I didn’t really care about it, but somehow I got watching it tonight. Yes, I should have been writing or doing some other productive activity, but instead I got caught up in the final showdown between Jennifer and Adrian. For the benefit of those who didn’t watch (and probably don’t care,) Jennifer won the competition, earning the apparently coveted title of Master Chef and a cool $250,000.

Good for her, but that’s not what I want to talk about tonight. I don’t often watch cooking shows, though I went through a heavy Emeril phase 10 years or so ago. I really don’t cook that often (but I make this really kickass spicy spaghetti sauce; even my boys like it.) So I’m kind of oblivious to the artistic side of cooking, and that was something that jumped out at me as I was watching Master Chef tonight.

I’ve never really thought of cooking as a creative endeavor, at least not in the way that writing or painting or musical composition are. When I make my spaghetti sauce, my major goal is to make the vegetables soft and keep the noodles from clumping together. But the chefs on this show were just as concerned with presentation as they were with flavor — “plating,” they called it (I’m picking up the lingo.) The look of the dish is at least as important as how it tastes. Of course, on some level I knew that; everyone has received a plate of something and thought, “This looks like the product of a really bad head cold.” We all know how inviting some dishes can be and how repulsive others can be. But I learned from watching this show that, for a professional chef, the presentation of the food is a creative statement, a work of art.

In that way, cooking is like writing. As a writer, I try to evoke an emotional response from the reader — laughter, fear, sadness, excitement, whatever. It occurs to me that chefs are trying to do the same thing when they choose the colors for a dish and the arrangement of the garnish and the way they sprinkle sauces around a plate.

This is probably obvious to most people, but I’ve never looked at it that way before, and I find it fascinating. The next time I go to a fine dining restaurant (it happens once or twice a year,) I’ll pay a little more attention to the presentation of the dish before I devour it, and I’ll be a little more aware of how it makes me feel. It’s a whole new dimension of dining for me. I like that; it feels like I’ve learned something new.

Of course, the next dining establishment I patronize will probably be one of the local ice cream stands. I don’t care about the presentation of a hot fudge sundae. Give me lots of fudge and whipped cream and I’m good. Some things surpass artistic considerations.

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Here are some of the things that happened in the summer of 1961:

  • Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of the New York Yankees were in hot pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60. By July 25, Maris was at 40, having hit six homers in four games played in two days.
  • The second American manned space flight, Mercury 4, lifted off and splashed down on July 21 with Virgil “Gus” Grissom aboard.
  • On July 19, TWA became the first airline to show a movie in-flight.
  • On July 25, the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, spoke on national television about the crisis in Berlin. He urged Americans to build fallout shelters.
  • On August 13, the government of East Germany began erecting a wall between the eastern and western sectors of Berlin.
  • The number one song in the U.S. for most of July and August was Tossin’ and Turnin’ by Bobby Lewis
  • Ernest Hemingway died on July 2.
  • Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea and Francis of Assisi were playing in movie theaters, few of which were located in shopping malls.
  • On July 1, The Beatles wrapped up a 92-night stretch of shows at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, West Germany.
  • On July 12, I made my entrance on the world stage.

Yes, folks, I am 50 years old today, and I’m not ashamed to say I’m in deep denial about it. When you’re 40, people who are 50 are “older.” When you’re 30, people who are 50 are “getting up there.” When you’re 20 or younger, people who are 50 are just plain old. So here I am at the half-century mark and I can report to you that I, for one, do not feel old. In fact, some would say that I’m trying to recapture my youth:

  • Last fall, I joined a gym and got myself in decent enough shape that I ran in a 5K race in June with a respectable time.
  • Having completely missed the Dungeons & Dragons craze when I was in college, I’ve taken up the game this year, getting together twice a month with a great group of guys and a lovable black lab named Night.
  • Five years ago, I fulfilled a dream I’d had since literally the age of eight, when I completed a first draft of a novel. The book, which has characters I really like but which also had the unfortunate effect of putting people to sleep in the first half, rests comfortably and anonymously in a closet in my bedroom. I went on to release novels number two and three as free serialized podcasts. They’ve achieved decent download numbers on, though I have yet to interest publishers or literary agents in them.
  • I started listening to podcasts in 2006 and became hooked on the medium. It didn’t take long for me to start listening to podcast novels, which led me to take an interest in the people who create them, which led me to start attending science fiction conventions (though costuming is not and never will be one of my strong points.) At these events, I’ve made some terrific friendships and met some of the most creative and talented people I could ever hope to meet.
  • A summer reunion with two of my college roommates, two of the greatest guys I’ve ever known, has become a tradition stretching all the way back to…2009. Okay, so it’s not that long a tradition, but it’s a great time that I look forward to all year.

So yeah, I’m resisting getting old. There are some aspects of age that one cannot avoid. My eyes are worse than they used to be (and they weren’t that great to start with — I’ve had to wear glasses since age nine.) My knees get sore if I run too much without a brace on. An AARP membership offer showed up in the mail last week and just as quickly journeyed to my recycling bin. On the other hand, God blessed me with blonde hair that does a splendid job of hiding incipient gray. Also, I still have plenty of said hair. So I can’t complain.

Looking back on what I’ve accomplished so far, in a three-way tie for the top spot are the three greatest kids a guy could hope for. They have been ridiculously easy to bring up, far easier than I deserved. You know how parents have to fight, cajole and threaten to make their kids do their schoolwork? I don’t know what that’s like. All three boys are ambitious self-starters. The oldest spent every freaking night last summer studying for the Law School Admission Test. Because of that work and a high GPA as an undergraduate, he’ll enroll this fall in a law school ranked number 22 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. My middle son takes a ridiculous course load at Syracuse University; last semester, Philosophy was his “easy” class. His semesters have been filled with courses like physics, computer science, calculus, etc. He also works weekends and has had a knack for fixing things around the house since he was a child (no lie — he helped me fix a CD player with a balky tray when he was six or seven.) My youngest? Aside from the fact that he can pitch a baseball in ways that I’ve only dreamed of being able to do, let me tell you a story about him. We live in Syracuse, New York. In the winter, there are two topics of conversation: The snow and the Syracuse University men’s basketball team. My youngest has recognized Otto the Orange (the SU mascot) since he was a toddler. So imagine my surprise when I came home after work and the gym one night last winter, having listened to the start of an SU basketball game on the car radio, to find the TV off. I called up the stairs to let my son know that the game was on. He replied that he knew that, but he was doing his homework. I considered that: My 15 year-old son was not watching his favorite basketball team play on TV because he was doing his homework. It occurred to me right then and there that my kids have spoiled me rotten.

On top of that, all three of them are wonderful young men who are just plain fun to be around. I can’t wait to see what their futures hold.

I’ve had professional achievements and setbacks. I’ve celebrated promotions and new responsibilities, and I’ve endured two very long bouts of unemployment. I’ve built a small but satisfying freelance writing practice in my spare time, and I’ve made many business contacts and some very good friendships. I don’t expect to be able to retire until age 70, so I believe that many, many more opportunities and friendships lie before me.

People who knew me as a child and teenager in Afton, New York would still recognize some things about me. I’m still a bookworm, I’m still irrationally devoted to the Boston Red Sox, I still delight in telling stupid jokes and one-liners, I still play my guitar once in a while, and I still listen to Bob Dylan CDs. Some things don’t change. Other things do, and some things absolutely should. I have personality flaws that I’m actively trying to fix, fears I’m trying to conquer, bad habits I’m trying to break, selfishness I’m trying to banish, and self-absorption I need to stop. I guess that’s what will make the next 50 years interesting (did you catch the subtle way I worked optimism in there?). I’m not perfect and I never will be, but hopefully I’ll never stop trying to be better. Please give my ass a hard kick if I ever do.

Probably my all-time favorite songwriter is Paul Simon, and I’ll close this blog post with lyrics that he wrote in the mid-1970’s and that are most suitable for this occasion:

“Yesterday it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
I should be depressed
My life’s a mess
But I’m having a good time.”

No one says it better than Paul. Have a good time, everybody.

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Thanks for the Music, Old Friend

I first heard this song when I was 14 and Born To Run was still a new album. I thought then and think now that this is one of the most amazing solos I’ve ever heard come out of a saxophone. I stop whatever I’m doing and listen whenever I hear it come on, and it still gives me chills.

That saxophone has gone silent far too soon, but the man behind it left us a wealth of music to enjoy and marvel at. Thank you for the music, Clarence, and rest in peace.

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New Name, New Look

As you may have noticed, this blog has a new name and a new look. The name refers to my favorite line in Bob Dylan’s song It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding):

If my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine

I feel like that a lot.

Also, the blog was overdue for a new theme. I quite like this one. It displays the links better, and the graphic looks…reflective, I guess. Anyway, I’ll go with this for the time being. Let me know what you think.

It’s alright Ma.

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Podcast Novels You Should Be Listening To: ‘The Hidden Institute’ and ‘Dreaming of Deliverance’

I want to clue you in to some good audio literature that I’ve just discovered. I’m always on the lookout for new and different writers to listen to on my iPod, and right now I’m in the middle of two excellent novels.

The Hidden Institute — Brand Gamblin

I’ve met Brand a couple of times at Balticon, and never having listened to his previous book Tumbler (something I must rectify soon), I decided to give his new work a try. It’s the story of a lower-class boy named Cliffy who catches a wealthy nobleman in a situation that the nobleman would much rather keep out of the press. To buy his silence, the man offers Cliffy a free education at a special school; Cliffy, who lives pretty much in squalor with his destitute father, quickly accepts.

My first reaction to this premise was, “This sounds a bit like a certain series of books about a boy wizard.” However, this school is no Hogwarts. The place is built entirely below ground. The headmaster is packing heat and uses it to discipline unruly students. Each boy (only boys attend) has a robot for a man-servant. Students who fail at their studies are dispatched…permanently (to quote The Eagles, “You can check out any time you like…”)

The school prepares boys for careers as servants to the upper class, but it’s more sinister than it first appears. Danger lurks both inside and outside the school’s boundaries. Spoiled rich girls hunt for the students at parties, hoping to expose them as frauds. A mysterious legion of boys that carry a special mark trains for dark missions. When Cliffy (the protagonist) and his best friend mishandle an appearance at a ball, the disciplinarian at the school makes Harry Potter’s Professor Snape look like a teddy bear.

This is a straight read, not a full-cast production, and that’s fine. The author is more than capable of voice the different characters in distinct ways. The story starts with seemingly low-conflict scenes like Cliffy arriving at school, getting his hair cut, taking a bath, etc., but all of a sudden I found myself caught up in the story and asking that question every writer wants his readers to say: What happens next?

The recording is clean and a pleasure to listen to. I only have a few episodes left, and I’ll be sorry for it to end.

Dreaming of Deliverance — R.E. Chambliss

R.E. Chambliss’s debut novel Dreaming of Deliverance at first listen reminded me of Starla Huchton’s excellent The Dreamer’s Thread, but, like The Hidden Institute, it has a darker edge. Lindsay Paulson is a young, bright woman in her mid-twenties doing 10 years in a California correctional facility for a drug offense. Her only escape from prison life is sleep, but this escape takes an unexpected turn when she begins visiting a different world. Though she thinks she’s dreaming, she wakes in the mornings with physical signs of her journeys.

The people of the land she visits view her as a sort of savior, someone to rescue them with her powers. Trouble is, Lindsay has no idea what they’re talking about or how she’s getting there. Worse, when she awakes back in the prison, she’s not sure whether she’s actually traveling to this land or if she’s losing her mind.

I’m only about a fifth or so of the way through this one, but I’m already enjoying it immensely. Chambliss has managed to construct two vivid worlds — the dreary and hopeless setting of a women’s prison and a pastoral world where leaders who have been mutilated as part of their preparation are assigned to communities. The residents of this world are welcoming but fearful, and they’re looking to Lindsay for help. Whether and how she will do that should make for a fascinating ride.

As with The Hidden Institute, this is a straight read, but the author does the different character voices so well that I sometimes forget that it’s only one person behind the mic (her voices of Lindsay’s fellow inmates at the prison are especially fun.) I read on the author’s Web site that she records inside her children’s play tent (as a parent, I love the image of this), and it paid off in terms of a clean, very listenable recording.

A holiday weekend is coming up soon here in the U.S., and a lot of people will hop in their cars for long road trips. If you’re looking for good podiobooks to pass the time on the highway, look no further than these two titles.

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‘Phoenix Rising’ Hits Bookstores on April 26

Check out the trailer for this hot new book by my friends Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. If it intrigues you (as I hope it will,) pick up a copy this Tuesday!

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Off the Road Again…

Today ended a 34-day stretch that I’ve been literally dreading all year. Since February 28, I have spent 14 days on trips that required either an overnight stay, at least four hours of round-trip highway driving, a flight, or some combination of these. While three of those days were personal trips (attending a special family event at my sister’s place near Schenectady, taking my son to visit a law school, etc.), 11 of them were for business. Two of the trips were to Long Island, approximately a five-hour drive one-way. The stretch wrapped up with a three-day trip to northern Kentucky. I flew to and from Cincinnati, arriving home this morning.

Put simply, I’m tired. I know a lot of people travel more than that, but I’m not used to it. My duties back in my office don’t pause while I’m on the road (though I do get badly needed help, especially from my manager,) so I’m writing press releases and answering research requests in the morning and teaching four-hour classes in the afternoon. Or I’m giving a speech in the evening, answering emails in my hotel room that night, then giving the same speech in another city the next morning. Or answering research requests from the airport Thursday and during breaks in my meeting yesterday.

I know this probably sounds like whining to those of you accustomed to working 60 hour weeks. Sorry. March’s schedule has left me with little time or energy to write either fiction or non-fiction. I completely blew my self-imposed deadline for finishing the ghost hunter novel by February 28, and I didn’t make up much lost time in March. This is frustrating, to say the least. On top of that, I’ve done next to nothing extra for Lent, which is supposed to be a time of spiritual re-dedication, so I need to focus on that. I am also working on a personal self-improvement program in fits and starts in the hope of making some badly needed changes to myself. In short, I feel like I’m juggling a lot of balls, and all these days spent bonding with the New York State Thruway have had me juggling with both hands only occasionally free.

I’m rewarding myself with a couple of days off next week, and I plan to spend some of that time getting back on the writing bandwagon, among other things. I may take a break from the novel to try a short story. It might be helpful to step away from the novel for something different, and I’d still like to have something new to podcast before the end of the Parsec eligibility period. It’s shameless, I know, but I want to have something to enter, even if it doesn’t become a finalist. You can’t compete if you don’t enter, and if I don’t try to compete, I won’t know how I compare to my peers. The Parsec competition may be a very imperfect indicator of my path as a writer, but it’s a handy one, so I want to be in it.

So with no more travel on the horizon until late May, I expect myself to be a more productive writer, spend more time and energy improving my spiritual life, and dedicating myself to becoming a better person. I badly need to do all three. Now that I’ve publicly said this, I’ll feel obligated to give a progress report in 30 days. Stay tuned.

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Things I’m Thankful For Today

Things I’m thankful for this Sunday in March —

  • While it’s cold outside, the sky is pure blue, the sunshine is bright, and absolutely nothing is falling from the sky.
  • The white chocolate mocha (non-fat) that I’m drinking right now.
  • The sound of Miles Davis’s trumpet in my ears right now.
  • That I’m healthy enough to spend 47 minutes on the treadmill this morning, running 4.75 miles.
  • How awesome the hot shower felt after said workout.
  • The way my muscles feel the rest of the day after a workout like that.
  • A really good pancake breakfast this morning to benefit the varsity baseball team’s trip to Myrtle Beach (I had seconds, thus negating some of the benefit of afore-mentioned workout.)
  • Get to watch my son’s basketball team play for the league championship tonight.
  • My dog is 95% recovered from her disk problems of last year, wants me to walk her every morning, and amuses us with her addiction to soft chicken-flavored dog biscuits.
  • Someone is willing to pay me for the freelance article I should be writing right now instead of blogging.
  • Msgr. Hagerty’s homily at Mass this morning. I’ve bitched about other homilies on this blog before, so it’s only fair that I recognize one that meant a lot to me.

Enough for now. To quote Professor Lafferty, “I should be writing.”

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Interview With Abigail Hilton

It’s been a while, but I’m back with a new episode of the podcast, this time featuring a special interview with the wonderful Abigail Hilton, author and producer of The Guild of the Cowry Catchers podcast. Abbie and I had such a good conversation that it ran over an hour without me realizing it. Not only is she a gifted storyteller, but she has put more thought and work into the writing business model than most writers I know. She is also one of the first (if not the first) to produce an illustrated podcast, putting hundreds of dollars of her own money into fine artwork that brings her characters to life. I hope you enjoy this discussion as much as I did.

Of course, I recorded the interview and the intro and outro before I listened to episode #4 of Book 3 of Cowry Catchers, in which several male slaves are brought up short and Silveo is left speechless. Having listened to that, I’m both a great admirer of her writing and a little bit afraid of her. (Just kidding, Abbie.)

Abbie Hilton’s contact information:

The Prophet of Panamindorah (young adult series)

The Guild of the Cowry Catchers

Web site




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One of the problems with letting a project drag on too long is that eventually you grow tired of it and start thinking about the next one and the one after that. This is the point that I’ve reached with my ghost hunter novel. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, it has begun to feel more like work and less like fun. I like the characters and the story I’ve created so far, but I’ve been working on it for so long that I just want to be done with it. I made a New Year’s resolution to finish it by the end of February, and I’m still hoping to accomplish that.

However, thoughts of future projects keep popping into my head — maybe some urban fantasy, maybe some horror, maybe some non-specfic drama. The more immediate project is one that a friend and I began discussing last spring. I don’t want to reveal any details of the story, but it’s timely. We agreed that we would write it together, which is both exciting and a little scary at the same time. I’ve never collaborated with anyone on a fiction project before, and I’m not entirely sure what to expect. Our styles are quite different. Melding the two will be a challenge, hopefully one that we’ll enjoy and that won’t cause hard feelings. My co-author (whose name I won’t reveal because I haven’t asked for permission to do so) is a very dear friend, and I don’t want our joint project to change that.

On the other hand, this person has given me dozens of valuable critiques on my current work in progress and on PURGATORY (another one of my future projects is yet another draft of that book based on her suggestions.) I think that could be one of the best things about collaborating — one person will think of or catch things that the other person missed entirely. And no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Two heads working together will hopefully come up with something better than either would have produced individually. In business jargon-speak, this is called, “synergy.” (That is the first and last time you’ll see me use that word here. I despise business jargon. If you ever hear me use the word “utilize,” feel free to have me committed. I’ll thank you for it later.)

Complicating this project is the fact that we don’t live in the same region of the country, so our work together will be through e-mail and Skype. That shouldn’t be a major hindrance (I’m thinking of Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine writing the first Books and Braun novel while she was still in New Zealand and he was in the States,) but it adds to the challenge. We’ve already e-mailed some ideas back and forth; the next step will be a detailed outline. I’m hopeful that actual writing will commence in a couple of months. Keeping in mind that we’re both insanely busy much of the time, I still hope that we can have a first draft done by the end of the summer (notice how I worked in summer? The temperature in Syracuse right now is minus 10 degrees F.)

So, wish us luck. And if anyone out there who has done this before wants to chime in with ideas on how to make it work, I’d love to hear them. Suggest away in the comments.

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