Author: Luisa Perkins
•11:20 AM
It will be seven years in June since we moved to the country from Manhattan. In 2002, I began what has since become a yearly occurrence: a quest to remake our yard in rather dramatic fashion. In my Garden Journal, I still have a copy of the first ambitious proposal I wrote early that spring after having read several gardening and landscaping books over the winter.

I should note here that I had very little practical knowledge of these matters other than what I gained while 'helping' my grandmother in her yard when I was ten or so. We'd never had a yard of our own, having lived in Manhattan for the first eleven years of our married life. Patrick, who did a lot of lawn mowing and other yard chores for his parents when he was a kid, was far more experienced than I was.

My vision was big, but we started small, with a 4x4-foot garden plot in the sunniest area of the yard. Back then, most of the yard was in the deep, dense shadow of a line of 40-foot-high Norway maples. Grass wouldn't even grow under them, due to the lack of light and the fact that Norway maples' roots are so shallow that they compete with lawn for water. For me, having grown up in the relatively treeless Central Valley of California, cutting down a mature tree was well nigh a sin, so I tried to work with what we had.

Please, never plant Norway maples. They are horribly invasive, for one thing. But another, more selfish and practical reason not to is that they have a bad habit of choking themselves with their own perversely circular-growing roots. They are also prone to a really gross blight called Black Spot. Between these two factors, we've had to remove six huge maples altogether; only one of them remains. The good thing is that we still have two huge oak trees, a mountain ash, and a Japanese maple standing. Another good thing is that we have at least three years' worth of great firewood stacked along the fence. But the best thing is that we now have plenty of sun in our yard--and a lot more flexibility as to what we do with it.

Between 2003 and 2006, I experimented with raised bed 'lasagna' gardening, with varying degrees of success depending on how much time and energy I had to spare in any given season. (I had Daniel in May 2004; that was not a great year for the yard.) Raised beds are a terrific solution for anyone dealing with rocky, clayey soil. You should see the piles of rocks we've unearthed over the years in this whole yard-remaking process; I now know exactly why my ancestors all left New England and moved West just as soon as they could.

In those years I also started a perennial border along a 100-foot section of fence that borders our busy road, planting about 25 feet per year. This border has been a reasonable success, despite the near-constant battle with ground ivy, one of the most evil weeds known to man. The roses, irises, peonies, and lilies have been well worth the trouble, though.

We even planted a few dwarf fruit trees a few years ago. Last year was the first that we literally harvested the fruits of our labors; my kids are still talking about those three or four blissful days of fresh peach indulgence, and they look forward to more this season. We hope for a few cherries and apples to boot.

Via this blog, I officially declared last year "The Year of the Garden." We had just finished the second (and final!) major renovation of our little house, and I was excited to turn my attention and energy once again to the yard. I decided to scuttle all of my amateur garden designs and pay a professional to help me. Because the front yard was at that time the sunniest area we owned, our designer drew up a plan for us that put all of the vegetable beds and fruit trees there. So we did.

Alas, last year, a well-organized cell of ninja deer caught onto what we were doing; we hadn't had much of a problem with them until then. Within a couple of nights, they laid waste to most of my carefully nurtured seedlings, disdaining only the squash and the African Jelly Melons. One lone Charentais melon plant survived by hiding among its spiny, exotic cousins; we harvested exactly two (admittedly delicious) melons last year.

Since I can't camp on the porch every night with shotgun across my knees, I knew we had to make major changes once again. As I write, workers are fencing off the now-sunny side yard with seven-foot-high deer fencing; other workers are grinding out the massive stumps of the once-proud maples. In a couple of hours, a pal of ours will be here to consult with me about grading and leveling the new garden and play yard areas.

In the next few weeks, we're moving the raised vegetable beds and all of the fruit trees, as well as the entire perennial border. We'll plant evergreens along the road fence for year-round privacy and a row of Lombardy poplars along the lane for a little taste of France. (Yes, we know that poplars can be problematic, but we're willing to gamble in order to fulfill an aesthetic dream of Patrick's.) We'll aerate, top-dress, amend, and overseed the lawn area while we're at it.

I've made long lists of what to buy, what to move, what to plant, and how to phase it all in and coordinate it. The long-suffering Patrick is, as usual, footing the entire bill. The whole process is as complicated as choreography, but when it's done? I think (hope, pray) it will be great.

"We fail forward to success," as Mary Kay used to say. If that's the case, our yard and I are due any season now. Let's hope that Version 6.0 will be our break-out year. Is it all worth the pain, work, money, and aggravation? If you could smell the lilacs I just cut (pictured at the top of this post), I think you'd agree that, yes, it is.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:26 AM
"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

--J.R.R. Tolkien

My illustrious blogpal Deb recently quoted an excellent article by Heather Havrilevsky on

Lately I've been buying beans. Not canned beans, mind you: Dry beans. Bags of dry beans that only cost 65 cents, beans that have to be soaked overnight, beans that you have to sort very carefully to make sure there aren't any chunks of gravel in there.

This is my response to an impending recession, my move to scale back and batten down the hatches for the coming economic storm.

Heather, I'm totally with you, babe. In fact, I may have a bit of an edge in the dried bean department. Let me 'splain.

For decades, leaders of my Church have been asking members to set aside food, water, and money to be used in times of emergency. When we lived in a 900-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, we stored what little we could, but when we moved to a house with a basement, we knew it was time to start following the counsel we'd been hearing for years. We took the 'building up' phase slowly, but now we're in the happy situation of being able to rotate and maintain a year's supply of food for our family. (Have I mentioned recently that there will soon be eight of us? Yeah. That's a lot of food.)

It's quite a comfort knowing that we could feed our family if disaster struck. It wouldn't have to be an earthquake; I've known families who ate well using their food storage for months on end when jobs were lost or providers were disabled. I know other families who 'practice' living on their food storage alone for a few weeks at a time, just to make sure they can do so comfortably. (This is a good way to find 'holes' in your storage that can be filled later.) They then bank the cash they would have used for groceries during that time, which adds to their emergency savings.

I've heard of some bunker-mentality folks who buy guns so that they can "protect what's [theirs]." This attitude is anathema to me. Theodore M. Burton said,

Some members of the Church have said to me, “Why should we keep a store of food on hand? If a real emergency came in this lawless world, a neighbor would simply come with his gun and take it from us. What would you do if a person came and demanded your food?” I replied that I would share whatever I had with him, and he wouldn’t have to use a gun to obtain that assistance either.

My dear friend C had quite a bit of fun poked at her by movers when she and her family relocated to Puerto Rico and took their massively bulky food storage with them. But when a hurricane laid waste to their side of the island months later, they fed their entire neighborhood for the two weeks it took for power and transportation to be restored.

If something similarly devastating happened here, I'd immediately let our neighbors know they were welcome at our table. (Just another reason for you to buy the house that's for sale next door, people.)

My food storage isn't perfect; we need more honey, for example. But here's what we've got.


Yep, we actually eat it. I have a wheat grinder and a bread machine, both of which get regular use. I also have an awesome Wheat Berry Salad recipe that I make a lot in the summer. We've also had sweetened cooked wheat berries for breakfast in times past. It's rib-stickin.'

Other Bulk Items: Above are buckets with sealed mylar bags inside for super long storage: oats, other grains, beans, etc. That stack is three buckets deep.

Here are the 'open' buckets, with these awesome 'Gamma Seal' lids on them.

I have a few freeze-dried things in #10 cans, but not a ton, because we don't really like the stuff. Tip: don't store what you won't eat.

Deep Freezer:

We generally buy our grass-fed meat and pastured poultry in bulk: a few chickens, a side of beef, a whole hog or lamb, etc., at a time. We need to find a new supplier this year. In years past, I have also blanched and frozen excess garden or CSA greens and squash for winter use. This year, I hope to expand to putting up frozen fruit.

Garden: I've got a post in the works about this year's garden; but for now, here are our seedlings. I started the tomatoes and herbs a few weeks ago. The cucurbits, planted last week, are just starting to sprout. I'm trying to rig up my light above them, because it's supposed to be cloudy all week.

In addition to the electric wheat grinder, I have a food dehydrator, a hand grain grinder, a sprouting kit, and a large thermos (passive heat for grain cooking and yogurt making). I didn't photograph them, but we also have two 55-gallon drums filled with water and a siphon to go with them. I also love that we have a creek running behind the house; I have a lot of water purification tablets, if need be.

Books: Could I write a post like this without mentioning the books I own on the subject? Doubtful. All these are incredibly useful; they are, clockwise from upper left: Keeping Food Fresh, Eating Off the Grid, Nourishing Traditions, Cooking with the Sun, The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book (buy it used; it's the best whole grain bread book ever, but it's now out of print), and (the book with the best title of all time) Apocalypse Chow. If we lost power for days or simply couldn't pay the propane and electric bill, I'd still have a plethora of options for food preparation.

While we're on the topic of books about food, let me put in a plug for Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. It will certainly make my Top Ten Books Read list this year. It is a clear-eyed look at modern America's unhealthy relationship with "edible food-like substances," and proposes simple solutions not only to what Pollan terms "orthorexia" (an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating), but also to our rapidly expanding waistlines, our continent-wide health crisis, and global environmental issues. LDS readers: this book dovetails beautifully with a certain Section 89 (except for a couple of paragraphs on red wine).

We have ample food here at the Perkins Homestead, and plenty of cheer and song to go with it. Stop by any time!

Author: Luisa Perkins
•8:44 AM
This post is intended to be part of Soap Opera Sunday, Brillig and Kate's ongoing series celebrating the melodrama in ordinary lives. I'm not sure whether anyone else is playing this week, but that's okay. I'm used to dancing with myself. Names in the following story have been changed; I don't need operatives from a Middle Eastern nation-state hunting me down. But all the other details are absolutely true.I met Dara in choir our junior year of high school in the early spring of 1982. Sitting next to each other in the alto section, we must have been a study in contrasts: me, busty with extremely short, bleached hair and wearing concert T-shirts and torn Levi's; her, tall, slim, and unfailingly elegant in the latest European fashions. All the girls in choir wanted to be Dara's friend, but English was her distant third language after Arabic and French, and this proved to be quite a barrier when she first arrived.

I had an edge; I'd studied French since third grade, and while far from fluent, didn't mind hacking that beautiful language to bits in the struggle to understand and be understood. It turned out that my year-long course of study and competition in Debate ("Oil Conflicts and Solutions in the Arabian Peninsula") also served me well; no other girl I knew could name all of the United Arab Emirates, for example.

Dara was from Beirut; she had come to California to live with her older brother and her sister-in-law when the Lebanese Civil War escalated in early 1982. She was justifiably heartbroken and terrified about what was going on in her country, and the fact that I could actually find Lebanon on a map made her feel like someone in America sympathized.

The first time I slept over at her house, I asked her what her father did; she replied that he was a minister. I remember thinking, "No wonder she's so strict about her prayers--her father is an imam." I nodded and smiled politely, and we moved onto other topics.

But not many days afterward, when we were in Taco Bell (of all places), a middle-aged woman saw Dara and immediately fell down at her feet, hugging her ankles and moaning. It was the only time I ever saw Dara flustered. She bent down and hissed Arabic into the woman's ear; the woman immediately jumped to her feet and, bowing repeatedly, backed out of the restaurant and fled.

Dara recovered her composure, but once we got back to her house, I asked her what had just happened. She sighed, pulled a big box out of her closet, and gestured for me to open it. Inside were piles of different Arabic magazines with Dara on the covers. "You're a model? That's so cool!" I exclaimed in French. She shook her head, sighed again, and started to explain.

Though Dara was hesitant at first, the details soon came rushing out; I think she was relieved to share her many secrets with someone. It turned out her father wasn't a minister; he was a Minister with a capital 'M,' a member of the Lebanese Presidential Cabinet. Dara's family was an ancient and royal one; she wrote out her very long and exalted title for me in Arabic and in English on a piece of binder paper (I still have it); it included phrases like 'Serene Grace' and 'Princess of Mekka,' and even the ball-point ink on the college-lined surface looked regal.

She had been engaged since birth to the Crown Prince of one of those little countries I'd studied; once she turned 18 and graduated from high school the next year, preparations for their royal wedding would begin. And the final bomb she dropped that afternoon? Her best friend Stephanie, with whom she had had several long and involved telephone conversations in lightning-fast French in my presence, was none other than Princess Stéphanie of Monaco.

I'd been hanging out with a real princess. The Hans Christian Andersen, Grimm, Perrault, and Andrew Lang I'd been reading all my life were scant preparation for this; I was stunned. Dara made me swear not to treat her any differently and not to tell anyone at school. She was enjoying a relatively normal life--minimal and unobtrusive bodyguards, no paparazzi--and she planned to savor it for the next year or so. I agreed, and life went on.

Dara's English improved rapidly as the end of the school year approached. She started spending time with Melanie, another girl from choir. In May, Dara's parents moved to our town (and just in time, too; in June, Israel invaded Lebanon and laid siege to Beirut). Dara's brother had bought and furnished a house for them in preparation for their arrival, and it happened to be next door to Melanie's in an exclusive subdivision on the other side of town from my house.

I didn't mind Melanie, but she actively disliked me, so the three of us didn't do much together that summer. This was fine; I had my weekly Dungeons & Dragons group and a boyfriend whose parents had cable, making near-24-hour worship of the newly minted MTV possible. It never occurred to me that Melanie might try to sabotage me when I was otherwise engaged.

Staying over at Dara's was always a treat. A beautiful swimming pool surrounded by lush flowering shrubs graced the back yard. Gorgeous Persian rugs and paintings covered nearly every surface of the interior. The exotic foods her mother prepared were delicious: flatbread with labneh; shish taouk; and my favorite, lahmadjoun, a pizza-like disk of dough spread with minced, spiced lamb, tomatoes, and onions.

The cold water that came out of their refrigerator dispenser was somehow scented/flavored with roses. And Dara's bed was a marvel: the king-sized waterbed (remember, it was 1982) had a featherbed between the mattress and the Egyptian cotton sheets and was topped with a lofty, silk-covered down comforter. It was the most insanely luxurious thing I'd ever encountered.

Then there was her car. Dara would have preferred something sportier, but her brother maintained that a big American sedan was much safer for her to drive. Consequently, the vehicle in which we cruised around town, blasting cassettes of Dara's beloved Bernard Sauvat, was a huge, swanky boat of a Cadillac.

Even with all these perqs, I loved Dara for herself. I couldn't get enough of her stories of a life so wholly other. She was kind, funny, and interested in more than what went on in the confines of our small Central Valley town. I enjoyed her company, and I think she valued mine. I always listened when she lamented over the latest bombing of her home city. I tried to comfort her when she confessed her worries about the eventuality of marrying someone so much older than she was. She cried in my arms that horrible week in September, when Princess Grace died and Bachir Gemayel was assassinated on the same day.

All this bonding made what happened in November that much less comprehensible to me....

To be continued next week, in fine SOS tradition!

Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:11 AM
If you're new to Fascista Friday, please read the caveats and disclaimers here.

It's a reality that language is a changing and evolving entity. Verbs become nouns, nouns become verbs, and slang transforms from shibboleth to common usage in the blink of a generational eye. Those fluent in modern English don't speak, write or think using the same language the translators of the King James Bible or the framers of the Constitution did, even though it seems that way some of the time. I can accept this, for the most part.

Today's subject is a crusade doomed from the start; I stand as but a feeble stem in the tsunami-level tide on this one. Why bring it up for the Fascista's sophomore week? Maybe because it's my most cherished usage peeve, or maybe just to prove to the world how very quixotic I am. If I were Catholic, I would take the matter to Saint Jude, the patron of lost causes. I'm not, though, so I guess I'm on my own.

My topic today is the usage of 'home' and 'house.' Traditionally, 'house' described a particular type of physical structure, whereas 'home' meant the place where you live and feel you belong.

Here's how Robert Frost famously defined 'home,' from his 1915 poem "The Death of the Hired Man."

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

But this strict and precise definition of 'home' started to change in the 1950s. After World War II, when America invented the Suburban Dream, a profession rose up out of obscurity into great prominence. I refer, of course, to the vast army of real estate agents now entrenched permanently throughout the global village. These humble soldiers, given the task of marketing properties to a prosperous public, redefined 'home,' with far-reaching results. Here's what usage guru Kenneth Wilson writes [bold emphasis mine; italics his]:
Realtors have turned home into a euphemism: no realtors worth their salt will sell houses, only warm, emotion-filled homes....Nor is this the only euphemistic entanglement the highly charged word home has been involved in: the terms convalescent home, retirement home, and nursing home are in such universal use that the more explicit, informative asylum, convalescent hospital, retirement center, or nursing hospital are no longer current. Much tugging and hauling is ill-concealed in this double use of the word: We wanted to keep mother at home, but the doctor said she’d be better off in a home.
--Kenneth G. Wilson (1923–). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1993.

Modern dictionaries are now bowing to the weight of nearly universal usage of 'home' in this way, though stalwarts like the OED persist in more traditional (though somewhat slippery) meanings such as "the physical dwelling-place of a family."

Redefining and using 'home' for purposes of commerce has cheapened the term. I hear nearly everywhere phrases like "a home's energy use" or "that old Victorian home on the hill" or 'his home value went up with the pool installation" or "buying a home in Montclair" or "sold their home for less than what they paid for it."

Just as money can't buy you love, money can't buy a home. In all cases in the preceding paragraph, 'home' is used incorrectly; 'house' would have been proper usage. It may seem extreme to you, but I believe that using 'home' to refer to a physical structure rather than a place of the heart (or at least, habit) shows our culture's unhealthy focus on material objects as substitutes for the things that really matter in life.

Here are some examples of 'home' used appropriately:
She returned home after a grueling semester at college.

They made their first home in Ames, Iowa. [They didn't buy or build the physical structure; they settled in and made the house their home. Got it?]

He filled our home with laughter and chaos.
And finally, a bit of doggerel that may prove a useful mnemonic for those willing to join my crusade: “A house is made of walls and beams; a home is built with love and dreams.”

Some of you are now muttering, "Lighten up, Francis." I bow to your wishes and offer you a lighthearted, but topical, bit o' fun:

Author: Luisa Perkins
•6:24 AM

This post is brought to you by the hellebores and muscari in my yard.

Today is Earth Day. I'm not going to preach to you, since half of you are in the 'choir,' and the other half don't care to be. Instead I'm going to give you some practical (and hopefully non-controversial) ways, big and small, that you can commemorate this world holiday. I'm sure that even the busiest among us can fit one of these into our schedules in the next several hours.

1. Clean up a local public area with your family. Members of our church did this on Saturday; many families, including ours, went out with safety vests and garbage bags and picked up hundreds of pounds of trash along a popular bike path near the chapel.

2. Buy reusable grocery bags and keep them in your car so that you remember to use them.

3. Figure out your local walkshed and enjoy using it instead of driving at least once a week. Thinking about moving? Figure out your potential new neighborhood's Walk Score. Our neighborhood is only average, getting 52 points out of 100. (Our old neighborhood in Manhattan scores a whopping 98.) That said, nearly everything I need on a weekly, nonexceptional basis--namely, the grocery store and the library--is within a half mile of home.

4. Buy and eat locally grown food. Find out where the nearest farmer's market is. Join a CSA. Patronize producers of grass-fed Real Milk. You'll make new connections in your community, and your taste buds, your waistline, and your local farmers will all thank you.

5. Read the fantastic book Food, Not Lawns, by H.C. Flores. Then plant a garden, even if it's just a couple of tomato plants in a bucket on your patio.

6. Read Michael Pollan's essay "Why Bother" from last week's New York Times Magazine.

7. Check out the funny, informative, and inspiring blog of Colin Beavan, a.k.a. No Impact Man. Colin is Walking the Walk, my friends; it's pretty great to witness.

8. Subscribe to Grist, the free online environmental news and commentary site.

9. Don't just recycle it; take steps to reduce the junk coming into your mailbox. Pay $1 to the DMA's Mail Preference Service to get off undesirable mailing lists. The Big Three credit bureaus have an opt-out function for the deluge of credit card applications many of us receive on a daily basis. Join Green Dimes! This service is terrific.

10. Just say 'no' to more stuff. Set at least a 24-hour 'time-out' period in which you consider whether you really need that new (fill in the blank). Use your library more. Share yard tools with your neighbors. Downsize your wardrobe and donate your excess to a responsible charity. To quote Emme, a prominent simple lifestyle blogger, "Living simply does not have to mean sacrifice or hardship. It means focusing on the things that are important to us and in our lives." Amen, sister.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•5:28 PM

I'm not much of a television connoisseur, so it may not mean much for me to say (again) that I consider Firefly to be the best television show ever made. Why do I love it so? Because Joss Whedon put so much time and care into creating his world and characters. (The fact that he is a genius writer of dialogue doesn't hurt.) The series views like a great novel; for every line of dialogue and for every set, I get the sense that there is a ton of fascinating backstory underneath. Get the tragically cancelled series on DVD; you won't be sorry.

Why is it that speculative fiction is so much more accessible in movie or TV format than in print? I know many, many people who have never cracked open a volume of Tolkien or Philip K. Dick, but who love the movie adaptations of these greats' works.

It's probably because movies and TV are just more accessible in general. I wonder, for example, what the ratio of viewers of James Bond films to readers of Ian Fleming's novels is; I'm betting it's quite unbalanced.

Just because I feel like it today, here are some lists of stuff I like. Not all of the movies below are adapted from novels or short stories, but most are. I haven't ranked them because the rankings would probably change from day to day depending on my mood.

My Top Ten Science Fiction Movies:

Blade Runner
The Matrix
Galaxy Quest
The Lathe of Heaven (1980)
Star Wars (1977)
The Incredibles
Donnie Darko
I Am Legend (2007)

My Top Ten Fantasy Movies:

The Lord of the Rings (I'm counting all three parts as one. Because I can.)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The Princess Bride
The Wizard of Oz
It's a Wonderful Life
Groundhog Day
Fanny & Alexander
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Spirited Away

Five Spec Fic TV Shows I Love (Other Than Firefly):

Star Trek (Original Series)
The Prisoner (Freaktastically brilliant 1960s paranoia)
The Wild, Wild West (Steampunk before there was steampunk)
(Not watching this season since it's on at 10pm now, but I'll catch up.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
(Really, Joss: if I were a pagan, I'd worship you.)

At some point, we'll borrow The X-Files DVDs from the library and watch them all. We could never make the commitment to give the series our full attention when it was on the air. Ditto for the new Battlestar Galactica and Lost.

Ten Spec Fic Books I Think Would Make Fantastic Movies:

Ender's Game,
by Orson Scott Card
by Orson Scott Card
by Neil Gaiman
Life of Pi,
by Yann Martel
The 13th Reality,
by James Dashner
by Brandon Sanderson
Mister Monday,
by Garth Nix
Under My Roof,
by Nick Mamatis
Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Ten Spec Fic Books I Adore, But Fear Would Not Translate Well into Film:

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
by Toni Morrison (I know they already made it into a movie; I have been afraid to see it.)
The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman (I saw part of the BBC series and cringed.)
The Otherland series, by Tad Williams
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton
Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin
Was, by Geoff Ryman
Little, Big, by John Crowley

What about you? Are you a viewer but not a reader of science fiction and fantasy? What do you think accounts for different tastes in different media? Give me your thoughts.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•12:01 AM

I heart grammar.

Here's why. The object of prose writing--novels, essays, short stories, blog posts--is communication and expression. To communicate clearly, prose should only be a vehicle; it should never draw attention to itself (poetry is another story). If it does, it distracts the reader, and its effectiveness to communicate the underlying idea is diluted. If I'm reading fiction, for example, the minute I focus on the words, I've fallen out of the story. Not good.

In order to have the most transparent and effective communication, a writer should pay attention to infrastructure: spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage. Otherwise the writer runs the risk of losing her audience.

Let's say I want to brush up on current politics. I drop in on a popular blogger to get her view on the latest GOP scandal. As I read, I encounter spelling errors and usage of the word 'lay' when the writer clearly meant 'lie.' Since I can't trust her knowledge of the rules of her chosen medium, I find I also can't trust the opinion she is attempting to convey.

I'm not a licensed grammarian (nor do I play one on TV, more's the pity). However, my daily dealings with the general public lead me to believe that I know more--or, at least, care more--about spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage than does the average bear.

The reference books on my desk are probably another clue:

In case you can't read the spines, the books pictured are (from left to right):

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary;
The American Heritage Dictionary;
Words into Type;
The Chicago Manual of Style;
The Modern Rhyming Dictionary;
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations;
The Little, Brown Handbook of Grammar;
Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus;
Strunk & White's The Elements of Style; and
20,001 Names for Baby (I use it for naming characters).

Not pictured but often consulted is Fowler's Modern English Usage; I keep that one by my bed.

I'm afraid I'm not kidding.

I'm trying something new here at Novembrance for the next few Fridays: I'm going to write a piece each week on a little-understood, much-abused rule of grammar or usage. I might toss in some punctuation or spelling advice just for spice. I'll try to keep the posts brief and entertaining, and we'll see how it goes.

Disclaimer 1: Since I heart grammar, it's possible that you and I have different ideas of what constitutes entertainment.

Disclaimer 2: I sometimes break the rules. In fact, I've broken several rules of formal written English already in this post. Usually I do it consciously for various creative reasons, but sometimes things slip by me. I'm not setting myself up as any sort of infallible authority, even though one of Patrick's pet names for me is "The Grammar Fascista."

Disclaimer 3: The rules of written English differ slightly depending on the field in which one is writing. For example, the rules of the Modern Language Association (MLA) govern the world of academia, while the Chicago Manual of Style and Words Into Type are large and in charge in the world of mainstream publishing. The latter arena will be my focus here. I haven't written a term paper in years, so when you need the nitpicky details of academese and its particular shibboleths, ask someone else.

Now that we have all that out of the way, here's a little snippet of usage goodness to kick things off.

The word 'unique' means "being the only one of its kind...without equal or equivalent; unparalleled."

In other words, 'unique' is an incomparable; either something is unique, or it isn't. If you don't believe me, go ask Stephen King. 'Unique' should never be modified with adverbs such as 'very,' 'more,' or 'so.' (Fowler says 'unique' can tolerate a very few adverbs, 'almost,' 'nearly,' and 'perhaps' being the best examples. But Fowler was a pro; my advice to you is to err on the side of caution and don't modify it at all.)

Bad usage: "Her hairstyle is totally unique."

Good usage: "Her hairstyle is unique," or "Her hairstyle is very unusual."

There you have it. Tune in next Friday for another installment from the Fascista (but I'll be around here plenty in the meantime, so don't be a stranger).

Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:00 AM
(I'm the short one.)

Author: Luisa Perkins
•5:54 AM
(Tombstone image borrowed from the yet-living John Scalzi)

The wondrously fine Bea and the ever-scrumptious Adriana both tagged me a while ago for the Six-Word Epitaph/Autobiography/Memoir Meme that's been floating around Planet Blog for a some time, and I've been trying and failing to define myself cleverly but succinctly ever since.

Here are some great examples of successful memery crafted by bloggers with bigger brains than I have: Bea of Bub and Pie (scroll down a bit); Veronica Mitchell of Toddled Dredge; and Adriana of What I Made for Dinner.

(If any of you other readers have done this meme, and I missed it somehow, leave me a link in your comment. I'd love to see what you've done with this.)

Anything I concocted sounded a lot like Adriana's or Veronica's, but not as good. Finally, I decided to borrow inimitable words from my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here's what I would have carved on my tombstone (right after all the clear and accurate vital information courteously provided for genealogists of the future):

Kingfishers catch fire; dragonflies draw flame.

Someone wandering around the cemetery and happening upon these words might wonder about their context. Here's the whole poem:

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

What I do is me: for that I came.

I love to write, read, visit with my dear friends, and play with my kids. I enjoy cooking, gardening, knitting, and family history work. I swoon over fabulous restaurants, great art and music, and my husband. I could define myself by any of these daily actions, and much of the time, I probably do. But ultimately, I hope that my life will be defined by my faith and how it comes into play in my every decision.

Here are two links to more words not my own that powerfully express how I feel about my faith: the audio file and transcript of the last public words of Bruce R. McConkie, an LDS church leader who died in 1985.

Elder McConkie died just two weeks after giving this gorgeous and moving address; I do not doubt that the statements of the final few paragraphs proved true. (Warning: if you are not up for something Deeply Christian, don't bother.)
Author: Luisa Perkins
•7:33 AM

Mondays can be rough, especially when your Sundays are as busy as ours are. Patrick had a very early and important meeting scheduled for this morning in the City, so we worked out a plan last night whereby I would get up at 5:40 and drive Christian to Seminary, and Patrick would take the 6:57 train into Manhattan. (Patrick usually takes Christian while I get the other kids up and make breakfast and lunches.)

Ah, the best-laid plans. Christian and I got home from Seminary at 7:00 and were rushing to get lunches made with James's help when Patrick walked back into the house. A state trooper had pulled him over and given him a speeding ticket, causing him to miss that crucial train. Now, Patrick can always admit it when he is in the wrong, so when he tells me that he wasn't, in fact, speeding this time, I totally believe him. He came home to check the schedule and see whether he could catch another train down in Croton that would get him to that meeting on time (he couldn't), then left again under a bit of a dark cloud, poor thing.

Daniel complained about breakfast. "We had this sixteen years ago," he cried in dismay, then got really mad and threw a fit when I started laughing uncontrollably (Daniel is three). I am now wearing sackcloth and ashes as I repent of mortally injuring his pride.

I'm tired, tired, tired, after hosting a bridal shower Friday night (dinner at our house for 25); working like mad Saturday on our donated gift baskets for the auction at the Youth Camp Fundraiser Saturday night; and teaching a tough doctrinal topic in Relief Society (the Church's women's organization) yesterday. But today is Needlework Group, so I've got to rally, clean up the usual weekend detritus, and make some treats for when the ladies get here at 10:00. There's no rest to be had today, unfortunately.

(Ladies, I love you and look forward to your terrific company, and I know deep down that you would never judge me for having unswept floors, an overflowing hamper, and no baked goods to offer. Still, I must forgo a nap and prepare for your arrival.)

But bright spots can get me through even the crummiest of Monday mornings. I got an email this morning from a long-lost friend with whom I've recently reconnected. He found my blog a few months ago, and it's been fun to renew our relationship after 20+ years. This morning he sent me a link to a video of "That's Entertainment," by The Jam, a song he first heard when we were driving in his Volkswagen Scirocco from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. (I had been a fan of the band already for several years; I've just always been hip that way.)

The Jam elevated the savoring of bitterness to high pop art; "That's Entertainment" is a great example of lead singer/songwriter Paul Weller's genius in the medium. Though the words are about life in a small, downtrodden English town, for me they will always evoke the memory of driving up Highway One, windows down and Doritos bag and Big Gulp wedged next to the emergency brake, me singing full-throated to the accompaniment of a poor-quality cassette mix tape with a good buddy at my side. And today the song reminds me that, after all, I've got it pretty darn good.

For more Music Monday, please visit its creative originator, Soccer Mom in Denial!
Author: Luisa Perkins
•6:00 AM
One of the great things about blogging is meeting people from all over the globe whose interests are similar to one's own. I've been delighted, for example, to get to know several writers who are having wonderful things happen in their careers. Reading about their experiences has been both inspiring and educational for me, and many of them have graciously given me feedback on my own work. Writing can be somewhat isolating at times, so what a blessing it is to find and connect with other people doing the same thing.

J. Scott Savage
recently signed a contract with Shadow Mountain for a YA fantasy series called Farworld. The first book, Farworld--Water, comes out September 5th. To help promote it, Scott is launching a virtual book tour via Planet Blog, with nice prizes (read: free advance copies of the book!) for participants. Go here to read more about it and get involved!

James Dashner is enjoying breakout success with his middle-grade fantasy novel The 13th Reality: The Journal of Curious Letters. It's well deserved, too; James sent me an ARC of the book several months ago, and the three older kids and I all loved it. In fact, The 13th Reality is our James's favorite book at the moment. Yesterday James (Dashner) featured a new and exciting marketing tool for his book on his terrific blog; I just had to share it, because I think it's super cool--a trailer for a book--who knew?

The production company for the trailer, Reel Line, has a fun 10-minute interview with James on its website (but James does give away a few plot points in it, so if you are spoiler-averse, don't go watch it until you've read the book).

Congratulations, guys! People like you who 'pay it forward' deserve every bit of success you garner.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•8:26 AM
I've mentioned before the superpower with which pregnancy curses me: an ultra-bionic sense of smell. Some of you thought this sounded cool when I did so; I assure you, it is not.

It is not cool to know exactly what is in the kitchen garbage can at any given moment.

It is not cool to be able to determine with precision what the person behind you in the supermarket line had for breakfast.

It is not cool to be able to tell from six feet away whether or not your kids have brushed their teeth yet this morning.

It is not cool to be awakened by the smell of old fish as the cat gives herself a midnight bath at the foot of the bed.

I feel assaulted.

In the very cool movie The Matrix, an artificial construct named Agent Smith (played by the fabulous Hugo Weaving) characterizes the human plane of existence thusly:

I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it.
I know; he's a bit extreme. But I can identify, I really can.

Fine ladies in medieval times carried around scented handkerchiefs, pomanders, or ripe fruit to ward off the pervasive scents of the vast unwashed all around them. There's even an heirloom melon called "Queen Anne's Pocket," grown only for its rich, powerful fragrance (its taste is utterly bland; the vast majority of its volatile compounds are found in its skin, not its flesh).

Do you think anyone would notice if I wore a clove-studded orange around my neck on a ribbon for the next nine weeks?
Author: Luisa Perkins
•7:15 AM
From Teh Wikipedia:
A ruminant is any artiodactyl mammal that digests its food in two steps, first by eating the raw material and regurgitating a semi-digested form known as cud from within their first stomach, known as the rumen. The process of again chewing the cud to break down the plant matter and stimulate digestion is called ruminating. Ruminants include cattle, goats, sheep, camels, alpacas, llamas, giraffes, American Bison, European bison, yaks, water buffalo, deer, wildebeest and antelope. The suborder Ruminantia includes all those except the camels and llamas, which are Tylopoda. Ruminants also share another anatomical feature in that they all have an even number of toes.
I, my friends, am a ruminant. Not literally (though I do have an even number of toes); what I mean to say is that the process of story creation is for me a ruminative process.

I realized this yesterday. Poor Patrick was trying to have a phone conversation with me, and I kept dropping the dang ball and staring off into space. I had been thinking about an idea for a new story when the phone rang, and it was so intriguing that I couldn't keep my brain trained on the here-and-now. Chewing that tasty cud, chewing, chewing...what, honey? Did you say something?

There's a great scene in one of my favorite movies of all time, Blade Runner, in which Detective Deckard is using a computer scanner to examine a photograph for clues. It's a pretty crummy snapshot, but because Deckard takes the time to focus on different parts of the image, then enlarge and enhance those sections for clarity, he finds a crucial clue that allows him to solve the mystery before him. I realize that this technology is now used all the time as a plot device on TV shows like CSI, but believe me, back in the day (that would be 1982), this scene was unutterably cool. (It still is, in fact. Let's go pop it in the DVD player, shall we?)

Most of my story ideas come from dreams. The kernels of both novels I'm shopping around town, The Holly Place and ZF-360, were crazy, vivid nightmares, the details of which I wrote down in my Idea Journal as soon as possible after waking up. I'm the only person I know who enjoys having nightmares, by the way; all I can think about in the morning is whether the dream is a viable story idea or not.

In my experience, it usually is. Yesterday I wanted to start something new, so I went back through my Idea Journal and found a dream fragment from several years ago. The mystery and wonder of the original image grabbed me all over again, but it was only the most hazy of concepts. I methodically worked on the material--focus, enhance; focus, enhance--until details started making themselves known to me.

To work the cud, I have to get myself into an obsessive, almost trance-like state. That's when the process really starts to Flow. Of course, that's also when laundry, appointments, and family members run the risk of being ignored, because in the Flow, Time itself seems to stop and dilate. It doesn't, of course; it just seems that way, which can cause problems. Another problem is that the Flow is so delicious that it's hard to leave it behind and return to reality. It's the best drug ever.

I tell non-writers that writing is even more transporting than reading. Think of a novel that swept you away so thoroughly that you didn't hear the phone ring, didn't realize you were hungry or thirsty or exhausted, and when it ended you either wanted to cry or to start it all over again, because you loved being in that world that much. That's how writing is for me; that's why I do it.

And that is why I wrote almost not at all for the first twelve years of my mothering career. I didn't want to resent my kids for distracting me, so I gave up the cud--went pretty much cold turkey off that Flow crack--until I felt I could handle a more mature balance. Am I handling it now? I think so, but 20 years from now, my kids may tell their therapists an entirely different tale.

Now let me get back to my new story. It's called "The Summer Room," and I'm totally in love with it. Let's hope some editor feels the same way.