Introducing the New Family Members


We finally got to bring home our newest family members yesterday, so it’s time for formal introductions.

If you didn’t know already, we had to return Tallulah to the shelter – you can read about that here – and now there’s another cat in town.

Aloysius, né Avery

Nicknames so far: Wishes, Monster Floof


This one was purring and wanting tummy rubs about 20 seconds after being released from his cage, and was eagerly exploring the whole house a few hours after he arrived. He’s the social bug, and will likely serve as the official welcoming committee of the house from now on.

He’s a big boy; he weighs only 13 pounds but looks heavier. His paws even look like he needs to grow into them, but he’s around two years old, so I think this is as big as he’ll get. We’ve no idea if he’s part Maine Coon or Norwegian Forest Cat, but of course he appears to be part something-gigantic. The pointy tufts of fur at the tips of his ears contribute to that, too.

He purrs constantly, follows us everywhere, is very talkative, and slept most of the night at the foot of the bed. Both cats like having their tummies rubbed, which is a huge bonus. I didn’t dislike the name Avery, but I’ve wanted to name a critter Aloysius ever since I read “Brideshead Revisited,” and I finally got my chance.

And yes, I have just ordered a Furminator brush to deal with all that floof.

Miss Tallulah Belle, née Paris

Nicknames so far: Lula Belle, Pigeon
Note: Tallulah is Paris again and is available for adoption at Animal Aid! Are you her forever family?

Miss Tallulah Belle

This one is a small but high-density cat with a round barrel-like belly (she’s supposed to go on a diet soon). She’s a dark brownish tabby with a white bib, white socks, and a thin white stripe down the middle of her nose. I think she’s much cuter in person than in photographs.

She loves being petted more than anything else the world, especially the cheek scratches, and she chirps a little when she purrs like a quail or pigeon. She’s the shy one, mostly content to stay in her hidey-holes in the bedroom (her “safe” room for now), though she’s perfectly affectionate when she comes out to us.

I think she’ll be a super lovey cat, she just needs a little more adjustment time. Apparently it took her about a month to go beyond her safe spot in the shelter, so I’m pleased she’s already purring with us after not even 24 hours. They think she’s around three years old.

As much as I love the city of Paris, I couldn’t handle leaving her with that name. It just reminded me too much of Paris from “Gilmore Girls.” Plus, she seems like such a sweet and proper Southern lady, I figure her new name suits her.

creative commons photo by Matthias Ripp

Building My Own Fire

creative commons photo by Matthias Ripp

creative commons photo by Matthias Ripp

When I was a young professional, just a few years out of college, I checked into what seemed at the time an impossibly swanky lodge during a work trip. We each had our own cabins (mine was larger than my basement apartment at the time), complete with a fireplace. A real fireplace.

I was 26, and I had never built a fire.

After two failed attempts, using up all the kindling supplied, I flagged down a passing worker who started a fire for me. I’m sure he got a good laugh out of that, though I’m guessing he isn’t still thinking of that evening nearly two decades later.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

In 2013, I began a long process of pivoting from the direction in which I had been going for years – of shifting the earth around me so I could really move.

I was 41, and I had never built a fire.

I had been living in a shiny new house with a gas fireplace, lit with the flick of a switch. I had settled into a life that, at one time, suited me partly because it coddled me. I don’t know when exactly I stopped needing the coddling, but by the time I noticed it was too late. There was nothing for it but to move.

In 2015, I began the process of settling into a new life – one with a 100-year-old house that has no insulation, a dirt-floor basement, and fragile plumbing and wiring that both could use updates.

And a real fireplace.

I am 43, and I can now build fires.

I begin with the easy stuff, the paper, and work my way up to the hard stuff, coaxing little wisps of flame on the edges of newsprint into the crackles and pops that tell me it’s going to take. I crouch in front of the stove’s open mouth, blowing steady streams of oxygen to resuscitate flagging coals when I’ve neglected them for too long. I pull on work gloves and haul wood in the rusted wheelbarrow from the shed out back to restock the wood pile on the porch.

I can keep my fires burning all day long, until the gorgeous coals glow with a bright orange light that shifts and moves like the fire itself.

Like me.

I am 43, and I have built my own fire.

The haul from my inaugural PDX Food Swap.

Things I Learned from My First #PDXFoodSwap

The haul from my inaugural PDX Food Swap.

The haul from my inaugural PDX Food Swap.

Just a few years ago, I was what I would call a foodie, but I actively avoided cooking. I lived with someone who loved to cook, and I was so deep in the middle of a depression that I wasn’t motivated to “play” in the kitchen. Today? Not only do I really enjoy cooking, I’m now inspired to expand my preserving repertoire.

This latest twist is thanks in large part to two things – an extremely productive garden (including the neighbor’s ignored fruit trees) and attending my first PDX Food Swap.

First, a bit of background on the food swap thing, since I got a lot of “huh?” on Facebook when I mentioned it.

I heard about the PDX Food Swap group from my friend Bethany, one of the co-founders. Participants register in advance and bring their homemade goodies to the swap, ready to trade with other swappers. It’s conducted sort of like a silent auction – you set out your stuff, then make the rounds seeing what everyone else has brought (sampling where people have thoughtfully allowed for this), and write your name (and what you’re offering to trade) on their swap sheets. After a period of time, you review the offers you’ve gotten on your own swap sheets, make any trades you’d like based on the list, and – if you’ve got leftover goods – circulate again to make any other trades you can.

After this summer’s bumper crop of figs, I made a huge batch of fig freezer jam and this extraordinary (and extraordinarily simple) fig coulis that’s a terrific sauce for poultry or pork. I signed up for the September food swap, designed some cutesy labels, and even clipped fig leaves to bring to the swap as part of the presentation.

I thought I would be styling.

The room was super crowded, I’m not even sure I got to see everything on offer during the time allotted, and then when I got back to my station to review my offers I had received only one. That was disappointing, to say the least, and the most disappointing part was that the sole offer was for the fig jam, not the fabulous fig coulis.

In the end, by carrying containers of fig coulis around the room (with some help from L, the 9-year-old) and explaining how wonderful it is, we managed to find enthusiastic new owners for every container of coulis we brought. We still ended up coming home with a lot of our own jam, however.

I want to be clear that I’m not in any way complaining. We traded for a great assortment of stuff, including two kinds of homemade butter and a coconut miso caramel sauce that is – I kid you not – one of the most interesting things I’ve tasted in ages. I also came away inspired and motivated to be ready for the next swap with something that might just mean my station is the crowded one.

With that in mind – and yeah, I admit there’s a little bit of my competitive side coming through – here are some of my takeaways from my first food swap.

4 Things I Learned from My First #PDXFoodSwap

1. Jam isn’t (necessarily) gonna cut it.

Jam is basically entry-level food swapping, as it turns out. Since I didn’t cook much of anything a few years ago, the fact that I made a whopping huge batch of simple fig jam makes me proud – but it’s nothing compared to the homemade brie that had people salivating at the food swap.

Not all jams are created equally, however, so if you’re going to bring jams or jellies, you’d best make sure they are either made of something that’s nigh unto impossible to get around here or they’ve got a flavor twist that’s inventive and interesting. Case in point? We came home with a jar of fig absinthe jam that I’m in love with.

2. The name on the recipe might not be the name to stick with.

So, about that fig coulis. What the hell is coulis, anyway? A nondescript container of murky beige, umm, something with a fig on the label and a vague note that it’s good on chicken – this is not enough, I found out.

When we first started picking the neighbor’s figs last summer, I hunted for every interesting-looking fig recipe I could find on the internet, and the fig coulis was the biggest hit. It’s stupidly simple – figs, EVOO, and balsamic vinegar (salt and pepper added to taste), and it’s now our favorite thing to eat with chicken. Another swapper had made a fruit-based sauce to go with red meat, and the label for that said “Burger & Steak Sauce,” with a helpful image of a hamburger. If I ever bring the fig coulis again, I’m going to need a more descriptive name for it. And, perhaps, samples.

(Because, seriously, it’s so good, you guys.)

3. Marketing is key.

As I said, we were able to trade all the fig coulis at the end, but it wasn’t because of my cute fig leaf presentation or my good penmanship on my swap cards. It was because we walked up to other swappers and, extolling the virtues of the coulis, asked whether they wanted to trade some for one of their goodies.

When we were packing up, two of the organizers came over separately to say they really liked how we were doing active marketing. I hadn’t thought of it as marketing at the time, honestly, I was just eager to go home with fewer of our things and more of everyone else’s, but I suppose marketing is a good term for it.

And it turns out that although marketing might be key (especially if you don’t have the hot item of the night), it’s actually pretty challenging to do when you’re out sampling everyone else’s stuff and not at your own station to tell people what the hell coulis is while they’re standing right in front of you. Which brings me to…

4. Next time, I’mma make my own swap sheets.

Organizers send out a PDF of the swap sheets in case people want to fill them out in advance, which – naturally – I did (hello, firstborn over here). But, as I mentioned, since I wasn’t standing right there to answer questions or “sell” the idea of the coulis, it didn’t generate any interest on its own. I had to do that one-on-one after the initial session was over.

And that’s why, next time, I’m going to make my own swap sheets. Assuming I’ve got the time, that is, I’ll scan the official sheets and incorporate them into a one-pager about my goodies, so that I can still be there (sort of) to “sell” my stuff at the same time that I’m out seeing other stations and leaving my name on other people’s sheets.

Crazy over-preparation? Maybe. But I think it will let me focus on seeing and sampling everything else without constantly feeling like I need to check on my list or hover over anyone looking at my station.

The Plotting Begins

No sooner had we walked out the door of the swap than we were already brainstorming what to bring to the next one in early December.

Maybe the boyfriend will get enough deer or even an elk this fall, and we’ll have game jerky. Maybe I’ll use some of his grandmother’s canned fruits to make my mother’s curried fruit recipe, always a favorite at the holidays. L is even excited about making her own contributions next time, so she can get whatever she wants (i.e. she’ll be the first in line for that big pound cake she was denied this time).

All in all, I’m calling it a success. And I’m really looking forward to the next one.

Bourbon Curious by Fred Minnick

Bourbon Curious: A Book Review


I am a voracious reader, and I happen to adore brown likker. So when I got an email some months ago asking whether I’d like to be sent a review copy of a book about bourbon, I sent a pretty enthusiastic yes in reply. Here’s my review of that book.

Bourbon Curious by Fred MinnickI was a very late bloomer when it comes to drinking. I’ve never much cared for beer, didn’t start drinking wine until I was 26, and barely dipped my toe in the syrupy cocktail end of the pool by the age of 30. I don’t even recall the path that got me from there to the place I am now – a 43-year-old who likes what my mother calls “boozy” drinks.

Not only do I like boozy drinks, I especially love the alchemy that happens in a cocktail glass and the stories behind historic drinks. I suppose it’s not surprising, then, that I really enjoyed most of Fred Minnick’s book, Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker, which is part history book and part tasting guide.

The first part of the book breaks down what’s known about the history of bourbon – turns out the origin stories are a little murky – and puts some of the best known legends around certain brands to the test. (Spoiler: most don’t stand up to even the faintest degree of scrutiny.) Bourbon producers not only stretch the truth (which is putting it mildly in some cases), they’re pretty eager to hide the truth sometimes. Bourbon has survived – and thrived – in part thanks to some pretty shady dealings with things like slavery, prostitution, bootlegging, and snake oil salesmen. Not surprising at all, then, that distilleries make up their own origin stories.

There’s some really interesting myth-busting going on in this book – enough that a more combative person than I am might actually hope for that ill-informed blowhard at the bar to start in on how it can’t be called “bourbon” if it’s not made in Kentucky. (Spoiler: yes, it can.) Me, I’m satisfied just learning the history without needing to incite a riot at the bar.

After all the backstory, though, the most handy (to me) part of the book comes next. Minnick breaks bourbon down into four flavor profiles – grain, nutmeg, caramel, and cinnamon. Most bourbon will have a few (if not all) of those flavors present, but Minnick categorizes several popular bourbons by which flavor is most “forward.” I thought this was particularly useful, especially if you’re looking to pair bourbon or a bourbon cocktail with food, or if you’re looking for the right bourbon for a certain cocktail.

The last third (give or take) of the book was the part I could personally have done without. It’s a series of Minnick’s detailed tasting notes from a variety of bourbons, including space for your own tasting notes should you sample the same bottles included in the book. I once tried to keep a diary of wine tastings, but lost interest so quickly I think I didn’t get past the first page. I’m not a tasting notes girl. If you’re someone who keeps such notes, then this section might be just your cup of tea. Me? Not so much. I skimmed it.

Overall, I found Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker to be an informative, interesting, and quick read. I’ll be keeping it on my cookbook/barbook shelf for future reference in that middle third of the book that I thought was the most useful section. Honestly, I would love that section as a standalone bar reference book or – maybe – a smartphone app. The latter would be even more useful than the book, as it could include many more bourbons than are listed. There you go, Fred, that’s my contribution to your post-book to-do list. You’re welcome.

Did you know September is National Bourbon Heritage Month?

More information:

creative commons photo by William W. Ward

Dear Guy Who Called Out to Me During My Morning Walk

creative commons photo by William W. Ward

creative commons photo by William W. Ward

Dear Guy Who Called Out to Me During My Morning Walk:

I know you meant it as a compliment. I know you were trying to be nice, to be neighborly, to make conversation. I applaud that, in this country of driving right into garages and rarely acknowledging the people who live around us. I appreciate the smile, too, the friendly way you waved so I would know to take out my headphones and be able to hear what you said. Once, a guy at the bus stop thought I was being a bitch because I didn’t reply to him, but he never saw my headphones. So, I like the gesture. Really, I do.

But no, I do not go for walks to “make America more beautiful.”

I walk so I can eat whatever the hell I want without feeling guilty. I walk so I can enjoy a cocktail or two, or the occasional beer, without even thinking that beverages, too, have calories. I walk so I can still fit into my damned pants and only go shopping for new clothes because I feel like buying something new and not because I’ve outgrown my old jeans. I walk so I might live well into my 80s, a feat my father certainly didn’t accomplish.

Do I want to feel pretty? Sure. I’m human. Hell, I’m human female, and I live in America. I’ve been brainwashed from the age of consciousness. I get it. But I am not window dressing. I am not scenery.

I am out for my morning walk, face unwashed, hair greasy, sports bra sweat-stained. I am not focused on beauty. I am simply focused.

And I laughed it off, not replying, because – again – I’ve been brainwashed into thinking I should actually say thank you to such a bizarre comment, and while I won’t say thank you I also can’t quite bring myself to confront the well-meaning guy in his front yard at 7:30 on a Monday morning who was just trying to call out to a neighbor and (in his misguided way) offer a word of praise.

I may, however, choose a different walking route from now on.

43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire

No Birthday Surprise Required


A few years ago, I wrote some birthday resolutions just before I turned 40. I was, I realize now, extremely unhappy in a lot of ways, though at the time I just figured that was my lot in life. As I stared down the gauntlet of 41, I was reflecting on a mostly terrible year, completely unaware that 41 would bring both the most difficult thing I had ever done and, subsequently, the beginning of a new lease on life.

In short, looking back over my birthday blog posts over the last few years, I simultaneously feel that I should have seen shit coming before it hit the proverbial fan (I did write about it awhile ago, after all), and also that I am so relieved to have something other than sadness on which to reflect on my birthday.

And so, at the risk of jinxing it, a review of the past year on this, my 43rd birthday.

43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire

43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire


I need to start here because it feels as if everything good in my world now stems from the fact that I am, for the first time in longer than I can remember, happy – genuinely, truly happy. I had many, many happy moments over the years, don’t get me wrong – but this, this is different. This is unadulterated, optimistic-about-life, excited-to-make-plans-for-the-future happiness on a completely new level for me.

When I was at my lowest point a few years ago, I wrote about my therapist giving me a depression test on my first visit (I never ended up publishing the post, as it seemed too depressing – oh, the irony – but I still have the draft). I was off-the-charts depressed – I scored 29 on a scale of 36, indicating “severe” depression – and she immediately prescribed anti-depressants. That medication, plus therapy, allowed me to see through the fog long enough to realize there was something less foggy beyond it. I had no idea what it might be, but the fact that there was anything beyond the clouds was a revelation at the time.

In 2013, I finally had the courage to make the hardest decision I’ve ever made and ended my marriage. I leapt without knowing where the ground was, or whether I’d land on my feet. Today I can report that I did land on my feet, and the ground wasn’t as far out of sight as it seemed.

2014 wasn’t perfect – I’m still dealing with some lingering back issues, which migrated down one leg and became knee issues that required physical therapy; my thyroid regulation got out of whack, reminding me just how terrible I felt in 1998 before I started on thyroid replacement; I gained and lost two separate clients in the space of a few months – but it was pretty close. Even the work I knew I had to do was welcome.

There are two leftover resolutions from my 2012 birthday blog post that I’d honestly forgotten about, but I think my reaction to them now is telling about where my head is in 2015. One was about the need to lose weight, and the other was about learning to love the way I look no matter how I look. I started a regular walking routine in 2012 or 2013, I can’t remember, and I did lose a little bit of weight. But, more importantly, I am much, much happier about what I see when I look in the mirror now – and that has nothing to do with weight loss. I firmly believe that being happy makes me look better – at least to myself (which, let’s face it, is the important part) – and feel better.

And this year? I’m already scheming on a few things that could make my world even rosier. I’m not only excited to make plans, I’m a little impatient for the future – which is weird when I’m no longer ten years old wishing I could hurry up and be sixteen, already. I do not actually wish time would speed up. I have enough gray hairs as it is. So, I will work to enjoy my happiness in these moments, and keep laying the path to even more happiness around the corner.


Let’s get one thing out in the open at the outset, especially if you’re not a freelance writer and think it is some sort of dream job: I am never, ever going to be a wealthy person in my line of work. There are still some months I struggle to pay all my bills. So when I say I’m having professional success, it’s all relative, I suppose. I am still able, most of the time, to pay my bills just from the money I make as a freelance writer – and to still have the flexibility to work on my own projects and to, well, live life the way I’d like to. And that last part is, the vast majority of the time, worth much more to me than wealth.

Sidebar over, back to the review.

Last year, I finally got my act together and launched my own Italy travel guide, Italy Explained, which had been sitting almost-done for way too long. I am often paralyzed by the fear that something I’m working on isn’t 100% perfect or done or whatever, which keeps me from actually finishing things. It’s dumb. And when it comes to anything on the web, that fear is exponentially more dumb, since I can fix anything or add stuff with a few clicks. (Typo? What typo?) So, yeah. I’m very glad to have that out in the world now, especially as it has caused something of a ripple effect:

  • I finally got over my aforementioned dumb fear and hit “publish” on my first ebook, Italy Explained: Italian Trains. I am not funding a lavish lifestyle with the sales yet, but people are buying it and liking it. I find that extremely gratifying, and I’m plotting the next book now.
  • I resurrected the monthly blogging group I’m in with a few other Italy bloggers, which gets me thinking outside my usual box once a month. Plus, I get to chat in our planning group with some truly kick-ass women. I adore them.
  • I felt motivated enough to say yes when my friend Sara wanted to get the Italy podcast I co-host, Eye on Italy, back up and running again after a more-than-three-year hiatus. We’ve only done two episodes so far, but it’s great fun to be collaborating again with one of the smartest people I know and to talk with fascinating folks about Italy.

I love having all this Italy-focus in my life again. I find that I spend hours working on Italy Explained and don’t realize hours have gone by. It is fun work. I’m not sure there’s anything better one could say about work, is there?

As for my client work – y’know, the stuff that actually pays my bills – I am feeling incredibly fortunate at the moment. I have one long-time client I adore – my editor is a dear friend, and I can’t tell you how much it means to have long-term satisfied clients who like what you do. I have, however, worried every now and then over the past couple years that all my work eggs were in one basket. I have worried, but I am lazy, and I did basically nothing to seek out new clients. I know. I scolded myself about this on a regular basis, and then continued to do nothing.

Well, new clients have come to me instead.

(I joked with friends last year that the universe is not teaching me very good lessons if it isn’t making me work for this stuff, but I’ll take it anyway.)

In truth, one new client came to me because the editor is yet another dear friend (lesson to aspiring freelance writers – have dear friends who become commissioning editors). That work is a new challenge for me; it’s unlike other writing I’ve done, which I think is a good thing. It’s keeping my writing skills sharper, that’s for sure.

Another new client – I just signed the contract, so I haven’t done any work for them yet – came on the referral of one of the aforementioned editor friends (see aforementioned lesson for aspiring freelance writers).

I cannot overstate how fortunate this makes me feel. Yes, I’ve laid the groundwork by being a reliable contractor for coming up on three years now. Yes, I’m benefitting from a solid reputation I built in the travel writing world starting in 2006. I get that this isn’t dumb luck, and I still feel very lucky.

And so, 43?

I have always loved my birthday. I honestly don’t care about getting older – I mean, I care about my knee giving me problems and the fact that it’s harder to get up out of a chair than it used to be, but I don’t care about my age as a number. I will happily tell you how old I am. Even on those birthdays when I was looking back on an unhappy year, I was still looking forward to a birthday that might – who knows? – turn everything around.

Of course, the birthdays didn’t turn anything around. They don’t have that power. I do have the power, though, and I am everso glad I exercised it. Because now I can say that not only am I looking back on a 42 that filled my heart and gave me so much joy, I am looking forward to a 43 even more because of what I can already see on the road ahead.

I will not rely on some birthday surprise to drop into my path and fix a trajectory I don’t like. I will embrace 42 because I made it what it was, and I will welcome 43 because I am in the process of creating what I want it to be.

Happy Birthday to me, indeed.