creepy, crawly and beautiful

Around here, nothing quite signals the beginning of fall like the increase in the number of orb-weaving spiders. It begins with one or two building their wheel shaped webs spanning great expanses between branches or leaves.orb-weaving spider

The next thing you know there are 5, 6 or more getting to work nightly building massive and incredibly sturdy webs. They start popping up all over the neighborhood.

orb spider web

There is nothing like accidentally walking through the remnants of one of these spider’s strong, sticky webs to turn me into a giant whirligig, madly brushing at my clothes. These spiders are persistent. Every night they construct and in the morning can be found seemingly floating in mid-air in the center of their web.

orb-weaving spiderYet, they are skittish too. Often, as I approach one it will scurry away from the center and hide.

orb-weaving spiderUpon the occasion of an unsuspecting bug becoming trapped in the web, the spiders will spring into action to immobilize their prey.

orb-weaving spider

As much as the sight of spiders makes my skin crawl, I can’t help but find these creatures fascinating and admire the beautiful webs they create; using a telephoto lens at 300mm from a bit of a distance, of course.

orb- weaving spider webAnd, I am thankful I have never found one inside. I like to think of them as nature’s Halloween decorations.

If you are in the Los Angeles area and would like to see all types of amazing spiders and their webs, the Natural History Museum has recently opened the spider pavilion. It’s a creepy, crawly good time!

We welcome fall and all the season brings!


The Weekend Dish

Living under the flight path of a small, local airport, we have our share of interesting plane moments. The most awesome and thundering is when a touring B-17 makes its’ annual appearance. Those four propeller engines sure get our attention!

B-17 bomberBut nothing compares to this once in a lifetime opportunity to capture the space shuttle on the back of a 747 for its last time in flight and as it lands at LAX where it will be prepared for its’ journey to its’ new home, the California Science Center. I spent this morning looking skyward with a few hundred people on the bluff in Santa Monica waiting to spot the piggyback spectacle as it toured over the Santa Monica Bay and pier.

space shuttle and 747 in flight over Santa Monica pierI caught it again as it circled around. It was a thrilling sight and I am glad I got to experience it.

space shuttle and 747 in flight

Another photo opportunity of the aviation variety takes place on Saturday September 22 at 3:30 in the LA Harbor. Three World War II era planes will fly over the USS Iowa, a WWII battleship and the SS Lane Victory, a WWII merchant vessel, for more details click here. To photograph these planes I recommend at least a 200mm lens. If it’s a sunny day set your ISO to 100 or 200 and your shutter speed to at least 250, it can be higher, to freeze the action and then adjust the aperture for a proper exposure according to your meter.

vintage airplanes in flightIf you would like to make this weekend an all airplane themed one, you may enjoy a performance at the TreePeople’s Coldwater Canyon Park. Their Once Upon a Canyon Night performance program is staging a “free-wheeling re-imagination of the first table-reading of the original screenplay of the classic comedy movie!” Airplane!

vintage airplanes in flightOff we go into the wild blue yonder.

~ Sue

A sailor walks into a bar…

Four hundred and ninety three years ago today (ish) Ferdinand Magellan began his expedition to circumnavigate the globe in search of a western spice trade route between Europe and Asia.

Photo Credit: Public Domain Clip Art

I say “ish” because some sources, like The History Channel, name today as the anniversary but others, notably the Hakluyt Society which publishes “primary records of voyages, travels and other geographical material” offer a different story in The First Voyage Round the Worldfrom a Genoese pilot “who came in the said ship, who wrote all the voyage as it is here.”

According to this sailor’s first-hand account “HE [Magellan] sailed from Seville on the 10th day of August of the said year [1519], and remained at the bar until the 21st day of September, and as soon as he got outside, he steered to the southwest to make the island of Tenerife.”

A sailor walks out of a bar.

I can’t help but think how much writing is like heading into uncharted waters with nothing but a notion.  Sometimes I pursue the end with the diligence of a royal lackey and other times I allow the trade winds of exploration to blow me a bit off course.  When I teach writing, this fluidity between convention and discovery unsettles the students, especially as they try to find their own way, their own voice, to leave their distinct mark in a literary history book.

“Is it good?”
“Should I give up?”
“Do you see any talent in my work?”

I wish students relied less on my coronation and more on the process.

Do you love your journey?
Does your writing reflect your best effort?
Do you trust your boat?

Cinque Terra, Italy. Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

I wonder if Magellan would have stayed home if he knew he wouldn’t live long enough to receive a hero’s welcome back in Spain. Somehow I doubt it.  If you need fortitude for your literary journey here, to help realign your compass, are two reading recommendations.

If traditional short fiction is your thing, you can’t do any better than getting a subscription to One Story, $21 per year.  From the website:

One Story is a non-profit literary magazine that features one great short story mailed to subscribers every three weeks. Our mission is to save the short story by publishing in a friendly format that allows readers to experience each story as a stand-alone work of art and a simple form of entertainment. One Story is designed to fit into your purse or pocket, and into your life.

If you’re done with tradition and want to experience literature curated to jolt you out of linear, conventional thought, mosey over to Diagram, “a free electronic journal of text and art.  Sure, you can read the fiction and the book reviews there, but the real fun begins when you venture into the schematics link.

from Diagram

From the “Submission Guidelines” page:

WE VALUE the insides of things, vivisection, urgency, risk, elegance, flamboyance, work that moves us, language that does something new, or does something old–well. We like iteration and reiteration. Ruins and ghosts. Mechanical, moving parts, balloons, and frenzy. Buzz us

Here’s wishing you enough squalls to appreciate the peace, enough uncertainty to hone your own beliefs, and plenty of salt spray upon your cheeks.

With delight in discovery,

A New Perspective

With the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from Kindergarten Cop urging, “get down!” in my head, I ventured out this week, my mission: to concentrate on photographing from a different angle. The Redondo Beach pier as my muse I began and caught this couple as I approached. I crouched down and click. . .

Redondo Beach Pierlet the fun begin. Simple things can take on a new perspective when addressed from a different angle. Items look larger and have more presence when photographed from down low.

coin operated binocularsLooking up,

Zeppy's pizzeria sign

and making a point to step to the side as opposed to approaching from straight on Old Tony's sign, Redondo Beach

can add interest to a photo.

I slowly became aware of many pelicans out and about.

CA brown pelican

Ca brown pelican

Suddenly, there is a commotion of flapping wings and pelicans running to one area.

pelicanspelicansA fisherman’s catch is fair game to the pelicans.

pelicanspelican with fishThere were pelicans trying to steal the fish from each other as well as getting tangled and caught up in the fishing line and lures. All the while, I was sitting on my heels clicking away.

PelicansAfter suffering a couple of bites trying to retrieve his catch and even though disappointed at his loss, the fisherman worried about the pelicans welfare and freed the snagged birds. After the commotion died down, it became apparent there were two more stuck together by a hook.

pelicans hooked together with fish hookLuckily, with the help of a bystander, they were freed.

pelicans being freedWhen one looks at something from a different angle it can change one’s perception and add interest.

I urge you to use Arnold’s “get down” line as your mantra this week, and you can experience a new perspective yourself.

Have fun with it.

~ Sue

The Weekend Dish

If the number of festivals dedicated to books, authors, and all things literary are any indication, fall begins feast time in the written word world.

In Washington, D.C. you can attend the Library of Congress National Book Festival Sept. 22-23. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are honorary chairs for the event.  In addition to more than 100 authors, you’ll find a Pavilion of the States which honors the literary traditions of each state and territory. It’s free.

In Lexington, you can catch food writer and memoirist Ruth Reichl, novelist Karen Joy Fowler, poet Kim Addonizio, and dozens more at the  Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference, from Sept. 21-22.

Lit Crawl, “Where Literature Hits The Streets” takes over Manhattan this weekend, details here, and from the description on the website, I’d have to say this sounds like the most fun of all:

Lit Crawl was created by San Francisco’s Litquake literary festival back in 2004, and the idea was simple: let’s transform an ordinary bar crawl into a mob scene of literary mayhem. Could we take over a neighborhood, or two, add pop-up events to every venue that might allow it (bars, cafes, bookstores, theaters, galleries, clothing boutiques, furniture showrooms, parking lots, Laundromats, bee-keeping supply shops), invite dozens of authors to read from their work, and watch hundreds of literati tromp the route and get drunk on words — all for free?  Not only was the concept wildly popular, we’ve had to expand it every year. San Francisco’s closing night Lit Crawl now attracts over 6,000 people, and is the world’s largest such event. In 2008 Lit Crawl NYC launched in Manhattan, also an immediate hit. Austin was next, swarming for the first time in 2011. And in 2012, we birthed two more Lit Crawls, one in Brooklyn, another in Seattle. For 2013 we are already in discussion to debut Lit Crawls in Los Angeles and Iowa City. Take literature to the streets!

Litquake in San Francisco runs from Oct. 5-13; Lit Crawl Seattle is Oct. 18; and Lit Crawl Austin on Oct. 27.

Lastly, the Big Orange Book Festival debuts in Orange, CA, next weekend Sept. 21-22.   Here you’ll find this Backyard Sister reading a mash-up and resurrection of poetry lines taken from dirtcakes, that beautiful literary magazine I edit.  The result will likely surprise both of us.

So, if you’ve never been to a book festival, what should you expect?

1) Go with an open mind.  Check out the authors who will be reading and pick out a name you’ve never heard before. Sit in on a short reading.  Experiment by listening to an unfamiliar genre.  Ask questions like, “Usually I read X, but you’ve gotten me intrigued with Y, do you have any suggestions of which authors, besides you of course, I might read to familiarize myself with the genre?”  After the reading, stand in line and introduce yourself. Tell the author one thing you’ve taken away from the experience.  Trust me, this little bit of gratitude will make both your days.

2) Talk to the authors standing in booths where books are sold.  Truly there’s nothing worse than standing in front of a booth or a room dedicated to a reading and having no one acknowledge your presence.  So say “hi.”  Ask, “What’s new in your writing world? Which writers inspire you?” “If I could only purchase one of these books, which one would you recommend and why?”

3) Set a reasonable budget and buy at least one book or literary magazine. When you’ve finished reading, donate it to your local library with a little note inside explaining that you purchased it from a book festival.  Encourage the reader who finds the note to attend the festival the following year.  Maybe you’ll meet up with this stranger. Maybe you’ll talk. Maybe you’ll discover a new book pen pal, or something more.

4) Shyness, or not wanting to admit you’re unfamiliar with a writer you encounter, is perfectly fine.  In fact, it will make me feel so much better about the time when I looked up all the children’s book writers living in Orange County and sent each a letter asking if anyone wanted to begin a writing group.  I received my first response from Theodore Taylor.  Imagine my chagrin when I read his terse response chastising me for having the audacity to send such a letter to the author of The Cay who most definitely did not have any interest in joining an upstart writing group. And, he added, I should learn the finest practitioners of my genre before I ventured into it.  At least he took the time to write.

Let us know if you make to a literary festival this fall.  You can even send us a picture.  And if you’re anywhere near the Big Orange Book Festival, please stop by and say hello. I’ll be reading during the “10 at the Top” Series.

Happy Book Jubilating.

Friends of the Backyard Sisters

I was a new and nervous reporter, my first minute on the job at the Orange County Register, still trying to figure out office etiquette when working in a long row of cubicles so small and close together and with walls low enough that I could see the stubble on the back of the neck of the reporter in front of me.  Just as I silently sat down, that neck swiveled to reveal a smiling face.

“Hey. I’m Marty.  Welcome. It’s good to have you here.  If you have any questions or need anything, let me know. ”

Long after we left the Register, Marty and I remained writing friends and, huge caveat here, fans of each other’s work.  I invited my writer friend to stop by the backyard to tell you about his new nonfiction book, “The Wild Duck Chase.” It’s about the obscure Federal Duck Stamp Program and the strange and wonderful world of competitive duck painting.  Weird? You betcha. It’s a highly entertaining book that’s a perfect fit for our outdoorsy, michikusacentric focus here at the Backyard Sisters. Best of all, it invites a reader to tackle stereotypes.

Welcome, Marty. It’s good to have you here.

Photo Credit: Jason Wallis

Just back from a fly-fishing trip to the Bighorn River in Montana, and was struck again (as I was while writing “The Wild Duck Chase”) by the depth of knowledge that dedicated outdoorsmen and -women have about the natural world. Robert Bealle, the 2009 Federal Duck Stamp Artist, was able to tell the specific stretch of the Potomac River where the duck he’d shot had been feeding, because of the unusual type of freshwater clams he found in the duck’s craw. One of our fishing guides on the Bighorn put a tube down the throat of a brown trout I’d landed and suctioned out the contents of its stomach to see which type of flies and worms it had been feeding on that morning (so he could choose the proper fly for my next cast). Another guide noticed a nasty wound on another fish I’d landed and deduced that the little fella had a recent brush with a spike-beaked blue heron. Still another spent at least 10 minutes trying to revive a lethargic but still-living brown trout by washing water through its gills. Now, I’m not a hunter, and not much of a fisherman. But after two years of research on the book and my accumulated experiences among hunters and fishermen, I no longer have much patience with those who dismiss them as exploiters of wildlife. They are, for the most part, mindful custodians of a world the rest of us appreciate primarily in theory.

Montana’s Finest

Marty, (that’s Martin J. Smith to you) will discuss his new book and sign copies at the
Big Orange Book Book Festival in Orange, California at 1 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21. If you’re not interested in what many consider the single greatest conservation initiative in human history, or the quirky annual art contest at its center, or a cast of characters that includes a guy who keeps 15 dead birds in his Sears Kenmore freezer, then perhaps you’ll be tempted to attend by knowing that Marty will reveal the name of the artist who managed to paint an entire passage of incredibly filthy porn movie dialogue into his entry, which was then soberly displayed by oblivious federal officials who take this stuff VERY seriously.

Marty will also be reading at Barnes & Noble in Huntington Beach, 9/18 at 7 p.m.; Book Soup in West Hollywood, 9/19 at 7 p.m.; The Book Frog in Rolling Hills Estates, 9/22, time TBA.  If you happen to be in Ogden Utah on 9/28, Marty will speak and sign books in the Weber State library at 3 p.m. right after the first round of judging for this year’s Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

Still not sure?  Read a witty review of The Wild Duck Chase here.

In addition to telling you about a great book, and a kind writing friend, I leave you with one more lasting bit of Backyard Sisters wisdom.  Writers who are supportive of other writers (and editors) sure make the world a kinder gentler place.  Have you given a shout-out to a writer you admire today?

With high regard,

Ebb and Flow

There is a rhythm to the shore. This rhythm is the result of the constant ebb and flow of the tide as well as the waves. This morning I took a stroll paying particular attention to the tempo of the waves and how it effects the people, birds and items at the point where the water meets the sand.
I wandered over to explore the tide pools, a wave came in. . .

tidepools, wave

And the wave went out leaving seaweed draped over many of the rocks.


I decided to zoom and bring the seaweed closer; then another wave came in.

beach photo, seaweed

And went out. . .

Beach, tidepools, seaweed

Turning to the shoreline, a wave was retreating leaving relative calm.

beach, shorelineThen zooming once again as another wave rolls in. Leaving the bird seemingly unfazed but the fisherman in hip deep water suddenly.

beach shoreline
Some seaweed and shells were left on the sand from a ride on a wave.


I zoomed again.

seaweedThe evidence of another stroller. . .

footprints in sand

is quickly erased.

footprints getting washed awaySurfers and swimmers will often pause at the shore waiting for the waves to recede to make their entrance into the water.

shoreline surfersBirds also take advantage of the ebb of the waves to hunt for sand crabs.

shoreline surfers and birdsThe rhythm of the sea is predictable in its occurrence but the effects on the surroundings can vary from day to day. Sometimes an abundance of seaweed comes ashore and sometimes a large number of seashells. There is always  something to discover at the shore.

Many happy discoveries to you.


The Weekend Dish-Peaches and Cream Italiano

“The Beautiful Month of September is here!”, our grandmother would exclaim in a sing-song voice on the first day of September. She had an affinity for September, it being her birthday month, also mine and my younger sister’s.  We have carried on the tradition and call each other to wish a Happy Beautiful Month of September on the first as well. September also is a time of changes and new beginnings. For school folk it marks the beginning of a new year. It is the time when the weather starts becoming a little cooler and the leaves begin to change colors. With a nod to a trend I see developing, lists of five things one can do, either in a week or a day, I am compiling my own list of five things to do this weekend to celebrate the beautiful month and what it brings.

1. Take some time to think about the things you are grateful for. They can be very simple: ice cream on a hot afternoon, the nudge of your dog’s nose against your leg in an attempt to elicit a pat from you, or greater: the love of your spouse or significant other, your health. If you want some inspiration check out photographer/film-maker Hailey Bartholomew’s gratitude project titled365 Grateful. She shares her tale of how finding and taking a picture of something she was grateful for every day for a year changed her life.

2. Go for a walk with an eye out for signs of the changing seasons; the different flowers which are beginning to bloom, perhaps the presence of new wildlife making a fall appearance in your area or the thinning crowds at the beach.

3. Tackle a project you have been putting off all summer; that closet that needs cleaning, the stack of paperwork which has been pushed aside too many times.

4. Launch a creative endeavor; begin a painting or drawing , a photography project, or writing the first page of your novel, a poem or even a letter. To read some fascinating letters written by notable authors ( actors, authors, politicians) visit the letters of note website.

5. Use the last of the season’s peaches to make this deliciously simple dessert.

Peaches and Cream Italiano

3 peaches, peeled, pitted and halved
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup marsala wine
Dissolve the sugar in the water and marsala and let the peaches macerate in the liquid for approximately one hour.
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
2/3 cup whipped cream ( made by whipping: 1 cup cream, 2 Tbsp powdered sugar and 1/2 tsp vanilla until thickened)
Mix together cheese and whipping cream and splash of marsala wine and set aside until ready to use.
Dark chocolate for grating

Heat skillet over medium high heat and place peaches cut side down . Cook until beginning to brown and slightly caramelized. Place one half peach in a bowl with cut side up. Fill space where pit was with the whipped cream/cheese mixture and grate the chocolate over the top. Serve immediately. Serves 6

If you like the idea of lists of 5 things to do, and would like to be inspired every day, then you may want to see what David has compiled at

Have a great weekend easing into the changing rhythms of September, the Backyard Sisters’ way.


What do you call it?

“Do you know Pablo Neruda?”

My friend asks this after dinner on a Thursday evening of no occasion except that she, her husband, J, and I  felt a hunger to dine al fresco in the middle of the week before summer withers.  We’re old vines, the four of our lives entwined by years of shared joys and sorrows.

Her question surprises me; she’s not a writer, nor a particularly avid poetry reader.

But it’s been the kind of day that has offered odd moments.

The first bit arrives this morning while I walk down a pocked country road, Chester padding quietly by my side. The sound of an engine climbs the hill behind us, initially at a roar, then it slows to almost idling.

I hear the sound veer to the side of the road we’re on which means it’s now facing  oncoming traffic, if there were any. The rumble paces us , accelerates, and a white truck appears.


A middle aged man with a white cap pulled low presses a giant brown Milk-Bone dog biscuit into my hand. His truck is that close.

“Rod’s Pool and Spa Service.” I remember this in case I need to give a description.

The man thrusts his cell phone into my face.

“These are my dogs. I used to have big ones, but now I can only take care of the little kind.” A picture of several small brown dogs stares back at me.

“Your dog sure makes me smile. Thanks for that.”

I wonder at this biscuit, clumsily slip it into my pocket. I wonder at myself for running the mental bases:

Don’t talk to strangers
Don’t take things from strangers
Don’t eat things that strangers give you.

The man’s hand waves slowly out the driver’s window as Rod’s Pool and Spa Service wheezes off.

At home, the bone sits on my desk.  I can’t decide the bigger crime: throwing away a gift, or potentially poisoning my dog.  You see the cliff edges I walk.

That would have been enough for one day. But then it’s three in the afternoon and I’m walking alone with Chester down my own street. No other walkers are about on this bright afternoon.

I hear the sound of a diesel engine straining up the hill behind me.  I move out of the way.   The driver of a large water delivery truck pulls his vehicle into the wrong lane; he idles next me.


This young man with a deep tan hands me a bottle of water.

“That’s a great dog.  I used to raise Labs. I had a red one and a black one and they’re great dogs. He, yeah, that’s a he, yeah, he might get thirsty. Give him this water from me. Hi puppy. You’re a good fella. You made my day!”

The water deliveryman idles and oggles Chester until a white Honda pulls up behind and honks because the road is narrow and the truck straddles both lanes.  With a belching boom of a horn and a jaunty wave, the water delivery truck rolls on down the hill.

I set both items on the floor so I can photograph the evidence. Trust comes so hard for me.

I almost wait for a third encounter.  This has never ever happened before.  I wonder if it’s a creepy kind of day.  I’m a writer after all, and I know about things like foreshadowing and the literary Rule of Three that makes stories like “The Three Bears” a model for how to pace your plot or test your characters in a structure readers intuitively expect. Things happen in threes.

But I don’t want to be late for the dinner where I’m now retelling the story I’ve dubbed Strang(er) Thursday.

“Do you know Pablo Neruda?”

My friend asks this when I finish with the water man story and laugh all this off like it’s every day that a cast of weird strangers arrives to set me on guard.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m a huge Neruda fan. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. And then of course The Sea and The Bells and The Book of Questions. Why?”

My friend slides a piece of paper across the table.  “I found this in a magazine and it reminded me of you.”

“Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.”

It’s an excerpt from “Your Laughter.” This friend has had a very difficult summer, the kind that is impossible to fix so the only thing to do is eat under the stars sometimes and tell funny stories.

“I love your laugh,” she says.


I look up; think I haven’t heard her correctly. Clanking dishes, mostly spoons clatter against saucers and forks scrape hot fudge off plates at this hour when the candles are almost burned to the end.

“You have a great laugh. It makes me so happy. I treasure you.”

Oh, I think, and I burst out laughing, even though I’m now quite self-conscious about it,  but I  can’t help it because the Rule of Three is real in the universe, and therefore by extension literature, and this is Three Gift Thursday.  Nothing strange about it after all.

We return home and I feed Chester the biscuit. We sleep as if the universe rocks our cradle gently, gently.

With treasures and laughter,

I lost my fear of heights on the Eiffel Tower

A commercial I saw recently featuring a little girl who dreams of flying prompted a memory of my own dreams of flying as a little girl. Since I haven’t yet acquired either the skills or ability to fly, I have found, in my opinion, the next best thing – aside from flying in an airplane – searching out the tallest structures or mountains and ascending them to take in the world from up high.

Paris is especially fun to experience from a vantage point far above the city. One obvious choice for this is the Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

This required my putting aside my feeling of skittishness when looking down from great heights. I share a kindred spirit with a young girl I overheard as I was descending the Eiffel Tower. She declared, “I lost my fear of heights on the Eiffel Tower!”

It is hard to be nervous while gazing at such a captivating view. Cars and people are so tiny, almost toy-like.

Paris, France

When one travels a few hundred feet up, an orderliness to a city becomes apparent.

Paris, France from Eiffel Tower

Paris, FranceParis, France

Often, the tall structures are evident from great distances and invite, almost taunt, me to visit.

Toronto skyline

Toronto Skyline

The views can be magnificent, even at night.

View from CN Tower, Toronto

View from CN Tower, Toronto

The CN Tower in Toronto has an outside observation deck which is lit up at night with changing colored lights creating an interesting hue to photos taken through the lights.The view from above also allows one to see things which can’t be seen from ground level, like the maple leaf on the rooftop.

Toronto city lights

View from CN Tower, Toronto

A funicular ride to the top of Monte Igueldo in San Sebastian, Spain made this view possible.

San Sebastian, Spain from Monte Igueldo
Here’s to seeing things from a different perspective and the joy of beauty trumping any fears holding you back.

May we all, “lose our fear of heights on the Eiffel Tower!”

And maybe I will learn to fly someday, baby steps.

~ Sue