Cue the fog

trees in fog

There’s nothing like fog for creating a spooky atmosphere, and around here, just in time for Halloween, the morning and evening fog has “come on little cat feet” as Carl Sandburg poetically expressed it. Seeing everything through a misty filter gives me an eerie feeling. Perhaps it’s the ability to hide and become almost invisible the haze provides. Or, the trees turning into ghostly figures when shrouded in fog.

tree in fogWhichever it is I can’t shake a certain uneasiness while walking in the fog. Are those footsteps I hear? What was that movement up ahead? Where did that person, who was just there, go?

tree in fogSounds become amplified and ominous. I can often hear the clanging of buoys, moaning of fog horns and crashing of waves from my front yard, which is a couple of miles from the beach, in foggy weather.

trees in fogAt times, the fog can also elicit feelings of calm, coziness and quietude. Palm trees in fog

palm trees in fog

This day, however, I choose to get in the Halloween spirit and embrace the spookiness and eeriness of the fog.




The Weekend Dish

Write now!

National Novel Writing Month begins in exactly six days and you can get a jump start on outlining, prewriting, researching, and yes, writing your book-length project this weekend.

NaNoWriMo, as its known to those in the know, is an annual event billed on the website as “thirty days and nights of literary abandon” where the challenge is to complete 50,000 words within 30 days. You do the math, that’s a lot of writing.  But a perusal of the list of published NaNoWriMo authors includes titles put out by major houses and may include a few names and novels you’ve read like Sara Gruen and Like Water For Elephants.

The concept is pretty simple. You register on the website.  It’s free.

In return for your public declaration of intent, you receive cyber pep talks and support from NaNoWriMo staff and information about local writing groups and in-person events.

You buckle your seat belt to your writing chair. You write.

I’ve already started writing.

Why I Can’t Write 50,000 Words This November
Thirty people are coming for Thanksgiving dinner and I recently moved and I’m not finished unpacking yet and there’s no mirror in the downstairs bath (and no light either) so how can I host a holiday without also doing a little shopping for the house and the new backyard is still mud and the rainy season is imminent and how can I ignore that November is an ideal month to plant in California and did I mention I have no backyard, (seriously, it’s dirt, just dirt which turns into mud when it rains and you know I have Chester and he needs to go outside because that’s what dogs do) and the new issue of dirtcakes is due out so I’ve got writers to contact and contracts to send and design to oversee and the semester is winding down and I know my students paid for and expect to receive not only teaching but grading which means I’ve got dozens and dozens of papers to read and comment upon and did I tell you me daughter’s in-laws are coming to town and I’d be rude not to plan some time for them and surely I’ve mentioned that I’m also a writer which means that all those family things and foody things and editor things and house things and garden things and teaching things will have to somehow bow to this writing thing but I’m old now and I have to sleep so maybe I just won’t eat and I certainly won’t clean (although I should shower and do laundry so as not to offend those standing nearby) but of course I’ll cook the week of Thanksgiving because I really love all those 30 people who will show up on my front porch that day –

Ack! Stop the chatter and just write.

You’ll find inspiration some where. Mine arrived in my e-mail in-box earlier this year. With permission, I’m excerpting it here:

Hi Professor,
It’s Brian Ducoffe.  I was in your “Composing the Self” class last fall. I don’t know if you remember but I participated in National Novel Writing Month and finished. I ended up spending the next 9 months editing and revising it and the book is now published. I ended up going the self publishing route after a couple conversations with some literary agents just so I could have more control but am hoping I can pick up some attention and possibly make some publishing houses take notice. Anyway I just thought you’d like to check it out since I wrote it during your class! Thanks!

See, the cool thing is that Brian never once missed an assignment or asked for an extension he just kept showing up, doing his school thing while finishing Our Elephant Graveyard.
So here’s to you and here’s to me and here’s to a growing word count.
What are you waiting for?
See you on the bright side of November.
Full details of NaNoWri Mo can be found by clicking here.
With high expectations,

Time to dream

Dear One,

I see you standing there. I read your back and see the softened slump about your shoulders.

I hear your sigh that carries just above the shush of the Pacific, not quite a keen, but not a thing like laughter.  What is it you look for? Have you been waiting for so very long?

May I tell you something? Once I saw two boys barehanded fishing for tilapia in Kauai’s Hule’ia River. Frozen still in the shadows of the mangrove, they cupped their hands and waited.  Shhhh, they warned and I froze too, midstep on the hiking path.  All at once, like athletes on a pedestal, they raised their arms victoriously overhead and one wriggling fish flung droplets into the sky.

“Dinner!” they shrieked.

That night I dreamt I stood in the shallows of Hule’ia, hands submerged into murky water. I could not see clearly, unsure exactly what I was trying to catch.  I dreamt a cold plump softness nudging my open palms. One, two – too many sleek and slippery things to count – I grasped and missed, until at dawn I awoke empty-handed, staring blankly at the wall.

Is it like that now for you?

My friend wonders about her mounting “…sense of exhaustion and ambivalence…”

My students say, “This week is awful. It’s limp broccoli.”

It seems everyone around me is feeling…

when we would all so much rather be —

Here’s my Rx.  If you can, take a visit to your girlhood dreaming spot, or one that reminds you copiously of it. Gaze into the lantern of your inner fire. Catch the glow. Reflect the blaze.

Remember who you once were and what you said you would become.  It’s not too late. But hurry. You are waiting.  And so am I.
With vibrancy and gold,

p.s. If your spirits need a boost these days, stumble upon Dearest Creature by poet Amy Gerstler.  (You can read David Kirby’s New York Times review of it here.)

This is not a new book; it was published in 2009. But it’s a new discovery for me and I highly recommend any book that contains poems with titles like, “At the Back of a Closet, Two Dresses Converse” and “Chant of the Hallucinogenic Plants,” especially as an antidote if you’re in your blues period.  There’s no expiration date on golden poetry.

Never Just a Rose

In the words of Shakespeare, “. . . a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” and I say it would look as beautiful too. Roses, and other flowers as well, make wonderful photographic subjects. That’s just another reason, beside the usual, I enjoy the gift of fresh flowers.

sidelit roseUsing a window as a sidelight, creates an interesting play of shadows and highlights. In Photoshop, by adjusting the brightness/contrast levels the shadows and highlights become enhanced. I took the brightness down and added more contrast. Just for fun – my idea of fun anyway, I decided to try processing differently. This time a deep blue photo filter at 25% luminosity was added and the brightness turned up and contrast brought down,  creating a softer effect.sidelit roseOne of the great characteristics of flowers is the translucency of the petals and leaves. which makes using back lighting rewarding. 

Position yourself so that the flower is between you and your light source; in this instance the sun. This brings out the details in the petals and leaves. The tiny thorns on the stem became highlighted also. If you like, you can let a bit of the light source shine through for a different feel.

backlit rose

Sunflowers with their large showy flowers are another one of my favorites. Here, I wanted to see how a soft, out of focus background can be achieved with a zoom lens. The first photo was taken with a zoom lens set at 80mm with an f-stop of 4.0.

sunflowerThe background, especially those flowers closer to the sunflower, are fairly in focus. When zoomed out to 105mm and stepping in a little closer (the only changes).

sunflowerEverything in the background becomes velvety and out of focus, also known as a bokeh effect. This makes the subject stand out. Having the aperture open as wide as you can is another factor that helps create the bokeh effect. If you have a kit zoom lens and your aperture will only open as far as 4, or 5.6, zooming in will help achieve that bokeh effect.

According to Gertrude Stein,  “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Loveliness extreme. . . ”

I will keep trying to capture the beauty here in the backyard.

~ Sue

The Weekend Dish-Apple Butter

Apples It began years ago; so many I don’t know the exact number. Nana, Granddad, this backyard sister and her youngest backyard girl gathering on a day in the fall to make apple butter.

After the apples have been purchased and cleaned, and the peeler/corer/slicers and jars, have been dug out of storage, we are ready to get to work.

Those peeler/corer/slicers are nifty little gadgets and save a lot of time. When all peeled,cored and sliced the apples are placed on the stove to cook.

apples cooking on stove Once they are soft enough, everyone’s favorite part begins: whirring with the hand-held blender.

Sometimes it is a solitary task, and other times a helping hand is lent.

Or, a little moral support . . .

The spices are adjusted after the first taste test.

When it’s just right, it is placed in jars and the backyard girl gets a little treat.

The backyard girl, with her excellent penmanship, always gets the job of labeling.

The day yields some delicious apple butter to be shared and enjoyed for the next few weeks, and also a fantastic bonus for this backyard sister and her daughter of time well spent catching up, reminiscing, telling tales, laughing, listening to music and dancing. We are grateful Nana and Granddad are so generous with their time and kitchen skills (utensils too!) and I, for one, always come away with not only a treasure trove of jars filled with yummy apple butter but also the precious gems of new, fond memories made from the stories told and delights of watching granddaughter and grandparents sharing with each other. That just doesn’t happen every day; but it will tomorrow. Oh, and I also come away with lots of fun photos.

Here’s the recipe in case you would like to try it and see what develops . . .


Note: This recipe is adjustable for desired quantity and flavor. Any type of apple may be used. We choose a mix of tart and sweet. Canning jars are available at most supermarkets. They need only a thorough washing and drying before use in this refrigerated canning method.

We use two pans of eight quarts each.

16 lbs. apples, peeled and cored, divided equally in the pans.

5 lbs.  Granny Smith

5 lbs.  Fuji

6 lbs.  Honey Crisp

Into each pan mix in:

3 level Tbs. Cinnamon

¾ tsp. ground cloves

1 1/4 cups of sugar

1 1/4 cups of Simply Apple brand apple juice.

Simmer each pan on stove covered for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Taste as you go. Adjust spices to your taste. When apples become soft mash them with a potato masher, a wand mixer or whatever tool you have to smooth them to an apple butter consistency.

Yield: 14 large (16 oz.) jars.

Refrigerate after cooling.

~ Sue


lake with mountain reflectionThis week while reflecting on some past photos, the idea to explore reflections struck.
Reflections can be created by many different shiny surfaces.  Water, is a natural.

harbor, Gwynedd, Wales

Buildings can be reflective as well. In this instance, in Chicago, the reflection of the older intricate architecture in the sleek more modern building is a nice study in contrasts.

Chicago buildings reflected in side of building


The building at 333 W. Wacker in Chicago’s riverside facade is curved to mirror the shape of the bend in the river. The surface is highly reflective which showcases the river, surrounding buildings and sky.

Chicago skyline reflected in buildings


Glass, of course, is another reflective surface which can be used very creatively because you get a picture within a picture effect.

gorilla with child's reflectionThe children here are reflected in the glass of the gorilla’s enclosure.

A shiny counter top serves as an interesting reflective subject also.

tomatoes reflected in counter top  One of the funnest places I have found for reflective pictures is the Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the bean, in Chicago.

Chicago, the bean
The skyline and sky are reflected as are the many people enjoying their reflections and the city’s too.

chicago bean and sky

The shape of the bean can distort the images creating a fun house mirror effect. Go inside the structure and you will be treated to an abstract reflective delight.

inside the Chicago bean

This week I encourage you to look to the reflections presenting themselves in your daily life and maybe snap a photo of a few.


The Weekend Dish – Pumpkin Bread

Why is it that the smallest gestures become so rich when repeated as tradition?

I ponder this as I prepare for my annual fall pumpkin bread baking custom.  The recipe is splattered with egg stains, penned upon by an enthusiastic child baker, and smudged with speckles of pumpkin from years of sitting too close to the mixing bowl.

It was a first grade teacher, Mrs. Franklin, who began the tradition when one of the original Backyard Boys was in first grade.  Mrs. Franklin guided the class through a baking lesson.  We parents thought she was teaching counting, and adding whole numbers, introducing fractions, building reading vocabulary, and instilling patience.  But of course her instruction was far deeper than that.  Did she realize the impact of her pumpkin bread lesson?

That day in first grade, each child took home a small loaf as a gift to their families. The bread was so much better than any pumpkin bread we’d ever tried, and the joy on the boy’s face when he realized he could bake a gift was so gleeful, we began an annual fall tradition of baking and giving Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread.

We started close to home, that year, baking for sisters and cousins and grandparents.  The next year we branched out, sharing pumpkin bread with neighbors and friends.  The man next door who fought in the Korean War was touched. “I’ve never been remembered on Veteran’s Day before,” he said when we knocked on his front door and proffered the still-warm loaf.

Whenever we shared the bread, we always heard two things a few days later.

“That pumpkin bread was so good, we ate it all in one day!”
“Can I have the recipe?”

The Pumpkin Bread recipe began to take on a magical aura in our house as the never-fail-to-please item to take to new neighbors and friends, to potlucks and as hostess gifts to parties.  We loved to make it.

Knowing that Mrs. Franklin wouldn’t mind, we added on to the tradition by photocopying the recipe and including it with the bread.  The recipe wasn’t beautiful anymore but it bore its badge of frequent use with good humor.  Like love and wise lessons from first grade teachers, Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread was soon travelling far from its original source.

Lynn began a pumpkin bread-giving circle in Kansas City.
Mustafa took it to his family in St. Louis where it’s now a fall tradition in his home.
Bharti made it and sent it to her family in Mumbai.

As the cousins grew up and moved away to college they knew they could count on a Backyard Sister Fall Care Package that always included pumpkin bread nestled in tissue paper.  It arrived safely and fragrant from California to  Washington, D.C., and Boston, to Chicago, and Iowa City and Tucson, Arizona.

Mrs. Franklin’s Pumpkin Bread was even snuck into Pauley Pavilion in the interior pocket of a giant khaki raincoat as a fall treat for the UCLA Men’s Basketball team.  When the Backyard Boy left home to play basketball in Malaga, Spain, he received a care package in time to celebrate his first Thanksgiving in Europe with the taste of home.

Even though we’ve never actually met you, our loyal readers, I see no reason why we can’t share the recipe.  I’m absolutely positive that Mrs. Franklin would like that.  So, with love from her, and from the Backyard Sisters, here it is.

Bake it soon, with a child. And when you get a chance, thank a first-grade teacher.  You can’t imagine what kind of goodness they are sowing there among the children acting as if all they are teaching is how to add and read and share.

With pumpkin and spice,