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Monday, August 22, 2011

Touring Trophy Town

Have you ever thought you smelt the stale atmosphere of an airplane and felt your heart palpitate with excitement? Maybe it’s a few salty peanuts that get you going, but everyone has a trigger. That sensational feeling of traveling. Sure, airports and train stations can rival the trivial duress caused by a congested highway, but any manner of transportation that removes you from the everyday routine is a welcomed inconvenience. I should take this time to point out that traveling isn’t limited to grand vacations or weekend staycations, these wondrous moments can be found in most mundane of tasks like finding a new route home from work.

Exploration and discovery are deep-seeded needs for us hunter-gathers and I have recently found pleasure in rediscovering the hidden gems of my New England backyard by following the footsteps of tourists as well as seeking out hidden gems. I have been in each northeastern state and seen its main attractions as well as capital cities, but there are still dozens of unexplored locations. My native harbor town being one of them. In order to get reacquainted with my favorite place, I ventured in Boston using a different mode of transportation and walked a different path than my normal visits.

Walking the great city of Boston is an entirely different adventure than skirting beneath it on the T. Quite obviously, you see more. But what’s more important than the stunning visuals of one of America’s oldest cities is enveloping oneself in the beantown atmosphere. Picnic on the waterfront, walk the freedom trail, see a Red Sox game. There are endless options on your visit or daytrip. Be sure to try out quincy market’s sampling of food and while you’re at it, shop around. Find a restaurant or gelateria in the North End (and don’t forget Mike’s Pastries!) to invigorate your senses. Go into the buildings, talk to the people, brave Newbury Street. In the city you can’t be afraid to take chances.

I did my best this day to take routes I had never ventured through before and to inspect the shops I normally pass by. I had combined the best of the tourist and local worlds. And it was only in this submergence of culture did I feel my day in Boston was authentic and unique from all the other migrations. So take some time to explore your neck of the woods or medicate your travel bug and see where it takes you.

Mine’s calling for New York City.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writer’s Sketch: Expression Map

Another great tool in the writer’s arsenal is creating unique, consistent characters. In order to keep these people behaving time and again in the same manner, you should first work on their basic emotions. For this exercise, focus on practicing varied expressions that will arise when writing. By all means, use a character you are currently studying from a published or original text (perhaps even your warm-up story if it’s the same character), you don’t need to create one for this matter.

When describing the person’s changing reactions, be as descriptive as the expression requires. But you don’t want to focus on their every wrinkle either. Remember: People don't always (or only) smile when they are happy. Perhaps your character has a glum outlook and refuses to smile—this must also be taken into account. Fill out the following for a quick warm-up exercise to your writing time period.

I’ll use a character that most people are familiar with so you can notice the subtle changes: Mickey Mouse.

Happy: Thumbing his suspenders, Mickey snickered a bubbly laugh and graciously received Donald’s birthday gift.

Sad: With his ears downcast, the cement sidewalk held Mickey’s attention, its monochromatic pattern reflecting the weight in his stomach.
Angry: Mickey furrowed his brow and nose together, sternly scolding his pup after discovering Pluto’s jowls covered in a ruby glaze from the missing cherry pie.

Scared: He gasped loudly and his hands shot upwards to cover his mouth before he lost his balance and stumbled backwards.

Surprised: Despite the flutter of his heart, Mickey beamed regretfully to erase the fright on his face before apologizing to the pedestrian he bumped into.

Flirtatious: Nudging his shoulder against Minnie’s, Mickey’s smirk curled playfully as he giggled.

Reviewing the above expressions you can see how a minute alteration in description or diction can paint the emotion clearly and concisely. Throughout his sketch Mickey adheres to his personality which would provide an excellent base for any story starring the famous mouse to grow from.

Since this is a short exercise, feel free to add more emotions to your list and practice with increased frequency for a stronger gasp on your characters.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Cooking Comfort Zone and How to Get There

Does the idea of baking a cake from scratch terrify you? Is the only option for ethnic food take out? Do you laugh (and maybe cry) at the suggestion of homemade bread? Well, you’re not the only one. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. In five steps, you can transform your kitchen skills from industrial pawn to creative chef.

Step One: Be active in the kitchen. So maybe your meals come from a drive-through window, or out of a box. The first step to becoming a better cook is to take the leap of faith and start cooking on your own. If you already cook, but your skills are limited—keep up the good work. After all, practice makes perfect.  Create simple meals, snacks and desserts. Integrate what you know with fresh ingredients. Although you can use boxed preparation for pastas, potatoes, brownies, etc., throwing in fresh herbs for savory foods and sweet accents like chocolate chips in a dessert will start to grow your confidence.

Step Two: Try a simple recipe. At this point, you should start leaving your addiction to premade foods behind. It’s okay to use this angle as a crutch for harder recipes, but let’s improve your capabilities by seeking out a few simple recipes. For something to cook, try a straightforward stir-fry.  That doesn’t mean its Asian influenced. Toss some similar sized chicken and vegetables together in a pan and cook it up. If you’d like to try your hand at baking, cookies is a good place to start. Search out more simple recipes from family and friends or even the internet.  

Step Three: Buy a cookbook. Now you have several simple recipes under your belt and a solid confidence to increase the difficulty (and flavor!) or your repertoire. Put together a meal that uses red meat or fish as these are proteins that take several repetitions to fully understand at what point and in what manner of cooking they taste best. To keep the menu healthy, use eggplant or mushrooms as the star of the plate. Risotto is another good dish to try. Keep things small for baking. Cupcakes, bars and other petite confections. Search through your cookbook for ideas as it is now your best friend.  

Step Four: Take it up a notch! Experiment with the flavor palate you have developed and start creating ideas for the dinner course. Cirtus and herbs love seafood. Bold flavors beef up hearty meats and poultry has become versatile. Toss accents into salads and sides like nuts and dried fruits. Try making your pasta fresh with homemade Italian bread. Challenge yourself to create complex goodies like pies and cheesecakes. Turn your favorite cupcake recipe into a two layered cake, using the same icing to decorate. Hopefully you’ve found dishes at either end of the spectrum that are your go-to plan for impromptu dinner parties and holidays.

Step Five: Dazzle with your food.  When reaching this milestone, you can experiment with the succulent offerings of the world. Until now you have likely focused on whatever cultural food you’ve grown up with or your region’s staples, but it’s time to expand. Look to the major culinary fads for inspiration and try making a meal you would have purchased previously only at a restaurant. This same concept translates to the after dinner treats. Something as common as ice cream is now within your reach to make at home. Quality kitchen equipment can now be invested in with the promise of a worthwhile reward. Your skills can span breakfast, lunch and dinner and all pit-stops in-between.

These steps aren’t offered as something you can accomplish overnight or even in a week. Becoming comfortable, flexible and self-reliant in the kitchen takes time. But you should enjoy each step as you go and manage them at your own pace. When recipes become effortless you should move your study to the next level. A variety of cookbooks, supermarkets, farmer’s markets and specialty stores are at your disposal for gaining knowledge and encouragement. And once you have completed the process, you can share your newfound wisdom with others through the gregarious gift of global, fun and flavorful food.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Love That Dirty Water

In the lull of a summer afternoon, it can be troublesome to settle on a decent activity that will capitalize on the beautiful weather while simultaneously subduing the heat. If you live near a body of water, then you’re in luck. This past weekend we were visited by family friends and among the joyous reminiscing of how we became acquainted and our cherished Cape vacations, we settled on trying something new. Kayaking. Personally, I had experienced the river’s wonders several times, but there was something almost magical about traversing the placid surf with friends and family.

Based on my past adventures with positive results, I suggested the Paddle Boston company with its variety of launch points. I had never been on the stretch of the Charles we explored that day, which made the trip even more whimsical. New plants and animals revealed themselves around each bend of the river.  Sharing my love for nature with others was a perk compared to the relaxing atmosphere the river encouraged for us to rejuvenate our friendship.

If I managed to swiftly and quietly approach wildlife with an unthreatening behavior, I came within feet of aquatic animals as well as timid birds. Coursing with the current on the return journey, I allowed my hands to linger in the river, splashing the water with appreciation and wonder. If you live in Massachusetts, I advise you to investigate the possibilities the Paddle Boston company has to offer. However, if you live elsewhere in the North East or another region of the country, I am confident similar options are available near you. Even the smallest moment like running your hands through the water can remind you about the world’s grand opportunities and the creatures that inhabit its diverse landscape.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Writer’s Sketch: James, New Mexico, Watermelon

To begin this exercise, you should seclude yourself from distractions. Secondly, you will need a person, a place and an object. Don’t come up with them yourself-- use a friend or family member to provide the subjects of your freewrite. You could also use the “random” feature on Wikipedia, or “I’m feeling lucky” on Google. Try your best to simply allow ideas to flow for fifteen minutes. Remember: No editing. Let’s begin.

It was a sweltering afternoon in New Mexico, the looming sun coating the desert in a crimson afterglow. James grumpily sat on his grandparent’s porch, observing the waning sunlight that passed over the scrub around the adobe dwelling. He was uncomfortable in his long-sleeves and could not locate a suitable position in the shade that adequately soothed him. It was just as well. He hated the oppressive heat, but it wasn’t his fault he was allergic to the sun. And visiting his grandparents was always an unfortunate week of suffering. After all, New Mexico was vastly different from Minnesota.

 Venturing indoors, James was meagerly comforted by the home’s natural ability to retain cold air. But he still believed his grandparents to be foolish for not purchasing an air conditioner. How could he sleep that night? It was the first of many and yet he could not recall how he managed to survive these visits so many years before. He passed through the hallway into the living room where he discovered his wrinkled relatives relaxing in front of an old analog television.

“Looks like you could use some watermelon,” declared his grandfather in a raspy voice.

James agreed, “That would be great.”

“Take a seat, dear,” said his grandmother. She was a kind and gentle woman, quilting an aboriginal style blanket. She pushed the plate of watermelon across the coffee table for James to adequately choose a slice. One of the larger pieces called out to him, its bright green rind and pink flesh a stark contrast to the monochromic tones of the desert home.

James didn’t hesitate to devour the fruit. Its sweetness dissolving a refreshing blast onto his taste buds after each bite. A trickle of water collected at the sides of James’ mouth and dripped off at the tip of his chin onto the perfectly white carpet. The disapproving stare he received from his elders was firm and harsh, but the small mishap seemed a minor consolation to James who still had six days (with change) left on his arid visit.

/ Sure, it’s not the best story I could write with these subjects, but for a fifteen minute freewrite to get my creative juices flowing, it’s not half bad. Although I’ll be doing a collection of writer’s sketches, I would encourage writers to complete this exercise at least once a day. Just like visual artists warm-up with these types of drawing activities, aspiring writers can use this technique to hone their skills as well.