Saturday, December 21, 2019

Cakes and Cards! (2019)

We don't start doing holiday-specific things until all the kids' birthdays are over. From mid-November through mid-December, life is a lot of cakes. Then we immediately switch to cards. I ask my kids every year if they really want to crank out a hundred homemade cards again, or if we can just take a picture or skip it. They always want to make cards.

Lots of creativity and construction in our house! Here's the recap of how all of it went. (And no, we haven't dug out of all the mess yet, but at least our tree is up before Christmas.)

First cake of the season was for Quinn just before Thanksgiving. He didn't want a party with friends, but liked the idea of doing something new with the family, so we took him axe throwing. That was a blast. There is a great place a few blocks from our house where they have bouncy houses for all ages, air hockey, pinball, laser tag, and axe throwing. Made for a great day! But there wasn't much of a theme to build a cake around, and Quinn didn't want an axe cake. He just wanted to be surprised, and insisted he'd like whatever I made.

What does the kid like? Cereal. So I went the easy route and simply decorated his cake with cereal.

Ian was nice enough to separate out all the generic brand Fruit Loops by color for me, and we stayed up late and watched TV while I put cereal all over the cake. (My impulse was to mix up all the colors because that would look pretty to me, but Quinn likes order and patterns, so I decided concentric rings in rainbow order was the way to go. Random fact: blue was the rarest of the colors to sort out, and orange is in abundance. Additional random fact: all fruit loops taste the same, regardless of color, and despite what your mind wants you to believe.)

Quinn was surprised and super happy with his cake. (Which was chocolate inside, by the way. He always wants chocolate inside.)

Next up! Mona's cake. She turned 16 this year, and didn't want a friend party either, but did decide it would be fun to go glow bowling out in The Dells with family, so we made a day of it at the end of Thanksgiving weekend along with her uncle and cousin.

Mona did know what she wanted her cake to look like, but told me if it was too hard I didn't have to do it. I like a challenge, however, so it took three tries, but I did it!

Behold the Piñata cake!

We watch a lot of "Nailed It" on Netflix, and on the Mexican version they made little piñata cakes, so I thought I knew what to do. But no. I tried valiantly to make it all out of cake, but no matter how short I made the legs or how many skewers I used to try and support them, those cakes simply collapsed.

I wound up making the legs out of the cake box cut in half, and sculpting the head and ears out of rice crispy treats. Even then, frosting the cake took so much time that I had to take a break and put the cake in the freezer for a while so the ears would stay up.


Piping all that frosting on took forever and really wore out my hands, but it was worth it. Because look how cute it came out!

Mona whooped when she saw it, and she laughed, and then she cried, and then she took a million pictures. Totally worth all the work. Plus, when we cut into it, it was full of candy. I hope I never have to make a piñata cake again, but if I do, I will know how to make it work.


Here is my one genius tip I can share that I figured out while doing the piñata cake: If you need to switch colors of frosting in the piping bags, but still need the same tip over and over? Put the tip in its own bag and switch out the bags full of colored frosting into that one. Professionals probably have multiples of the same tips, but I don't, so when I realized I could just put a bag inside another bag and go from color to color easily, I was rather proud of myself.

The last cake was Aden's, which she made again herself for the annual "Food for Thought" fundraiser for the Hunger Task Force at her school. She won first place the last three years (her freshman year for her dragon/geode cake, next for her candy sushi plate, and last year for her working chess set). And while looking for links I realized I never posted about her chess board cake, so here's a peek at last year's cake, with pieces all made from modeling chocolate:

We joked this year she should simply make a cake in the shape of a first place trophy. As funny an idea as that was, Aden is too modest for that, so she went with a sandcastle.


Aden's sandcastle cake utilized most of my failed piñata cake attempts. (Lest anyone think we were being wasteful!) She kneaded together the crumbled cake with icing the way you do when making cake pops, and sculpted the outer structure of her sandcastle. There were failed attempts to build tall towers using the rice crispy treats that weren't sound enough to survive being transported to her school before she settled on the lower design. The center of the cake was regular cake. The turrets were made of ice cream cones. Everything was covered with icing, then coated with graham cracker crumbs. Aden made her own modeling chocolate to create all the shells and pearls. (She wanted company when she stayed up late the last night to finish it all, so she let me paint all her little shells with food coloring.)

The sandcastle cake was heavy, as well as spectacular. And yes, she won first place again. She even got an extra award for having participated in the fundraiser all four years of her time in high school. (Personally, I think having four amazingly decorated cakes are a cool addition to her portfolio for college.)



With cakes finally finished, we set in on holiday cards.

I had a thought to make some simple trees out of pretty paper and leave it at that. We make so many, I find it easier if they are basic and identical. But my kids made all of them this year, and the three of them kept switching places in the assembly line (mostly because when Mona gets slap-happy the cards get weird and the other two object, although personally I like the weird). So all the cards are really different from each other this year. And several ended up being assembled upside-down, so if you're someone on our list who gets one of those, it's not some kind of "holiday in crisis" message like an upside-down flag. It's They may be 18, 16, and 13 now, but definitely still kids.

Here is a sampling of how some of these cards came out:

It's been a busy birthday/holiday season. Lots of concerts and recitals, lots of people coming and going. One of the best parts of performing at this time of year, is we usually get to do it in some pretty beautiful venues. I never take that for granted.

We even got a new mirror ball for the living room as our family present this year. (Yes, we have a mirror ball year round in our living room.) The old mirror ball's motor died, so we upgraded to a bigger ball. Too big a one, actually, since my brain didn't fully comprehend what going from an 8-inch diameter ball to a 16-inch ball really meant. We also ordered a separate motor with a super handy remote control, but it was REALLY fast (30-something revolutions a minute), so we returned both the giant ball and the fast motor for a more reasonable sized ball (12 inches), and a nice slow motor (about 4 rmp).

So it's been a season full of lights and music and laughter and family, and I don't know what more anyone could want. Well, better health for a few of us. We are hoping for everyone feeling fine in the new year. Beyond that? We're great. Hope you are, too.

Happy Everything, and we'll catch up again in 2020.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Voices Past and Present

I'm at that odd moment on Thanksgiving Day where things are cooking, but it's too early to cook the final things, and we're still waiting for guests to arrive. There's a short lull before the next flurry of events, and no one needs me right this second. In this bit of quiet I thought I should write.

We've been working on doing a real cleaning of the house this week in anticipation of hosting the big meal today. We have most of the downstairs looking presentable. We organized the game cabinet and moved furniture and dusted all the Mold-a-Ramas. Part of all that cleaning involved pulling all of my old collection of cassette tapes out of a few drawers. It was at the end of the night, and Aden and Quinn were the only ones still up with me. They helped me sort what was there.

I explained the fun of mix tapes. There was real effort to making a good one, often having to tape things off the radio, or a record. I have several old mix tapes--a few from an old boyfriend, a bunch from my brother when he lived in California, one I even made labeled "Baby Tape" that I used to play in our old kitchen as I danced baby Aden around in my arms to calm her when she was fussy. Do kids still compile songs they like to share in a digital format? Or is that completely passe?

I found some embarrassing recordings of my friend Gabby and I making "radio shows" in my basement. Oh we were annoying children--I don't know how our parents could stand listening to us laugh at nonsense all the time. I found bootleg tapes Gabby made for me in the parking lot of Pine Knob where I went to hear concerts by Sting and Nik Kershaw and Depeche Mode. Gabby was more interested in the pre-concert fun we had at those events than the music, so she'd wait out the show with a boom box and make recordings I could enjoy later. (She was and is a good friend, and we are still probably annoying to listen to when we get together and laugh at nothing, but thankfully there is no recorded evidence of that.)

Among the old tapes, I found a few I made of conversations with my grandma. One in particular stands out where all seven of her grandchildren were gathered in her kitchen in Ohio and she was making us breakfast as she told stories. I'd forgotten just what a good storyteller she was. I think of my grandma as more of a listener, but I loved hearing her talk.

I played that tape for my kids in the only working tape player I currently own--a small voice-activated thing I used for recording my lessons before they were born. I only intended to play a few minutes of that tape, but we all got caught up in the story of my grandma getting her first dog, and then about how she met grandpa, and what it was like when he was preparing to leave for the war. We listened to the whole first side of the tape before I decided they really should go to bed.

The tape I keep thinking about most was one from when I was about two and a half, maybe three. My brothers were babies who would occasionally squawk, but for the most part it's my grandpa asking me to recite nursery rhymes. My grandfather had a deep, friendly voice. Aden looked up in wonder when he spoke through my cassette recorder and asked, "Is that my great-grandpa?" She'd never heard him before. He died when I was fifteen. She teared up and listened intently.

In the background on that tape, somewhere behind me and my grandpa, are my dad and grandmother, who sound like they are at the kitchen table. They are chatting and laughing.

It's wonderful to hear, but at the same time overwhelming to realize how many people in that recording are gone. Even little toddler me doing a dramatic rendition of Little Miss Muffet doesn't really exist anymore. I miss my grandpa, and grandma, and dad. I miss the world where that littler me used to live.

I'm looking forward to dessert tonight, when we can break out the tapes for everyone at the table. We can listen to my cousins messily reciting the alphabet and adorably singing for my grandpa. We can hear Arno plunk out simple songs on the guitar, and me and my brothers doing a screamy version of Frere Jacques because we thought it was hilarious once upon a time. And we can listen to my grandma tell stories again. The way she used to at Thanksgiving dinner.

Time to take the turkey out, and start working on potatoes and beans and rolls.

Have a wonderful day, however you celebrate. And remember to be thankful for the people you share your life with. They aren't around as long as we'd like.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Writing Retreat: Chapter Two

November is National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo if you want to get weirdly abbreviated about it). It's a nonprofit group that gets people to commit to trying to complete a novel in a month, and provides structure and support for those who need help. I've never participated, but it sounds fun. I just don't have the kind of schedule that lends itself to other people's timelines. I have to carve out my own moments to write, and that doesn't overlap with the beginning of birthday season and Thanksgiving.

But I did arrange to do a second writing retreat up at the cottage with a friend at the beginning of October. I got a lot done.

This year was chilly and it rained most of the time, which was perfect for keeping us indoors and writing. The last few days we even kept a fire going in the fireplace and it was really lovely.

Took a few walks, ate soup, and I even treated myself to my first pedicure in the little shopping square when I needed a break (and decided writing would go faster with pretty toes).

I had three projects to ponder this year.

The first was the last of the copy edits on my novel Just Friends, Just War. (That book is in the proofreading stage right now. I decided to order proofs of it with a placeholder cover, simply because I never spot certain typos until they are actually in print in the book. So I'm proofreading the actual book and can make changes before it goes live.) Just Friends, Just War is the last of the three novels I wrote over a decade ago when I first decided to try my hand at fiction. That book (along with Almost There and Seducing Cat) took a lot of reworking and rewriting to finish. I didn't know what I was doing, and it showed. But failure is how you learn, and figuring out how to edit those books so they functioned was useful. Just Friend, Just War should be ready to publish in early 2020. Here's the current blurb for that:

Alex and Claire are just friends. They are fine with that. Nobody else seems to be. But as they move from high school to college to adult life, there are many ways—both big and small—to test a friendship. Just Friends, Just War follows a friendship from the day it begins through all of its joys and challenges. Sometimes being just friends is more than enough.

My main project was the novel I'm writing now, called 1001 Weddings. This is a novel I had an idea for a long time ago and am finally getting around to it. The big difference is that now I know how to go at a writing project of that size right from the start. I know how I want to handle the point of view, I know how to pace things, I know how to use my voice better. I think it's a good book. I have to flesh parts of it out a bit more, but it's essentially there. When I get to editing, that won't require major overhauls and scrapping whole chapters to repair the basic structure. I'm excited about that. It means I may finally know what I am doing.

My major question with 1001 Weddings is whether or not to try and find a traditional publisher, or do it myself. I've only had two test readers on it, but they both enjoyed it, and it's a super-pitchable book. Here's the first stab at a blurb for it:

Jemma Best is a musician who plays weddings. When she becomes engaged herself, she decides to drum up a little extra business to pay for her own wedding by contacting brides from the past to see if they would like their original quartet to play for an anniversary. Because wouldn’t that be romantic? Seems like a great idea. Until Jemma discovers how all those stories turned out.

I've included lots of wedding stories (most of which are true), and I went out on a limb and made the main character's fiancee a luthier. There's a little danger in that, but I have to admit, I had a lot of fun inventing a fictional shop and getting to complain about luthier things through my character. The book is fun, and structured more like a romance than anything else. My writing retreat friend (who is a professional book reviewer and understands what's out there) thinks it wouldn't be hard to find an agent for, and she could easily imagine it as a movie. That all sounds good, but I have control issues, I guess. I don't like the idea of someone else having the rights to my work. I don't want to be forced to make changes I don't believe in. But I also want to be read, and marketing is not my strong suit. (I suppose I'll worry about that later when the book is finally done.)

The third project is odd. I wrote a whole novel sort of by accident. I was supposed to be working on 1001 Weddings, but then I had an idea about something else and couldn't get it out of my head, so I simply wrote it to be done with it. But then there were more ideas. So I wrote those. And then I was at 106,000 words that I didn't really mean to write. I let two friends read it who were the only people who knew where the original ideas came from, and they both read through it fast and I think liked it. Or parts of it. But at my writing retreat, my friend with no preconceived ideas about what it should be, ripped it to shreds. As she should have. It was not developed right. Because it was an accident.

But! Here's the thing: She still read it in one night. She didn't intend to. She planned to read maybe a chapter and go to sleep. So even though she found it implausible and the characters all too similar (because again, not developed, so they all had my draft voice instead of their own), she still kept reading. She liked the writing. She was almost dismissive about that part, as in, "Of course it's all written well, but...."

That's big. It means I know how to write, right from the first draft. Even if it's not good yet, it still keeps people turning pages. Plot points and characters I can fix. I'm actually really looking forward to tearing that novel down to the studs and rebuilding it after I've given it real thought. But to be able to pace things and lay them out in a manner that people want to keep reading? I feel like that's something different and more fundamental. Sort of like back in music school, if you were a person who brought real expression to your playing that made people want to listen, rather than someone who did things technically well but came across as cold. That's hard to teach. In my experience, either players have that ability to be musical, or they don't. I've always been told I'm a musical player. I now feel as if maybe I have musicality in my writing, too.

Unfortunately, when I take time off work, the work doesn't stop appearing on my bench. So I haven't had any time to write anything since I returned from the cottage. I've merely been trying to dig out of the hole of rehairs and instrument repairs, but after many late nights in the shop I'm almost caught up. (There are many people who wander into my violin store and marvel at my "dying art" which always makes me laugh. As long as people keep dropping things, my art is alive and well. And people never stop dropping things.)

I hope I find some time soon. Because in addition to ideas for my novel, I'm also working on a repair diagnostics guide for violin teachers that I think will be really good, and fills a need.

Why are there so few hours in the day to get everything done? There is so much I want to do that I never get to! (And on that note, I need to get off my laptop and start cleaning the house. Because for those who ask, "Where do you find the time?" the answer is: my house is a mess. But I think at this stage, I'd rather be remembered for things I've created than for a nicely made bed.)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Mona the Golden Pheasant

Another costume entirely of Mona's creation: the Golden Pheasant.

Mona's only limitation to her costume making (besides adequate space to store things and an infinite budget) is time. She tends to bite off more than she can chew when it comes to certain deadlines, where she has elaborate plans and then hits a wall where she has to make fast compromises.

This year, Milwaukee trick-or-treat was on the evening of the 26th, and Mona worked on her outfit right up until the 5:00 start time. She really only had the head, wings, and tail done, and I ended up safety-pinning swaths of fabric around her body to fill it out, but I still think it's amazing. The head took weeks. The wings even longer.

The head started out as a base of old sheet fabric, tin foil, and duct tape, and then she overlaid it with lots of little pieces cut out of fleece. I didn't follow everything she was doing for the wings, all I know was that some of the support structures in it didn't like the rain.

And boy did it rain on trick-or-treat this year. Hands down this was the most miserable Halloween night ever for us--all rain and wind and cold, and it kept getting worse as the evening wore on. My kids bagged it after only about twenty minutes, and we never even moved over to the violin store side of town where the street behind us goes all out and is usually a good time. We had leftover candy! We never have leftover candy. Only about 200 kids came to the house, which is less than half of what we usually get.

I don't even have my usually pictures of my kids all posing in their costumes together this year. The closest I have are these shots under umbrellas.

So, trick-or-treat was a bit of a bust, but the costumes were still fun. Next year trick-or-treat should actually be on Halloween (what a concept), and maybe some of this year's outfits will roll over to then since they didn't get much use this time around. (Except for Aden's octopus. Anyone can wear it, and Aden likes to lounge about in it.)

Anyway, go Mona! I'm so proud of her for being willing to tackle hard projects. I think her golden pheasant is great. (And I'm glad I didn't have to make it.)