April 16

Pitcher Plant Flowers

You may already be aware of my love of carnivorous plants. Now that the weather is warming, most of them are starting to bloom and their flowers are amazing. The pitcher plants tend to bloom the earliest in my little shop of horrors, and this year I thought it would be interesting to take a photo every day to capture the flower’s life cycle.

I initially created a gif, but the finished product ended up too small to appreciate the beauty of the flower. That, and the file size was a bit too large.

So I ended up tossing together a video. It’s only about a minute long, but it gives you a chance to see just how incredible these plants are.

I also wrote the music, too. In case you were wondering.

Hope you enjoy this short educational moment.

RB

April 13

Music Moment – Tangled Up in Blue

I know that Bob Dylan isn’t for everyone, but he’s one of my favorite songwriters. With a career spanning sixty years, he’s made an indelible mark on the music industry. His creativity and originality have also been an inspiration for me. I can’t remember the first time I heard one of his songs, but for what it’s worth, it feels like he’s been part of the soundtrack to my life since the beginning.

And without a doubt, my favorite song of his is “Tangled Up in Blue”. It’s what a consider a ‘story song’, meaning, the words read like a lyrical short story. If you aren’t familiar with it, it tells the story of two lovers who end up finding each other even after years apart. They seem to know they aren’t right for one another, yet fate continues to cross their paths. For what it’s worth, I always assumed the woman’s name is “Blue” and the narrator is so tangled up in her that he can’t ever escape. Here are the lyrics as originally recorded:

Tangled Up In Blue

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blueShe was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue

So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music

The original version of the song appeared on the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, and it’s been a mainstay of Dylan’s live shows ever since.

What I find interesting, however, is that Dylan never sings it the same way. Every time he plays it live, he changes the lyrics, sometimes adding additional verses, maybe cutting a few, and sometimes almost completely reworking them. An artist’s prerogative, I suppose, but I also think it does that to keep the song fresh and new. Unfortunately, I’ve never had a chance to see him play live, but at least there are live recordings.

Dylan’s lyrics are always sensational, sometimes cryptic, but they always paint a picture in my mind. If you’re interested, listen to the clip below. If you aren’t familiar with the song, I hope you enjoy it. It’s one that continues to inspire me even after countless listening sessions.

April 12

Creativity as Therapy

I’m sure you’ve heard of art therapy and music therapy. In fact, art has been used in therapy for over a century. Initially, it was used as a form of “moral therapy” for psychiatric patients, it’s evolved over time to something that can be utilized in a wide variety of situations, from helping Alzheimers patients with their memory issues to physical therapies where patients are relearning how to use their arms and hands.

But on a more personal level, I’ve found that art therapy, or creativity in general, can be therapeutic for everyday life.

Obviously, I’m not a mental health professional or physician, so take my words as simply personal experience and nothing more. I’m not suggesting you explore this in lieu of seeking professional help. Nowadays, it’s best to clarify before someone gets the wrong idea.

For me, creativity has always been mainstay in my life. From writing and drawing comic books as a kid to writing and self-publishing fiction as an adult, it’s been there for me as a way to express myself. However, it’s also been a sort of companion for me. Those long summers on my uncle’s dairy farm where I was the only kid for miles, my creativity and imagination kept me company. I created all sorts of adventures for myself as I wandered the hay fields and thick Wisconsin forests. That old gnarled tree stump became a troll. The wind whispering through the leaves were sirens trying to trick me into sailing my ship into the rocks. And that old abandon car helped me escape after I robbed the Bist Bank and Trust of all their pinecones.

Boy daydreaming.Trust me, it all made sense when I was a child.

As I grew matured (which is questionable), so did my use of my creativity. The aliens and pirates moved onto the page and became stories, and along with that, so did my hopes and fears. As a teenager I found that writing was a way for me to work through my hormonal angst. I filled spiral notebooks full of poems about unrequited love, dreams of the future, and images from my dreams. I actually still have a few of those notebooks and occasionally take them out to thumb through. It’s interesting to look back and remember how I used to be and how I used to see the world.

Later, in late teens, I began to journal. That’s when I found the outlet I needed, the sympathetic ear, the judgement-free listener. Journaling kept me going through bad relationships, family drama, love and loss. Even now, I still write in my journal almost daily. Sometimes it’s just a page, sometimes it’s several. But regardless, I always walk away from the page feeling a little bit better.

Why is that? Because it’s a way to clear the clutter from the attic. Speaking for myself, it’s easy to get caught up in my own little world, to become self-absorbed and see things from only one perspective. Writing in my journal allows me to work things out, to explore my thoughts, my experiences, and to see them from another perspective. There have been many occasions where I was thinking along one track, only to realize after writing in my journal that I was wrong. And admitting I’m wrong on the page makes it a lot easier to admit it to myself.

Journaling isn’t the only creative therapy I participate in. I also cook. Every day. Most of it is survival cooking, meaning, I cook because it’s time for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. We need sustenance. But I do like to explore the creative aspect of cooking. I like to try new recipes, or read about different ways to cook something, like a chicken, then come up with my own method.

I find that when I’m in the kitchen, watching something in the sautée pan while deciding what spices to use, the rest of the world falls away. I forget my problems and worries. I lose myself in the motion of manipulating the pan, the smells of garlic and onion, the endless possibilities. Because cooking requires thought, imagination, and attention, it’s a wonderful way for me to unwind in the evenings. Weekends, however, are my prime cooking time. A bottle of wine helps, too.

In my opinion, one of the biggest issues in the world today is mental health care. There’s just not enough of it and there’s often a stigma attached to people to seek it out. That’s why I think encouraging people to use their creativity as a form of therapy could be a partial solution. Just having a way to express ourselves can make a huge difference in how we manage our mental state.

Consider this: You have a terrible coworker or manager. They make your workdays difficult. They make you angry, anxious, frustrated, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Situations like this can take a toll on your mental and emotional state. Some people are lucky enough to have access to decent healthcare and can go see a professional to learn coping mechanisms and ways to deal with these people. Others aren’t so lucky. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t have that kind of healthcare.

But if you have ‘one of those days’ and arrive home with your head spinning, you can decompress by doing something creative. You can write about it. A journal can be your best friend. Or maybe use fiction instead. Write a story about your nemesis getting their comeuppance. I’ve done that. Or you can immerse yourself in trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, something new and exotic. Or you can pull out some paint brushes and a canvas and lose yourself in a landscape or something abstract. If you’re feeling restless, then put on some music and dance your heart out. No one is watching, so let yourself go.

Woman dancing.
Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

We all have issues we deal with, and some of us handle things better than others. There’s no shame in needing a release, a pressure valve for your head or your heart. Professional therapy is great, but it can also be expensive and far too many people don’t have easy access to it. Creative, however, really doesn’t cost much. A pen and a spiral notebook. A paintbrush, some paint, and something to paint on, like a piece of scrap wood or cardboard. Music and dancing are free.

No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but there’s no harm in trying something new, is there? The next time you’re having a bad day, you’re stressed out, angry, hurt, confused, try doing something creative. It’s not a perfect solution, but it might just be enough.

RB

April 9

Back in the Saddle

It’s been a few months since I’ve written any fiction. A few scribbles here and there, but nothing of substance. It wasn’t on purpose. My partner and I were caring for some elderly family members and that took up most of my time and effort. Afterwards, there was a lot to sort through. Not just estate-related issues, but also the PTSD of losing family.

But I didn’t completely shy away from the written word. I filled up a 240 page journal during that period, and I continued to post here on my blog. Just not as frequently. Fiction, however, was out of reach. I just wasn’t feeling it.

Until last night. I was laying in bed, half asleep, listening to the soft rain and wind outside my window. I was relaxed and straddling that fine, misty line between consciousness and sleep when a random thought caught my attention. You know how it is when you’re laying there in bed, drifting off. All those random thoughts and memories slip by like smoke in a breeze.

Image of open book.

I saw a guy sitting at a bar in a sleazy pool hall. He was nursing a drink, cheap bourbon, and stealing glances at a redhead sitting in a corner booth with two men. I let is slip away for a moment, but then it returned, like my imagination didn’t want me to miss it.

The scene replayed several times, then began to expand, unfolding like a piece of origami.

I don’t know how much time passed, but the entire story was there behind my eyes. I sat up and grabbed my phone, typing out as much info as I could while half conscious. I’ve lost too many story ideas by being lazy at night and not taking the time to write down some notes before drifting off.

And this morning, when I woke up, the story was still there, ready to go.

It felt good, invigorating. I think a small part of me was worried that I wasn’t going to write again. Not anymore. I have a solid story ready for the page, a return to form. I’m excited.

It goes to show that writers have to trust their imaginations, have to trust in their own personal creative process. I wasn’t done as a fiction writer. I just needed time to heal, to clear my head, to move on.

If you do get in a rut, feel uninspired, used up, don’t give up hope. Just be patient. The muse will return and you’ll be back in the saddle before you know it.

RB

April 7

Godzilla Can’t Compare

It’s not often one gets the opportunity to witness an epic battle in nature, but I was lucky enough to see two lizards lock up on my back patio wall the other day. My dog, Siri, alerted me and we watched with wide eyes as the two opponents circled one another looking for an opening. Then things got a little crazy…

My old girl loves to watch the lizards sunning themselves and often barks at them. However, I think she was a little disappointed in this match. As the heat of battle cooled, she let out a little frustrated sigh. Don’t worry, girl. I’m sure they’ll be at it again soon.

Now back to getting the patio straightened up.

RB

April 6

Review – Accusing Mr. Darcy

So here’s a fun fact for you – I’ve never listened to an audiobook. Ever. Weird, right? But I can’t make that claim any longer, not after enjoying Kelly Miller’s Accusing Mr. Darcy.

Accusing Mr. Darcy Cover.

I’ll also admit that I’m a fan of classic literature. I still have copies of the Norton Anthology of British Literature and Norton Anthology of American Literature from when I was in college. They are worn and tattered and littered with little slips of paper that act as bookmarks for some of my favorite pieces. Sure, some of it is incredibly dated, but the poetic, romantic language has always held an attraction for me.

And that’s one of the things I enjoyed about this novel. Ms. Miller does a wonderful job of capturing the rhythm and poetry of Jane Austen, while still retaining her own voice. In my opinion, that’s not easy to do. From a writer’s perspective, I think it would be difficult to walk that fine line, to continue in the vein of the original while still being unique. I’m curious as to how long it took Miller to write this, and how many rewrites were involved.

For those who aren’t familiar with Jane Austen, she was a romantic author who penned several classic novels. Arguably the most famous is Pride and Prejudice (1813), a comedy/drama of manners set in Great Britain. It’s one of the “Great Novels” I read many years ago.

Which brings me to the next thing I liked about Accusing Mr. Darcy. Instead of rehashing the themes of the original novel, Miller takes the story in a different direction and turns it into a murder mystery. It was fun to see familiar characters in a different situation, something more grave and compelling than just a story about romance. Higher stakes and a bit more tension.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t listen to the novel alone. I actually listened to it with my partner while we were laying in bed in the evenings. We usually read at night, she with her Kindle and me with a physical book (occasionally my Kindle, but I prefer paper). My partner has also had more experience with audiobooks. There have been many mornings where she had one playing while getting ready for work. Listening together was an interesting experience for both of us and it allowed us to discuss the story together. I highly recommend the experience

It also helped that the narrator for this story, Stevie Zimmerman, was a perfect choice. Not only was her accent a perfect accompaniment, but she also handled voicing the character in a respectful manner. What I mean is, she didn’t necessarily try to create voices and act the parts, she simply rose or lowered her voice. I feel that helped to keep me involved in the story and didn’t break my immersion.

Classic, romantic-era literature may not be your ideal genre of fiction, but I think you might find Accusing Mr. Darcy to be your exception. It’s well-written, well-plotted, and a fun excursion from modern fiction. Definitely one you’ll think about after the final page.

RB

April 5

My Little Shop of Horrors

One of my favorite rites of Spring is watching my carnivorous plants come back to life. Most of the ones on my back patio are indigenous to my area, so they taper off and die back during the cold months, then slowly, stealthily, come back to life when the temperatures begin to rise.

Pitcher plant flower buds.
Poking their little heads up out of the sphagnum moss.

For my sarracenias (trumpet pitchers), the focus is on flowering. Initially, I’ll see these tiny, pea-sized balls breaking the surface of the sphagnum moss, then they quickly spring up on long stems. Over the next week or so they slowly open to reveal an alien-looking flower.

In theory, I should cut the flower stems so the plant can focus more energy on creating pitchers, which is how they get their sustenance. But I love the flowers and like to spread the seeds around for propagation.

This year I have a few new additions to my Little Shop of Horrors (as my partner likes to call it). This includes another type of pitcher that grows lower to the ground. What I’m proud of is the fact that the new pitchers are so much larger than the old ones. I interpret that to mean this guy loves his new environment and is ready to get to work on the local insect population.

Pitcher plant.
Look at those little red capillaries.

Of course, I always feel the need to clarify that having carnivorous plants on your patio doesn’t mean you’ll never need to call for pest control. They aren’t active bug hunters, laying in wait in the tall grass for the unsuspecting beetle to happen by. No, they are passive. Incredibly so. And they don’t always capture what I want them to. For example, I’ve found honeybees decomposing in the bottom of a pitcher trap, along with the occasional lizard that probably wandered down the tube thinking it was getting a free meal.

Fun fact: In Southeast Asia, some pitcher plants get so large that people have discovered small primates in the traps. One wrong turn…

The other issue is mosquitoes. Here in Florida, mosquitoes are a problem nearly year-round, and unfortunately, carnivorous plants like to sit in water and stay moist. In other words, their environments are breeding grounds for the little bloodsuckers. And no, carnivorous plants don’t attract mosquitoes. Every once in a while I may see one stuck to a sundew, but that’s just the result of bad piloting on the part of the mosquito.

Speaking of which, my sundews are doing exceptionally well at the moment. One is indigenous to the area, so that’s not surprising. What did catch me off guard was my Australian sundew. I originally purchased it about ten years ago from a local plant breeder (licensed to breed carnivorous plants). At the time, he told me the plant was sterile. It would flower and possible go to seed, but the seeds would never sprout. No worries, I thought, I can live with that.

And it did flower and go to seed. Repeatedly over the years. Unfortunately, two years ago it died back and never returned. That happens. Plants don’t live forever.

But to my surprise, early this year it rose from the dead and showed up in a completely different pot on my patio. So I guess that life found a way (to quote the book of Goldblum).

Australian sundew
A small forest of Australian sundew with pitcher buds.

My other sundew has become an eating machine. In this photo you can see the paddles covered in little bugs. Sundews are one of my favorites. In fact, I will occasionally bring them into the house and put them on a windowsill when a fly wanders inside. It usually doesn’t take more than a day or two for them to meet and my sundew ends up with a nice meal. Sort of like a watchdog, but with a lower profile and less barking.

Well-fed sundew.
A well-fed sundew.

I’ve also been tracking the pitcher buds as they rise up and prepare to bloom. I’ll post some shots of those soon.

Hope you enjoyed a glimpse into my little shop of horrors. You should visit some time. Audrey would love to have you for dinner.

Venus flytraps
Say ‘hi’ to Audrey.

RB

April 2

A Photo Moment – Azeleas

I think the prettiest time of year is spring, and here in North Florida, spring means the azaleas start blooming. I’m lucky enough to have quite a few of these shrubs in my yard and it’s always nice to look out a window and see these bright, colorful flowers everywhere. In fact, azalea flowers can last for weeks. This means that a bush can remain fully colored in pink, red, or white for a month or more.

Pink azalea blooms.
Blooming in the shade of some live oaks.

Azaleas are perfect for the average gardener, and even more so for the lazy ones. They are incredibly hardy with temperature extremes, can be propagated by planting cuttings, and need very little attention other than an occasional trim (if you want them to have a specific shape or keep it from becoming tree-like).

And here’s a fun fact for you: Every part of the azalea is toxic, even the nectar in the flowers. This has, in turn, inspired people in parts of the world to purposely feed azalea nectar to honeybees because it then develops into a ‘mind-altering’ – and potentially lethal – honey. In other words, don’t try this at home.

I’ll pass on the honey. Just seeing the blooms in my yard is enough to lift my mood and bring a smile to my face.

At the moment, I have pink ones blooming in my backyard and on one side of my house, along with a hedge in my front yard that’s displaying white flowers. If you look closely, you can see that they aren’t solid colors. The outer petals are pink or white, but closer in you can see they have this speckle pattern.

Pink azalea flowers.
Pink azalea flowers.
White azalea blooms.
Soft white azalea blooms.

Luckily, the weather is warming up and the pollen is finally being washed away with the spring rains, so I’ll be able to travel further afield soon. I’m looking forward to hiking in the local parks and forests, taking photos of the beauty I find, and getting some fresh air. I think my dogs are ready for it, too.

RB

 

 

 

April 1

Writing about Writing

There’s a lot to be said for instruction from professional artists. Their advice can help you to steer clear of issues they encountered on their journeys. They can offer support and encouragement, maybe a little insight and motivation.

Over the years I’ve read many books about writing that were written by writers. Many were insightful, giving me a glimpse into the author’s background, what inspires them, what their process is like, and I’ve often tried following their routines and advice to see what will work for me. Some things have worked, other things haven’t. The point, however, is to try.

Recently, as I was straightening up my book collection, I started thinking about all the advice I’ve read and how much of it has guided me on my writing journey. And with that in mind, I thought it might be useful to other writers to share some of this. So here are some of the books on writing that I’ve read and garnered some useful guidance (in no particular order). I hope you’ll find some insight in them, as well.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. This is my favorite book about the writing process by one of my favorite authors. Bradbury mixes bits of personal history with an overall view on the process of writing, even managing to throw in a few humble brags (like writing a story every week for most of his life). The man was a writing machine, passionate about the craft, and never at a loss for inspiration and ideas. If you only read one book about the writing process, please make it this one. Zen in the Art of Writing cover.

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Stern was a beloved creative writing instructor at Florida State University and was incredibly passionate about fiction. In addition to writing essays for National Public Radio and heading the Creative Writing program at FSU, he also founded the World’s Best Short Short Story Contest (250 word limit). He was a proponent of the spontaneity of the writing process, encouraging his students to “not overthink”, but instead let inspiration guide them. A great read for writers who want to break the rules.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. An excellent book by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (which is one of the best short story collections ever written). Butler’s view is that fiction does not come from ideas, but from our dreams, or more precisely, from the same place where our dreams originate. It’s an interesting concept and one I appreciate. Imagination is the starting point, hidden in our unconscious minds. Reading this book got me thinking deeply about where my ideas come from, and it’s the reason I keep a pad and pen next to the bed so I can write down my nocturnal thoughts.

On Writing by Stephen King. I think it’s safe to say that most writers, especially younger ones, have read this book. But if you haven’t, it’s definitely worth your time. King writes about his story-telling journey, interspersed with his thoughts on the process, other writers, and the publishing industry. A must-read.

On Writing by Eudora Welty. Another Pulitzer Prize winner and an interesting, if slightly outdated, look at the writing process and what it takes to be a writer. On Writing is actually an excerpt from a longer work entitled, The Eye of the Story, but this slim volume focuses on the fundamentals of fiction. This is a book that discusses the rules in a concise fashion, and although originally written in 1942, much of the advice is still pertinent. And for what it’s worth, Welty’s book came before King’s.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. This is arguably the most technical book on the list. Gardner, a best-selling author and creative writing instructor, offers a clinical and straight-forward approach to writing fiction, even going so far as to use graphs, geometric charts, and sentence diagrams to illustrate the process of plotting, development, and rhythm. While not necessarily a fun read, The Art of Fiction provides a technical view of the process. I found it educational. The Art of Fiction cover.

I believe there’s a lot to learn from other writers. Everyone has their own personal take on the process, with a little overlap here and there. But still, in my opinion, it’s important to explore the craft, to see what other writers do, to learn new tricks and tips, and maybe even improve your own writing along the way.

Never pass up an opportunity to learn.

RB