Dear Readers, it’s been an ugly Summer, day after day of bad news that breaks your heart 50 ways before breakfast . . . last week it was so bad that I and the 5 o’clock angel kept company every single day.

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And now it’s Thursday and my article in The Guardian came out and I want a vat of white wine for breakfast. You can read it here, and then you can Comment on it all you want, but the author of the piece hates it. I want to go on a very serious whine about editing that shreds your Guardian article to shreds, but you and me and the world all have more bigger problems to worry about. See how mature I’m being? And, for being so Zen, I think I know just how to reward myself (see above).

Anyhoo:

Thank you, THANK YOU for the brilliant Comments you all left last week on the post about How To Be A Jerk. I love you all for making me feel that it’s not yet time to hang up the paint brushes and go all florange AGAIN — I really needed that. THANK YOU. You all deserve for me to respond to your brilliance one by one in this blog post, but the timing is off (don’t peek . . . I have a present for you at the very end of this week’s blather) so let me go back and reply in the Comments section of last week, and please allow me to explain this illustration before I give you all the best July prezzie ever:

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From Le Road Trip, that’s my illustration of the tower of Michel de Montaigne who, while I’m being so philosophical and all, I want to thank for keeping me company this past week:

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“I doubt if I can decently admit at what little cost to the repose and tranquillity of my life I have passed more than half of it amid the ruin of my country.”

If the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne had not died in 1592 . . . wait, let me start over. If the opinionated and always entertaining Michel de Montaigne were alive today he’d be a top lifestyle blogger, and he’d have written the above line more like this:

It might be indecent of me to admit this, but I’ve managed to live these past 30 years happily engrossed with my own inner life at the same time that my country was shitting out its brains in bloody civil war, brutal religious retaliations, and government-sanctioned massacre and assassination of its own citizens.

If you have to be sober these days, and I don’t recommend it, reading Sarah Bakewell‘s charming examination of the life and work of the immortal Michel de Montaigne will give you much-needed mental repose amid the heartbreaking reality of the world we live in.

In How To Live; A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer Miss Bakewell breaks up Montaigne’s life and classic Essais into 20 chapters that each provide an answer the question that preoccupied Montaigne the most ( How To Live? ) with chapter sub-headings/answers such as Don’t Worry About Death; Pay Attention; Survive Love and Loss.  

Montaigne’s own words are, thanks to the wit and brilliant scholarship of Miss Bakewell, put in context of his bizarre upbringing (he was the son of a rich man who employed special tutors who only spoke to him in Latin for the first 5 years of his life) and the fashions of the day (the French King Henri III was considered weird because he had outlandish personal hygiene habits, such as washing his hair from time to time) and current events (the above mentioned wars and atrocities) of his time. And lordy, Montaigne lived in terrible times, more terrible than our own.

If Montaigne can do it — retain a personal and philosophical delight with the world while it was beheading Protestants, spreading the plague, and murdering cats — well, my Wonder Ones, so can we. I have to believe that.

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That’s Steve (above), on my front wall, chowing down on dinner; and that’s the little Blue Jay feather I found floating in his water bowl when I went out to feed him. What can I say? Life has its moments.

Now for my gift to you all:

This is me (below), walking around our little village of Roslyn the other day, wearing what I thought was a very nifty walking-around outfit until I saw the picture that Top Cat took of it and me:

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NO, that’s not the gift.

Helen Mirren turns 71 on July 26 and I’ve been collecting photos of her this past year because it is obvious that I need a mentor in how to look extremely nifty, and Helen’s my It Girl. And because I know that all you Dear Readers are My Kind of People, I know you love Helen Mirren too.

Happy Birthday, dear Helen; you are the human equivalent of a Blue Jay feather.

So here, from me to you, with love, is my photo essay titled

How To Live in Helen Mirren’s World.

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Oh, man, we do loves us some Helen Mirren.

I ended with the coat that I want almost more than BlueJay feathers. How’s about you?

Dear Readers, XX OO, and you’re welcome.

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I’ve been meaning to give author R. L. Stein a piece of my mind for some time now, but world events and The Real Housewives of Orange County (please, Bravo, please fire Vicki) ate into my stockpile of ire. But it’s been almost a year since I was deeply offended by R. L. Stine and so, today I’m in the mood to discuss R. L. Stine’s interview with The New York Times Book Review of  August 23, 2015.

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You’re hosting a literary dinner party, the Times posits; Which three writers are invited?

R. L. Stine (who I never heard of but turns out he writes very popular children’s horror books) answers: Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Jane Austen. 

So far, so good. But then he goes on:

And I would ask them all my all-time least-favorite question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s that last bit, the part about how annoying it is for R. L. Stine, famous author, to be asked: Where do you get your ideas? that chaps my butt. Which I will discuss while I show you how I painted my latest Triscuit (since my anti-R. L. Stine tirade has no visual component):

I just love the way a Summer lawn looks when it is shadowed by sunlight flickering through leafy tree branches. Is there a word for that? There should be a word for that, and that is what I tried to paint in my latest Triscuit, which I painted this far (see below) before I had to throw it out and start all over because of those two mushy lumps of greenish yellow in the upper left quadrant, which are very ugly:

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So I start over:

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Back to R. L. Stine: Well, excuuuuuse me, R. L. Stine, and other writer-snobs of your ilk who I have heard and read deploring the same query posed by the un-writerly otherwise known as reader-type persons, if you find it sooooooo annoying to be asked how/where/when or why you were inspired to write what you wrote. 

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Albert Einstein, who by the way got a lot of far more important ideas than any freaking Goosebumps plot (by R. L. Stine), and he gladly answered the question re: How did yogurt that idea for general relativity? by describing the moment as “the happiest thought of my life“, when this idea popped into his head: To a man falling freely in a gravitational field, that gravity does not exist. And from there, a lot of important mathematics and an total upheaval of the Newtonian Universe ensued.

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The only physicist since Einstein’s death to rival Einstein for brilliance, Richard Feynman, wrote about how he was sitting in a college cafeteria watching an underclassman throw a plate across the room (?), and realized that the center of that plate wobbled at a different rate than the edge of that plate and that there was no equation that explained the rate of spin, so he worked it out, just out of curiosity, and next thing you know he’s figured out quarks, and time travel, or some other such momentous usefulness that I can’t quite remember (but that’s a true story about the plate).

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Virginia Woolfe wrote, in her diary of 1918, about a time when she was sitting in a field and saw “a red hare loping up the side & thinking suddenly “This is Earth Life”. I seemed to see how earthy it all was, & I myself [just] an evolved kind of hare; as if a moon-visitor saw me.” Next thing you know, Virginia Woolf is writing other-worldly stream-of-consciousness novels about the Earth life of characters such as Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando.

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And R. L. Stine feels put out because someone wants to know where he got the idea for his character Slappy the Dummy???

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 R. L. Stein, I have just the T-shirt for you:

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Ideas are wondrous gifts from the Universe!  Ideas are what keeps us from being bored to death! Ideas can end up as anything from the double helix of DNA to croissants! And I LOVE croissants!!

So I think it is extremely shitty that R. L. Stine, or anyone who elaborates upon his or her unique ideas for a living (whether in words, numerals, chromosomes, or pastry dough) would find it tedious to explain the wherefore-art-thous of those ideas. Because maybe the people who ask that question, Where do you get your ideas?, are people who need to be inspired by the mysterious way that an idea, of, say, a red hare or a spinning plate lobbed by a college kid, becomes a novel or a Nobel Prize.

Or, maybe, that person is like me, and hasn’t come across a good idea in a long while and is looking for a hint as to where to look.

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I got my idea for this Triscuit from walking past the local duck pond here in Roslyn village, on the Long Island of New York state (America) on a beautiful June afternoon.

I got the idea for my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, from a 1939 Popular Science Encyclopedia article about electrons, titled When Wanderers Cease to Rove. As soon as I read those words — BOOM. I had a fabulous title and the raison d’être of my quasi-travel life story. Buying that dusty encyclopedia set for $10 at a Salvation Army Thrift Shop in central Pennsylvania 20 years ago and waiting 8 years to open volume 5 to that page with “Rove” printed on it remains one of my Top Ten Happiest Thoughts in my life.

My second book, Le Road Trip, wasn’t much of a hot idea — doesn’t everybody who goes to France want to make an illustrated travel memoir out of the trip? — but the idea for breaking the trip down into chapters that tracked the stages of a love affair came from a Wallace Stevens poem called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.  I made every chapter of that book a different way of looking at France, one as a straight, linear story; one as a Day in the Life; one as a Top Ten list; one as an A to Z inventory; etc.

I regret not thinking of a better title than Le Road Trip, though — turns out that a lot of English-speakers are troubled by the “Le“. True story.

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I felt compelled to write Gardens of Awe and Folly when I was looking through the huge Garden section of my local library couldn’t find not one book about garden travel at all, and none about gardens that I wanted to read. Why did every garden book have to be a How To, and a lot of that about How To determine your dirt’s personality?

So, if I had to invent an entire new genre of garden writing to produce a garden book that I could stand to read, then so be it. And voila: Gardens of Awe and Folly.

I didn’t have a title for the book until the week before it had to go to press. All I knew was that I had to have the word Garden in it, but nothing during the three years that I worked on it had appeared in a vision, not even when I went back to the Popular Science Encyclopedia and browsed all 10 volumes.

So, with time running out, I sat myself down and just began to make a list of all the words that related to the gardens in the book. And then the phrase Garden of Earthly Delights chimed in my head, and I knew that it had the perfect syllable count for a great title, but I had to substitute words for Earthly Delights (too cliche) and so, from sheer doggedness, I finally got to Awe and Folly.

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I have to admit that I haven’t had a good idea since I worked that title out. And I am desperate for a good idea. I need a project.

So . . . where do your ideas come from?

If you’ve ever had a nifty brainwave from the Universe, or you know of a good story about where an idea came from, or you ave an idea that you wish someone would execute for you, please Comment. (It’s a tiny bit awkward to do that on this template: you have to click onto the READ MORE button at the bottom of this post.) If your idea or idea story triggers some scathingly brilliant notion for my next book, I WILL DEDICATE THAT BOOK TO YOU. I’m talking full page, front-of-the-book acknowledgement. Illustrated.

I await your many wobbly ways of looking at Earth Life.

XXOO

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It’s like finding an early morning treasure when I come across Dennis, our recently-acquired feral freeloader, on the back patio when I go out to feed him at 6 o’clock in the morning — isn’t this a great way to start the day?:

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And, sometimes, there’s other treasures out there, awaiting me:

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You might remember that in last week’s blog post I demanded that the Universe send me a damn Blue Jay tail feather (for my collection). Well, later that same day, after sending my peevish request out into the infinite benevolent indifference, I was cleaning out my refrigerator and I smacked my head really hard and good against the corner of the freezer door handle, and it hurt like being jabbed with a hot pocker and smacked with a sledgehammer at the same time (I’m guessing) and is an injury that is only possible because I have this kind of out-of-style refrigerator:prod_2041918312

A bump on the head is how the English actress Natasha Richardson died (in 2009) and is what killed Michel de Montaigne’s brother (in 1569). So I took care to notice any symptoms of double vision or confusion the rest of the day until bedtime, at which time I warily laid myself down to sleep with the thought that if I don’t die during the night, I would most likely wake up the next morning and sincerely thank my lucky stars (and you well know that in my case, I do that literally; the “stars” being the Sun and Deneb Algedi).

And I did wake up the next morning, and the first thing I did do was promise the day that I would love it and treasure it. And then I forgot about it as I got out of bed and put Top Cat’s coffee on and fed the indoor cats and cleaned litter boxes and headed out to the back yard to give Dennis Whiskerbottoms his breakfast. And then came the small jolt of electricity when I saw the Blue Jay feather right at my tootsies.

Without meditation, without searching, even without being the least bit mindful of my endless quest for Blue Jay feathers and their purpose to remind me to pay astonished attention to life, there was my treasure, as if delivered right directly to me. I was reaching down to grab it into my chubby mitt when I remembered that such a momentous find needed to be photographed in situ:

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I know it looks staged, but I can’t help it if the Universe is a tad ham-handed when it comes to depositing Her gifts at the feet of a wretch like me, and I promise that this is a true story:

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And yeah, it’s a tail feather.

I KNOW! Life is like a dream! If, that is, you dream of Blue Jay feathers! Thank you, Blue Jays and Universe!

You know who else gives me dreams?

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I have Taylor Swift to thank, from the bottom of my heart, every time I make a reservation or leave a message or make an appointment and I don’t have to spell my last name, S like Sam, W, I, F like Frank, T like Tom. And it would still end up as Smith or, most of the time during the 11-year run of the television show M*A*S*H, Swit.

Loretta Swit is a fine actress and exemplary animal rights and military veteran rights activist, but I don’t like her last name and I absolutely hated the inevitable “joke” whenever a stranger heard my name: Any relation to Hot Lips, ha ha?! I must have heard that “joke” thousand times in my 20s. No wonder I can’t stand people.

Taylor Swift is her generation’s Joni Mitchell, a brilliant singer/songwriter dream girl who is always ahead of fashion, and always has the hottest boyfriends. (If you don’t know Joni’s dating history, here’s partial list from back when these guys were the topper-most hot guys: James Taylor, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and I think one or two of the Byrds.)

Until recently, Taylor Swift was the long-time girlfriend (15 months, which is almost a decade in famous pop star years) of a handsome, 32-year old  6’5″ multi-millionaire DJ and Scotsman named Calvin Harris:

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They were such a cute couple. But they did break up and shortly after they went to splitsville, I began having infrequent but repetitive dreams that I was back in my 20s. That alone would be a most excellent reason for me to wish for 12 hours of sleep every night, but wait there’s more. In my dreams, there’s also a young man, courting me, with a fervor and sweetness that only happened once in my real 20s, back when a book shop co-worker confessed that he had a crush on me and thought I was so adorable that if I were a dog, I’d be a collie.

I dreamt of that same scenario last night, only this time the dog-allusive young man gave me a gift that I was able to inspect in detail, and then later remember in detail after I woke up. It was a necklace, a fine gold chain on which were strung white pearls alternating with polished rock crystal spheres of a very beautiful type. Namely, colorless rutilated quartz:

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Photo from the internet, curtesy of mineralminers.com.

I guess you can tell that I am a certified gemologist (from waaaaay back); I hardly ever dream of jewelry but when I do, I tend to be very specific about the gems. But rutilated quartz? That’s a new one. I didn’t know I liked it enough to dream about it. (FYI: I can not think of a way to put pearls and rutilated quartz beads on a gold chain, since piercing the quartz would pretty much ruin the effect of the rutile inclusions.)

It was while I was pondering upon this jeweled necklace that I figured out why I was dreaming these weird happy dreams of dating.

It’s because I’ve been closely following Taylor Swift’s new romance with the elegant and sexy actor Tom Hiddleston because yes, I read the Daily Mail.com every day so sue me.  Tom Hiddleston is 35 (9 years older than Taylor), 6’2″, from a very classy family, English with a Scottish father, Eton and Cambridge educated. They met at the 2016 Met Gala and, in my opinion, he fell for her like a ton of rutilated quartz and swept her off her feet as soon as she became available. I like her with him.

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So I’ve been feeding my mind lots of Taylor Swift romance and my brain only hears the Swift part before it jumps to conclusions, i.e., that the Swift it knows best is the Swift who was once favorably compared to a collie, so I’m dreaming about my old romance when I was Taylor Swift’s age. I’m old enough to have been Taylor Swift’s kindergarten teacher. Should I feel creepy?

Other follow-up from last week: I did make contact with the Cat Lady three streets over and she graciously gave permission to TNR her crew of feral freeloaders, so: YAY! Master trapper Susan has captured 9 of these guys so far, including the very sick one that we were out worried about.

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Three Desperados (out of 15)

And as for Steve, well, he’s still Steve on our front stone wall, sleeping off a two-course dinner of Friskie’s Turkey & Giblets pâté and more Friskie’s Turkey and Giblets pâté, and dreaming of a three-course dessert of Friskie’s anything:

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And, without segue, here are pictures from my little village on July 4th, Independence Day, America’s 240th birthday:

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And, for obvious reasons, my favorite:

P1080282Sweet dreams, everyone.

 

 

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If not for watching the Blue Jays in my backyard, I’d be licking batteries, or kayaking, or whatever it is that people do to alleviate their boredom.

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I used to think that I could never get tired of life because the world was so damn interesting that I’d have to stay alive just to find out what happened next. The tip-top height of my enthusiasm over the goings-on of this little rock adrift in the Universe was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, when I watched my fellow citizens of Planet Earth tear down a hateful ideology, joyously, hand by hand, with the whole world tuning in on their TVs to be there in spirit and celebration. Wow, I remember saying to myself, with pride in and hope for humanity; The 1990s are going to be awesome!

I don’t have to tell you how desperately I mis-read the situation. The 1990’s sucked, the 2000’s sucked a thousand times worse, and the 20-teens’s are trying their best to convince me that life (in the words of memoirist Mary Karr) is really nothing more than a shit-eating contest.

Thank DoG for these cat-food eating Blue Jays with the collectible feathers molting in my backyard.

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This is a Blue Jay choosing dry cat food over luscious sunflower seeds. The tiny little yellow pellets — millet? — are always the last to go.

You see, in addition to my weariness with current events, I am also still not writing a new book, meaning that I am effectively unemployed. And it’s horrible. I like to work. I’m happy when I’m working…or, I should say, I’m less un-happy when I have work to do — I’m a Capricorn. We are not life-of-the-party people.

So I spend my days trying to keep sane by finding things to do. I color-code teveryhing hanging in my closet. I find fault with my home furnishings. I wonder how closely related I am to Taylor Swift (who is perfect, so shut up). I research YouTube for videos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking French (he’s perfect, even with his heavy Canuk accent, so shut up*****). It’s all very useful stuff, but it’s not real work.

Studs Terkel used his hammer-like intellect to hit the boredom-nail right on the head when he observed that work is about the search “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

I found that quote in the introduction to Dave Isay’s excellent new book about people and the purpose and passion of their work, called Callings. Who knew that to the guy at Zabar’s deli counter, slicing lox is his calling?

I don’t, as of this writing, have a book that needs to exist in the world calling out to me, but I do hear the call of Blue Jays. So until further notice, collecting Blue Jay feathers is pretty much my job.

And so, as this is Take Your Blog Readers To Work Day here in VivianWorld, I’m going to take you with me as I do a search for All Things Feathery and Blue, which is the only way I know how to not let the terrorists win.

Starting out, I know that those Blue Jay feathers are already out there — all I have to do is find them. And if mind-mowing my front and back lawns doesn’t yield a plume or two, I start eyeballing the fringes of my acre of Earth. This is a neglected patch of old mulch near the garage:

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The camera lies.

Because to my eyes, that teeny little Blue Jay feather amidst all that dead brown stuff is glowing like bright, hot, blue-glowing thing:

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Sorry this picture is out of focus. The camera, again, misses the point.

Then I walked across the street and examined the rubbish along the curb for the same phenomena, which was bound to happen:

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See it now?

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Five minutes later, in the shade of a hemlock tree, it was pretty easy to be hit by another blot of tiny blue lightning:

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If you are keeping count, that’s three in one day. But wait . . . there’s still the hideous late afternoon doldrums to contend with. So there I was, with Top Cat, sitting in our Adirondack chairs in the backyard, discussing whose turn it was to fetch ice cubes for the pitcher of vodka tonics we were working on, when I happened to look down into the clover patch that I have been defending for years now against Top Cat’s urge to go all fescue, and something not-clover swam into my ken:

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There is no moral. There’s just, for the time being, four small reasons to keep the despair at bay. Plus, I haven’t found a tail feather yet (see: map of Blue Jay at the top of this blog post) and I WANT A DAMN TAIL FEATHER.

Before I go, I want to clear up the impression I might have given you, Dear Readers, last week, that I live amongst millionaires here on the north shore of the Isle of Long. Oh sure, there is the odd McMansion that goes for 1.388 million:

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But this is the mansion directly across the street from me (and just two houses down from the cut-rate Tara of above):

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One of my neighbors calls the local authorities about once a month to complain about this house, which he calls an eyesore (and it’s inhabited, by the way– by a bachelor who’s lived there since 1981), but I find it rather picturesque:

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And, in keeping with my theme of what a slum I live in, I also recently discovered a bit of a Cat Lady situation three streets over:

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I’ve been bringing food and water to these sweeties this past week, and have contacted the wonderful TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) network about the 15 feral (that I’ve counted so far, and two are seriously ill)  who live on this property, but the TNR people are all about Getting Permission from the Home Owner, and I’m all about trespassing the hell out of the place.

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This is the basement window (in the pic above) that the home owner has rigged up with a tiny kitty door so that the cats can come and go in and out of the house — check out the two white paws visible above the head of the kitten that is far right — and the lawn is kept and tidy, but the food bowls are always empty when I check and the smell is about what you’d expect when you have 15  + cats using your yard as a litter box.

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I’ve knocked on the door many times, I’ve asked the neighbors, I’ve left notes. I think I’m going to have to stake out the place to get a moment with the Cat Lady here, but no matter what she says I WILL get these cats. I’ve gone rogue before. I’m a one person Cats Protection League.

I’m sorry if reading this has raised your blood pressure — I feel my heart racing just thinking of the neglect, pure and simple, of these dear kitties going on here. Which reminds me that it’s time to TNR our new friend, Denny Whiskerbottoms, who is nothing if not fetching on a Sunday afternoon in the shed:

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Steve, as you can see below, has gone totally groovy since he was TNR’d last month; so groovy, in fact, that when I came across him sticking halfway out from under the holly bush in the side yard, I thought he was dead:

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He was just doing his Steve Yoga:

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He favorite time for getting all Zen is after diner, when the cement on the front porch is in the shade, but still warm from gathering the day’s worth of star shine:

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This is a true story: I put this exact image of Steve in my mind when I was getting my blood pressure checked last Friday; my first physical in eight years. I wanted to do well on the cardio front even though wearing those idiot paper gowns at the doctor’s office stresses me out. So I thought Steve Steve Steve, and my BP was 104 / 75. I did the same for the EKG and the doctor said to me, Wow — you have a nice slow heart beat!

So, between the bunny-butted bliss of my Manx Steve and the ever-blue joy of Blue Jays, I guess life won’t tire me out yet, and I will go forth, panther-pawed, in the ways of awe and folly.

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This is from Ray Bradbury:

Not smash and grab, but rather find and keep;
Go panther-pawed where all the mined truths sleep
To detonate the hidden seeds with stealth
So in your wake a weltering of welath
Springs up unseen, ignored and left behind
As you sneak on, pretending to be blind.
On your return along the jungle path you’ve made
Find all the littered stuffs where you have strayed;
The small truths and the large have surfaced there
Where you stealth-blundered wildly unaware
Or seeming so. And so these mines were mined
In easy game of pace and pounce and find;
But mostly fluid pace, not too much pounce.
Attention must be paid, but by the ounce.
Mock caring, seem aloof, ignore each mile
And metaphors like cats behind your smile
Each one wound up to purr, each one a pride,
Each one a fine gold beast you’ve hid inside,
Now summoned forth in harvests from the brake
Turned anteloping elephants that shake
And drum and crack the mind to awe,
To behold beauty yet perceive its flaw.
Then, flaw discovered, like fair beauty’s mole,
Haste back to reckon all entire, the Whole.
This done, pretend these wits you do not keep,
Go panther-pawed where all the mined truths sleep.

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For those of you who might not know, our own Dear Reader Monique, French-Canadian as all get-out and an amazing photographer, has been to Paris and her blog posts about her June journey are not to be missed. I LOVED the get-away I got just by reading all about it here.

Have a great Weekend, my velvet-footed Wonder Ones.

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You-Know-What made a fine showing on the Long Island Sound this past Monday:

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THE FIRST SUNSET OF SUMMER!

Steve, for one, was feeling it:

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Something about the way Steve shows up regularly for breakfast and dinner on my front stone wall, and stakes out the front stoop in between meals to coerce me into handing out his favorite salmon-flavored kitty snacks, and gives me blinky-eyes like he’s practically domesticated, well, something about all that seems to hint that Wandering Steve might be ready to put an end to his free-agency, and come join the herd full time. Which would be my tuxedo kitty-dream come true.

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Steve is a Manx, a breed of cat that is naturally tail-less, which I must explain because some people do not know that cats come in two shapes, Normal and Bunny Butt.

And speaking of bunny butts in my front and back yards . . .

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. . . here are some recent sightings from the neighborhood:

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Just around the corner the other day, I envied these people (below) for having a magical, life-changing tidying up experience, which is what I saw in their mountain of joy-sparking de-clutter pitched onto their front lawn . . .

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Built in 2002, 3410 sq. feet (317 sq. meters), 5 bedrooms, 4.5 baths.

. . . but it was only (only?) a major clear-out for when, two weeks later, they put their house up for sale. So here’s your opportunity to be my neighbor, for $1.388 million!

Inspired by such spiffitude, Top Cat and Bibs decided to do some home improvements in our way under-1.388 million dollar manse:

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One of the reasons that we are in the Less Than Million Dollar part of the neighborhood is because of this:

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Yes, that is the “solution” to the gas leak of three weeks ago, when Top Cat and I absconded to the Jersey Shore to get away from the fumes. I didn’t mention it then, but it was me who called the fire department about the gas leak in the first place, which brought fire trucks and fire marshals and utility crews back to the scene of the crime (a botched installation of new lines). The upshot was that the second crew of diggers work well into the night, only to leave a bigger hole, which they covered with very large sheets of plywood, and these four handsome daleks as sentries, and new, additional ventilation holes drilled into the street:

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We haven’t seen hide nor hair of National Grid since, and there are still, albeit faint, whiffs of gas wafting around the block. Sigh.

I’m just not in the mood to call out the troops and make trouble again, which is so not like me. Current events still have me spiritually drained. When it comes to doing my part to hold the bastards accountable (in general, that is, for gas leaks and etc.), I am weary. The dim-wits, the entitled, the cynical, the half-assed, and the self-absolved-righteous always prevail. I feel tired most of the time.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to get out there and Look For Blue Jay Feathers.

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That, above, was last year’s haul of Blue Jay feathers, all from my own back yard (and a few from the front one, too). It was the Summer of 2015 and, having deposited with my editor my finished manuscript for Gardens of Awe and Folly, I was ready to re-enter the world of light and color after living in a three-year-old black hole of book-writing. During my time of darkness, I had been AWOL  as a collector of Blue Jay feathers, amassing only three or four a year — in 2014, I did not even bother to search: I have ZERO feathers to show for it. A lost Summer.

So, 2015 rolls around and I am trying to re-awken myself to the world, and I feel like a beginner in Being. I’m out of touch with the Blue Jay nature of the world. Still, I say to the Universe: Please, I’d like to find 5 feathers this year.

It was a big demand. Extravagant. Unrealistic. Totally presumptuous. I don’t know where I got the gall — five feathers! It was magical thinking at its best!

In the end, I found 40. See above.

(You can read all about the 40th Feather here.)

This year, I have a whole lot more on my mind. I thought things were bad last year, but they are even worse this year. It’s so bad that I have doubts, big and small, about Blue Jays. But, still, so far this year, even though it feels as if I am only going through the motions, I set up my Blue Jay Feather Finding Quest.

First, the mechanics of the Quest.

You have to give Blue Jays a reason to hang out in your back yard:

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It’s as simple as that– a bowl of dry cat food set up on something that gives the Jays a look-out for cats. Even hyper-nervous Cardinals like this set-up:

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You can mix sunflower seeds and bird food in with the dry cat food, if you fret about the menu, but the cat food is what Blue Jays really love.

My back yard is surrounded by tall trees, which is helpful because the Blue Jays flit in and out of them all day in order to swoop to the trash can buffet. But even if you don’t have trees, all you need is Blue Jays flapping their wings over your designated Questing Spot, because the more they flap, the more molt you will get = better chance of finding plumes. So that’s it for the nuts and bolts.

Next, there’s the mental game.

I like to watch the Blue Jays come and feed, but I also ask every bird that I see: Please leave me a feather. Preferably, a tail feather, please. I feel that this is an important part of gathering Blue Jay feathers: you have to let the Blue Jays know that you’re in the market for their cast-offs.

Now for the actual collecting:

On an ideal morning, I wake up half an hour before the rest of the house, which would make it around 5am. I’ve been up as early as 4:30 and it’s delightful to prowl in the last remains of night and watch the day break open, but you can’t quest for Blue Jay feathers in the dark, so any hour at the crack of dawn is best for feather-hunting.

Then I go to the kitchen and I make a cup of tea, black India tea, to which I add a tablespoon of honey and a drop of pure vanilla extract. You won’t taste the vanilla — but your cup will get a hovering mist of an almost angelic scent of meadows and roses.Vanilla puts me in a good mood.

Then I open the back door and step outside. It will be cool and dewy out there in the back yard, and I will take a moment to ask the Universe to Let me see the Blue Jay feathers that are scattered in the blade of grass before me. And then I remember to add, Please.

And then I start to walk, my eyes focused on the bit of Earth at my feet. I walk slowly, as if I am mowing: all the way across one way, and then all the way back the other way; repeat. My wanders. I think about other mornings, other Blue Jay feathers, and, more often than not, the latest song that is stuck in my head. I don’t try to think, or not think. I’m just paying attention, in a very relaxed way. I stop often to sip my tea, take a look around. This is the part of the day that reminds me to be happy to be alive.

I don’t visualize, I don’t expect. I just walk and wonder.

Even if you don’t find a feather every morning, it’s not a bad way to start the day.

But when you do find a feather — it is always the brightest shiniest fun moment! It’s as if the thing materialized out of thin air — as if it was dropped right there, in front of you, just for you!

The other thing about doing the morning ritual is that it puts it in your mind that you are now a Blue Jay Feather Magnet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve completed my dawn mosey, found nothing, and then, later that day, I’ll be walking to my car or down the sidewalk to a neighbor’s — and BAM. Right in front of me is a Blue Jay feather, there on the concrete or asphalt, in the heat of day, when BlueJay feathers weren’t even on my mind.

That’s fun, too.

So I began my 2016 Blue Jay Feather Quest one week ago. And how many feathers have I found so far?

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3. And none of them came from a dawn walking of the Earth.

And then again, all of them have come from a dawn walking of the Earth.

 

Go ahead, ask the Universe for something audacious. Unburden the heart, roam the mind, clear the eyes. It’s right there in front of you.

Have a great weekend, Wonder Ones.

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Oh, what an awful week. Current events horrify me, and I grew up during the Vietnam War with nightly body counts on the 6 o’clock news, and I was a mile up the road from the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. So I’ve had a long acquaintance with every day human brutality, but the world has worn me down and this new brand of evil makes me weary and soul-sick.

I just wrote, and deleted, a few hundred words on Orlando, Magnanville, and Leeds. A couple hundred words on these atrocities is too feeble — a million words wouldn’t be enough. So I’m just going to quote the poet Christopher Soto:

Who smiles when the sky swallows its stars?

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photo credit: Favim.com

When I am wrecked and racked, I paint stones.

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My favorite part illustrating Le Road Trip was painting the wonderful stones of Brittany and Normandy.

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When I paint stones I feel calm, and quiet.

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Stone work requires a lot of concentration, but not a lot of attention. I think that’s the definition of meditation.

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(This is the Winter view of (above) — from When Wanderers Cease to Roam):

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The stones are my favorite part of any picture, no matter how small:

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And, sometimes, I find a view that is just an excuse for me to paint a lot of stones:

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Oh, how I needed to paint stones this past week, and I searched all my photos to find some stones that “spoke” to me. I didn’t find any. So I turned to the inter webs and I found this photo, by the renowned garden designer Caroline Garland:

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This happens to be a very stony picture, of a garden that I know rather well: The Chelsea Physic Garden in London. So these were the stones I set out to meditate upon. First thing, I gathered my mindfulness gear:

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I am mixing chalky Grumbacher paints with Winsor Newton watercolors. I use Davy’s Gray here and there, but it is not as good as the gray I make myself, by mixing Peach with Blue, Brown, Black, and Sienna:

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Sometimes I mix the colors right on my brush, sometimes I swab them directly onto the paper, and sometimes I smear them together like this:

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I am painting a Squint,by the way. I always start with the trickiest bit first:

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I’m using black to paint negative space, which is a risky move — I’m using a size 00 brush here:

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For each face of an individual stone, I mix ochre, gray, and a tiny bit of brown to get that “stoney” effect:

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I let each face, or cell, dry before I paint the bit next to it (this prevents unwanted bleeding):

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I re-wetted this little cell here and dabbed n the tiniest among of black, and let it bleed a very very teeny bit:

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Yeah, my preferred method is to work in colors while the cell is wet, and to see what kinds of bleeds I can get:

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Each of these cells in this pillar was painted individually — yes, they look wonky and horrible now, but just wait:

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Calm, slow, careful, and with an empty mind, I painted in these dark, dark shadow lines. It was tight-wire painting, and terribly satisfying:

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I put a green-blue wash over the background stones:

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You might have noticed that I painted the stone pillar incorrectly — take a look at it here (above and below): Do you see how I forgot to make the top two stones (on the right side of the pillar) 3-dimensional?

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So I fixed it, by “picking up” the pigment (that’s why Grumbacher is so good: it lets you “erase”) and painting in the optical illusion of 3-dimensions:

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You might also notice those dabs of color in the margins. That’s how I test watercolor shades before I apply it to the pic — no damn color charts for me!

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I put in some white acrylic dots in the fore- and background, over which I dabbed watercolor, so the “flowers” would pop:

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Comparing the photo to my painting, you can see that I’ve edited the original to suit my limitations as a painter:

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Well, also, since the Squint is very small (it’s 5.75 inches x 1.33 inches. . . 14.6 cm x 3.38 cm, I think), the background must be simplified. I also wanted to make this a cheery scene, and so I made it very green — and I used the greenery in the background to define the stone wall and pillar back there, so I wouldn’t have to outline them. I don’t mind outlines, but I wasn’t in the mood for them this day.

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I call this Squint, Stonewall.

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June 14 vigil at New York’s historic Stonewall Inn for the 49 victims of Pulse in Orlando. Love is love is love is love is love is love is love. cc: Magnanville, Leeds

The other thing I do when I feel so bad is hang with these guys:

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I took this photo through the living room window — that’s Steve, of course, dozing on our stone wall in the front of the house.

Now, about Steve: the other day, a woman rang our doorbell. Which is always weird, because who does that? The woman introduced herself and said she stopped by because she saw our cat food bowls set out on our front porch stone wall and she’s a TNR  (Trap/Neuter/Realease) rescuer…OH! I said: I wondered who Steve’s angel was!

Susan doesn’t live near us; she’d been called in by a neighbor on a road behind us about several feral cats and had trapped 5 males — including our own dear Steve (and kept him under observation in her home for a week in a huge dog pen). She’s on the hunt for a female, and seeing our cat food bowls, she rightly took us for Cat People, and wanted to give us her card in case we spot Mama Cat. She and I had a discussion about trapping methods and I learned that HavAHeart is so last century. There’s a whole lot of new trapping technology that has passed me by! I don’t know why I’m exclaiming this! So you know who I’m going to call when It’s time to TNR our dear Dennis:

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And saving the best ’til last,

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I am pleased to announce the Winner of the Super Duper Quartet Triscuit Give Away is:

Maryanne from SC!

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Thank you, all you magnificent  5-star reviewers own Amazon. I confess, I read your reviews to give me courage for when I will sit in a dark room for another three years and try to make something useful and wanted in this world.

Maryanne, we all hope you enjoy your Tea Time Triscuits with a lapful of cats, a heartful of love, and a fluteful of champagne!

Have a good weekend, Wonder Ones; let’s try to hold the planet together for one peace full day.

**Next Friday, if we can get through the week unscathed, I will present the previously schedules post, dedicated to Nancy S., on How To Find Blue Jay Feathers. Spoiler: it involves cat food.

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Occasionally, I dream in French. Or, I should say, I dream that everyone in my dream is speaking French because, you know, there’s no actual transcript to check later. But many years ago, I had a dream in which these exact words, in indisputable French, appeared to me: souffle d’argent.

Souffle d’argent. Soof-le  dar-zjen, sort of like this:

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Photo Credit: Condolux.net

NOT THIS:

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Photo Credit: taste.com.au

(Souffle is not the puffy food called soof-lay.)

I woke up and wrote these words down, and puzzled over them for days. Literally, souffle d’argent means breath of silver.

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Back in Dreamland, I had been in flight when these words appeared to me (in writing, by the way), and I was soaring on a breath of air (souffle d’air), and it was silvery, like a rain that wasn’t made of water, and it was soft and comforting, and it held me up and made me feel safe. And by the way, this dream came at a time in my life when I was very depressed, not clinically depressed, mind you; just having a very discouraging time in my life. But, oh! The waking effect of this dream was that I felt lifted up, not entirely out of my despair, but up enough so I could peer over its edge and see light. And that lightness of being lasted for days, because I could re-summon the feeling of safety and comfort just by thinking of the words: souffle d’argent.

I should also say that I did not hold myself or my subconscious responsible for this message. It came from the Universe. 

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Which, apparently, speaks French. 

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Which might not be a surprise to French people, to whom I guess the Universe always speaks French.  What I would love to eavesdrop on is the Universe speaking my cat’s language. 

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But I digress.

I almost wrote about this souffle d’argent dream ten years ago when I was working on the June chapter of When Wanderers Cease to Roam, but I chickened out because if you don’t know me well and you read about the souffle d’argent, I come off like a snot-nosed twerp: Oh, she dreams in French, does she???

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But I’m telling you all about it now because it’s been a long time since I wrote WWCTR and we know each other rather well at this point, and you have found ways to overlook my snot-nosed twerpiness, and you can see for yourself, on page 88 of WWCTR, my hint of what I think is the meaning of this silver breath of wind:

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(I have a thing for blue jay feathers. Which I now capitalize: Blue Jay feathers.)

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So here it is: the silver breath of air is the ever-so slight breeze made by the flapping of your guardian angel’s wings, which to me is not a person but the awareness of the Universe’s benevolence, because there are times when you forget that kindness exists in almost every random moment, and it feels slightly cool and somewhat silvery, and very fine.

I got a little souffle d’argent, an easement of mind, the other day and don’t judge me when I tell you that it came to me while I was reading an essay written by the author Kim Barnes in which she mentioned that when her memoir came out in 2011 she got a glowing review from the New York Times, which would normally make me hate her, but then she fessed up that her book ” sold fewer than 11,000 copies in almost five years.” Those sales figures are worse than mine! (Although I’m sure that selling the rights to her story so that she could be played by Tina Fey in the movies more than makes up for being out-sold by V. Swift. )

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By the way, I want Tine Fey to play me in the movies, too. Are you listening, Universe?

Like that — *poof* — a thorn in my side vanished, the one labeled Not Good Enough For The New York Times. Phhhhht: after reading about Kim Barker’s sales figures, I realize that getting in The New York Times isn’t the bonanza validation, guaranteed six-zeros sales figures that I thought it was! For me, this is a huge deal, because writers in general are just slightly more jealous and insecure than your average 14-year old girl, and there are oh, so many ways that I do not feel Good Enough. But this particular stab wound has healed, and it only took seconds, because that’s the way the Universe works. Things can change in an instant.

I also got a spiritual boost a the other day, at the grocery store, when I discovered that there is such a thing as lime-flavored diet tonic water.

After a fraught eight-day disappearance, my sweet Manx tuxedo stray, Steve, finally made his re-appearance . . . 

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. . . and as you can see from the little clip on his left ear, he’d been TNR’d: Trapped, Neutered, and Released by some unknown but loving cat lady. Ooo, I did feel the flutter of a guardian angel’s wing when he showed up, safe and sound.

It was a sunny and breezy day early last week when a strange movement, out of the corner of my eye, caught my attention. I looked out the window in my upstairs work room in time to watch the top half of an enormous locust tree, across the street, snap off and topple 30 feet. It seemed to make just the slightest whooshing sound, and seemed to be in slow motion! Well, because this is just what I do, I grabbed my camera and ran out into the road. . . what I didn’t expect was this:

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I never heard the tree smash onto this SUV, and at first I didn’t hear the deep breaths of the woman standing at the foot of my driveway; but then I turned and saw her and all she could say was: “I thought the car was exploding. I thought the car was exploding.” I looked into the car and I don’t know how the driver managed to escape in one piece. That inside space was smashed down like a stomped-on paper cup.

The driver was shaken up but unharmed. I waited with her until the ambulance arrived, and that’s when the woman went to pieces and began to shriek “I could have been killed! Oh my god, I could have been  killed!” I helped her husband, who had arrived some minutes later, unload the cargo from the SUV (the woman is a decorator and had lots of paint and fabric books) so it could be towed away, and then I walked back across my front yard.

And, looking down, I found this:

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The first Blue Jay feather of 2016. And yeah, it’s a flight feather.

So a lot of stuff has been happening right in front of my house lately. But the very best stuff has been happening in this little corner of the Universe, where you, my beloved Dear Readers, have lifted me up with your words of awe and fine folly — kissing tigers in disguise? That’s genius!

Thank you, my Wonder ones: Monique, Casey, Susan A., Elizabeth, Maryanne in SC, Jeanie, Mo, Vicki A, Megan, Kirra, Gretchen, Janet!, Brenda, Ann, Judy, Deborah Hatt, Laura, Deb, and Bunny: I am in awe of you all.

This is not the blog post I set out to write today. I set out to write about the Super Duper Triscuit Quartet Give Away that I forgot about, in my black hole of listlessness.

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So let’s put that on the agenda for next week, June 17, when we gather here again to see what snot-nosed twerpiness I’ve been up to.

In the meantime, I hope you all have sweet dreams and feel the feather-light presence of your own cosmologically-appropriate angels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This was the north corner of my front yard at approx. 8:05 am, before I was told that “taking pictures ain’t cool.”

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Jeeze. I’m not going to sue you guys! So I went up to my work room and took this follow-up pic:

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So yes, they are digging AGAIN into the cables and such that make this blog possible. Actually, this time it was gas lines, and they hit a geyser, and “gas leak” became the word of the day. I’m sorry that I didn’t get pix of the fire engines (two) and the police are (three) that blocked off our street after we were told to just “keep the windows closed”, but I had other things than this blog post on my mind (sorry).  But after gathering the cats into the house, and setting out multiple cat boxes and huge bowls of kitty chow and shutting all the windows, we thought, What the hell. . . let’s go to Atlantic City!

So we checked into the Borgata:

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And we got a room on the 37th floor, with a view of the coming storm:

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And then, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it hit:

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And then, came the rainbow:

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(If you look real hard on the right side of that pic (above), you’ll see it.)

So here I am, in a hotel room in Atlantic City, with a heart full of gratitude to YOU, the most wonderful Dear Readers that ever was. . .

. . . and this will have to be a Saturday (Sunday for you, you darling antipodeans, Friday for you dears on the three-hour delay on the Pacific Coast).

Oh, we have so much to talk about, such as: Why isn’t Deborah Hatt writing this blog instead of me?, and: How much do I love thee, all you amazing Commentors, without whom I would be but a sad, sad girl in search of a nonexistent tiger to kiss.

XXOO, and a bientôt.

 

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In 2001 I made a list:

  1. Write a book.
  2. Get it published.
  3. Get married.
  4. Kiss a tiger.

I made this list because my life was in book-less and date-less rut and I’d heard that writing such a list would help me create a future where all my dreams would come true. Long story short, it worked.

I crossed off Items #1, #2, and #3 in pretty short order  (6 years) And then I had a third book published that did not top the New York Times best seller list, and then I sat next to a guy on an airplane who would not stop talking about his 9-year old grandson (he reads blueprints!) who made me depressed (the children of children of total strangers are of less than zero interest to me), and then I got a filthy nasty cold, which made me even more depressed (I’m a bit of a whiner), and then life looked once again to be as deeply dug into a deep rut as ever before, and then I threw myself a pity party and I blogged about it.

I should have known that all you Dear and Wonderful Readers would give me exactly the pep talk I needed to, in the words of that great humanitarian, Cher, Snap out of it. Oh, I’m still pretty sure that I don’t have another book in me, and I know that that basically makes me 60 years old and unemployed, which is definitely not where I want to be at this time in my life, but hey! I’m all grown up and I’ve got Ray Charles singing my new theme song and not cutting my bangs anymore!

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This is me in 4th grade. I am 8 years old. This top had a matching skirt. Even at this age, I was aware that childhood sucked.

Good news: My first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, currently “out of stock” (meaning, practically, “out of print”, the worst thing that can happen to an author) WILL go into a second printing! Copies should be available by Fall (Northern Hemisphere Fall, that is) so everyone can rush out and keep extra copies on hand for holiday gift-giving. My spare copies come in very handy as tea trays:

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Cindy uses her copy as night table:

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And yes, I took the time to stage two photographs because I have absolutely nothing better to do, since I’m unemployed and all.

Gooder news (for me, anyway, and this post is all about cheering me up up so it counts): Gardens of Awe and Folly is being published in the UK on July 15, which I only found out because the London office of Bloomsbury (my publisher) contacted me about it. They had been contacted by The Guardian newspaper, because apparently the Guardian cares about V. Swift and her gardens, and they want V. Swift (me) to write about the GoAaF and my 10 favorite garden books. So from hence forth my biography will read: Her writing has appeared in such name-dropping-worthy journals as The Guardian. 

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Well, some people would be impressed.

And the Goodest news: I’ve got a new ginger kitty showing up for breakfast. . . 

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Between me and Joanne, my neighbor, we named him Dennis Whiskabottoms.

. . . and I’m not even tired of my old ginger kitty yet!

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I have settled on being satisfied with smooching these doofus felines since they are as close as I’ll get to crossing off that last Item on my famous list of 2001, #4, Kiss a tiger, and I’m OK with that. About a year ago I started to seriously look into completing my list and soon discovered that there seems to be no ethical way to Kiss a tiger, any where in the world. I am ashamed to have ever let such a thought enter my mind: Whatever tigers might be available for kissing are typically drugged or mistreated into submission and I do not want to be a part of that, no way, no how. Here’s the news flash: tigers are not meant to be kissed. Or petted, or put on leashes, or kept in your back yard. They are meant to be left alone, in their native habitats, to be their solitary, apart-from-humans, and magnificent selves. So no tiger-kissing for me.

So what this means to me, the main character in my life, is that as of now, I am list-less, well and truly listless. I need a new list. 

That list of 2001 came to me in about 20 seconds. . . I suspect that my new list will take a bit longer. 

But, as you have read (above), it’s not all bad. Some of it is good, and gooder. Little by little, I’m finding reasons to wake up every day and say to myself, Oh, what a beautiful morning!

I hope your morning, this and every other one, is beautiful too.

 

 

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For example, Helen Mirren:

This is her in 1970:

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And this is her now:

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This was me last week:

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And this is me now:

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In the olden days we didn’t have blogs, and now we have a pain-in-the-ass internet that craps all over any blog you’re trying to get done, dammit.

Our street was dug up yesterday and now the internet keeps blipping on and off, so that’s why I’m at the library sending you this All Is Well teaser until our information superhiway is restored.

Good, great, and greatest things have happened since we last got together and I want to tell you all about it but, well, I need to crawl inside the series of tubes we call the world wide web, so. . . 

. . . stay tuned. 

I’ll be back.

 

 

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