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Today was my day off, and rather than spend it alone with my cats doing dishes and laundry I decided to hit the road and traverse the spanning wheat fields to visit my alma mater and my close friend Kimmee who is currently studying there. She has only one class on Mondays, Entomology (the study of bugs), which she let me attend with her.

While listening to the lecture on the grasshopper digestive system, I took in the room that I’d had classes in a whopping five years ago, including the only class that I ever fell asleep during. As the professor clicked through his PowerPoint presentation, unnecessarily emphasizing his bullets with a laser pointer, I felt academically naked not taking notes. Every time he posed a question to the class, I felt myself wanting to answer, to participate, though the topic of grasshopper digestive tracks was totally new to me (did you know that their foregut is lined with exoskeleton? I thought exoskeleton was only on the outside!)

But most students don’t share that sentiment. Just as it was when I was there studying, questions posed to the class received only timid responses, usually after a long uncomfortable silence that teachers must build up a superhuman tolerance to. This is the case even when the answer is painfully obvious and everyone should be jumping out of their seats, hands stretched toward the ceiling Hermione Granger style. What is it that makes people so nervous to answer? Are they worried it may be a trick question? Or that it’s purely rhetorical? Or is it experiences like the following that make people wish they hadn’t spoken, and therefore clam up for the rest of eternity?

After explaining that the tiny hairs on insects are connected to their nervous system, the professor asked the class a simple what if question: what happens if you swat a fly? Silence from the class. It gets squashed, I think to myself, internally praising my fly swatting ability.

“It’ll fly away,” says a small voice toward the back.

“Well,” the professor says as he moves up the aisle. “Imagine the fly is this button, and I were to bring my hand down really fast, like this, what would happen?”

Silence. Then another small voice, “It would fly away.”

“Really, really fast,” the professor clarifies.

Now several voices in chorus “It would fly away.” Groan.

“Okay, okay,” the professor says, and though he’s standing behind me I imagine him waving his hands in exasperation. “Let’s reverse this. Let’s say the fly is this button and I bring my hand closer slowly like this, pushing the air toward the fly, what would happen?”

“It would fly away.”

“Right! Now, if I went like that really fast, so fast the fly wouldn’t have time to react, what would happen?” Without giving the class a chance to answer this time, he says “It’d get smashed, right?”

Silence.

The professor quickly moved on, back to grasshoppers.

While flies can be difficult to successfully swat at times, and I don’t know why the professor counterintuitively illustrated a fly getting smashed right after describing their super sensory skills, I hope for the students’ sake that that question doesn’t make it on the final.

The experience of being back on campus, back in a classroom setting, inspired me to question many things (which is the goal of higher education, no?). For instance, “how many televisions does a student lounge really need?” And “why did they remodel the CUB to look like an airport terminal?” And “why does an Asian Studies major have to spend time and money learning about bugs anyway?”

Do you know? (Hint: the answer is not “it would fly away.”)

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Things are a-changin’. Very soon I will no longer be an indie bookseller or managing an art gallery. Hopefully I’ll be a full time writer and artist myself, and who knows where that will lead. Being a chronically busy person, I know I’ll be piling as many new hobbies and side business ventures on my plate as I can when, in two and a half short weeks, I’ll be moving with my hubby to a remote state park where he finally got his dream job as a Ranger. I’m going to have to learn to fish…

Oh, and between now and then we’re going to Egypt for ten days.

I’m sure to have plenty to write about and plenty of time to write it once we get settled in sagebrush land. I’ve been told to pack plenty of bug repellent, that our adventure sounds like the beginning of a horror movie (thanks Ric), and that we’re going to go crazy out in the boonies. But I’m excited! Change is always fun and I’ll finally have no excuses for not pursuing my dreams.

As the weather has turned more summer-like over the past week I’ve been drawn to work outside and, since I don’t yet have a garden to speak of,  the lawn has dominated my attention. Fortunately for me, I guess, it needs a lot of work. It is overgrown with crabgrass, clovers (which I don’t mind as much), various kinds of moss, and of course dandelions. And not the normal dandelions. We’re talking ginormous dandelions, like the ones that were exposed to “ooze” in the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. And as I stooped over to pull one of these freakishly large weeds out with the help of a very cool stabby tool, I was struck with a thought. “To make this a really nice lawn,” thought I, “all I have to do is get rid of everything that is not the lawn.”

And then I had an even bigger aha moment… That’s just like writing! To craft a really great story, you must get rid of everything that is not your story. Usually that means cutting unnecessary words or sentences. Sometimes it means striking chapters. As I worked, I was struck with more lawn maintenance/writing analogies. Morbidly curious? Read on!

1. Flowery words, like dandelions, are best removed before they take over.

2. A lawn looks best when it’s mowed, but not when it’s too short. The same goes for wordiness. If you can say it in fewer words, do. But don’t strip your prose down so far that all you can see is dirt.

3. Fixing the punctuation in your manuscript before taking care of major plot issues is like weeding a patch of lawn that you’re going to tear out the next day to build a planter.

4. Even if your house is really really great, it’s hard to see it past a lawn like this:

There are just some writing rules that should never be broken. Like proper punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. You can say that those things are the editor’s job to worry about, but I’m pretty sure most editors and agents aren’t looking for manuscripts that need quite that much work. A lawn that needs to be edged and mowed, maybe, but not a yard full of weeds.

5. When you’re pulling dandelions, make sure you get the roots too. If you don’t, they’ll just grow back again and again. In other words, when you receive feedback on your work, don’t just blindly make changes without finding where the problem is stemming from. If it’s good advice, break it down to its basic elements and incorporate it into your writing philosophy so it doesn’t keep popping up (some examples of this that I’ve seen are the misuse of it’s/its, there/their/they’re, etc.; the writing of characters that lack logical motivation; and being repetitive and redundant in an attempt at being descriptive).

And…..

6. If there are just too many weeds, it may be best to just kill everything and start over.

I love to read, but isn’t there something so melancholy about sliding that finished book back onto the shelf where it will wait who-knows-how-long until you pick it up for another go? Solution: lend it to a friend! I have found that lending out a good book greatly increases my enjoyment of it. It’s also wonderful to be lent a “must read” by someone dear. The reading process is so quiet and internal, and I love that about it, but there is a richness added when you can share your reactions to that other world with someone who’s traveled there too. So here’s my current lending library status (though I’m sure I’m forgetting some that I have loaned out) along with brief reviews.

Books I’m Lending:

Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin (lent to my mom) – My favorite historical novel of the moment, this story left me spellbound. Alice Liddell sounds like such an extraordinary person and I had no idea that Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) was a mathematics professor at Oxford. I am now re-reading Lewis Carroll’s complete works to see if I can take away anything new.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow (lent to my mom) – A fascinating novel about racial identity and stereotyping. The main character, Rachel, is the daughter of an African-American G.I. and a Danish woman. When a family tragedy lands her back in the States with her black grandmother, she finds herself being defined by unfamiliar prejudices and struggles to be “black enough.”

The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, both by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (lent to Ginny) – I can’t praise these two novels highly enough, especially with their literature-loving characters. In The Shadow of the Wind, the main character is a bookseller’s son, and in The Angel’s Game the main character is an author, and though it came after Shadow it takes place years before when bookseller is a young man. And, of course, both feature the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (lent to Kimmee) – I couldn’t put this one down and will probably re-read it as soon as I get it back. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, the diverse and spunky cast of women shines light not only on the race issues of the time, but also on conflicts regarding gender roles, social classes, and generational expectations.

Books I’m Borrowing:

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe (lent by Ginny) – I just got this one on Friday and started it at breakfast this morning.

The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux (lent by Kimmee) – I have had this one on loan for about a year now and still not cracked the cover. Shame on me. I was fortunate enough to see the musical last year and wanted to read the book, but I guess not bad enough.

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, by Nancy Kress (lent by Phyllis) – This is a fantastic book on writing and I would highly recommend it to any writer. Confession: I have my own copy now (different edition) but still need to locate my borrowed copy, which is in a box in my basement somewhere since I moved last year. Sorry Phyllis, I promise it will be returned soon!

I have the most wonderful husband in the world, and Garlic Jim’s has the tastiest gluten-free pizza. Yesterday, after a long day at work and a fun-filled Tin Pencil meeting, the question of what to fix for dinner hung in the air on the car ride home. It was after 8:30pm already, and I asked my husband, David, if I should fix nachos.

“No, I don’t really feel like nachos tonight,” he said to the windshield.

David has never turned down nachos before and it caught me by surprise. But no matter. Then, when we got home and I was finally able to give him a proper hello, I noticed something else strange.

“Did you have garlic for lunch?” I asked, pulling away. Earlier that day, he had told me he’d had fast food.

“No,” David said, giving me a confused look. He started test-smelling his shirt and then turned his nose toward me. “Maybe it’s your hair.”

I laughed doubtfully and went to the kitchen, my bat senses tingling. The final three clues came in quick succession. I started looking in the fridge and searching the cupboards when David interrupted me.

“Let’s go get in comfy clothes,” he said.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked, baffled that Mr. Hollow Legs would delay an already late dinner a moment longer than necessary.

“I really want to go change,” he insisted.

I made my way to our bedroom and then realized he wasn’t with me. Clue one.

“Where did you go?” I hollered.

“Be right there!”

And then I heard it. The beep of the kitchen timer being set. Clue two. When he appeared by my side a moment later, I eyed him suspiciously.

“What did you do?” I asked with a grin. “Is there something in the oven?”

“No!” he said, unconvincingly.

“What did you make?” I was jumping up and down now, a childish tendency that I can’t seem to suppress when David is around.

“I didn’t make anything,” he said. This time I knew he was telling the truth and that this was the third clue.

I didn’t dare hope. Could it be pizza? I was afraid to ask but did anyway and he told me to go look in the oven. It wasn’t just gluten-free pizza, it was THE BEST gluten-free (non-homemade) pizza I’ve ever tasted (and have only ever had once before). Garlic Jim’s! David had gone there for lunch as part of a work thing and brought a pizza home for dinner. What a guy! Honestly, I wonder how I ever got so lucky.

By the way, for anyone who’d like to spread the pizzawesomeness, Garlic Jim’s is a franchise. Please, someone open one in Spokane (the closest one is nearly an hour away)!

Through my work I’ve been exposed to things I’d never have guessed at in my formative years. I’ve gone to bookselling tradeshows and met some of my favorite authors, leaving with bags and bags of free books, many of them autographed (squee!). I’ve had my portrait photographed with my twin sister for being local filmmakers, as part of a local artist series that was purchased and donated to our Museum of Arts and Culture. And, most recently, my husband and I were able to attend the 25th annual Works from the Heart art auction last night, thanks to my boss sponsoring a table there. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to bid on anything (I wish) but it was a fun reason to dress up, taste some new fancy foods, and chat with the artists I work with at someplace other than the gallery.

There were some truly stunning pieces there. I decided that I would imagine I had more in my wallet than a punch card to Taco del Mar and choose the five pieces that, in an alternate universe, would be mine.

No.5   “White Trail Road” by Kim Wheaton

I had never seen Kim Wheaton’s work before, but this painting was so beautiful in its simplicity, I felt that I could merely glance at it and feel at peace.

No.4   “Garden Tree” by Mason McCuddin

Mason McCuddin won me over with his “Yellow Brick Road” hanging sculpture last August, and “Garden Tree” didn’t disappoint. A photo can’t do it justice, because the motion of the piece and how it changes from each angle are part of the charm.

No.3   “Country Charmer” by Dean Davis

Though I’m not usually a fan of photography printed on canvas, it did seem to add something to this moody print. In fact, it seemed like you could just fall into the canvas.

No. 2   “In the Grass” by Dara Harvey

Dara Harvey’s whimsical paintings always delight me, but this is my favorite of hers so far, though I may be biased by the subject matter.

No. 1   “Chardonnay” by E. L. Stewart

Elsie Stewart’s painting was my favorite of the evening, no question. Her layers of color, varied texture, and unique composition were masterfully done, and the subject matter is timeless. I must be content to lock the image in my memory, as I’m sure it found a home last night.

We didn’t stay for the live auction (I could only torture my husband for so long), but the quality of art and the amount of wine being consumed promised that it would be a successful fundraiser for the museum. Though I left without any art, I had tasted my first caviar and hadn’t spilled anything on the dress I borrowed from my sister, so I count the night as a success.

The most frustrating thing about being Celiac, at least for those of us who discovered our problem late in life, is missing all those wonderful, gluten-filled treats we used to eat. I discovered I was Celiac when I was fifteen, which had left me time for enough cookies, muffins, bagels, cake, and donuts to be wistful about it the rest of my life. Silly as it may sound though, one of the things I miss most are Lemon-OHs!(R) by Austin (R). Well, not anymore!

Based loosely on the featured cookie in February’s Better Homes and Gardens magazine (a Christmas present from my in-laws) and turned gluten-free, lemony, and for god’s sake simpler (who keeps ground vanilla beans on hand?), I present to you Lemon-SQUEEs!

.  .  .

Lemon-SQUEEs!

3  cups gluten-free, all-purpose flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill)

3  tsp. xanthan gum

2  tsp. cream of tartar

1  tsp. baking soda

1/2  tsp. salt

1  cup unsalted butter, softened

1  1/2  cups granulated sugar

2  Tbsp. milk

1  Tbsp. vanilla extract

1  16 oz. container of Betty Crocker’s gluten-free lemon frosting

  1. Mix together flour, xanthan gum, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
  2. With an electric mixer, beat the softened butter. Add the granulated sugar and then beat until smooth. Beat in the milk and vanilla, and then your flour mixture.
  3. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half between two large sheets of wax paper until about 1/8″ thick. Put in the fridge to chill for thirty minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Using a 2″ (diameter) round cookie cutter, cut out circles from dough. Lightly spray cookie sheet with gluten-free cooking spray (such as PAM, but not PAM Baking) and arrange dough circles on sheet, leaving plenty of room for the dough to spread (I only fit fifteen: three up and five across). Re-roll scraps between the wax paper and re-chill for a few minutes if dough has become too sticky from handling.
  5. Sprinkle dough circles with a pinch of granulated sugar. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes or until golden. If your oven’s like mine and tends to burn in the back, you may need to rotate the cookie sheet after 5 minutes. Allow to cool for 1 minute and then move to a wire rack to cool completely.
  6. Frost the bottom-side of one cookie with the gluten-free lemon frosting. For prettiest results, you may want to use a frosting bag (I didn’t have one and just used a butter knife.) Top with a second cookie, sugared-side-out. Repeat. Recipe makes about 45 sandwich cookies.

This video made me very happy. It makes me want to go be all rebellious in the name of literacy.

Mallory Battista’s Blog

Notes from an aspiring author, artist, and occasional gluten-free cook.

Storytelling isn’t just a thing to do, it is a way of seeing the world.

I am a storyteller. I live as though I am a hero on a quest and I strive to treat every person that crosses my path as the main character of an equally complex and exciting story. I find joy when their paths overlap with mine, and though some encounters are fleeting and others last a lifetime, I see the importance of each one to the continuation of Life's plot. I am grateful for the adversity that is set before me, as it makes me a more well-rounded character and adds challenge and excitement to my journey. And I always, ALWAYS have faith in happy endings.

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