Merry Christmas!

Sharon Ashwood
December 24, 2015  •  No Comments

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The chair is not your friend

Sharon Ashwood
September 17, 2015  •  No Comments

2015-08-15 13.56.00It’s become one of those irritating truths that if I don’t make an appointment with myself to move, I won’t.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate exercise. I’ve never been into sports per se, but I like  walking, low impact aerobics, and even mild weightlifting is quite fine by me. Sweat is good. I walk a half hour to and from work. I belong to a gym.

Getting to the gym is another matter (it’s not fair, because really owning a membership alone should magically keep me in shape). Like so many people, I sit in front of a computer at my day job and then in the evenings, too. Everything seems to be connected to a screen these days, and that means sitting, sitting, sitting. Unfortunately, writing requires more of the same. Current medical wisdom claims sitting is as bad for one’s health as smoking, and I’m inclined to believe it. It’s not just about burning calories; I don’t sleep if I don’t get at least some physical activity during the day. I need exercise to burn off stress.

It’s the new fall season, so I’m making a new commitment to being healthy. I got new gym shoes to replace the pair that I’d worn through (nothing but plastic left in the heels!) and I have my gym clothes ready and waiting for the early morning treadmill. Wish me luck!

I wrote this post because making a commitment out loud is supposed to make us accountable. There, I’ve done it!

 


Lunchtime obsessions

Sharon Ashwood
September 16, 2015  •  No Comments

I have a terrible obsession with containers. I deeply believe that if I owned the right organizers and boxes, my life would run smoothly. There is some truth to that: if stuff has a home, it’s less likely to be toppling off tabletops and making mountains on the floor.

But mostly I think I like pretty colourful toys. The trend toward brightly coloured lunch kits pleases me enormously.  I love these GoStak containers for holding nuts, dressings, and other spillable items. The bottom of one jar forms the top of the next and the top one has a handle.

I pack a lunch for work pretty much every day (I hardly ever escape my desk for a restaurant meal). The other consideration for good containers is therefore how light they are.  I managed to tear the muscles in my shoulder from carrying too much in my tote bag day after day, which has taken months to heal.  So, lightweight is good. These are made of a tough but light (and toxin-free) plastic.  The other find I made lately is from Sistema – they make a range of containers that have the cutlery built in and clipped inside, so if you forget a fork there are no worries.  They also have sections that segregate wet and dry ingredients, so the granola for your yogurt doesn’t turn to rubber before you eat it.  A small consideration, but texture is part of what makes food enjoyable!

I bought a few of these containers when I found them to replace old ones that were past their prime. They aren’t the cheapest on the market, but I know I’ll get the value out of them since 5 lunches a week x 52 weeks a year means plenty of mileage. By packing my meals, I’m eating better, spending less, and keeping waste out of the landfill.

On the whole, though, I think I was drawn by the bright colours and the fact that there were lots of clippy-snappy bits to play with. Maybe what I really want is an edible Lego set?

 


Mystery box holiday

Sharon Ashwood
September 15, 2015  •  No Comments

IMGP0163So earlier this summer (it seems ages ago) I went with two dear friends to the west coast of Vancouver Island. We rented a cabin in Ucluelet, which is about as close to the wide open Pacific as you can get without actually falling in. It is truly wild and beautiful out there, with a few touristy spots but far more unspoiled beauty. There are lots of hiking trails that range from “suitable for couch potato” to the kind that requires helicopters and alpha heroes. You can guess which one I was on!

Yes, I took my writing but didn’t spend all the time at the keyboard because a) I wanted to spend time with my friends and b) look at that view! We walked a lot, ate a lot, and in the evenings . . . well, we had cable and a mutual obsession with cooking shows in general and Masterchef in particular.

Yes, we went to the ends of the earth to sit in a cabin and watch Gordon Ramsey turn red in the face and yell about the proper sear on steaks. And we loved each other because we could enjoy this guilty pleasure without having to apologize for it.  That’s what old friends are for. And the best part?  Since the cabin had a fully equipped kitchen, there was plenty of opportunity to make some terrific meals ourselves. I’m not a big fan of barbecued food, but I’m slowly being converted by the excellent meals I’ve been served lately.

So why the fascination with Masterchef and its mystery boxes, challenges, and personalities?  I think for me it’s the opportunity to reclaim the rituals of sharing food. I love cooking, but the pace of life makes it too easy to cut corners.  Learning the language of cuisine, what makes something good, and a little bit about how to elevate one’s own meals is a kind of mindfulness exercise. Now I pause–at least sometimes–to think about presentation, the balance of flavours, and how to assemble ingredients in an interesting way. And when I’m with similarly-minded friends, we talk about cooking far more than we did in the past. I appreciate having something new to enjoy with them, even in a remote holiday cabin.

 

 

 


A Visit to the Wild Arc

Sharon Ashwood
April 7, 2015  •  No Comments

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The Wild Arc is a very special place, set on a 10 acre site west of the city. It’s run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but its specialty is caring for our wild friends instead of domesticated animals. I was lucky enough to get to visit recently and see the indoor “hospital” as well as the outdoor places where wild critters stay wild while they’re getting back on their feet/wings/paws/flippers.

Because the object of the game is to keep the patients from getting too habituated to humans, we weren’t introduced to many of the furry guests. However, there was a bald eagle there (Huge!) and a wee hummingbird who had got accidentally bundled up as part of an Easter bouquet.  There were also a few raccoons who let me take a picture.

raccoon close up

What I found most interesting was the fact that wild baby animals need to be taught how to feed themselves, whether that means foraging or fishing. Many of them are also smart enough to get bored, and that means building habitats that have lots of challenges and learning opportunities. The staff refer to this as “enrichment” and it sounded as if the volunteers have a fine time coming up with games and puzzles for the animals.

 
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We got a tour of different areas, including some with water features. Shore birds and mammals both take advantage of this.  Not that long ago they raised some baby otters here, taught them to fish and then released them up the coast far away from human habitation.

The staff at the Wild Arc made a point about being careful when approaching baby birds and animals that appear to be in distress. Many kind-hearted people try to “rescue” them when in fact they are perfectly okay and just waiting for their mom to return. The best thing is to call someplace like the Wild Arc who can provide guidance. That way, babies are not accidentally separated from their mothers and those that do need help are given speedy care.

It was a wonderful opportunity to learn something about this organization. IMGP0018

 

 

 


The Demon Lord Plots Chaos

Sharon Ashwood
August 25, 2013  •  No Comments

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The Demon Lord of Kitty Badness lurks on his cat tower.  This definitely needs a LOLcats caption!


Feeding oneself: the major challenge of adulthood

Sharon Ashwood
April 18, 2012  •  No Comments

I long for the days when all I had to do about meals was show up. Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking and I’m good at it. I have shelves of recipe books. But organizing myself when I’m super-busy is at times more than I can manage. Then comes the, shall we say, less responsible food choices.
So call this a product review if you like. For me, it’s a sigh of relief.

I signed up for Groupon a while ago and got an online subscription deal to The Fresh 20. This company, run by a dietician, sends weekly menus, shopping lists, and recipes to your inbox. The menus are for five nightly meals (Mon-Fri) that use no more than twenty ingredients all told. There’s an hour of prep work for the week, but the nightly cooking takes about a half hour. For me, that means dishes are done by 7:30 so I can get writing.

The menus are designed to use up leftovers so you don’t have suspicious entities lurking in the crisper two weeks later. The ingredients are those in common use, so most grocery stores should have what is needed (and most of the listed staples I had anyway). Best of all, customers can choose plans for a traditional, vegetarian, or gluten-free diet.

My menus came on Friday, in time for weekend shopping, and so I trotted off to Thrifty’s to get my stuff. Week One, I seriously overbought. Helpful hint: these recipes are geared for a family of four, not one person. I ended up making about half the meals and eating a lot of leftovers that week. Good thing they were tasty.

The next run went much better, when I cut the amounts in half. Shopping went very quickly because the lists are grouped by department. Overall, my grocery bill was much lower, and I was able to squeeze lunches out of the leftovers. With take-out prices, that is a major savings all on its own. I’m pretty sure I’ve made back the cost of Fresh 20’s subscription already.

The end review? Definitely worth a try, so check out their web site for sample menus. There’s a three-month trial for $5/month.

I appreciate someone else doing the organization. It’s cheaper, faster, tasty and healthy. It’s not a weight-loss plan per se, but if you’re trying to cut crap out of your diet, this goes a long way. However, it’s flexible. I’ve swapped ingredients here and there and with five meals, not seven, there’s room for a night out or just some other dish you want to make.

Overall, the meal plans are helpful without being invasive. Now if only they’d do the dishes!


In the soup

Sharon Ashwood
May 18, 2011  •  1 Comment

For me, the biggest stumbling block to writing is that I am slow and need large blocks of time. For instance, I spent most of Sunday glued to the computer fiddling with edits. As it was pouring outside, distractions were reduced. This was a good thing because—outside of an hour or so for phone call and lunch—I was at my desk from 10:00 am until about 6:00 pm. Such a marathon is great, but not possible during the week when I’m expected to show up at the office. It’s after dinner writing or nothing.

IMO, the secret to getting a chunk o’ time during a weekday evening is to cook as little as possible. What I mean is that, on the weekend, I lay in survival supplies, chop veg in advance, and usually make a large pot of soup or a casserole so that lunches are ready to go (and cheap). It’s not a perfect system, but it helps me get to the computer before I’m starting to think about bed.

Of course, when it comes to lunches, I’m only worrying about myself. It’s harder if you’re dealing with family. I recall my working/student mom introducing me to the task of brown bagging food when I was in junior high school. I think it was a smart idea: if I didn’t like what I packed, I had no one to blame but myself. Alas, she never did successfully train my dad to fend for himself. He definitely needed a keeper.

Anyway, this is my latest soup invention, for anyone else trying to prepare ahead:

• In a large soup pot, fry 1 ½ c chopped onion in olive oil. Add about a ½ teaspoon of salt.
• Chop a bundle of asparagus and add that. Cook until onions are clear (about six minutes).
• Sprinkle with 3 heaping teaspoons of flour to make a roux and cook for about a minute. Then slowly add six cups of stock (or water, but stock is better). At this point, feel free to add, say, leftover chicken, turkey, or ham and herbs to taste. Mushrooms are also an option. I used a tsp of dried dill and a half tsp of pepper. Cook until asparagus bits are tender.
• Put everything through the blender or (much easier) use a hand blender wand until the soup is a smooth texture. Add a large dash of tamari sauce. At the last minute, stir in a cup of milk or cream.
• This recipe reheats extremely well.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is get a bunch of friends together and start one of those deals where everyone cooks a bunch of food and swaps homemade frozen dinners. Has anyone tried that?


For love or money?

Sharon Ashwood
January 5, 2011  •  No Comments

In my nuclear family, it was expected that one would be an artist of some sort. Maybe of several sorts. That was cool. I never had to go through the awkward talk about having unwanted artistic ambitions. It was assumed I would write, paint, dance, whatever and maybe all at the same time.

However, I also had to have a practical career—so there were no awkward talks about ONLY being an artist. It was a given that I had to put food on the table and a centrally-heated roof over my head. No starry-eyed visions of Bohemian garrets. After all, we lived on the prairies where freezing to death was a literal hazard. Plus, my parents were both involved in the arts. They knew what their daughter was facing. So I learned to type in Grade 10 and went to university to become a teacher (which I never did, but that’s another story).

Sensible? Not everyone thinks so. Some assume that artists aren’t for real until they quit their day jobs. Well, I believe in my talent, but I don’t believe that I will be automatically rewarded for it in monetary terms.

Do I think I SHOULD be able to live by my writing? Sure, but at the same time that popular conception says we aren’t legitimate unless we’re an economic success, there are plenty of people who claim artists should work for love alone and stick everything on their websites for free.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that our society has conflicting ideas about the cash value of creativity. Nobody questions whether or not a plumber, nurse, or flagman should get their wages, but when a school budget gets cut, the arts are the first to go. Unfortunately, in our society money = worth. We might feel warm and fuzzy about culture, but we don’t make it a priority. When it comes down to brass tacks, it’s just not that important.

With messaging like that, it’s a wonder anyone still values their own creative vision. Sadly, many do not and we’ll never know what those people had to say.

The point is, I never had a problem telling my family I wanted to be a paperback writer, but the big bad world at large was another matter. I might have said that I was planning to be a flea wrangler with the same results—something between benign indifference and outright scorn.

If 2011 brings nothing else, I hope it brings a sea change in how it regards writers and painters and dancers. I hope it gets more people into galleries, concerts, and bookstores. And, I hope it gets more people into art supply stores and music schools and writing classes. It’s the Tinkerbelle principle. We need to honour our collective creativity, or it wastes away. Starving artists eventually starve or give up.

If we all do something to participate in or support the creative life, it WILL become possible for more and better art and artists to thrive. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I’ll take what I can get. What creative thing are you going to do this year?


On the road

Sharon Ashwood
July 14, 2010  •  No Comments

My family was never big on vacations. They were busy and didn’t have a lot of spare money, so travel fell to the bottom of the priority pile and, when it did happen, was often accomplished by bus. Sometimes at seventy-two hour stretches. I get bus sick. I developed an early aversion to travel.

When I was one my own (and possessed a car) prospects improved. True, I took the “dream” vacation with the boyfriend of the day (vile mistake, but good diagnostic tool for future un/happiness), but that’s not the main reason I find travel stressful. Wherever I went for many years, there was usually a disaster of some sort. Bombing. Snipers. Flood. Riots. I was just about to start blackmailing tourist spots so they’d pay me to stay home, but that era appears to have ended with my trek to San Francisco a few years ago. It was AOK, which must have signalled the lifting of the curse. Though there was that flood in Nashville right after I reserved my hotel for the RWA National conference this summer. That’s just a coincidence, right?

Yes, it’s possible that I do read too much paranormal fiction. On the other hand, perhaps I will never take a “normal” vacation, because my perception is different.

Travel is too important to an author for me to hide on my safe little island. My two trips to England (one plagued by the IRA, the other by poll tax riots, mad cow disease, and a storm that washed out the bridge to Wales) have provided a wealth of historical imagery. All of those ghastly bus rides as a kid showed me the prairies in a way an airplane just can’t (there is a giant bronze Viking AND a giant corn cob somewhere in Minnesota). And there’s nothing like waking up to your first up-close view of the northern Rocky Mountains at sunrise. The imagery, down to every last bus stop and greasy spoon, is stored in my mental treasure room. I found seeds of stories in all of those places. (And sitting on my grandma’s porch watching the creek waters creep across the lawn toward me, half-distracted by the itch-worthy fact that I’d stupidly moved straw bales all afternoon wearing shorts and a midriff).

Authors aren’t all that different from those wildly irritating tourists who snap pictures and videos every three steps. You know the ones I mean—those people who seem to experience more with the camera lens than with their eyeballs. Storytellers are also recording every last detail for future use, even if we’re not conscious of it at the time.

What’s one mental holiday snapshot you’ve always kept with you?


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