What is that smell?

Ever have a room in your house you didn’t know what to do with? I did. But recently, I decided to fix up that room, which is known as a “bonus room,” even though having it did not feel like a bonus. I decided my bonus room should be an uncluttered, peaceful space for writing, reading and meditating.

Uncluttered didn’t work out according to plan, but peaceful and quiet are still good descriptors.  Among the items I moved there were my collection of essential oils purchased in another era and the aromatherapy diffuser. When heated, the oils soothe, comfort and cover up the odor of the cat’s litter box, which is also in that room.

What a surprise when I opened up the October 9 issue of The New Yorker and found out that essential oils are big business. “Something In The Air” is the name of the article and it’s a good read.

You can buy these oils, or sell them and possibly make a bundle of money. The article says the current annual incomes of people selling these products range from $1 to $1 million. The latter record must belong to those who got warmed up in an earlier life selling Amway, Mary Kaye or Tupperware.

I’m taking a slight birdwalk here to talk about a personal Amway experience. Years ago, in Guanajuato, Mexico, an acquaintance asked me to talk to her Amway crew.  She had a group of women –her sales force ?– she met with regularly and wanted me to give them a pep talk… in Spanish. Within hours I found myself in front of a large group having planned nothing to say in English much less Spanish.  I stumbled for a few minutes and realized I didn’t even know what Amway was. As soon as it was clear to the women that I had nothing inspirational to say and I could barely communicate on this topic, they started looking at their watches and filing their nails. My friend looked crestfallen and I felt mortified .

But back to essential oils. The founder of one prominent oil company (not to be confused with Exxon or Shell), a naturopath who earned his “doctorate degree from an unlicensed school,” was once charged with practicing medicine without a license and was seen on video “performing gallbladder surgery and giving essential oils intravenously.” But we’re safe. He only does this in other countries.n

The health promises of different oils are beyond good or even great.  Healthy digestion? Simple. Reduced anxiety? sure. Regenerated cells? Of course. conquering autism? Why not? Cure cancer? You bet. And much more.

Frankincense and rose oil are among the most costly ones. A single barrel of the latter, per one wholesaler, “is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.” He keeps the rose oil, an ounce of which takes more than a million petals to create, under lock and key.

After reading the article, I rushed upstairs to read the labels on my oil bottles. I found geranium, sandalwood, honeysuckle, applewood, clary sage and bergamot — the anchors of my collection — which the article did not mention once. I did find something called Rose Absolute, which at the price I paid for it, probably required ten petals in its production.

Needless to say, even if I had the right stuff, it hasn’t been properly stored, cold-pressed, or grown organically, so I cannot sell it on eBay for an outrageously expensive sum. The one thing I can promise to any potential buyers, is that it is a great remedy for litter box odors.





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Bad experiences make a good story

implant models: source of my friend’s disastrous experience

“We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on.” Charles de Lint, contemporary fantasy author.

I love stories, to tell them and to hear them. When I’m in a particularly uncomfortable situation, I tell myself that once it is over it will make a good story, and usually it does. I like to hear friends’ horrible experiences too. Misery loves company and all, but others’ stories also help me think about how I might handle the situations they describe (usually not as well as they did).

I’m hardly alone in my appreciation of story. According to the book, “Wired for Story, ” “Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them. This was a matter of life and death back in the Stone Age…”

Unlike Stone Age people, most of us live routine lives: wake up, satisfy our morning caffeine needs, get ready for work and go. A good story takes us out of this everyday world.

It’s fall, time to sit by the fire with a glass of wine and share stories. This week, a friend named Lydia told me one about her first two weeks in a new job, which I’m going to share.

 Starting a new job

Lydia spent her entire first week at a public relations firm going through training. Not the “here’s your desk and your job description and our code of conduct” kind of training, but rather, a full education on the topic of silicon implants. Yes. Really.

Here’s a little about what she learned.  Silicone is a rubber-like compound used for many purposes, including by plastic surgeons to build up biceps, pectoral muscles, breasts and a male body part.

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration “banned these implants for general consumption” as a result of hundreds of women who’d had breast implants complaining they caused cancer, autoimmune problems, and other medical issues.

For her second week on the job, Lydia got to attend a plastic surgeon’s convention. There the keynote speaker, who was head of the corporation that made the implants, announced that the ban had just been put in place and then immediately skipped out of the conference.

Anticipating an unfriendly response to his speech, he also left his own firm’s PR people at home and left hundreds of plastic surgeons in a state of despair, because they had a full schedule of implants on their calendars and feared they would not be able to get the product in time. (I keep wondering why they didn’t have a teensy bit of concern for the safety of the women they’d already done surgery on or were about to cut, but apparently that wasn’t their issue).

My friend and her new colleagues — now suspicious their primary role was as cannon fodder — spent hours trapped in an information booth trying to appease these unhappy plastic surgeons.

“It was horrible,” Lydia said. “We expected professionals to be…well…professional.  Instead they just wanted to vent and they directed all their anger at us.”

I suspect the plastic surgeons were less impressed with my friend’s and her colleagues’ new knowledge about implants than with their total inability to resolve the problem.

The biggest surprise was that my friend stayed with the firm after her trial by inferno, but she did.  Maybe she figured the job couldn’t get any worse.

Do any readers have horror stories from their first days/weeks on the job stories? If so, please share. I’d love to compile them into a blog or two.






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Magical realism in Norway

To open his magical realism story, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez puts his character in front of a firing squad and has him remember the first time his father introduced him to ice.

In a different magical realism story, which we heard in Norway from one of the owners of the Steinsto Fruit Farm, the opening line might be something about a group of seniors introduced to hard apple cider.

Last June, my husband and I had the chance to visit this lovely orchard on a steep mountainside above the Hardangerfjord in western Norway. While there, we enjoyed Heidi’s apple pie, a wonderful, buttery pastry that tasted a little like a pie and cake all in one. For a few cents we could even buy her recipe, which I did. Coming across it this week reminded me of the story she told. (Some followers of this blog have heard Heidi tell this and may find my recollection different from theirs. Remember the childhood game of telephone? This is what happens when stories get retold and passed along.)

The fruit farm’s younger owners decided to invite a group of elders from local senior housing to the farm to enjoy Heidi’s now-famous apple pie — 7,000 sold in the 2016 season. Their father, also a partner in the farm, makes hard cider for family gatherings, but does not sell it commercially. He decided to share his product with the seniors.

The weather on the day of the event was nasty, a total downpour. The bus carrying the seniors and all their gear managed to make it up the hill from the highway to the farmhouse. The family then helped escort their guests and move their walkers and canes indoors, not an easy task since there were stairs to reach the dining area and a large crowd needing help to climb them.

At last everyone had settled in and the family served the apple pie and ice cream. As if this weren’t enough of a treat, glasses of hard apple cider followed the dessert. Meanwhile the downpour worsened and the bus driver had to move the bus to the highway below, away from water moving downhill. The hosts fretted.  It had been difficult enough to move the seniors and their equipment from the bus when it was close to the house.  How would they ever walk them safely down the gravel road to the highway below? Especially after they had drunk the cider.

While their hosts worried, the seniors didn’t. They abandoned their walkers and canes and easily made the trip downhill. The hosts had to scramble to retrieve all the equipment and deliver it to the waiting bus. The elders’ aches and pains vanished with the attention, loving care, apple pie…and possibly the hard cider.

Last we heard, the cider maker was considering applying for all the licenses needed to sell his brew commercially.  Here’s hoping he gets permission to sell internationally.  Just for the sake of senior citizens here. Right. That makes me eligible too.





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A good season to hibernate

I’ve taken a long blogging break, necessitated by being sick off and on for a few months and running out of topics that interest me. What I’ve been thinking about lately is hibernation.  I like my on-line dictionary’s synonyms for hibernate:  “hole up, withdraw, retreat, cocoon.” Perfect descriptors for how I’ve felt.

It seems like I’ve been more aware of the change of season this year than any other: the quick drop in temperature between September and October; darkness earlier and later; having to remember to add an extra vest or jacket before going outside; the roar of leaf blowers when I’m out for a walk; the shocking reds, oranges and yellows all around me; and crispness in the air when I step outside for the morning paper.

My cat is my role model for this season. After lazing on the patio under the sun for four months, and despite a thickening coat of hair, he now prefers to spend his days under the bed covers. On early, dark mornings, that’s my preference too.

I’ve made my first pot of lentil soup and my first stew. I have a new bread recipe I want to try. I bought tickets to see four plays in October. All these are automatic reactions, ones I don’t have to think about, but are built into my seasonal system like sleeping under the covers is built into my cat’s.

I’m in the process of ordering a ton of books from the library and amazon. My social calendar is slightly emptier than it was in July. I’m ready to withdraw, to spend more time alone.

If I lived in a different climate, one in which it never got cold, would I feel the same?  Probably not. The weather really does exercise control over much of our lives. I’m just glad our climate is mild and we don’t get snowed in. That might call for a whole new set of seasonal behaviors.




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Why I stick with Facebook

Not a cat video; he doesn’t move. And I had to include a wineglass

I opened up my Facebook page today and was greeted by ads to subscribe to The Economist magazine, and for a Subaru fall sale, State Farm Life insurance, and the Do-It-All Shoe. I also received a request, on a different page I administer, to pay FB to boost views — and thus attendance — at a long-past event. However, despite these efforts to pry into my buying habits, I still see value in FB.

It’s not that I don’t agree with those who criticize the social networking site.  It does have its issues. One source describes it rightfully as an “amoral corporation collecting personal data.” To anyone who uses FB regularly the personal data collection is obvious. My last car was a Subaru and I have State Farm insurance. However, I’ve never heard of the Do-It-All Shoe and am dying to know all that it does, but without having to click on the ad and support FB advertising. Though, if I thought it might clean the cat box I’d change my mind.

We all know other FB negatives, such as the 3,000 ads linked to fake accounts which were linked to other fake accounts set up by a “pro-Kremlin troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.”

But I don’t turn away from FB any more than I turn away from searching with Google on the grounds that people use that to find pornography and white supremacists’ websites.  I wouldn’t be filling the pages of my historical novel, albeit very slowly, without Google and other search engines. And I wouldn’t re-connect or stay connected with friends without Facebook.

When I left high school I didn’t look back, not to teachers or classmates. Thanks to FB, I’ve not only written to, but seen elementary and high school friends and a college roommate.

Before retirement, I worked in a school system with 2,000 employees and knew many of them. Since retirement, I’ve never run in to more than a dozen of them, usually at the grocery store or a shopping mall, and see only a half dozen regularly. With FB I can keep up with the rest, as in people who have traveled and taken beautiful photos allowing me to see some of the same places they have. Or friends who should be congratulated for celebrating a birthday or a large-numbered anniversary. And I can follow up on plays or art exhibits that other friends have recommended.

Since I haven’t yet formed the habit of reading obituaries, Facebook friends sometimes share the important news about who is sick, dying or dead.

Funny thing: before writing this I thought I still kept in touch with many people I used to work with.  I just looked at my contacts’ list on my computer and realized that I keep up with most former colleagues through Facebook. So that’s the point, the reason why I can accept cat videos, too many pix of grandchildren, and even more pix of meals and wineglasses in the sunlight, because FB allows me to keep in touch and know that friends and acquaintances are usually content (if not, they don’t usually post that), aging well and making the most of life. What other tool can do that?


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Labor saving devices?

“Alexa, feed my cat.  Alexa, write my term paper and then scrub the kitchen floor.” According to a recent New York Times article, people are falling in love with digital assistant Alexa, Amazon’s voice service found in several of its products.  Alexa can’t do these chores yet, but with your help “she” can now create your shopping list, and make dinner reservations, and probably a bunch of other things. I expect she will do much more in the future.

The same article says, “This year, more than 25 million Americans will use an Alexa device at least once a month. Ovum, a market research company, has predicted that by the year 2021, there will be more Alexa-like digital assistants on the planet than humans.” Right off hand that sounds like too many.

Although few owners would put “her” in the same class as a remote control and other labor-saving devices — in the same piece above, one woman said her husband views Alexa as a hybrid mistress-nurse — Alexa and other “home bot” helpers — current and future — pose one big problem. They will make us fat(ter).

Many years ago I worked as an employee wellness program coordinator and studied to become a fitness trainer to help me in my job. I still remember my instructor saying, “Put the remote control away. Get up and walk to the television to change the channel. All our labor-saving devices are making us fatter.” (Imagine how many calories channel surfers could burn if they got up off the couch to change the channel every ten seconds.) Okay, I tried but couldn’t figure out how to change my television’s channels without the remote, but her point is well taken. Every new gizmo pushes us into a more sedentary lifestyle.

Our grandparents packed away the carbs and fats. They could get away with eating heavy meals, because they did physically demanding work. The women washed the family’s clothes in ringer washers (or in earlier times in a wash tub) and hung them up to dry. My grandma was born in 1885, which means the following describes her mother’s experience.  “According to an 1886 calculation, women fetched water eight to ten times every day from a pump, well, or spring.” Now all we have to do for the same results is turn on the tap for drinking water or push a few buttons to fill the washing machine.

It’s ironic that the devices that save us time and energy also require us to compensate for that savings by spending more time and sometimes money to get exercise. With every new car and its digital parking assistant, kitchen appliance and Alexa device, we need to consider taking the stairs and not the elevator, parking farther away from stores’ entrances, working in the garden, stepping up our pace in the malls and doing physical activities we enjoy.

This is where the digital assistant is most useful. “Alexa, find me a gym near my home. Alexa, remind me to get up from the computer every half hour. Alexa,”say something every time you hear the refrigerator door opening.”





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How our brains mess with us

Wikipedia: public domain U.S.: author’s life + 70 years

Donald Trump says the news media lie. In most instances he’s wrong, but that’s not the focus of today’s blog. Many of us face a bigger threat to receiving honest information than from the so-called fake media. What could that be? Unbeknownst to us, our brains are busily telling us lies about ourselves.

After the fall election, a friend gave me a quote from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):  It said, “Your brain doesn’t always tell you the truth.”  Because I was so upset about the election, I thought she was trying to tell me not to stress out.  After eight months of this president, I suspect she had another message in mind, because stressing out over national politics seems like quite a reasonable reaction.

It wasn’t until after reading something in a writer’s blog last week that the topic of “our lying’ brains” (a new country western song title?) smacked me over the head like the NAMI quote never could. The blogger said that despite having eight published novels, every time she sits down to write, she still questions whether she has what it takes to be a writer. She says, “My brain lies.” After ignoring my friend’s NAMI quote for months, I now know there is so much more to this idea than I realized.

2008, New York Times (NYT), “Your brain lies to you.”
2014, Scientific American, “How the brain leads us to believe false truths”
2015: BuzzFeed, “6 ways your brain is lying to you every minute of the day.”

Here’s part of the explanation the NYT gives: When we recall old information, “our brain writes it down again,” restores it in a different place than where it was originally stored, “and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. With time, this misremembering gets worse.” The article uses the research on memories to show how negative political campaigns work, but the studies work in many other contexts. Here’s my personal example.

When I was a child my mother took me for a walk in a stroller to a beach near a railroad bridge.  We arrived just in time to see people trying to rescue a five-year-old who had stuck his head between the tracks.  I remember being fearful fear that an oncoming train — not yet on the horizon — would arrive in seconds and decapitate him. Later, I told my mother of my fears.  “It was his hand,” she said, “not his head.  They got it out easily. He was in no danger.” Wow! I never suspected my brain had been messing with me for such a long time.

The “6 ways your brain is lying” also hits home. “#4. It insists you’re right when you’re not.” I don’t think I have to explain this to anyone who’s been married. In any argument, my husband and I are both always right.

I also appreciate other points in this piece.  “#2. It [your brain] makes you feel like a fraud.” I used to teach a workshop to help women overcome math anxiety. Research showed that if women did well in math courses at one level in school, they concluded they had just been lucky, really were frauds, and would be found out when they entered the next level.

The successful writer above who wonders every time she sits down to write whether she can do it, also must feel like a fraud.

And “#3. If people think you’re stupid, it makes you stupid.” We trust stereotypes and others’ negative views of us and don’t accept evidence that tell us they’re wrong. When I turned in an essay to my freshman English professor, who obviously was not an advocate for the Lake Wobegone effect, he told me I would always be an average writer. At least that’s how I remember it. I’m thankful for a professional life filled with writing responsibilities and glad I never asked him for a recommendation.

For all the research out there on how our brains lie to us, there’s little available on how to manage this phenomenon, except perhaps to question our memories. It looks like what my friend shared is the one real option: remind ourselves that something very close to us might be telling us a lie.



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My first eclipse

Guanajuato, Mexico, photo by Instituto Falcon

During next week’s solar eclipse (92% of totality occurring where I live) I managed, inadvertently, to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Still, I am thankful I have my memories of July 11, 1991.  That’s when my husband and I witnessed a total solar eclipse, not here in the Pacific Northwest, but in Guanajuato, Mexico. For those of us who found ourselves in just the right narrow swath of sea and land between Hawaii and Brazil that year, the view was perfect.

The best part was that we just happened to be there for Spanish study in the Instituto Falcon, and were living with Marilu Reynal, a Mexican friend, so we were not vying for limited hotel rooms, though it’s likely, since everyone else in the U.S went to Hawaii, that we would had found one. And we saw no traffic jams, as are predicted for central Oregon next week, except possibly one caused by the odd burro walking down the middle of the street.

Years later, I learned that what we observed was a special kind of eclipse, which Wikipedia calls a “central total eclipse” that lasted nearly seven minutes and will not occur again until 2132.  We’ll probably miss that one.

Real folkloric dancers

Fake folkloric turtles

Since it was Mexico, we couldn’t observe an eclipse without a party, so the school’s director, Jorge Barroso, hosted La Fiesta del Eclipse on the morning of the event. A week or so before the eclipse, he hired a professional folkloric dancer named Sofia (center front in both photos) to teach the women students a traditional dance. She even managed to find matching costumes to fit all of us, who were not exactly petite. The dance she chose was La Danza de Las Tortugas, dance of the turtles, which originated in the eastern state of Veracruz.  (I’m the second tortuga from the left.) All I remember about the dance is that we were supposed to be depositing our eggs on the beach.

photo by Luis Alberto Melograna from Wikimedia Creative Commons

The men also had their chance to perform a mini-skit.  My only memory of this is that my husband, Greg, played the figure Chac-Mool, whose role in historic Mayan culture has many interpretations, including the one we chose, which was that his flat belly served as a “platform to receive blood and human hearts.” Greg was thankful he had a non-speaking part and wishes he still had the flat belly.

Then there was the eclipse, what eclipse photographer Fred Espenak describes this way:  “In the last seconds as totality begins, the daytime sky is quickly replaced by an eerie twilight as the Moon’s shadow sweeps across the landscape at speeds in excess of 1,200 mph.”

I would add that everything around us, including the roosters, grew silent and suddenly we were as cold as we would be in the middle of the night. After what must have seemed the shortest night of their lives, when the sky brightened the roosters went back to crowing.

I haven’t thought of the eclipse and its accompanying fiesta for many years. Even if I could see the totality of the eclipse next week, for me it could not generate fond memories like those from 1991.

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A visit to Hamlet’s castle

This has been my summer of Shakespeare, particularly of “Hamlet.”

Kronborg Castle (Elsinore), courtesy of Wikipedia

My obsession with the play began when I learned that our June tour of Scandinavia would take us to Kronborg Castle in Denmark, Shakespeare’s inspiration for Elsinore in “Hamlet.” Shortly before we left the U.S., I’d picked up the book, “Hamlet Globe to Globe,” subtitled, “Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play” from my public library. It tells the story of a small group of actors from London’s famous Globe Theatre who performed “Hamlet” in nearly every country of the world, even in refugee camps. I was immediately hooked on the powerful prose of author Dominic Dromgoole, the way he connected the play to the histories of the countries where the actors were performing (for example, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and Hamlet’s attitude toward murder), and the reactions of different audiences to the performances. I made a promise to read “Hamlet” as soon as we returned home.

We were to tour the castle on a dreary day. The wet weather made the walk from the bus to Kronborg seem long. Hamlet was less on my mind than finding refuge from the rain.

It wasn’t our first Danish castle nor our first European castle. After you wander through a few castles they start to look the same: mile-long hallways, too many rooms to count and too few windows in them, enough spare bedrooms to accommodate my entire high school graduating class of 526, and no central heating.

Seeing this niche at the entrance pleased me; still it was just another castle. That is, until I began to pay attention to other people strolling through the halls and popping up in various rooms. They were clearly not tourists. Nor were they locals, unless locals were fond of late 16th century dress. They were actors.

I nudged my husband.  “Look.  Do you think that woman is Ophelia?”

She was. And we were no longer in an ordinary castle. We wandered into another room. Soon, the actors were not just hanging around, but acting.

I took the next three photos while watching this exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia.

H: “I did love you once.”
O. “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.”
H. “You should not have believ’d me…I loved you not.”
O. “I was the more deceiv’d.”
H. “Get thee to a nunn’ry…”

Since Denmark, I have read Hamlet once, though it merits multiple readings, attended a “Shakespeare in the Park” performance, ordered another Hamlet-related book by Dromgoole, and watched a summer TV series called “Will,” about Shakespeare’s early entry into the world of London theatre. I own two other books about Shakespeare’s life and soon will move them from the bookshelf to my nightstand.

If you must have an obsession, even if just for the summer, it might as well be about the man considered by many the greatest writer in the English language.

For “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” and spur our own interest in Shakespeare.

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Work habits of creative people, unusual and otherwise

When people find out I’m working on my second novel they often ask about my writing schedule. “Do you have a particular time you write every day?” “Do you start writing as soon as you get up?” “Do you prefer mornings to afternoons?” I’ve never understood the point of the question. Why would anyone care?

After reading “Daily Rituals, How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work,” I realized I was wrong. I’m fascinated with this examination of creative people’s schedules and their rituals around the schedules. Here are a few examples.

Study in contrasts:Poet W.H. Auden maintained a schedule during the day that was ideal for anyone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, timing his activities “to the minute,” then let loose at night imbibing several strong vodka martinis followed by “copious amounts of wine.”

Bare bones approach: Founding father Benjamin Franklin created a tight schedule, but sometimes had trouble organizing his materials. He began his day early by reading or writing without any clothes, what he called his “air bath.”

Unusual warm up: Composer Ludwig van Beethoven rose early and got right to work. He started many a morning standing naked in front of a mirror and poured “pitchers of water over his hands” while singing scales.

Stripped down schedule: Psychotherapist Sigmund Freud got help in maintaining his work schedule. To spare him time handling mundane tasks his wife chose his clothing and went so far as to put toothpaste on his toothbrush every morning.

Working away from home: Toulouse-Lautrec painted in brothels.

Most everyone observed a regular schedule, whether they worked in the morning, afternoon, evening or all night.

I confess to people who ask me about my schedule that mine is irregular, and I admit to writing fully clothed.

I operate somewhere between those who put in six or seven hours at a time and contemporary writer Marilynne Robinson, who says, “I really am incapable of discipline. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times…”

Of course not all the creative people described in the book were quirky. The women tended to find a regular time and place to work and combine this with house cleaning, cooking, gardening, and caring for children. Gertrude Stein was one exception among the women. She liked cows, and with Alice B. Toklas took evening drives in the countryside to be inspired by these creatures. If a particular cow didn’t strike her fancy, they’d drive on in search of a different cow.

One thing I noted was that since famous creative people from the past had no television, iPhones, or Facebook they had, theoretically, more time than present-day artists to pursue their craft. I see a possible strategy here for finishing my novel sooner not later.

As far as the rituals these artists pursued, the nudists above stand out. George Sand did keep a chunk of chocolate on her desk to nibble on. I keep mine in the refrigerator, but I could always move it closer.











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