A writer confesses

Why I Wrote Killing Clifford Gray

Dear Neighbor’s Norther,

I was culling through an old journal this morning and came upon this bit, from way back in Feb. 2016.  Back then I was calling the story Alaska and had yet to complete Killing Clifford Gray’s first draft.  I considered blogging about the Alaska writing process itself, but deemed it too risky.  KCG was just a tender seedling, it’s head barely above the soil, so easily squashed.

Read on, if you want a view in to my thinking from that long ago time.

But before you read on, here’s an update on where you can find some other stuff penned by me:

Free State Review, Dec. 2021 issue. 

Drunk Monkeys, in an as yet to be determined issue. 

Bridge Eight, spring 2020. 

The March and April 2022 issues of Spread, a Seattle-based zine published by Chris Dusterhoff, who also helms New Pacific Press in addition to his USPS mail carrying duties.

Why I Wrote Killing Clifford Gray

Lots of stuff came up at my best friend’s father’s funeral.  I began writing.  And writing.  I sat in the big black chair and wrote for hours.  About the funeral.  Seeing people re-congregate whom I hadn’t seen for decades.  Seeing the old dynamics.  How little had changed.  How did people get trapped into patterns they didn’t want to be in? They didn’t want to re-enact the same old script, but there they were, re-enacting it.  The one they knew by heart.  Learning a new one wasn’t going to happen.

After weeks of write, write, writing, I decided I needed to fictionify.  The old stories had dragged me in.  I had to step back.  Step out.  No.  I couldn’t write the stories as I had known them.  But they wouldn’t let up. The old stories kept pounding on my cranium. What were they trying to tell me?

Killing Clifford Gray is about running away from the things we should confront.  Confronting things we should be running from.  And religion and love, guilt and responsibility and making the same mistake over and over.  Because that’s the way they’d always been done.  Because there’s a right and a wrong way and we wouldn’t be caught dead doing things the wrong way.

I wanted to explore the choices we make to love or not to love and how we show love and don’t show love.  I wanted to explore how fear corrupts us.  I wanted to explore the lengths we’ll go to rights the wrongs we have done.

Urban Farming

Lemon Verbena Cookies

1. In medium bowl, mix:

1 cup Almond flour (such as Bob’s Red Mill)*

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

2.  Beat until light and fluffy:

¾ c. (1 and ½ sticks) unsalted butter or margarine

¾ c. sugar

3.  Beat 1 egg into fluffed sugar and butter mixture.

4.  Mix dry ingredients + 2 Tablespoons finely chopped lemon verbena leaves** with the butter mixture.

5.  Shape dough into log, wrap tightly in wax paper or Saran, and chill until firm.

6.  Roll dough into 1 in. diameter balls.  Roll in cookie coating

(Cookie coating =1/3 cup almond flour and 3 T sugar.) 

     Place balls 2 in. apart on parchment-lined cookie sheets. 

     Flatten slightly with fingers.

7.  Bake in 350 degree oven 10-12 minutes, until golden.  Transfer to wire racks. 

     Makes about 5 dozen.

*All almond flour variation: increase the almond flour to 2 cups and omit the wheat flour.

I found that the all almond flour variation is more delicate.  The cookies made with 100% almond flour also spread out more during baking, so give the cookies plenty of elbow room. 

Allow to cool undisturbed on cookie sheet before transferring to wire rack for further cooling.  Also the all almond version may burn more easily, so watch like a hawk.  I baked two cookie sheets at a time, swapping them out on the oven racks mid-baking.

Not trying to scare anyone off from the all almond path, though, particularly as the cookie testers gave the almond version high marks for cookie taste and enjoyment.

**Lemon verbena is a herb we planted last summer in one of our veggie beds.  Our lemon verb overwintered and came back this spring, so… a fairly good bang for our horitcultural buck.

Urban Farming

Rhubarb Pizza

Calling all Pizza Adventurers and Culinary Experimentalists,

Today we’re going for bottom to top pizza coolness.  We’re making rhubarb pizza on a sourdough, cracked pepper crust.  (Dear Neighbors Northers: I meant to get this recipe out to you a little sooner, as it capitalizes on spring ingredients that might be on the wane now. But, if you act quickly, perhaps you, too, can enjoy this springtime pizza.)This pie also features fresh fava beans and rosemary.  Rhubarb, favas, and rosemary are all ready for harvesting right now, hopefully in your own backyard garden or in a beloved friend or neighbor’s garden or pea patch. 

As if all this weren’t enough, this pizza uses fake-o marinara.  (No more painstakingly prepared pizza gravy for me.  Not since my Italian friend’s husband and one-time Belltown pizzeria shop operator clued me in that pizza doesn’t need it.  The reason had something to do with the pizza pies’ high baking temp, but the proof is in the pizza, and  I can tell you that pizza quality does not diminish using crushed toms from a can.  If anything, the tomatoes taste livelier and the pizza pie quality zooms upward.)

So much reward for just opening a can and pouring! On pizza, straight up crushed canned tomatoes is the way to go. 

What’s that you say? Rhubarb pizza with the fake-o marinara thing is a little weird? Well, yes, but being as we’re already out on a culinary limb, why not build a whole weird pizza tree house! And, trust me.  You’ll like this pie.

OK.  Let’s make pizza!

STEP 1: Sour dough pizza crust (This recipe make 2 eleven inch diameter pizzas.)

Mix the following in a mid-range bowl:

200 g white bread flour
250 grams sourdough starter (I make mine solely with tap water and whole wheat flour (any type, so long as it’s not whole wheat pastry flour, which has a lower gluten content), in a 1:1 ratio by volume.  1 cup each is good to start with.)
40 g water
2 t salt
2 T olive oil (I just eyeball it)
2 T chopped fresh rosemary
1 t freshly cracked black pepper. 

Mix everything up to a dampish dough, then cover the bowl with Saran and go do something else for several hours: as in, eight hours or all day.  This is a sourdough, which takes much longer to rise than pizza made with grocery store yeast.  

Eight hours later, and hopefully this is about 1 and ½ hours before you want to eat, if your dough has doubled in volume, proceed to Making Your Pizza Platform (below).  If your dough hasn’t doubled in size, don’t despair.  Stick your bowl of dough in the fridge overnight.  The next day, pull it out from the fridge and set it on the counter till it has doubled, at which time you can proceed to Making Your Pizza Platform (Yay! You’ve caught up to those other pizza makers.) 

(With either of these approaches, don’t worry if you can’t get to Making Your Pizza Platform right away after doubling.  It doesn’t have to happen immediately. Your dough won’t punish you for waiting an hour or two.)

STEP 2: Making Your Pizza Platform:

Part 1.  Preparing the baking and rolling surface.

            1. Tear off two pieces of parchment paper about 13 inches square. 

2. Set the squares on your pizza scaffolding (For my scaffolding, I use a piel for one pie and a wooden cutting board, about 12×12 inches, for the second pie.  This is because I only have one piel.  I’ve discovered the cutting board does the job nicely.

The downside to using a cutting board is I don’t have the piel’s long arm, but with the pizza transfer method I use, I’m reaching my arm into the oven regardless and not using the piel properly anyway.)  

3. Dust the parchment generously with flour.  (I like to be uber-generous here.  I create a circle-shaped flour plateau, about 6inches in diameter and 1/8th to ¼ inch thick.   (Please don’t tell any “real bakers” I do this.  I’m sure I would be shunned, but I find that if I over-flour a little at this early step, it saves me from over-flouring later on.  I’ll also flour dose more liberally, if my dough was maybe a little tackier or wetter than it should have been.)) 

Part 2.  Forming the Pizza Platform.

1. Gather the dough into a ball.  (I like to use a silicone spatula for this step, in part for its non stick properties, in part to keep my hands clean.) 

2. Cut the dough ball in half.  (I use a metal bench cutter dipped in flour.  Fussy, fussy, you’re probably thinking.  Yeah.  I admit it, but I like how the bench cutter makes a clean cut that doesn’t stretch the dough.  If you don’t have a bench cutter, try with a sharp knife.) 

3. Re-form the half moons of dough into balls.  (Here, I’ll dust my hands with flour. (This reduces stickiness issues.)) 

4. Final step.  Invert the mixing bowl over one dough ball and place saran, gently, over the other. 

Whew! That was a lot! Now we move on to

STEP 3:  Preparing Your Pizza Toppings

While your dough rests prepare your pizza toppings and turn on your oven, which needs to heat up to a whomping 500 degrees F.  If you have a pizza stone, now is when you want to set it in your oven.  (The stone doesn’t deal well with quick and extreme changes in temperature.  If you set your stone in after your oven has heated to 500, your stone is in danger of cracking or otherwise blowing apart, an outcome you definitely do not want.)  Set the stone right on top of one of your oven racks.  If you don’t have a stone, improvise.  I suggest the humble cookie sheet.  (If you plan on baking pizzas regularly, though, even if only to bake the frozen kind, I recommend getting a stone.  Even on the frozen pie, it will up the quality.)

Here’s what goes on the pizza: Please note, these amounts are for 1 pizza, but you’re making two pies, so prepare double these amounts.

  1.  Lightly pave pie with crushed toms, straight from a can (about 2 T/pie), then sprinkle on some dried basil fairy dust. 
  2. In no particular order, layer on

½ cup thinly sliced crimini mushrooms
¼- ½ cup Fava beans, par-boiled and with outer skins removed
¼ cup rhubarb, sliced in 1/8 inch moons
¼ cup thinly sliced red bell pepper
¼ cup julienned red cabbage
3.  Sprinkle on Mozzarella and parmesan cheese, about ¼ cup each, but feel free to pour with a generous hand.  Your pizza platform will support a little more cheese.

STEP 4:  Baking.

When all the toppings are on and the oven has reached 500 degrees, open the oven door, and carefully, carefully, reach inside with your pizza-topped piel or cutting board.  Lift up the leading edge of the parchment (the edge that’s farther into the oven) and slide the parchment and pizza onto the pizza stone.

Bake for 13 min in the 500 degree oven. 

Open the oven door, reach in again with your pizza transferring tool—piel or cutting board—and carefully, carefully, lift the parchment’s crisped edge, slide the parchment and pizza onto the piel or cutting board, remove from oven, and slide in pie number two.

Enjoy your pizza!

Urban Farming

Nettle Pizza

That’s me, picking nettles. Here you can see I wised up and wore thick gloves. The result–no nettle sting.

Nettle Pizza! Yes! This one’s a winner.  On a sourdough crust, no less. And it’s something you can make in this Covid time. Well, I did, so I’m betting that you can.

I prepped my dough on Tuesday. 

1 cup whole wheat + 1 cup water fed to the sourdough starter mix.

Made dough with about 200 grams white bread flour, 250 grams sourdough starter, and 50 ml water.  Added 2 t salt, about 2 T olive oil, and 2 T chopped fresh rosemary.

Next came the fun part—the nettle hunt! Only picked the freshest and tenderest.  Wear thick gloves, people! I didn’t and those nettles are sharp.  A nasty nettle on my fingertip that smarted all day long, even after I chewed up a salmonberry leaf and spit it onto my finger.  (That was what Grandma H always told me to do for the nettle stings in my youth.  That or apply witch hazel.  Grandma H was a big fan of Prevention magazine.  No doubt the remedies were listed there.  Is Prevention still a thing?) 

On Wednesday afternoon I divided my dough into two and shaped it into dough balls.  Rolled the dough out onto floured parchment as usual.  (My sister claims the flouring isn’t necessary.  She has luck without doing it without flouring, and OK, good for her.  I don’t.  I set down a generous sprinkling of flour first.  And no, sis, it doesn’t infiltrate my dough and mess it up.)  Since I’ve mentioned Grandma H in this recipe, I’d like to also mention Grandpa H.  Because what do I use to roll out my dough circles with—you guessed it! A wooden dowel custom cut by Grandpa H.  The very dowel he cut for Grandma H, which I then inherited.  The dowel is about 1 ¼ inch diameter and a generous length, I’d guess at least 14 inches.  No, I’m not going to dig it out from the cupboard to measure it.  No time.  I’m trying to give you the world’s best Nettle Pizza recipe here.  You’ll have to take my word for it.  Just trust me that my dowel has rolled out pies, biscuits, and pizza for upwards of 25 years.  Oops.  Looks like I’m lying again.   Maybe it wasn’t inherited directly from Grandma, as she hasn’t been gone that long.  Which means Grandpa H cut the dowel especially for me.  Even specialer. 

But back to the pizza dough.  So, I rolled it out—and here’s where it gets interesting—I covered my dough circles with Saran and let them rest.  Dough beauty rest! Yes! So my dough could get all puffy and bouncy and beautiful again.

Here’s what went on the pizzas:

First: 2 T crushed tomatoes, straight from the can.  Then a sprinkling of dried basil.

Second: chopped green pepper, sautéed leeks, and 2 cups cauliflower broken into small bits.

Third: the nettles! Proceed cautiously, like I did.  Use tongs.  (Additional nettle handling suggestions: set the nettles on the pizza face up, as their prickles seem more prevalent on their underbellies.  Clip off any lingering nettle stem, as this too, seems a place of prickle congregation.)

Lastly, a sprinkle of broken up walnuts (I just break them into small pieces with my fingers), crumbled feta, and grated mozzarella.  Again, use caution.  You do not want to even brush your skin against the fearsome nettles.

Now, to bake.  Into the 500 degree our nettle pizza goes, right onto the hot pizza stone, parchment paper and all.  13 minutes later, pull the baked pizza out and slide in pizza pie numero dos.

OMG! Are you still wondering about this enterprise? Nettles on pizza? She keeps saying how dangerous nettles are—how nasty their sting, etc., etc.  Why else was Grandma H buying witch hazel in bulk? And will such pizza be any good, let alone edible? How will I transport it to my mouth without needing a trip to urgent care?

Here’s the secret: baked nettles lose their sting.  Voila! My nettle pizza emerged from the oven incredibly delicious.  The toasted nettle added an indescribable bittery-tart note.  The sourdough crust supported all the ingredients admirably.  The leeks gave an additional springy note. 

So, everyone! March to yonder woods.  Pick nettles and put them on your pizza!

Urban Farming

Tuna Financial Fasserole

Financial Fasserole–Tuna-style

In the time of Corona Virus 19, the shelves are looking bare at the grocery stores.  Rice? Gone.  Oatmeal? Only the steel-cut kind.  Beans? Down to a couple packets of black and some cans of pintos.  Make bread? Good luck.  The flour’s been taken.  Ditto, the Fleischman’s yeast powder.

Which means… it’s time to make Financial Fast Casserole, or Fasserole, for short, or FFC for shorter. Fasserole is the casserole you make from things at hand.  You know, the dribs and drabs.  A can of this.  A packet of that.  Also, this is when you throw in the little ends of veg, before they get green fuzzies. 

Get creative!

Here’s the Urban Farmer’s recipe, but don’t make a carbon copy.  That’s not the point here.  The point here is to “get creative.  Use up what you already have.”

First step: Gather ingredients.

The Urban Farmer’s include:

Veggies! About ½ lb of crimini mushrooms, what’s left of a red bell pepper, the last chunk of green cabbage (left over from St. Paddie’s corned beef and cabbage), a smallish bit of cauliflower, and about ¼ stalk celery (This was all that was left after the granddaughter’s snack of ants on a log (raisins and peanut butter on celery) for folks not in the preschool loop).

2 cans tuna fish.

2 portions buckwheat Soba noodles.  Soba what? You ask.  The Urban Farmer hears you grumbling.  That’s OK.  You don’t need to use Sobas.  We’re in the time of Covid.  Use what you have.

Second step: Chop, chop, chop your veggies.  While doing that, start making your white sauce.  (This is also your “Third Step.”)

Yes.  You can do this.  If the Urban Farmer can, believe me, you can.

Third Step: White sauce. Here’s how:

Recipe for White Sauce.

Dump 1 stick butter into a largish pan.  Think 2 or 3 quart.  Let it melt on medium heat.  Wait for it to completely melt, then toss in

¼ cup (= 4 Tablespoons) all-purpose white flour.  Stir it well.

Add in 1 cup milk.  Keep stirring, fairly regularly, so nothing sticks to pan bottom.

(Tip: if you want to flavor fantastisize it, after the butter melts, stir in the chopped mushrooms, red bell, and celery.)    

Fourth step: Cook your noodles according to the package directions, then drain them.

Fifth step: Mix remaining veggies, the cauliflower and cabbage in the Urban Farmer’s case, the noodles, and the 2 cans of tuna in with your white sauce.  Stir it well, then dump into a greased casserole.  Cover with aluminum foil

Sixth step: Bake for 45 minutes at 420 F. 

Serve and enjoy!

Book reviews

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Dear Neighbors Northers,

This review of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will is going to be short and sweet. I wouldn’t be writing one at all, not because I didn’t want to, but because I wanted to work on my own writing stuff. But when I was reviewing the status of the books I have out at the Seattle Public Library just moments ago, I came across a reader who dissed Dan’s book, saying it was, basically, unreadable and plotless. What? Dissing Dan’s book? This guy is amazing.

Ill Will reminded me of Palahniuk’s Fight Club, but with much deeper psychological portraits. Dan turns his characters inside out and then some. He never provides easy answers to the question of how darkness perpetuates itself. In Ill Will he shows the manipulator’s power to pilot the unwary and guileless towards their own personal spectacular train wrecks. His characters are incredibly well drawn, beautifully flawed, aching to be understood, awash in despair, lost, clueless, unhumbled, so well padded within the cocoons of their own realities that they see everything but their own fatal blind spot.

Added deliciousness, Dan kept me guessing till the very end who the real villain in the story was.

But OK. Yeah. If you need Dick and Jane books or ones that deliver a Happy End, Ill Will certainly is not that. But if you are interested in a study of the dark side of the human psyche, that shows how evil can snowball forward by people who consider themselves basically good, then read Ill Will.

A writer confesses

Why the girl with the blocked out eyes?

20190817_130811Dear Neighbors Northers,

We’re on holiday in Buenos Aires this month.  Expect short, touristy posts.  Last Sunday Argentines voted in their primary.  No one expected Pres. Macri to fare as poorly as he did.  I don’t know if that explains red-eyed girl either.

Why the girl with the blocked out eyes? Why the redness? Who sprayed her onto the wall? Does she know Jesus? His coffee shop? We just passed it a block ago.  And that man in the distance, wearing the black puff coat, jauntily strolling along, pretending to be jonesing for his next cafe doble.  What’s his story?

A writer confesses, Book reviews

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman cover 2

Dear Neighbors Northers,

I read Anna Burns’ Milkman months ago.  It was one of my first reads of 2019.   I was blown away.  I became a disciple, recommending Milkman right and left, but when I attempted to blog about it…, uh, I felt like I was never doing the book justice.  My piddly attempts to describe Milkman and my response to it always fell well short of the mark. 

Happily, my verbal praise paid off.  Months after my gushing, a barista at my go-to coffee shop in Seattle informed me that she was reading Milk.  Just this past week, a package arrived from my cousin in Kiel.  Inside, a copy of Milkman.  My cousin in far-off Germany also a fan? Now I knew I had to shove all the other writing aside and finally, all these many months later, post my take on Anna Burns’ wonderful novel.  I may still not be doing justice to it, but here goes.

I commit the unpardonable sin of reading while walking weekly, sometime other daily.  Drivers pull off the road for the pleasure of scolding me.  “You shouldn’t be doing that! Don’t you know how dangerous that is?”  Imagine my readerjoy when I discovered that the female narrator of Anna Burns’ Milkman is also such a transgressor.

Picture 1970s Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is a country at war with itself, with one group living under the other’s thumb.  It is peopled with renouncers and informers.  Paramilitary and security forces are always lurking.  It is a crazy-making world of denial and stolen dreams.

The girl who reads while walking has scrubbed war, enemy, Ireland, England, and Great Britain from her vocabulary.  Instead, one lives and belongs to “this side of the road” or “that side of the road” or “the country over the water.”  Everyone is referred to by lower-case descriptors, never by Christian name.  We have tablets girl, nuclear boy, second brother-in-law, third sister, maybe boyfriend, shining girl.  The exception is the Milkman.  He is not a real milkman, but an imposter milkman.  He is also a leader of the renouncers.  Meanwhile the real, and therefore lower-case, milkman is usually not even referred to as the milkman, but as the man nobody loves. 

The girl who reads while walking is in danger of becoming a “beyond the pale.”  Not just or even primarily because she refuses to leave off reading while walking, but because this affliction makes her a non-participant, back turner, and thumb-noser.  All around her are broken families—crippled brothers, expatriated sisters, dead or incarcerated fathers, benumbed mothers—but she steps deftly over or around the casualties and keeps reading.  She isn’t even reading current literature.  She stubbornly rejects anything more recent than the Nineteenth Century! All this makes her ripe for suspecting. 

Meanwhile, the Milkman, who is not real, only masquerading, has taken to shadowing her in his van.  He would like nothing better than to deflower her, thereby shaming and entrapping her into a life of lowly despicatude as his mistress.

Full disclosure: Anna Burns’s sentences are often dense and thickety, so this is probably not a beach read, but please, if you think you have the fortitude, open its pages.  In the snarls and snags and twisting bramble of Milkman’s prose dwell humorous insights and painful truths. 

Milkman is an amazing, eye-opening read.

A writer confesses

The Low Rumble of the Tree Chewer

The Low Rumble of the Tree Chewer

Cuts through any chance I have at sticking two words together.

The rumble mixes with the Mexican workers’ exhortations.  Place the chewer aqui.  No.  Place it alla.

More than an hour to go.  The library doesn’t open until ten. 

Can I make it?

What to do? Think quick, Writer!

Stay or go.  Now is the time of productive thinking, but the tree chewer is worming through my bones.

What I wanted to say, thought I would say, when I lay abed, tossing, turning, wrestling with the bed covers, determined not to hear the ductless Daikon switching on, off.  On.  Off.  Determined to turn a blind eye to the Daikon’s unblinking Intelligent Eye.

Ah. Respite from the droning.  I squander the quiet starring names on my contact list.  The starred names will ring.  The unstarred names will not ring.  I organize the recycle paper.  Great chunks now fill the vertical stacking trays.  I’ve culled the dog-eared pages.  They will stick in the printer’s teeth.  I’ve culled the stapled-together pages.  They will clog the printer’s throat.

Again, droning.  My cortisol levels resume their rising. 



Choose.  Choose something.

No sanctuary.

I wanted to think on the gay penguins in Australia.  Some complain that the descriptor is wrong.  They should be called outliers or abnormals.  Something along those lines.

Of all the penguins at the sanctuary, only this pair have managed to co-father their orphaned penguin egg into being.    

Book reviews

The Amendment by Anne Leigh Parrish


Lavinia Starkhurst Dugan’s second husband Chip is dead.  A lightning bolt struck him down on the golf course.  Her oldest daughter Angie thinks she should join a grief group.  Chip’s best friend Mel and golf buddy wants to put a ring on Lavinia’s finger.  Her housekeeper Alma thinks she’s hitting the wine too much.  Her ex-husband Potter is fretting about her, too.  But Lavinia doesn’t have time for grief groups or navel-gazing.  Her five kids are grown and no longer need her guiding hand.  Chip left her financially secure.

She’ll do grief her own way.  She’s not even fifty yet.  It’s time to see what see what life’s like on her own: without kids, husband, husband’s best friend, ex-husband or her housekeeper Alma.

With a suitcase full of silk jumpsuits, a box of thimbles, a stack of an unknown family’s photographs, a vase in which she daily sets new bouquets, and a pink stuffed bear riding shotgun, Lavinia heads out on a cross-country road trip.  Destination: Pacific.  She wants to feel those cold waters between her toes.  Lavinia is a feisty woman of action, diving into life head first.

Tuck The Amendment by Anne Leigh Parrish into your carry-on this summer or read it on your stay-cation.  Whatever you do, read it! You’ll be glad you did.