Spring Has Finally Arrived

PeonyGood Sunday morning! If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you’re probably enjoying a gorgeous, sunny day right now. We finally made it through an unusually cold and prolonged rainy spring. Now the peonies are in bloom and I’m feeling inspired. So inspired, in fact, that I have made a change to my blogging life. If you’re a Gardening, Seattle Style subscriber, you may notice this mail came from the Karen K. Hugg website. That’s because I’ve streamlined GSS into this one, making for more frequent posts and richer content. I’ll be offering advice on gardening and posts about writing, motherhood, and Paris and Europe. If none of that interests you, you can always unsubscribe, I won’t be hurt, but if you stick with me, I’ll hopefully enrich your life.

For now, I have to say goodbye and get into the garden. I’m on a roll. I weeded the very back of my yard yesterday and today need to trim back several shrubs. I can’t wait to hear the sounds of birds chirping and lawn mowers buzzing. Feel that warm sun on my arms. How about you? What are you doing to enjoy this lovely day? Cheers.

 

An Excerpt from “The Scent of a Daphne”

Daphne 'Aureomarginata'I’m pleased to share a sneak peek of my piece, “The Scent of a Daphne,” that appears in Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. It’s about my time in horticulture school, my husband’s cancer treatment, and the unexpected gift I received.

“It was early September, my second semester of horticulture school, and class was about to begin. I stood outside the door on the narrow sidewalk that ran along the building. The day was warm and the door propped open with a wedge. Flies buzzed in and out. Students chatted and shuffled through notebooks while friends hugged at seeing each other again. I hadn’t made any friends yet, but that didn’t bother me. I had other things on my mind. Like the situation I had to explain to Tim, my professor.

He was an outdoorsy 50-something with wavy, gray hair dressed in boots and a canvas jacket. “What’s up?” he asked.

It was actually what was down. Down in my life. As in down and out, or beaten down, or in a downward spiral. My husband, Ethan, had just had an operation, not to remove an organ or clean out dangerous tissue or repair a ligament. The surgeon had installed a port in his chest, a small flat disc with a little tube connected to his artery so chemotherapy drugs could be injected into his bloodstream. He was about to be poked with a lot of needles a lot of the time and surgically inserting a port was easier on his body than poking the same veins again and again.”

Thanks for reading! There are so many amazing pieces in Rooted. When our editor sent me the galleys, I fell in love with the collection right off the bat at the first essay. It’s now available at Amazon and through the publisher, Outpost19. Cheers…

My Escape to Italy with Donna Leon

Death at La FeniceWhat author do you turn to for predictability? For a story that’s not too unlike one the author wrote previously? Perhaps, it’s a fantasy series set in a particular world (a la George R.R. Martin) or a mystery series featuring the same protagonist (a la Agatha Christie). It might even be a literary author whose books, while featuring fresh characters and storylines, offer the same, quality writing and beautiful insights (like Barbara Kingsolver). For me, it’s the police procedurals of Donna Leon.

I’ve always read literary novels, the kind that are brimming with gorgeous, profound language but lack a substantive plot. These books are rewarding for what they are, in fact, in most ways, they taught me how to write with deeper meaning and still inspire, but when I discovered the crime genre works of Leon, I discovered an entirely new side of the novel. Leon’s books aren’t weak on sentences, but they aren’t there for the language and profound insights, they’re there for the story, all while featuring compelling plots and interesting characters and layered social commentary.

I’ve been working my way through her 25 novels about Commissario Guido Brunetti, a detective who solves crimes in Venice. When I read her first book, Death at La Fenice, I was struck by the serious, workaday style of her language, sort of like mine, and the deep love of a foreign city (in her case, Venice, in mine, Paris). I was immediately drawn to the practical, middle-aged detective with an intellectual wife and sweet kids whose personality shows quiet intelligence and fair reasoning. Secondary characters are colorful but not clownish, spawning my endearment. I thought it a kick that she often describes Brunetti’s lunch and dinner meals in great detail, so much so that there’s now a cookbook with recipes for the meals he eats.

The setting of watery Venice offers rich history and a portal to Italian life. I spent a long summer in Italy, just after college, and have fond memories of Venice. To go there via Leon’s imaginative stewardship delights me. That I can do it again and again through multiple books, delights me even more.

What’s most satisfying though is that Brunetti is never in intense danger. As I read in bed before sleep, I don’t stress that he might die. I’ve got enough stress as a mom of three kids with a job and house and pets and blah, blah, blah. Brunetti survives each case. Justice is only spotty in these stories, a commentary on the corruption of the Italian system, but Brunetti serves as its moral compass. The characters around him often don’t survive, of course, and some of the circumstances of the murders he solves are gruesome, but this is the nature of a crime novel.

And so, I’ve found a favorite author who I can return to again and again to counter the unpredictability of life. To remind me that, despite what hectic chaos I have to get through, I can always escape to live a brief life as an Italian on the trail of the truth amidst great art, deep history, dedicated religion, delicious food, and the warm sun.

Mike Birbiglia Offers Life Lessons for Writers Too

dont-think-twiceLast Saturday, I saw a movie about comedy that inspired me as a writer. It was Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, a sharply realistic yet sweet portrait of a New York improv group. Not-so-famous comedians who make people laugh by night but work by day to financially stay afloat. They are friends. They are smart and loving and sometimes selfish. They’ve performed in The Commune for years but when the manager of the theater announces the building’s been sold and the theater is closing, they are squeezed by change. Often, that squeezing is not pretty to watch.

There are six members in The Commune: Miles, Bill, Lindsay, Allison, Jack, and Samantha. Miles, the founder of the group, faces the challenge of finding another small, inexpensive performance space. As he fumbles for a plan, he meets an old high school flame whom he’s attracted to but is ultimately more grown up than he at 36. As their relationship deepens, he questions whether he wants to continue the hard task of doing improv for little money or give it up and be a father to his girlfriend’s coming child.

Meanwhile, Jack and Samantha, a couple, are noticed one night on stage and later invited to audition for Weekend Live, an SNL-type of show. That’s when we begin to see friendships strained and the anxieties of measuring up appear. While Jack, though nervous shows up for and performs at his audition, Samantha gets cold feet. She goes to the show’s building but blows off the audition. Later, Jack get the job on Weekend Live and Samantha continues to perform improv in obscurity. That Samantha was the one initially noticed by the scout and seemed more the target of recruitment makes her self-sabotage all the more heartbreaking. She passed on the biggest shot of her life, on purpose. As the story unfolds, we learn that she didn’t really want to be a rock star comedian. She was more comfortable out of the spotlight, or “in the well” as she jokes one night on stage.

Meanwhile, Allison, another Commune member, is a talented cartoonist who’s worked on a graphic novel for years. While she’s full of ideas and her drawings are quirky and adorable, she’s unable to complete her artistic project. It’s only later when the theater closes, Allison realizes she has nothing to lose and finally finishes her graphic novel before sending out the manuscript to a publisher who earlier expressed interest.

Lindsay, a copyeditor by day, applies for and gets a writing job on Weekend Live, a job which all of The Commune members had been invited to apply for. Some didn’t apply because the job was writing and not performing. Lindsay ends up hired by Weekend Live but is hesitant to share her success with her struggling friends. This situation nicely comes to a head late in the movie. In a great scene Miles criticizes Lindsay for having such an easy life. Lindsay comes from a wealthy family and her apartment and therapy sessions are paid for. As Miles resentfully asks why she gets to have all of the breaks, Lindsay smartly and strongly retorts, “Because I applied!” A wonderful lesson for any artist. She did, indeed, “apply” herself. She tried, meaning if you truly want to be successful, you have to seize an opportunity when you get one, even if it’s not the exact one you want.

And so, the movie ends with The Commune characters headed to different life destinations. Jack and Samantha split up, and Jack, on his way to being a famous comedian, realizes that he must now live in a more serious, hardworking world than his friends. Miles is content to let improv fade from his life and be a father. Bill, Samantha, and Allison find that continuing improv in Philadelphia via the gift of a theater space from Bill’s father is the extent of their comedic ambitions.

Even though some characters chose not to pursue greater success, the film’s messages of persistence and knowing yourself resonated with me. I write creatively for little to no money while I keep quietly knocking on doors and showing people what I have to offer. Occasionally the doors to smaller houses open and I’m greeted warmly. Most of the time the people in the larger houses open the door, check out my material, and politely say, “No, thank you.” That’s okay. Because in this journey of becoming a more established artist, the key is to keep believing in your talent until others finally (and often arbitrarily) agree that you have something worthwhile to contribute. It’s all about continuing to do what you love, creating more work, getting your work out there, and being patient. Very very patient. Don’t Think Twice teaches us that lesson well.

People Don’t Understand: 2016 WAS the Good Year

ChampagneSince November 13th, when John Oliver christened 2016 as a rotten year, so many in the press and on social media have been following suit, calling the year “the worst” and happy to kick it in the pants as it leaves our lives. I have little idea why this trend began. Yes, Trump was elected, which is horrifying, and we endured terror attacks, which are more horrifying, and we lost beloved celebrities. Also, people of color suffered at the hands of police, but this gave rise to the BLM movement. Overall, these types of events are not so different from those that have unfolded in years before 2016.

2016 was the first year whose progress I consciously decided to track in my life. I wrote a post about it last January, calling it The Year of Why Not You, an ode to Russell Wilson’s father encouraging him to go for great achievements, even if he was a nobody in the football world. And so that’s how I approached the months that followed. I worked my behind off writing and submitting, I worked for clients designing and maintaining their yards. Spring was warm, summer was hot, fall was cool. During those months, I had hits and misses with writing. I was rejected by about 20 agents, looked closely at by a few, placed well in a novel competition, and had a few short pieces published. Meanwhile, I gained new gardening clients. I failed in keeping up with two blogs, but hey, I did devote some time to my kids. We went to the beach and playgrounds and took a trip to Chicago. I even managed to have a few date nights with my husband and friends. Meanwhile, the Cubs had a banner season and won the World Series.

During this time, Obama was still our president. I was under the impression we’d break the glass ceiling with Clinton. I felt overjoyed at the gains in renewable energy. The Paris Agreement had been solidified. Yes, there was trouble with ISIL, but they were weakening and that was cause for more celebration than the press gave it. Instead, the news focused on the injustices and misfortunes of the world, which it always does. And of which there are plenty. But I took hope in that millenials, more than any other generation, are finding little tolerance for those old-fashioned, unthoughtful ways of behaving. Our generation will be replaced by more considerate, tolerant, peace-loving people in coming decades and centuries.

And yet, we talk of this year like it was an alcoholic, homeless cousin that showed up and trampled over our homes and well beings. It wasn’t. The sun shone — a lot. Americans woke up in a non-warring country every day, even if we did have to drag ourselves to stressful jobs that we hated. Very few people were shot at or murdered (in comparison to the larger population). So, why are we treating this year like it was so terrible? It was a typical year with a fair share of heartbreaks and losses and most of all, a dismal electoral outcome.

And that’s the rub. It seems to me, that’s all, at least progressive types, remember. People don’t realize the terrible year hasn’t even started yet. It starts when Trump takes office. He IS that alcoholic, homeless cousin who moves in and tramples over people’s lives. He does whatever he wants and rarely suffers the consequences. With that in mind, I will remember 2016 with great fondness because 2017, ultimately, is when the true hardships begin.