2016 Favorites

I woke this morning adrift. Last day of 2016, a year I thought would be MINE MINE MINE for the taking. Instead, it was a year of heartbreak and heartache for pretty much everyone. For me personally, it was a year of transition. Change is good; transition is tough.

I felt the need to be intentional about the upcoming weekend. The end of one year, the start of the next. It seemed whatever I did would set the tone for 2017.

Which is silly, of course. This arbitrary marker of time. I look out the window at the gentle snow drifting past the cedar trees. Nature hasn’t gotten the message that it’s time to turn a new leaf. She’s still in the middle of winter.

Still though, it’s never a bad time to start fresh, to shake off the dust that’s been gathering and set new intentions for a better tomorrow.

I almost wasn’t going to do my favorites this year. All I want to do is look FORWARD, move on, no looking back. But that would be a disservice to myself, and to the year past. Because while, collectively, it wasn’t our best year, there were still some bright moments.

Movies

This one didn’t get the best reception, but I loved Hail, CaesarI grinned the whole way through. No, there wasn’t much plot, but that wasn’t the point — this was a tribute to movies of yesteryear, to the so-called “Golden Years” of Hollywood. It just made me happy, and sometimes that’s all you want out of a movie.

Plus, it gave us this glorious moment:

Oh! And how could I forget the new Ghostbusters? Another delight, from beginning to end. (And even better for the fact that it enraged the Internet Trolls.)

Books

Already mentioned — but if I have to pick just two, it’d be Station Eleven and The Fifth Season.

Oh, and an honorable mention to Calvin and Hobbes. I spent the majority of the year reading through the full anthology. Is there anything better than snuggling on the couch with cocoa, a cat and a comic book? So many years later, the friendship between a boy and a tiger still makes me warm and cozy inside.

Music

Whenever I needed a pick-me-up this year — a “HELL YEAH YOU CAN DO IT” boost — this one got cranked up.

But looking back at my most-played songs of Spotify, there’s one other that dominated.

I remember playing this one on repeat on New Year’s Day last year, and it just never stopped. Something about this song just gets me. I missed the opportunity to see them in concert in 2016 — fingers crossed I’ll get that chance this year.

Moments

Oh, so many.

Sitting in the meadow at Hedgebrook, in the full early-summer sun, watching the tiniest frog make his way through a forest of grass.

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Dancing so hard at my sister’s wedding that the next day my arms were sore. Apparently, I throw in a lot of arm moves while dancing.

Successfully reaching Sperry Chalet after a strenuous hike through Glacier National Park. (And NOT being eaten by a grizzly bear.)

Watching the sun set over the Pacific ocean during my first-ever backpacking trip. Watching the tide roll in the next morning.

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Experiencing the odd zen-like sensation of riding on the back of a scooter through Ho Chi Minh City.

Sitting in the shallows of the Gulf of Thailand, gently picking up sea urchins and setting them back. Watching hundreds of tiny crabs form perfect circles of white sand.

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Exploring a quiet cove on Lopez Island with friends. Exploring a snowy lava field outside Bend, Oregon.

Taking my mom, a life-long Beatles fan, to see Paul McCartney in concert for the first time ever.

Watching a hummingbird build her nest outside our bedroom window, getting to see the eggs hatch and grow and fly.

All those and more — that’s what makes me realize it wasn’t a totally lost year.

Food

Ina Garten’s baked risotto –- my go-to comfort dish this year.

A veggie torta — side of rice and beans — from the taco truck in our neighborhood. TACO TRUCKS ON EVERY CORNER PLEASE.

There were so many intriguing, new-to-me dishes in Vietnam that it’s hard to pinpoint just a handful. Vietnamese coffee, of course, with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk. A stir-fried dish of fish sauce, peanuts, shredded green papaya and beef lung. (I know, I know, but it was GOOD.) Dozens of dishes of chè, a pudding-like dessert.

Top of the list though: an ah-maz-ing seafood feast in the Night Market on Phu Quoc island. Crab with tamarind sauce, grilled calamari, sea urchin with peanuts and lime, mantis shrimp, all washed down with light beer, eaten under neon street lights with scooters going by. Heaven.


Look for the bright spots. Spend some time today thinking of yours from the past year. I promise, it’s worth it.

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2015 Favorites

It’s not weird to me that 2015 is almost over — what’s weird is that 2016 is next. How is it that we’re suddenly in the future, where self-driving cars and computer watches and hover boards are all actual things that exist? And yet here at home, the height of normality reigns. I sit here in my sweatpants, drinking coffee out of my writer’s mug, while a cat purrs from the desk and a dog stares at me from the floor. These are all good things.

I’m excited for 2016. 2015 was a rough year in some ways, but it was also kind of magical. Restorative. There was a lot of travel, a lot of reading. I curled up into a cocoon and took care of me. And now I’m ready to bust out and say OH HAI to 2016.

But before we move on — a look back, as I do every year. My favorites from the past year — I’ll be eager to hear yours.

Movies

I did NOT want to go see this movie. I typically don’t like full-on action flicks, and one that was basically one long extended car chase…nooooo thank you. But I was cajoled… and five minutes into the movie, I was sitting there with my mouth open.

The visuals, the feminist plot, the crazy pounding music…I was hooked. I’d never seen any of the Mad Max movies before (and still haven’t seen the prior ones), so don’t know how Mad Max: Fury Road compares. But WHOA was it a kick to the nerves.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum: Inside Out. Thank you, Pixar, for creating yet ANOTHER movie that makes everyone in the theater cry.

Books

I just did my 2015 book re-cap, and I suppose all of those could be counted as “best of’s” for the year. But if I had to narrow it down… I’d go with The Sixth ExtinctionCreativity, Inc. and Half of a Yellow Sun. The first two because they kept me thinking long after I’d finished the books. And the last because — while it’s suuuuper depressing — it’s hauntingly beautiful and showed me a story I hadn’t encountered before.

Oh, and one more… I didn’t include this on my re-cap list, because it seemed like a bit of a cheat. But this year I re-read Watership Down, one of my all-time favorites. I read it on my trip to Greece (more on that later, I promise) — and I don’t know if it was the setting, or because it had been so long since I last read it, but I fell head-over-heels-in-love with this book all over again. Sitting overlooking a caldera, reading about the rabbits’ search for a new home, looking out to the endless sea and comparing this to the tale of Odysseus…that’s a memory that’ll stick.

Music

One band dominated the year for me. In April, we flew down to San Francisco to see them play because they didn’t have any upcoming concerts in the Seattle area. And when they DID come to Seattle in August… yup, we went to that show, too.

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And if I’d had the opportunity to see Alabama Shakes a third time this year? You’d better believe I’d be RIGHT THERE. The bands two albums are good — but if you can, go see them live. Brittany Howard is a powerhouse. Watching her play and sing, I got the distinct impression that I was watching someone very, very special…like, one day I’d be looking back and saying, “Yes, you young whipper-snapper, I saw Brittany in her early days. Go ahead, be jealous.”

If I had to pick one favorite song…I can’t. So here’s two.

 

Moments

Man. I hadn’t fully realized until I did that #2015bestnine thing, but 2015 was an epic year.

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Walking along the Cliffs of Moher. Discovering a sunken tree-fern forest at Blarney Castle.

Floating on Lake Washington with my bestie. Sitting at a picnic table at Crystal Mountain in the later summer sun, reading a a book next to my mom. Fly fishing and actually catching fish.

Swimming and snorkeling in the Aegean. Taking shots of raki with a Cretan restaurant owner. Basking in the sunset at the Acropolis.

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Attending the Hedgebrook writing workshop with my friend Val.

Driving through central Oregon with no AC, sinking into the heat like a lizard, reveling in the beauty that is Painted Hills.

I did SO MUCH this year — yet it still felt balanced. I need to strive for that in 2016 as well.

Food

You guys, do you know about taramosalata? It is SO AMAZING and SO NOT AVAILABLE in this country. I ate it every chance I got in Greece and now need to find the ingredients to make it at home. Byron will totally hate its fishy taste…but that just means more for me.

Speaking of fishy taste — Irish smoked salmon. I don’t know why, but it’s different than other smoked salmon. It’s smooth and silky and subtly sweet. It’s like biting into a piece of the ocean. I ate my weight in it and would happily eat it every day if I could.

Other than that…this was admittedly a weird food year for me. I started seeing a naturopath, did some allergy testing, and as a result cut out dairy, eggs and a whole lot of other crap for most of the year. I’m starting to eat them a bit now…but for a lot of the year, I was basically eating vegan.

So when I ate cheese? I REALLY relished it. You guys, cheese is AMAZING. If you can, eat it for every meal, every day.

I also developed a deep appreciation for hot toddies in Ireland that continued through the year. Hot toddies cure what ails you. Hot toddies are a dollop of sunshine on a cold, damp day. Which is a LOT of days in the Pacific Northwest, which means they’re basically the perfect Northwest drink.

What are your favorites from 2015

Favorites: 2014 Edition

In less than 48 hours, 2014 will be over, and I just can’t wrap my head around that fact. I know people say it every year — I know say it every year — but this year flew by. So much happened in 2014, but it feels like not much happened at all. It was a year of hunkering down, of pushing through. But things DID happen — big things. In January, I traveled to Sweden. I got two promotions at work, one of which took me for a ride. I attended my first literary conference. We adventured in Oregon and California.

What I EXPECTED to happen? Well, I said I’d get the second draft of my book done by July 1. I feel a bit bummed about it, but mostly I just feel… resigned. This year, it just did not turn out as expected. I had to focus my time and energy on other things.

But hey, even though 2014 was an odd duck — it still happened. It’s almost over. And I shall continue the tradition of picking the highlights of the past year.

Favorite Movies

What does it say that the only movie I can actually remember seeing this year is Guardians of the Galaxy? Am I losing my mind? Is that why this year went by so quickly? Is everything just getting washed over and turned into a hazy blur?

Well, at any rate… I guess I’ll say Guardians of the Galaxy. Because I literally can’t think of anything else. Oy vey.

Favorite Books

Ok, this one’s easier! I KNOW THE ANSWER! We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves tops the list. I loved it so much that it’s affected my shopping habits. (And I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know — hey, have YOU read it yet??

I read Writing Down the Bones at the beginning of 2014, and it’s still a highlight. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage was also an absolute treat to read.

And, weirdly… I have to add The Windup Girl to this list. Even though I wasn’t crazy about it at the time — even though I only rated it 3 stars on Goodreads — it’s a book that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about ever since I read it back in June. It’ll randomly pop into my head, and I ponder the plot, the characters, the narrative structure… it stands out amongst other 2014 reads.

Favorite Music

I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac this year. I enjoyed some of the new alt-J. And every time this song came on the radio, I cranked it up:

But if I had to pick one theme song for 2014?

Any time I needed a pick-me-up — any time I felt like I needed my own personal cheerleader — I plugged in and pulled up this song. Thanks, Bey.

Favorite Moments

Eating crayfish in Stockholm. Completing my first 8km race. Discovering the magic of Big Sur. Coming across a crazy bird-pocalypse in Moonstone Beach, California.

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Quiet walks at our local parks. And, as cliche as it may sound, meandering down the Manzanita beach at sunset, watching the waves change from orange to pink before finally going dark.

Sunset at Manzanita Beach. Photo by Laura Dedon Oxford.

Favorite Food

Lobster tacos at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.

… Yeah, no, that’s pretty much the list. LOBSTER. TACOS.

Just like in 2013, I’ve ended on tacos.

How was your 2014? Any standout favorites?

Favorites: A 2013 Recap

Every time I look at my favorites list from 2003, it makes me smile. It’s like a time capsule, a little slice of who I was at a certain time, in a certain place. I want more of those time capsules — so I’m picking the tradition back up. Plus, ya know, ’tis the season.

I’m using the same categories we chose in 2003 — I am a fan of consistency, after all. So here they are, then. A 2013 recap, ten years (!!!) after the first.

Favorite Movies

No doubt about it — Gravity gets top prize. Hands down, my favorite movie of the year. Because holy shitballs this movie was amazing. From the “how did they do that?” visuals to the powerful, INTENSE story. I have some friends who’ve criticized the movie for not being realistic enough. “Well, that was just too coincidental, that XY and Z happened.” But to me, this movie was a parable — a classic hero’s journey, told through a modern lens. And as that, it’s just about perfect.

Runner up? The World’s End. British comedians, creepy robots, epic bar-hopping — what more do you need? This movie cleverly incorporates themes such as addiction, sobriety, and the pains of growing up, all under the guise of an alien caper. It was by far my favorite of the Cornetto Trilogy.

Favorite Books

Considering that I devoured the entire MaddAddam trilogy in about two months — um, yeah, those take the cake. But top of the list would be Oryx and Crake. As I said in my review, I loved Snowman as a narrator, and I love the slow reveal of the entire book, the gradual build-up and creeping horror. Plus, for our anniversary Byron got me this:

Signed first edition of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Signed first edition. Boom. So, duh. Favorite.

Other memorable reads? The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Civilwarland in Bad Decline (depressing as hell, but it sticks with you). And in the “I can’t remember if I read this in 2013 or the end of 2012, but I’m counting it anyway” category — Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.

Favorite Music

Musically, one lady dominated my year: Janelle Monáe . “Q.U.E.E.N.” was my jam pretty much all year long. Plus, she put on an ah-maz-ing show, complete with crazy crowd-surfing.

Janelle Monae in concert.

If you haven’t checked out her entire album, The Electric Lady, do it now. Full-on fantastic from start to finish.

Favorite Moments

Paddle boarding in Hawaii. Neil Gaiman’s reading. Beating a 10-minute mile while running. Weirdly, all the yard work we did this summer (someday the novelty will wear off, but it hasn’t yet).

Oh, and DUH! Attending Margaret Atwood’s reading — and getting up the courage to ask her a question.

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Big nerdy moment, ladies and gents. Big nerdy moment.

Favorite Food

I love that this was a category we decided to include in 2003. Priorities? We got ’em.

I’ve recently rediscovered English muffins. They’re pretty damn tasty. Have you had one recently? Highly recommended.

This summer I became obsessed with the Lil’ Bean Burger from Zippy’s Giant Burgers. It is cheesy and saucy and oh why yes I had one for dinner last night.

Soft pretzels. Always soft pretzels.

These pork tacos. WITH the pickled onions. If you have a slow cooker, make this now. NOW. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

And… I guess that about wraps up my year. We’re ending on tacos, folks. It seems appropriate.

(What WILL be a favorite of the year — finishing the first draft of my book. Which is progressing. 11,000 words written in the past month. It is so close I can taste it. 15 more days. 15 more days.)

Favorites from Yesteryear

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Well here’s a blast from the past. While cleaning out drawers, I found an old notebook from…hmmm, probably high school onwards. I often went on camping trips with BFF Mary and her mom Julie, and we had sketchbooks that came with us. These lists were stuck in the middle of some, erm, interesting pastels of trees (good to know that my art skillz have neither progressed nor regressed since 18).

Buffalo Writes - Favorite Movies and Books

I distinctly remember writing this. New Year’s Day — I’d spent the night at Mary’s house. In the morning Julie handed us our camping sketchbooks and told us to write down our favorite things from the last year, in specific categories — food, movies, books. We brought the glass jar of colored pens over from the computer table and wrote out all our lists and shared them with one another. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess there was hot cocoa involved.

It’s interesting to look back on what used to be favorites. Some of them definitely still are (“I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum”), while others…well, I am admittedly confused why Braveheart is on here. I guess at 18 it really struck a chord?

Buffalo Writes - 5-Year Plan from 2004

The 5-year plan is a testament to how much I dislike 5-year plans. My guess is that I kept all those answers purposely vague because I didn’t want to pin them down. But I am proud to report that within those 5 years, I did accomplish all those things. So I guess let’s hear it for open-ended plans?

Looking at this does make me wish that I’d kept lists like this for every year. It’s fun to look back, to remember (especially when your memory is as leaky as my own). It makes me glad that I’m keeping better track of the books I’m reading now — then I can look back and definitively say, “Yes, I read these books in 2013.” Perhaps a weird thing to want to know… but it does say something about that time in our lives, doesn’t it? What we’re reading, listening to, watching?

Do you have any “old favorites” that may not still make your Top 5 lists, but that you loved at one point? Nostalgia Lane is open and ready for business.

Sentences That Stick

Cold it was, and dark, when the vision came to her, for in the far north daylight was a gray dim time in the middle of the day that came, and went, and came again: an interlude between darknesses. — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

My friend Hannah and I were talking the other day about sentences — perfectly crafted sentences. The ones that make you fall in love with the author on the spot, regardless of the rest of the book. The rest of the writing could be crap, the author could be a total jerk — but you’ll always remember that one, breath-catching sentence.

(Side note: this makes me think of Hemingway’s relationship with Fitzgerald. A Moveable Feast has a long chapter depicting how annoying Hemingway first found Fitzgerald when they met. Then Fitzgerald gives him a copy of The Great Gatsby: “When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend.” Good writing, man — you’ll forgive a lot.)

Now, it’s one thing to be in awe of a sentence. But of course, as a writer, I want to study the Why. I want to know what makes that sentence tick and how to emulate it. Dissect it, name its components, do it myself.

The other writers are probably chuckling right now, because the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t always work that way. You can’t always pinpoint exactly why a sentence transcends its basic mechanics and works on a higher level. It speaks to you at the right place, at the right time. There’s the nutshell.

That Neil Gaiman quote — from American Gods, which I just re-read in anticipation of a Neil Gaiman talk tonight (!!!) — is one that’s hard to pinpoint. When I came upon it, I stopped and re-read it three times. Something about it is just beautiful to me. But when I sit down and try to analyze it — it all falls apart. Yes, it has a nice rhythm (“far north daylight” and “gray dim time” sync up nicely), but there’s nothing totally out of the ordinary there. Maybe it’s because I live somewhat north, and know what those long grey days are like. But that doesn’t really explain my gut reaction to it, either. No, if I try to break it down too much, it loses its magic. Better to just read and appreciate.

So how about you? Are there sentences that have ensnared you, that stick with you, that you read over and over again? Let’s share. I’m always greedy for more.

Writing Strong Female Characters

Earlier this week I wrote about women writers — today, let’s look at the yin to that yang. Let’s talk female characters.

You’ll thank me later — go read the brilliant article on A Dribble of Ink called “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative“. It’s a fascinating, wide-reaching post that tackles how women are treated in fiction — how they often just serve as the catalyst or motive for male characters. The author, Kameron Hurley, writes:

I actually watched a TV show recently that was supposedly about this traumatic experience a young girl went through, but was, in fact, simply tossed in so that the two male characters in the show could fight over it, and argue about which of them was at fault  …. She’s literally in the room with them while they fight about it, revealing all these character things about them while she sort of fades into the background.

In the end, Hurley challenges authors to… well, do better. To go beyond the stereotypes and clichés and write well-rounded female characters who don’t exist solely as foils to the men around them.

And you know? I’d like to think I do a decent job at this. But Hurley’s article made me think long and hard about a female character I’m currently writing, and whether the romantic liaison I have planned for her is necessary. Maybe it is — maybe it furthers the story. But I’m trying to take a step back and really think about it.

Of course, there are a lot of authors out there who do a great job writing female characters. They deserve praise — not only for a job well done, but to encourage other authors to do so as well. And so, I give you 3 women who stand out in my mind as particularly well-written characters — and hope you’ll share yours.

Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Unabashedly nerdy, logical, proud of her intelligence — what’s not up love? I’ve always thought Hermione Granger was an amazing role model for young readers, and a beautifully written character. And the reason she’s so beautifully written is that — well, at the end of the day, Hermione is still a young girl growing up. She makes mistakes. She gets angry at stupid things. She even, at times, toys with boys’ emotions to get back at other boys. In short, she seems like a real human being, which is why it’s so easy to relate to her.

Miriam Black, Blackbirds and Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
Miriam is… well, the opposite of Hermione. The protagonist of her own series, Miriam is brash and crude and drinks way too much cheap whisky for her own good. So why am I so intrigued by her? Because she’s no one’s foil. She doesn’t take any shit from any man — or any woman, for that matter. Her motivations are 100% her own, and if you don’t like them? Miriam doesn’t care. She’s gonna do her own thing.

Mary Stassos, Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham
This was a book I read recently, and although it follows many character arcs, Mary Stassos stood out. She marries young, has three children, divorces her philandering husband… and then, almost against her own accord, starts doing things that surprise her. She quietly but firmly embraces her gay son. She forms a friendship with a New York drag queen. She cares for her wild daughter’s illegitimate son. She is constantly pushed outside her comfort zone — and for the most part, becomes a better person for it. She’s not a loud character, Mary Stassos, but she’s a very real one.

Who are your favorite female characters? Which authors do you think do a particularly good job of writing “real” women?