Category Archives: Memories

Beach Party Author Write-in

newport beach pedestrian walkNewport Beach in California is a well-known tourist attraction to most of the United States. People come here to enjoy the sparkling white beach, the cold waves of azure water, and the beach community that hugs it. There are over ten miles of beaches in the public park system in the city, including the Balboa Peninsula where my writing group decided to hold a Saturday write-in, complete with a bonfire, hot dogs to roast for dinner and inspiration to write. I do not go to the beach often, even though I live a scant forty minutes away, and I felt enthusiastic about the write-in because I had intended to visit the beach at least once this summer, but had not gotten around to it.

I did not want to bring my laptop or Alphasmart Neo to the beach. The idea of sand blowing into the keyboards of either of my machines worried me. Instead, I pulled out my composition notebook and loaded up my leather pen case with a fountain pen and a Coleteo multi-pen. As a backup, I brought two Pilot G-2 pens, one in black and the other in red that I popped into my flashlight’s case. I have a rubberized lapboard that I like to use when I’m going to be balancing my writing on a chair and I thought that it would provide a good writing surface at the beach. It took time to figure out how to carry it. I ended up stuffing it in my lime green, soft-cooler bag.

I arrived at the Balboa Peninsula in the late afternoon. I drove through the parking lots that were near the pier, but there was not a single space to be had. It was late June and a Saturday, so the beach was packed with tourists and locals out to enjoy the coolness of the day. After driving around the parking lot for forty minutes, I gave up and headed toward the residential area a good mile distant from where my friends gathered. I found a free parking spot in front of a house with a ceramic plate featuring hot chile peppers. I unloaded my vehicle, holding the two tote style bags in one hand and putting the straps of the encased folding chair and umbrella over my other shoulder.

California in the summertime is often called paradise. The sun caresses you while the salt laden wind cool your skin. Overhead, palm trees rustle in the sea breeze and the scent of BBQ combined with spice competes with sour stench of seaweed and salt. As I wandered down a pedestrian and bike path along a row of beach front homes, I was striding by private rose gardens full of delicate pink blooms, beige stucco walls covered with magenta bougainvillea and picket fences of wind distressed grey wood. I smiled to see a tiny hummingbird dancing in among the flowers, drinking in the nectar while it defied the brisk seawind. On the other side of the path were the azure waves of the Pacific and the white sand that the city of Newport Beach is famous for.

A long mile of walking brought me to lifeguard station B and a mass of fire pits already ablaze with wood provided by old cargo pallets or supermarket purchased bundles of split wood. Many grills were cooking dinners, scattered out on the sandy beach or on the grassy lawn of the park. My writing buddies were in the center of this sand filled chaos and gave me a hearty wave as I came around the bend on the cement pathway. They were a band of women dressed in cotton clothing, sunhats and sandals, arranged in a circle facing each other, but without a fire in the center. As I set up my folding chair and umbrella, I wondered what had happened to the promised bonfire.

“The school next to us took three of the fire pits for their kids.” The young, dark-haired woman that had organized our event gave me a sheepish expression. She had worked hard to gain us a fire pit, but in the end she was unsuccessful. Looking around our small patch of sand, I noticed that we were indeed surrounded by large numbers of frolicking teenagers in various states of undress. They were all part of the large school group that were having an outing that day.

As I pulled a cold drink from my cooler, I seated myself in my umbrella shaded chair to relax after my long walk. This was the beach after all, a natural place for young people to come and play. No one was bothering our group of eight writers and while a bonfire would be wonderful, we could improvise. I dug my bare feet into the warm, white sand and felt any remaining tension from the walk melt away.

photo by Jennifer Levine
Authors DeAnna Cameron and Rebekah Webb write in their notebooks
“So how long did it take you all to figure out what to write with tonight?” asked the author next to me in the circle. She was a woman of middle years, with two tween-aged children, and a strong personality. “I was at it for hours and couldn’t decide what to bring. ”She held up a notebook into the air. “I went with this.”

Everyone at the write-in was armed with a bound notebook and pen, except for the new writer who had arrived on a motorcycle and seemed prepared to take on the world. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail and had a black backpack that reminded one of Mary Poppin’s carpet bag; Endless items seemed to emerge from that bag. She wrote on her laptop under a blanket to block out the sun and sand.

I extracted my lapboard, fountain pen and composition book from my bag, but discovered that I had neglected to double check the ink in my pen. It was empty. I was forced to pull out my backup Pilot G-2 pens instead. I was not planning on working on a draft that night, I wanted to brainstorm new ideas to use for future flash fiction projects. I had written down a pair of writing prompts and was going to let the beach inspire me.

Although we did not have a bonfire of our own, the third fire that the school group had built was unused by the kids, and was next to our circle. The kids preferred to cluster around the other two bonfires. We were close enough to the third fire that we stayed warm as night descended on the beach. I used my small pen light to continue writing in the dark. Later, a larger flashlight was stuck in my beach umbrella and pointed up at the material to bounce a soft white light for the rest of the party.

Super Moon at Balboa Beach - photo by Jill Carpenter
Super Moon at Balboa Beach
As the moon rose from the horizon, the two photographers in our group pulled out their cameras. One had a professional looking Nikon DSLR with a lens longer than my hand and a metallic red body and the other woman, a tiny point and shoot Canon. The two ladies razzed each other in a friendly way about the brand of camera they used and why their brand was the better one.

Both of our self appointed photographers took shots of of the “super moon” that was upon us that evening. While I do keep up with astronomical terms, I was unfamiliar with what a “super moon” was. As it turned out, it is a layman’s term for when the moon was at perigee, when a full moon is at its closest point in its orbit to the Earth that year. Near the ocean, the city lights are dim and you can see the stars and moon clearly. Our super moon was very bright, but not large as a harvest moon may appear.

As the darkness enclosed us, one of our party suggested that we ask to borrow the third, unused fire to cook our dinner. We sent our representative teenage writer over to use her sad smile and winsome ways on the school party. It did not take her long to gain us access to the bonfire. Our write-in coordinator strode to her car and returned with a large wheeled cooler. She was trailed by her Mom who had been sitting out in their car, preferring to take an on-line school course on her iPad instead of being out on the sand. However, dinner drew her out to join us authors at last.

The hot dogs were roasted. S’mores were distributed. The women writers fought playfully over a bag of carrots. As the night wore on, we all departed from the beach one by one. I was grateful to be offered a ride back to my SUV, sparing me the long walk back to my car with all my gear.

It was the first time our group had gathered for a write-in at the beach, but I think that it will not be the last time we do this. While most of us did not do a great deal of writing, the camaraderie and the relaxation was well worth the day.

photos by Jill Carpenter and Jennifer Levine

A Day at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival

Poet Jevon Johnson - LA Times Book Festival
Poet Jevon Johnson – Spoken Word Performance
The Los Angeles Times Book Festival is the largest book event in California. It is speculated that 150,000 people come to the festival, located on the campus of USC, to partake of poetry, music, authors and celebrities. The event is a maze of author panels, book signings, book sellers, poetry readings and music that it would be easy to become lost in the sea of people and books, like drifting flotsam.

Although I’ve been a bibliophile most of my life, I have never attended a book festival before. When my writing friends spoke of forming a carpool to the event, I felt intrigued and eager to attend. There were four of us hearty souls on a journey of discovery, all piled into our friend’s comfortable van. On the way to Los Angeles, we spoke about tickets to the many events, which booths we wanted to visit and where we would meet up at the end of the day.

The weather was warm and sunny, but not with the bite of heat that Southern California is known for. I had armed myself with a wide brimmed sun-hat, plenty of sunscreen, and a backpack filled with granola bars and bottles of water. My day began at one of the ticket booths, gathering the needed print-outs to the panels I had selected to attend. Many had been marked as sold out on-line before the event, but I discovered that not only were the tickets free on walk up, but all the events that I thought I could not attend were now available. With undisguised greed, I accepted the free tickets before my friend and I rushed off to our first event.

As we hiked across the campus, I was reminded of my first days as a college freshman, my nose tucked in a map and a confused, lost expression on my face. My friend and I became misplaced near the poetry stage, where performance poets were reading for a small morning crowd and then wandered to a nearby book signing booth where volunteers were stacking novels in preparation of the first signings of the day. Books by Carol Burnett, the famous comedienne and actress were everywhere in the booth. At this point, we realized that we had gone the wrong way.

Making a quick course correction, we managed to slip into the back seats of our selected panel, Fiction: Setting and Story. The panelists were Jami Attenberg, Kevin P. Keating, Michael Lavigne and Maggie Shipstead. They spoke about how they developed the ideas for the settings of their novels and answered a few questions of the 200 or so attendees of their panel. It was not a writing workshop, more of an expression of what they did as authors and details about their books. Afterward, they were ushered by handlers to their book signing booth where I’m sure they sold many copies of their books to the audience.

I had a little time before the next panel started, so I stopped for lunch at the row of food trucks that had come to the campus that day. There was a wide selection of choices from burgers to pita sandwiches and salads. My friend and I managed to find a shady table in the pavilion set up on the campus track to enjoy our lunch. The springy feel of the track under my feet made me feel as if I could propel myself into flight; Only the best running surfaces for team USC.

I noticed there was a police presence assembling near the food trucks, mainly officers on horseback. Four of them had pulled up their horses in a row and were allowing two children to pet the horse’s noses. As I made a point to pass by in front of the horses, knowing better than to walk behind a horse’s rump, I noticed that in addition to the usual firearms, each officer had what appeared to be a sword near the pommel of their saddle. On closer inspection it proved to be a long ivory hued club with a carved hilt. Most curious. I had comic visions of LAPD officers, as samurai warriors, chasing evil doers at the festival with their wooden swords. Yet, I was also comforted by the officers presence due to the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. This was a large public event and it could be a terrorist target.

The next panel I attended proved to be my favorite of the day. It was entitled Fiction from the 22nd Century and featured science fiction authors: Austin Grossman, Scott Hutchins, Lydia Netzer and Robin Sloan. Again, this was not a writing workshop, but authors speaking about a topic as it pertained to their own writing. The topic was about how speculative fiction has changed from the golden age of science fiction to today, where authors do not attempt to predict what is to come, but instead explain the ramifications of science in our current lives. Being a science fiction writer, I found the topic to be quite applicable to my own writing and found myself eager to take notes with my fountain pen.

The next event was to hear author Orson Scott Card interviewed by Aaron Johnston. Two of Mr. Card’s novels are on my favorite list: Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. I ended up being disappointed by this interview because the author was extremely focused on the filming of his novel, Ender’s Game, and his day of playing a bit role in the movie instead of speaking about writing. Still, I was able to get a sense of the man’s personality and a few thoughts about how he viewed his writing and his career. I noticed that the authors that he listed as his greatest inspiration were the same as my own.

I caught the tail-end of the word stylings by Javon Johnson, two-time National Poetry Slam champion and USC Professor, who was performing his poetry on the main stage and getting the crowd involved with his act. The cadence of his words were comical and yet thought provoking.

There were an astounding number of book vendors selling every sort of book you could imagine on the pedestrian walkway under the shade trees. Booths that specialized in indie authors were the most numerous. There were also several writer’s groups that offered book signings by their members; Murder, We Wrote and the Independent Writers of Southern California were the two that caught my eye. Both are local writer’s groups in the Los Angeles area. The most attractive booth was the Jane Austen Society of North America who were selling fanfiction Austen titles and promoting their local chapter in Pasadena. Inside the booth were hung Regency style costumes and the tables were draped with lace. You could almost believe that Jane herself was about to appear for a book signing of Pride and Prejudice.

Authors DeAnna Cameron and Greta Boris
Authors DeAnna Cameron and Greta Boris
I ended my day at the booth of Red Phoenix Books. My friends Greta Boris and DeAnna Cameron were both holding book signings there. Greta writes non-fiction about fitness and DeAnna is a steampunk and historical fiction novelist. Both reported a busy day and plenty of visitors.

Red Phoenix Books is owned by Claudia Alexander, a scientist who publishes not only a range of science books aimed at children, but also several steampunk novels. I was pleased to have a chance to chat with Claudia about steam engines and how to better understand this technology when writing Steampunk fiction. There is nothing like having a JPL scientist to ask a few questions of.

By this time, the festival was winding to its close. One by one, our foursome met up at the Red Phoenix Booth. We returned to the valet parking station to retrieve our vehicle. Once more we journeyed on, out of the city and back home, each recounting different tales of our day at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival.

Italian Cooking

There is something about the scent of homemade spaghetti sauce as it bubbles away in my kitchen. It speaks of lazy summer nights out on the patio, of food that is healthy and rich in flavor, and it reminds me of the love I have for my little family as I provide good food for us at economical prices. My sauce is full of rich tomatoes, Italian sausage, red wine, garlic, basil, a touch of brown sugar and lots of time in the crockpot to develop its thick and rich character.

I started cooking at the tender age of twelve in defense of a mother that couldn’t cook her way out of a disaster. My mother attempted many recipes from chili, to spareribs, even to pickling cucumbers. All the recipes were from a parade of modern day cookbooks that were stacked haphazardly in our kitchen. Everything she touched was met with culinary failure. I remember a day when she silently stared at four long rows of homemade pickles in our basement, opened a jar and sniffed the contents. Then she threw out every single jar of pickles she had canned. She told me that she did not feel that they were safe to eat. About the only positive thing you could say about my mother’s cooking was that it remained edible…almost. When I around five or six years old, my father started to take over the kitchen and on the days he cooked, while the fare was hearty and not imaginative, at least you could eat it. I always regretted that I had no family member to learn cooking from and that there were no regional or old world dishes for me to inherit.

During my teenage years, I slowly took over dinner preparation. Both my parents worked and then went out square dancing four nights a week, so the task of getting a meal on the table for myself, my parents and younger brother fell on my shoulders. Cooking, cleaning and washing dishes became my daily tasks. I did not enjoy washing the dishes or the cleaning, but I slowly gained an appreciation for the art of cooking. I watched cooking shows on television and learned that each region of the world had their own pallet of flavors that they favored. Learning how a culture cooked its meals gave me an understanding of what it might be like to live in other parts of the world and how other families might gather around their table. My favorite type of cooking became Italian cuisine. Mainly northern Italian since I loved aborio rice and the rich beef dishes of that region. I find the food is healthy, light and full of variety.

As fate would have it, I met and married a half-Italian man. One of the things that he loved while we were dating was that I cooked Italian food that reminded him of his mother’s, although he would always point out that his mother cooked Southern Italian fare and I cooked Northern Italian style. I would hear him chat with his mother about my dishes and she would integrate him about what I cooked and what ingredients I used. Then declare that it was not quite what she considered Italian. Even so, I spent many a day watching cooking shows with my mother-in-law and we both enjoyed comparing notes about our favorite television chefs. Cooking was something that we had in common.

I think about my mother-in-law sometimes when I make my homemade spaghetti sauce. It is not a recipe handed down to me by my grandmother or mother, but one that I found rave reviews for on the internet. It is Jo Mama’s Spaghetti Sauce, the author claims that her children will turn down a steak dinner in favor of her sauce and after making it many times over the past few years, I agree with her. It is now my sauce and one that I’m known for. I always make a huge batch all at once and freeze away four or five quarts of it for future use. My husband loves it. I might not have been raised with the traditions of an Italian mother, but I think that my mother-in-law approved of my cooking and how I take care of her son. I hope she is up there smiling down on us as we enjoy our spaghetti dinners.

Bicycling Preparations

One weekend morning, I heard my husband banging in the tool box out in the garage as I was wrapping up a review of a story on one of my writing sites. “Where is my socket wrench?” he called to me across the house. I paused to think where the proper tool for the task might be.

“Why don’t we use mine in the back of the SUV?” I replied to him. I closed the browser on my computer and started a search for my shoes. Aha! They were still under my computer desk.

“But I want to use a socket wrench,” he exclaimed far more loudly than necessary. I heard more banging. “I found it!”

I slipped into my leather sketchers and tied the laces. “Wouldn’t it be easier to use the small wrench that I keep in my SUV?” I made my way down the hallway toward the garage. I heard strong language coming from the garage as I arrived. I looked at my husband who was holding a small wrench and its accompanying sockets. He looked irritated. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t have a 3/16th socket! I have everything else!” I shook my head and took the box of sockets from him. “Let’s get the bike rack and give my wrench a try. It’s adjustable.”

We walked outside to where my SUV was parked in the driveway. I noticed that my husband had taken the new bike rack out of its box and it was waiting there for installation upon the rear tire of our vehicle. He read the instructions on how to install it, but then confessed that he didn’t understand them. My husband has trouble thinking visually, so I looked at the illustration and at the bike rack myself. I lifted the rack and placed it on the tire. “I think that it goes on like this.” We both played with the contraption on the tire, discovering how the bolts moved and the straps might be placed. When strength was needed, I directed my husband where to pull the straps.

When it came time to tighten the rack on my car, I took out the six inch adjustable wrench that I always leave in the back of the SUV for camping purposes and twisted the bolts to secure the rack as my husband watched. Before I finished, he took the wrench from me and made sure that the bolts were tight enough. “I hate these wrenches,” he muttered as he worked.

I admired our handy work. “It doesn’t look bad at all,” I remarked. “Are you ready to go riding in the park with me tomorrow?” For me, riding a bicycle is a time of meditation, when I tap into ideas for new plots as the wind blows through my hair. Maybe it is the regular motion of the pedals, or the sense of freedom while zipping along the bike paths, but cycling is a true creative time for me.

“Yes, I can’t wait!” He handed the little wrench back to me. I took the wrench and the bungee cords that went with the bike rack and put them into a little pocket on the back of my SUV. They would all remain there until needed again. I smiled at my husband. It was going to be fun to have a riding partner. Bicycling is always more enjoyable when you have someone to join you.