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Monthly Archives: January 2008

Writing update

This week, my writing classes were scheduled to begin at Appalachian Tech, but they were a no-go. I was disappointed, but not surprised. The school hasn’t had a continuing education class succeed at this satellite campus for some time (the actual campus is an hour’s drive away in Jasper, a bigger city. Mark is currently enrolled in a real estate class there).

Days after I agreed to teach writing classes, the school announced they were closing the Epworth facility. There was some negative commentary in the paper about the facility’s lack of benefit to the community, due to disinterest and low enrollment. Naturally, I assumed this meant my classes would be canceled, but the office explained they were going to continue running FLAG (the literacy program) and the adult continuing education division of the school in this location even while they were moving the degree programs elsewhere. My classes were listed on the website with all the other classes being offered in Jasper. I wrote a press release for the local paper and dropped some flyers around town in places like the library, but the school did nothing to help raise community awareness about the new classes in Epworth. I think they rely on a “if you list it on the internet, they will come,” philosophy , but history has proven this doesn’t work.

When I mention to people I’m teaching a class at Appalachian Tech, they never failed to say, “How can that be? Didn’t that place close?” Power of the press. Whatcha gonna do?

Though the school has tried to keep a presence in Epworth, I’d say they’ve done so only half-heartedly. For example, Mark enrolled in a class at this location last term and it too was canceled. His reaction reflected what commonly happens in cases such as this. He decided not to consider the facility for future classes. The average adult student works their schedule around an expected class, and often, forgo other options. There were five people in Mark’s class, but the school wouldn’t hold the session without seven registrations. Talk about setting yourself up for long term failure: the next time he was interested in adult education, he just waited for a class elsewhere, even though this meant driving an hour to another town. He no longer had confidence in our local facility, so he chose to avoid it altogether.

Dianne and Denver both tried to get information on programs they were interested in too, but no literature was available with answers to their questions about price, scheduling and so on, so they too found other places to pursue their goals.  Without consistency or implementing a full service attitude (regardless of class size) a school has no hope of ever building credibility or building up a student body of return customers (nor can they benefit from word of mouth recommendations from satisfied customers). A few mimeograph papers including class lists is dropped out front now and again, but it’s a listing of all the classes held at all campuses, so it isn’t user friendly. Considering the Epworth facility doesn’t have many walk-in’s, it’s an ineffective way to promote their offerings. Certainly not what I would consider savvy marketing.

A few months ago, I attended a meeting with one of the school’s directors to volunteer to help establish a continuing education program here. But in the end, I could see how fruitless the effort would be, because this is a case of absentee management. Anyone with an understanding of business or directorship basics knows how impossible it is to keep a program thriving when no one at the location has decision making power or marketing support to enhance community awareness.  Heck, if a school could run itself successfully, we’d have kept FLEX and managed it from Georgia. But we know quality and consistency in education requires close supervision and active management.

The women who work in the office in the Epworth campus, are lovely and committed to a common vision for the school. They have the best of intentions, but they’re not in a position to promote true change or to offer better services, so it’s only a matter of time until the potential of this project wanes. It’s a crime because our small town needs a comprehensive ongoing adult community education resource. We have tons of intelligent residents clamoring that there’s nothing to do in our area, and tons of people badly in need of small business management and/or guidance in other life-applicable subjects. We have this beautiful facility standing empty, but no authority or leadership to put a program together to meet the community’s needs.

As someone with a wealth of experience building programs, I can’t help but be frustrated by the inadequacy in the planning and implementation of programs at this location. Campaigning to breathe life into this facility seems futile – I don’t think a single person can do much and the hurdles seem to daunting. It was hard enough to dig in and do this kind of thing for my own school – I can’t imagine drumming up enough enthusiasm to do it all again for a non-profit that few people seem interested in. And while fundraising and gaining support for any worthy endeavor is a noble pursuit, in the end, I’m leery because this college isn’t an independent organization that can take the ball and run with it. It’s simply an offshoot of a bigger institution, one that will always make decisions at the main campus, where the board is influenced by a different cultural mindset. That’s probably the biggest obstacle of all. 

Anyway, I continue to meet with my reading student at this empty college campus two mornings a week and every time I walk through the quiet halls and pass the vacant front reception area with it’s empty brochure display racks, I sigh.

I say to Mark, “Can you imagine what we could do with this sort of facility to work with?”
And he chuckles and says, “Kill ourselves working until we crack again, I’d guess.”
He’s right, of course.

Now that I’m primed and ready to teach memoir writing (with class plans carefully organized) I’ll just have to seek another outlet. The funny thing is, I don’t care whether or not I am paid for teaching – I just want the experience of working with aspiring new writers. I miss interaction with students and I believe teaching non-accredited classes today will lay a foundation for teaching at higher levels in the future – a long term goal. I know hands on teaching is the best way to develop strong communication skills and effective teaching methods and exercises. No time like the present to tinker with something that’s engaging and inspirational on a personal level.

I do have intentions of offering writing seminars at our new business when it’s open (some taught by me and, hopefully, some taught by others) because I’m hoping to make the Bean Tree an artistic hub in this community. But for now, I am thinking of volunteering at community based organizations – places where seniors congregate or people who have gone through difficult times (drug rehabilitation etc…) and helping them discover inner truths and personal revelation through writing. These students may later be the people who come to open mic readings at the Bean Tree, or who participate in a community writer’s blog or some other outlet I might organize.  I still toy with the idea of an in-house publication for local writers, much like one just getting started in Sarasota just before I moved.

In a small town, organizing formal classes isn’t easy –especially when you take into account that 30% of our residents never graduated from high school and many can’t read at all. Promoting academic interests in a place where academic interests have not been readily embraced in the past, makes the concept more complicated than just organizing a writing class at a community center. But hey, it’s not like I don’t thrive best when challenged.  I’d be pretty jazzed if I could develop literary exposure for the abundant local artists here, in some grass roots project.  

Anyway, teaching writing here presents an interesting challenge, one I can’t stop mulling over.

Meanwhile, it’s time for an update on my personal writing…(if anyone is reading this boring entry to the end..)

I’m on the last 50 pages of my novel rewrite and I’ve begun to research methods for sending my revised book out to the world. The other day I read about a new publishing house (two years old) seeking manuscripts. They specialize in Historical romances and are seeking stories with strong plotlines and good research – stories that read more like the historicals that were popular twenty years ago. I read that listing and thought hummmm………….. sounds like they’d like my work.

So yesterday, on our way home from Atlanta (we have season tickets to the Broadway shows presented here, and we just saw The Drowsy Chaperone.  Cute. ) I stopped by Borders to see if they carried books from that press. (They didn’t). While there, I picked up the “hot sheet” of romance title picks, then grabbed a few books from the leading authors on the bestseller list.

I scanned the romance section, marveling at the wealth of titles released this season, especially pleased to see how many new historical novels were featured, because two years ago, historicals were considered dead in the romance genre and authors were told to turn their sights to other storylines (paranormal, chick lit and other styles). According to writing journals now, historical fiction is making a comeback. Whew.

The funny thing is, I haven’t read a romance novel in over four years and the last few I tried to read, I couldn’t get through. This is partially because the genre has changed and the popular historicals today have evolved into cheesy romance drivel rather than good historical novels with a fun romantic thread running through the story (which is what defined historical romance twenty years ago), but I must admit it’s partially because my personal expectations of literature have evolved too. Growth’s a bitch. 

My novel is definitely not like the currently popular historical romances. But it isn’t a serious work of historical fiction either. I’m sort of floating out there, a unique story that doesn’t lend itself to the expectations of the standard romance novel, yet it’s limited because it has too strong a romantic element to be a serious book. But thanks to two years in an MFA and time away from the manuscript (which allows me to see it now with new eyes so I can make positive change) I believe I’ve reworked my basic story into a lovely book that deserves to be published.  

Last night, I decided to read one of the New York Times bestseller historical romances that I picked up. Mark and I had just given ourselves a pump class and I knew I was going to be sore, so I was sitting in the tub thinking it would be fun to read something racy and frivolous for a change while I soak my old, tired bod.

I got to page ten, then tossed the book aside.

“PAGE TEN!” I yelled. “And already, the hero has met the heroine and you can tell it’s true love.”

“How can you tell?” Mark asked.

I leaned over the side of the tub and, in my best come hither voice, said, “The hair stood up on the back of his neck when he sensed his lady-love. They locked eyes with intensity, and the blood pulsed in their veins…..”

Mark tried to flash just such a gaze, but he looked more like a baby passing gas than a historical heartthrob.

“I have to admit, she’s good. This woman is a master at format. No wonder she’s one of the hottest selling historical romance writers in the biz.” 

“When do your lovers meet?” Mark asked. (It’s been a few years since he read my book, and though he’s asked to see the re-writes, I haven’t shared the vastly improved version. I’m no longer interested in sharing my work before it is really ready. I began as a writer who never let anyone read her work, then I cracked in a moment of weakness, and after that door was ajar, I found myself allowing anyone who asked a chance to read what I was working on. Big mistake. I’m back to keeping my projects under wraps now, because outside opinions influence and sway the process and you end up apologizing and making excuses for all your inadequacies, when actually, writing garbage early on is a part of developing a layered story. Sharing your work too early is like opening the oven door when making a soufflé. It leads to the entire thing falling flat, in my opinion.)

Where was I? Oh yeah.  “Page 76. I’m doomed,” I answered.

“I’ve told you before and I’ll say it again. You didn’t write a romance novel. Don’t compare your book to those.”

“But the sad truth is, I didn’t write a literary historical novel either. You can’t deny mine is still a love story, and that makes it a romance, right?”

For fun, we spent a few minutes trying to contrive a way to thrust my character’s together sooner in my story, just to get past the early rejection I’ll no doubt get from an editor or agent holding it up to current romance novel standards.

 Mark suggested I place my hero in the insane asylum featured in chapter one. Yeah, that’s romantic….I can make my hero into a cured schizophrenic. Sexy.

The more we tried to shift the plot, the more convinced I was that it simply couldn’t be done without destroying the strong motivation that pushes the characters forward. You simply need all the early adversity my characters encounter independently to make the circumstances that bring them together later on believeable

Thus the catch 22.

 I’m reading four historical romances this week – or at least, I’ll give it a college try. As I turn pages, I’m studying the writing, the plot, the format and the publisher. It’s not that I’m doing a study of this sort of writing to sell a romance novel – I don’t think I could make myself imitate this kind of writing even if I wanted to now – but I want to have a better understanding of the business of publishing so I can consider just where my novel belongs in the big scheme and how I should proceed from here.  I’m reading with new, educated eyes now, which makes the romance genre fascinating in an entirely different way. I should point out here that I am not being critical of the genre, even though it would be easy to tear this kind of writing down by literary standards. 

 The fact is, I think there’s a place for all kinds of writing in this world, and it takes skill to write a good piece of commercial fiction just as it takes skill to write a literary masterpiece. These different sorts of books require very different skills, but who’s to say one has more merit than another? Our audiences count, regardless of whether they show up for intellectual stimulus or entertainment. And there’s something to be said for the wider audience commercial fiction gains. I’m not talking about sales or income potential for a book. I’m talking about an author’s work serving as a vehicle to promote good writing. When few people are turning the pages of a book, no matter how brilliant, its impact is bound to be minimal. Perhaps a well written piece of commercial writing can be an important contribution to fiction. It’s all in how you look at it. Stephen King was ostracized by the literary world for years because he was considered a hack who pounded out commercial horror, and yet, he authored one of the most respected books on writing theory published in recent years. 

 It’s interesting – this having come full circle. I’ve paced around the writing beast, seeing it from a multitude of angles now. I have a wider perspective on what sells, what’s good, (two different things, unfortunately) and all the options in between. But despite what I’ve been taught by romance writers in seminars and lectures, and by literary authors in a master’s program, I’ve managed to maintain a respect for both sides of the spectrum.

Doesn’t help me define where I belong one iota. But it sure gives a girl a lot to think about and perhaps even a platform for teaching.  There is no right or wrong when it comes to self expression. Only what’s right or wrong for you. 
It’s all good!


mud and water

For those of you who think I exaggerate, I thought I’d share a proof of my mud….. This is the trek I walk to open the pasture gate twice a day.

And imagine what your dogs look like at the end of the day after romping in this…. not to mention my kids…

a panaramic view of the barn from the street (backside). We are clearing trees and burning brush, which opens the view. More mess of course…. but I can ride through the woods now come spring… The mud inside the gate where the animals hang out is even worse! I won’t take a picture of it because currently, there is a dead chicken out there. Long story.

I was waiting to reveal the lake until spring, but why wait. You might appreciate it more with a before and after shot……
This hillside has been sprayed with wildflowers so we will have a billizion flowers everywhere come spring. Special surprise for the bees. We also planted 100 dafodiles along the banks of the lake, which will multiply each year until we turn our Kansas into OZ. Cute deck, nice place to nurse a glass of wine and feed the ducks. I’d read there if I only had a chair . . .(she bursts into song to the tune of “if I only had a brain”) I have a chair request on Mark’s never ending wife’s wish list. I’ll drag one here from around our fire pit one of these days when he isn’t looking – he doesn’t like the bright red color of the adarondik chairs that worked so well in our Florida garden, but I’m thinking of visuals from my perspective looking over the water, not of people looking at the dock. (And that is the difference between us.) And besides which, I think the chairs are pretty. What do I know….

The water is controlled by a valve hidden under the dock so we can drain the lake if we ever need to. It constantly overflows in a system into the creek which begins at the base of this muddy hill. Best of both worlds if you like a water view. No fish yet, because we finished the lake the very month you must stock fish (fall) but you can’t put fish in a pond that hasn’t had time to develop algee and other food sources. So, if we are here next season, we’ll get fish. Sure would be nice for my ducks to have something real to dive for.  

The lake begins at the far tip in the trees, because that’s where the creak spills into this pond. My ducks like to stay nestled in that far cove most of the time, but they have taken to hanging out (and pooping) on the deck. Lovely. More evidence of brush burning on the bank…. not very pretty, but you can’t imagine the mess clearing a thousand trees makes….. This, like everything in our world, is a work in progress. Sigh. In the far distance that skinny white thing is my two seater kayak, which shows that this is a sizeable lake for a private backyard sort. It’s soothing (at least to me) to live sandwiched between water and trees.

In the distance, you can see my four ducks swimming towards me. I already fed them leftover angle food cake moments before, but they must be looking for something else.  Good thing for them I have a few corn muffins in my pockets . . . not like I was going to feed them my camera.
By the way, it’s a gloomy day and all this is going to look far prettier when the grass and flowers and trees bloom . . . might even have a few baby ducklings by May….
I’m cranky today because something ate one of my leghorn chickens. Some monsterous creature has been catching one every two weeks or so and eats only the head, leaving feathers and yuck behind. I found the hole it lives in…. I’m calculating a master plan to rid the beast (catch and release, of course, I can’t kill anything, but I sure get inspired to pour gasoline down that hole when I see one of my beloved chickens turned inside out.) This is war!

Check it out.

The times article about the little town we are going to build our new biz in. Cool beans!

Winter comes on little (muddy) cat’s feet . . .

Winter has come to Georgia.
Up until the first week of January, we continued to get weather in the 60’s – except for the occasional cold snap that caught me (and my innocent, fragile peacocks) unaware.  It was so warm at the beginning of this month that plants got confused – some dizzy daffodils and disoriented trees started to bloom – bad news for spring. Last year was a bad one (agriculturally) for Georgia. We lost all the apples, peaches and blueberries due to early frosts. Gardens barely limped along all summer due to drought. The farmers deserve a good season this year, but with the erratic weather, I’m not convinced they’ll get it. Global warming? The natural, historical shift of environment? Fluke? Whatever, it sure seems spooky.

Finally, the cold has made a grand entrance, fashionably late. I don’t particularly like cold weather, (although I think snow is lovely) but lower temperatures do offer a few advantages. First and foremost is the fact that the mud around my barn area turns to hard, icy ground, making it easy to walk around to take care of the animals without my shoes and the hem of my jeans soaking up mud until I look like the victim of some thug who poured cement in a block around my feet. It won’t be so bad when grass grows, but we built the structure in the middle of a drought, and what grass seed we tried to plant the breeze and chickens eradicated. So, I’m left with mud, mud and more mud. To combat it, when cleaning the barn I often toss the shavings (horse droppings and all) around the perimeter like mulch. Neva says this is not cool, but I feel anything is better than slippery mud, and like it or not, it does make a good layer of fertilizer for spring.

While we were in Portland, Denver took care of my animals. She called me and said, “I can’t believe you do this everyday. How can you manage it all, handle all these creatures and take care of these kids and this house and still find time to write and everything else?”
“Magic, dear. Takes almost 50 years to perfect the skill, but in time, you’ll be able to fit 25 hours of work into a day too.”
“No matter what I do, even wearing your boots, I can’t help ending up all muddy. And the cold is miserable.”
Unfortunately, my magic isn’t strong enough to keep my shoes and the floor of my car clean. Sorry. And I hate the cold too. Every winter I think I should just grow up and sell all these critters, but just when I think I can’t stand it anymore, spring comes, and I’m thrilled to have the excuse to be outside.” 

My angora bunnies love this weather. They are frisky and gloriously happy, blown up like a huge powder puffs because their hair is currently lush and long. (I need to harvest their fur, but I always worry that they’ll feel cold if I remove layers, so I put off de-hairing them as long as I can this time of year.)   I’ve put the angoras in my huge bird pens for the winter, girls on one side, boys on the others, so they have room to run and stretch. Come spring, (assuming we’re still here) I’ll let them mate, then they’ll have to move back to their smaller hutches to make room for another try at raising peacocks. I’ll feel guilty about that, but I’m a girl on a bird mission now, and I don’t suppose a new litter would be as safe in the big open pen anyway. Because of the cold, I had to figure out a system for keeping the bunnies watered. I begin every morning changing out their water bottles with doubles I keep in the house, because their drinking water freezes into hard bricks over night. Sometimes, the bottles crack as the water expands. Drives me mad. But water is vital to angoras because without it, they have digestive problems due to all the hair they ingest cleaning themselves. So, I keep the fresh bottles coming, no matter that it’s a drag. No one said winter rabbiting was gonna be fun.

At least I no longer have to crack the surface of a water bucket for the chickens anymore, because we extended their cage to the creek and that continues to flow despite the weather. I don’t even bother to bring water to the horses, because their buckets freeze too. But this means I can’t keep them in the barn for very long.  They are happiest roaming the pasture anyway. Horses have a unique physical system which keeps them warm as long as they are dry. If they are wet and cold winds blow, it lifts the thermal layer of their winter coats and they get chilled. If it looks to be a really cold, wet night, I’ll lug 10 gallons of water in jugs out to the barn and get them settled in for a toasty night. Next spring I’m promised to get a pump from the creak and a hose to give me barn water access (again, providing we’re here). Promises. Promises. We’ll see.

My pinto Saddlebred, Joy, is very antsy this time of year. She runs along the fence when she sees me, whinnies and makes a general spectacle of herself demanding attention. She is high strung, so come spring, she’ll need a ton of work to be safe to ride again. I appreciate the cold as an excuse not to work with her. I’m lazy that way.

Peppy, my quarter horse, is calm no matter the season. He looks at me with dreamy eyes and leads anywhere I wish with ease. We have this comfortable camaraderie. I’m convinced he has deep, inner wisdom so I appointed him my new best friend and he hears all my secrets as he munches on hay. I can go months without riding him, and when I saddle up, it’s as if we haven’t missed a day. If I ever have to unload all my animals, Peppy is the one I’ll fight to keep. Donkey is special too, of course, but the fact is, he’s just an indulgence. He has no practical purpose except to be cute. Yesterday I was standing by the fence and he came a put his head under my armpit and nuzzled me for about ten minutes, rubbing against my side, looking at me with moony, love-struck eyes. In winter, his coat gets furry like a bear. Running my hands along his neck is the best way to warm frozen fingers. Hey, there ya go, he does have a practical purpose.

During winter, I can’t check my bees, which drives me nuts. Bees huddle in their hive all winter to keep warm. If you open the hive, you risk killing them, so you pretty much have to wait for spring to see if mites or dysentery or something else has wiped them out. A few dead bees at the entrance of the hive are a good sign because it means they’re active inside, keeping the hive clean. Nevertheless, each time I see a dead bee, I have to sit on my hands to keep myself from tearing open the top to take a peek. All kinds of things can be happening in there.

Field mice get into hives to build a warm winter nest and spend the winter dining on honeycomb until there is nothing left. If this happens, the bees end up starving. We have tons of field mice in the area, and with the drought I have no clue if my bees harvested as much nectar to feed themselves a full winter anyway, so it’s anyone’s guess what’s inside my hive. I’m such a newbie at beekeeping, I can barely judge things even when I CAN see inside. And scientist can’t explain it, but there is a huge bee death syndrome thing happening which is a serious threat to our environment that can wipe out hives even if you haven’t done anything wrong. (I have my own theories, based on our tampering with nature by medicating bees until they build up immunity and become more susceptible to disease – but that is too complicated to get into now.)  Anyway, I keep my fingers crossed and every few weeks I go stare at that white box with the big rock on top (to keep the wind from blowing off the cover ). . . listening for buzzing inside. . . .wondering. . . hoping. This month, I’ll be ordering a swarm of bees for my second hive. Beekeepers place orders in January for delivery in spring. I keep thinking I may need two, but I feel if I order an extra swarm just because I don’t have faith in my current bees, I’ll jinx them or something. I’ve decided to hold out hope and see what happens. Faith counts when working in tune with nature.

My ducks don’t seem to mind the winter. The pond keeps freezing (not enough for me to skate on, unfortunately, but enough to support dogs and birds who are curious about why their swimming hole is suddenly hard.) They walk around the surface, slipping and squawking in the most awkward way, as if they’re in a Saturday night live skit. I worry about their safety without the pond to swim in, because they’re literally “sitting ducks” out there on the banks. Especially considering the wildlife is hungriest in winter. The first thing I do every morning is look out the window and count beaks. If one of my birds is under the dock or hiding in the woods I get worried and can’t start coffee until I play where’s Waldo, the duck version.  Not like I can do anything if one of them becomes a coyote’s frozen dinner, but still, I can’t start the day without first releasing that huge sigh of relief.

My llamas are wooly, designed for the cold, so they seem fairly happy with the weather. My newer, girl llama has gotten very comfortable with me, and yesterday she ate out of my hand for the first time. She is temperamental and standoffish, so this felt like some magnificent conquest. She doesn’t look very pregnant to me, but Mark insists she’s getting fatter. . . and meaner. I have to admit, she eats like she’s pregnant, always trying to push donkey away from his food to get seconds. Poor donkey, everyone picks on him.  I suppose her pregnancy will show more as we get closer to June. Will be interesting.
My chickens don’t much like the weather. Since there are no yummy bugs out and about, they no longer peruse the pasture – they tend to stay in the barn or perched on my hay bales. You may recall me complaining that my chickens wouldn’t lay eggs for months and months when we began. Well, now, don’t ya know, I’m complaining that they won’t STOP laying. Chickens usually don’t lay when the days grow short, but my girls are hearty machines, dropping eggs daily even when they’re supposed to be on vacation. In this weather, the eggs freeze and crack so I have to toss them out into the woods where they eventually get eaten by wild creatures.  Occasionally, I get lucky and pick up an egg or two freshly laid and still warm. But to be honest, a single egg is a dangerous thing for an absentminded girl like me. I inevitably put them in the pocket of my leather coat, and since it is an odd egg, I forget it’s there. I come  back home and toss the coat onto a table, wincing as the jacket sails through the air, knowing what I’ve done even before my loaded jacket hits the surface. I’ve cleaned egg out of my pockets more than once this month. I’m a slow learner.

So, this former spoiled Florida girl admits winter can be a drag, and not just because the car windows need defrosting before you head out for the day.
But on those days when the Georgia snow filters down, soft and light, never enough to interfere with functioning – just enough to decorate the world like icing on cake, winter doesn’t seem so bad.

My parents say, “Don’t you miss the sunshine and beautiful weather of Florida?”
Really, I don’t. Because I believe contrast and change is good – it serves to help us appreciate what is wonderful and good. A monotone existence, even when the level is lovely and the message grand, tends to numb the listener ears. I did appreciate the mild weather of Florida for things like running,  but overall, I like how the landscape here changes from season to season. I like how my wardrobe changes as hats, scarves and piling on layers give me a wealth of new fashion opportunities. I even like how the food changes as I strive to eat seasonally. I like pausing to witness the trees sleep, their branches knarly and empty like the bones of an old man, until the leaves bud like goose pimples on someone’s arm. I am fascinated by the animals shifting attitudes, my kids playing in the snow, and mesmerized by fires as they leap and change color, warming the room and my insides equally well. True, I don’t like the mud, but hey, you must take the good with the bad.

Winter has come to Georgia, something to celebrate. And in only two months, it will be gone, which is something I’ll appreciate as well. I’ll hose down my shoes and make a party of it by tossing grass seed into the air.


Barista Buddies . . .what next?

We’re home. Exhausted. Heads filled with more information than a mind can process, but at least, we’re home. For all that I like travel; I’m only one part wanderlust and two parts homebody. When I’m gone, I miss my donkey.

This week was grueling, in a fascinating sort of way. We learned about coffee from the grounds up (no pun intended) beginning with history and moving to various points of origin to discuss how altitude and environment differs the product. We toured a roasting house to see just how they take organic green coffee beans and roast them to different consistencies to bring out the different qualities of the bean. We learned how to “cup coffee” which is the official way buyers taste beans to determine their nuisances and quality as each crop is harvested.

Coffee tasting is not unlike wine tasting. Cupping is a blind sampling procedure that is traditionally done with four cups of each bean (to factor out the rare rancid bean that may skew results) a silver spoon and an odd slurping technique which filters air into your mouth with the coffee to bring out the unique properties. Sounds ridiculous when you’re witnessing the act, but the noise is supposed to make the flavors engage more readily on your palate. At a cupping, you first smell the bean and later, the coffee aroma by breaking the layer of fresh grounds after water has been seeped over them – one time only to get the base essence before the liquid is disturbed. Next you sip, savor, and spit. Not exactly a sexy thing to watch, but it sure is a remarkable way to taste coffee. As a non-smeller, I had to accept that I would be a very poor addition to any serious cupping event. Ah well. It was still fun to see this vital process of the coffee business, and it taught us enough so that we can put together a less stringent consumer version for coffee shop customers to help them learn how to judge coffee if we want to begin a monthly coffee club someday. Consumer education – now we’re in an area I can get excited about. Just thinking about the possibilities is fun.

We got our official barista certification, which means we can make every coffee drink known to the modern world. We can extract the perfect shot of espresso, steam milk to a thick, creamy texture (none of that dry foam gunk that poor coffee houses and big chains push on un-savvy customers) and we can even free pour a design (they call it latte art) on the surface of each cup. The outer ring showcases a dark creama, while the steamed milk folds in and surfaces in a heart or rosetta (leaf-like) design. Yes, we are coffee masters now. Got the certificate to prove it. It was awkward at first, and Mark and I both felt clumsy and old and out of our comfort zone– but being a barista is not unlike bartending, and once I made that connection, I soon rediscovered my old “it’s like riding a bike” rhythm. I can’t say we excelled beyond others in the class, but we old dogs finally learned the new tricks.

We worked on over a dozen espresso machines and as many grinders, sampled products, even learned to use a contraption called the Clover, an eleven thousand dollar coffee maker which makes each cup of coffee fresh with the perfect amount of fresh grounds, water temperature, and seep time. Yep, in some fancy restaurants they offer a full coffee menu featuring various coffees from different origins, then sell each cup dependant upon quality for seven to eleven dollars. Mark and I laughed imagining anyone in Blue Ridge looking at a menu with more than two kinds of coffee (regular and decaf) or seeing them going for over two bucks. Ha. But it was interesting to watch this machine in action and witness coffee taken to such an extreme level.  I guess there are die-hards in every industry. It was a true luxury to sample different high end equipment before buying.

We learned the business of coffee house management. Eek. Gave me a headache. We can now figure out cost of goods, and learned all the nitty gritty formulas for budgeting and doing projections. Luckily, many of the elements we covered, like balance sheets or projections are transferable from our previous business. For those in the class who never owned a small business, it was very daunting. In fact, we’re told it’s not uncommon for people to attend this school, then decide that perhaps opening a coffee shop is not for them. Most people haven’t a clue how much work and detail is involved. Heck, neither did we. This school is a serious reality check. We went through a few days of feeling disturbed and depressed, but we came out of it stronger as the information sunk in. Always good to really understand the challenges you’re going to face. And we kept reminding ourselves that we are not opening a coffee shop – we are opening an Appalachian art gallery with a coffee bar in it. Big difference.

I learned about kitchens, professional cooking elements and food prep too. Cool.
We ended up hiring the consultants to do an ergonomic design for our kitchen and coffee bar so every appliance is set up in the most appropriate way for efficiency. This also gives us the electrical and plumbing specs for the health department and a list of exactly what we need to buy . That was one huge panic out of the way. Sigh. And as a student in the Barissimo academy, we get discounts on appliances etc…. Turns out the school paid for itself in about ten seconds as we discovered the benefits to come.

All in all, enrolling in this program was the smartest thing we ever did, and certainly worth every cent, even if it did mean sacrificing a trip to Europe once again (it’s always something). I think the awareness gained, the total enlightenment of what this business is all about, will allow us to make decisions which will hugely increase our odds of success. And if you’re going to do something, might as well do it well. If nothing else, it was good for our soul, settling those demons that kept whispering doubt in our ear. Running blind is a sure way for former graceful dancers to trip. Now, at least we see the path.

Portland is a beautiful city – not that we got to enjoy it. We never adjusted to the time difference, so I was up everyday at 3:30 and ready for bed at 7. Yep, I’m a party animal. We pretty much went to school, got saturated and exhausted (combination of thinking too hard and sampling caffeine by the gallon) then went to the hotel, had a glass of wine, and crashed. We did do a coffee house tour with the group, which was inspirational. Portland (along with Seattle) is the coffee capitol of the USA. They picked us up in a limo and drove us to the major coffee houses and roasters giving us a chance to see many of the theories we explored in class, practiced and in action. I was fascinated with the baked products on the shelves – seemed like they all had French pastry chefs locked in the back room. I think I gained ten pounds this week just from sampling croissants alone. Gee, it was a tough job, but when faced with those flaky crusts, serious research seem necessary.

I could go on and on about coffee and Portland – but in a nutshell, it was simply a very educational experience that left us fueled with new confidence, ready to charge ahead into a new endeavor with enthusiasm, rather than dread. And we met some wonderful new friends. One man was from Russia, wanting to begin the coffee craze there. One was a recently retired army man from Texas, hoping to open a kiosk. A couple is opening a drive through in Wyoming. A fellow from New York is opening a sit down coffee bar, as well as two girls from Portland. There was a girl whose family owned a cabin resort, and she is opening a coffee shop in an old farm house, only a few hours from here. We will be sure to attend her opening. But my favorite couple was the mother and son from Belgium who owned a huge bakery empire. They decided to change their lives and sold it all off to move to Canada, only to find themselves bored and feeling like they had lost an arm, so within two years they opened a new bakery which immediately got highly successful (It’s not just a bakery as you know them – they service all the area hotels and restaurants and have a staff of 50 working around the clock – for example, they make 1500 pie sized lemon tarts a day.) They came to the school because they decided it is time to add a gourmet coffee element to their sit down store and they want to do it right. I spent lots of time picking Marie’s brain to learn about the baking business. Pierre was young, full of humor and always willing to share his discoveries, so I tried to position myself on the same machine he was on whenever  I could. As they talked about what motivated them to make changes in their lives,and how they learned that retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be, Mark leaned over to me and said, “Recognize this tale? Same story, different language.”

Coffee school was intense, but with good people going through the experience along with us, it felt as if we were not alone in our questions, concerns and fickle excitement. We were learning with friends.

We are turning our attentions to other factors now, such as art gallery management. And believe it or not, I came home and enrolled in some cooking classes at a culinary school in Atlanta for February. I want to study pastry and cake design and other elements that will allow me to feel professionally adept in the kitchen. Most coffee shop owners do the prepared restaurant scoop and bake thing, or purchase their baked items from bake shops at discount, but you know me. I’m a hands on sort of girl. Even if I wind up going an easier route in the end, I gotta dig deeper into the core at the start, just for the foundation a grounds up education offers.  Besides which, I think it will be fun to learn the tricks of the cooking trade, and now I’ll have a  super kitchen to play in, so why not? They say the way into a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, considering I’m getting gray and I’m no hottie anymore, this gives me a fighting chance to earn a rare wink from a hungry man still. Desperate motivation for an occasional flirtatious grin, you may say, but there is an odd sort of romance about becoming a cooking heartthrob when all else is starting to wither and sag.

We spent the week with the biggest coffee geeks imaginable. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way – just that you never met people with such passion for a beverage. They were all deeply seeped into the coffee world, winners of national and international barista competitions, consultants and serious teachers. And I loved hearing them talk coffee, imparting so much knowledge it made our head spin as they tried to turn us all into coffee aficionados – purists at heart. Reminded me of Mark and I when teaching dance instructors about youth dance education. We cared so much about the product – we were determined to send qualified people into the world with a deep appreciation for the art.  These coffee geeks are the same, wanting us to truly understand quality, and I admired them for their devotion to perfection. I confess, I can’t get nearly as excited about coffee as I used to get about dance, but nevertheless, it is always heartwarming to be in the presence of people who love their work. And they did indeed leave me with a deep appreciation for coffee and gratitude and respect for the many people involved in the industry. (For the record, I’ll never order a cup of coffee from Starbucks ever again – but that is the price of understanding a concept deeply.)

I’m now all hot to go on a trip to a place of origin someday– to meet the indigenous people of Ethiopia or brazil and meet the individuals that grow the fruit (coffee begins as a cherry, and the bean is the pit of the fruit). I want to see people dry the beans, and carry them to market in baskets balanced on their head…. That will be later, when I can write off the trip and write an article or two about it. I’ll use in house promotion as my excuse. See – every step you take in life leads you to the next – especially if you are creative and think beyond the box.

Anyway, that is the cliff note version of our coffee trip. I won’t get into the emotions (good and bad) about the experience, or talk about the culture shock we always feel when thrust into the city again. We had our testy moments, moments we wanted to shuck the idea and just go home. A few “almost” fights. We had our moments of excitement too. One highlight for me was an evening spent in the biggest used book store I’ve ever seen – it encompassed a full city block with multi levels. You had to walk from color coded room to room, often using an elevator and a map to see all the different subject matter. It was crazy. Mark had to call me on my phone to find me after an hour of wandering. Wish I had a store like that near me. Of course, I came home with a suitcase filled with books.

Now, I’m not going to blog about our plans for our  new business anymore, because some things are best left under wraps, and business is definitely one of them. But you can see the new direction we are going…. When we are deep in the throws of building and it seems things are taking shape, I’ll unveil the project in all it’s glory – even if i’ts only limping along. Till then, I’m going to let this subject matter go for awhile. Use your imagination.

I spent the twelve hour flight (time change and changing planes made it a grueling trip) reading books on teaching and preparing writing seminars. I am very excited about this facet of my life too, and I have every intention of becoming a kick butt writing teacher now. This is something I really do feel excited deeply committed to accomplishing. I want to help others discover the great soul lifting experience of self discovery through writing. Coffee is great and all, but in the end, I look at our new business as a home base for housing many other interests– the things that rock our soul.  Coffee is just the beverage served in the background. For Mark that involves building, design and wood crafting. For me, it’s going to mean building a home to gather people who love the written word, a place for teaching classes, hosting readings, creating book clubs, food enthusiasts groups, and creating mind tweaking evenings about other interests too… artist lectures, performers,  etc….

So, the pie of my heart and mind is dividing yet again, allowing me to serve many slivers to the world–  and this new business is only one slice. Writing, cooking, wine, fiber art, literacy advocacy, and of course, my donkey, each take up a slice too. And dance. . .  I must confess, the diverse new interests I’ve leapt towards do not replace my former love – they only add to the rich diversity of my life as it unfolds. I am still a dancer, only I am now an aging dancer with a donkey who can make a fine pino grigio and an orgasmic espresso. I’m a dancer who can write a romance novel that makes your toes curl, and I can even crochet you a hand spun scarf while you turn the pages.

Life is a savory meal – but you have to acknowledge your hunger and be willing to take a bite to truly taste the full flavor of everything on your plate. Some offerings will be bitter and some sweet, but either way, remember – a person’s gotta eat!


Coffee, Tea or asprin?

“Are we sure we really want to do this . . .”
This sentence seems to preface every conversation Mark and I have now-a-days.

This week we broke ground on our new biz. Sort of.

Mark met with the mayor to get an official signature on the variance we were verbally granted.
He went to the city planning commission to get a permit. (Thank God for his vast dance experience or I doubt he could jump through all those hoops so gracefully.)
He met with a lawyer to set up a Georgia corp.
He met with an accountant to discuss financial repercussions and risk on this sort of investment.
He met with a banker to discuss the construction loan.
He met  with our builder to go over plans for the shop, and they went prowling around town to see other food service businesses and stores to get an overview of various design options.
He met with the man who owns half the town to discuss neighborly things, like where to park construction trucks and our impact on the other nearby business.
He met with the Department of Health to discuss the health codes and building requirements for the food service industry portion of our plan. 

“I’m out of practice at this,” Mark said, coming home looking a bit shell shocked. “And I feel out of sorts, it’s all too familiar . . . “

    You see, people think we were dance teachers and choreographers at FLEX, but they never understood that dance instruction was a very small portion of our dance empire work load. Mark built the Lakewood Ranch facility in a town with far more red tape than this one, under more financial stress and legal frustration than you’d ever encounter in small town Georgia. Meanwhile, he kept up his regular overbooked duties, such as the bookkeeping, staff training, payroll, and he taught a full schedule. Dance parents and staff members harped on him for “blowing off” classes when business scheduling conflicted with teaching, as if he was out on the gulf course instead of knocking himself out to give the school a future and to hold our position as the most progressive dance education facility in the area.  No one could conceive how much non-dance related work it took to keep that school what it was.
     Meanwhile, they heaped on guilt and admonishment as if growing our business was a sign of greed. We were just trying to keep up with our school’s ever increasing, business expenses, like escalating insurance, professional fees, providing bigger and better services and equipment, and providing full time work and on-going education to devoted employees. I confess, we still hoped to make a decent living one day too, one that would include a true luxury, like health insurance or maybe a vacation once a year – you know, a total indulgence like taking a week off that wasn’t’t spent choreographing solos or at a competition.
    One month after we finished that horrible year of building misery, we got a letter from the local government claiming a “private domain” issue, and they announced they were going to tear the building down.  Many people don’t know it, but that was the first time we considered selling FLEX, because, frankly, we knew losing that facility would ruin us – and after 18 years of striving to make it all work, we didn’t have the strength left in us to do it all again. The fact that we’d loose a full season in that location and all those students meant the Sarasota FLEX would suffer too, because we used the equity in that school to support the next. We’d no doubt get paid back for the new building cost if the county tore it down, but what of the opportunity costs? Just so happens we closed two other locations shy of ever making up the original investment to move into that new school – were we to just shrug off losing all that hard earned ground from three year’s work and sacrifice as well?  
    Now, still drained from the sacrifices the new building demanded of us, we had to pour time and money into lawyers for another struggle. After months of stress and more than a few tears (mine), the city moved the plans for the road and the school was preserved. But by then, the seed of an idea had been set to unload this monster of a business that consumed our life and left us always feeling as if everyone thought we were the enemy. Our inner reserves had been used up. Life is too short. We decided to put the entire kit and caboodle up for sale for someone with a less ravaged soul to deal with. The rest is history.

     I recap this tired old story only to point out that beginning this building process again, even though this is a new business in a new place, opens old wounds. So we proceed cautiously, quaking in our cowboy boots wondering if we are welcoming the same problems back into our lives– like a woman who finally divorces an abusive husband only to marry a fellow who likes to hit girls just as much. 
   Mark often says, “If we become small business owners again, we’ll have to work hard, but at least in this endeavor people won’t attack us constantly the way the dance parents did.”
   I hope he’s right. I watch the patrons at the local coffee shop with a keen eye, waiting for them to throw a fit because their coffee, no matter how fine it tastes, doesn’t have enough sparkles on the cup, or to demand the owner come in on their one family day (Sunday) to make them a special solo latte. So far, I can’t imagine this business ever being as personally invasive as the other was. But then, who would imagine a lovely dance school, filled with laughter and music and children, could cause such grief to the people who cared about it most.

    The woman at the Dept. of Health slapped a health code manual in front of Mark that was 150 pages thick. She started listing codes, floor and ceiling requirements, waste disposal, water usage (do you know you need seven sinks just to serve coffee – one for washing hands, one for disposing liquid, one for this, one for that….. it is crazy). She explained that we couldn’t begin building until we got another permit from her division, and that required our turning in involved plans that include every appliance we will have in the kitchen and where it will rest. This is also required for the plumbing, the electrical etc…     
      She also needs a detailed menu now – a full year before I even  set foot in this kitchen. Like I know now exactly what I’ll want to whip up later. You’re kidding, right?
“Um… muffins and brownies. Will that suffice?” I said to Mark.
“ Only if you have no intention of ever increasing that menu and you are ready to forever hold your peace, because you can’t later change your mind to include other foodstuffs made on site.”
“Are you #%*$&# with me . . .  I’ll work on the menu.”
The health inspector pulled out a few examples of building plans that other food service businesses had turned in. Mark said they looked like plans to build an atomic weapon. He leaned over the desk to gaze at the six feet wide, computerized plans and got one of those instant headaches that make you want to crawl into bed.  All this so you can serve a cup of coffee . . . and a muffin, of course.

Good news is the inspector handed Mark a comprehensive article recently printed in the New York Times investment issue about our town and how it’s going to boom as the next big tourist draw. The article let us in on some interesting developments (why are we always the last to know) such as the fact that they are building a four lane highway straight to us from Chattanooga, and the train is going to double the trips next season so instead of 50K people we can expect many, many more, and a few other promising future city plans. Cool beans. But that’s later, We have to worry about now.

He came home, flopped on the sofa and said, “Today, for the first time ever I actually thought maybe we should just open another dance school. At least we have expertise in that business…. I feel a bit like we’re out of our league and I’m tired just thinking of the mistakes we’re going to make.”

“It can’t be that complicated.”
“I’m sure it isn’t . . . for someone with experience in the food service industry. But for a couple of dancers, it’s a lot to absorb.”

I reminded him of how much red tape there was to opening our first preschool, and how we figured things out as we went.
“We’re not being stupid,  blindly making decisions and acting like we know everything”. I reminded him. 

We’re the first to admit what we don’t know. As such, we’ve listened earnestly to anyone in a like business willing to share information. We’ve read books on this coffee shop management, specialty merchandising, art gallery management, bakery management, smoothie store development – you name it. We’ve taken classes to learn more about what we will be selling, training our eye to understand art. We’ve observed successful enterprises, and those that are less successful so we can define what makes the difference. And now, we’re are venturing to a consulting firm for training.

“We’re quick learners”, I insist.

“We were quick learners,” he reminded me. “Now, we’re . . . tired.” (I think he meant “wounded”, but that is something we try not to talk about.)

    I reminded him that he loves to build things, so he’ll have fun once we actually get started. 
  He stared at me pointedly and said, “It’s no fun building things when every time you do, your project gets sold before you take a moment to savor what you’ve accomplished.”

I hate that he feels that way, but I understand it. We remodeled our home, but left before we ever even put clothes in the new, walk-in closet. He build two schools in rental locations, but we left before ever recouping the investment (to go to a bigger facility, granted, but still, it felt like a lot of work and stress for nothing.) He completely refurbished our dinky dilapidated cabin while we were still living in it, but before it ever became truly livable, we moved into the new house and next thing you know, someone else was enjoying the quaint, beautiful cabin we dreamed of creating.  After years of refurbishing that old, grocery store in Sarasota to make a fairly nice dance facility, Mark finally got to start from scratch to build the state of the art dance studio of our dreams in Lakewood Ranch, but we didn’t operated a full season there before we left it to the next guy. And now, Mark’s built our dream house, and thanks to what happened in the wake of our leaving, that will probably be sold too. No wonder he’s loosing heart. I guess if we built these things on speculation, just to make money, it would feel differently. But in every case, we built these things to fulfill a dream that never quite got realized – at least not for us. We are masterful at leaving something great behind for the next guy.

I assured him we wouldn’t be selling this coffee shop/gallery anytime soon. But honestly, who knows. We have learned that things don’t always turn out as planned. No matter how hard you work or how earnest your intentions, things can go bump in the night. If you push forward in life, you’ll find yourself switching courses as obstacles demand. The only way to guaranteed comfort is to avoid taking chances altogether. But who wants a stagnant life or to turn away from their potential? Not us (though some days I really question if the more laid back, settled individuals don’t have the key to happiness.)

Mark gave me homework. I spent a full day on the computer picking out professional kitchen appliances that comply with code.

Holly cow! There are a million choices. They all cost a fortune, and that’s daunting when you don’t know what the heck your doing. The problem is, I think like a residential cook, familiar only with home kitchens, but this is different. So I sloshed through a litany of stoves and ovens, wondering if I need a stackable convection oven, gas or electric, a food finisher or steam. Can I make do with one regular, industrial strength stove and a table top multi layer bake oven? How about Panini presses and microwaves with special air finishers like they have in subway now? Do I even need a stove top– well, yes if I want to make meringues or fudge. But with absolutely no experience as a professional cook, it’s all a bit overwhelming. Too many choices.  Can’t I just drag in my Betty Crocker Easy Bake oven? I’m good on it, really.   
     Meanwhile, I keep thinking, just how many muffins will I need to sell to justify spending twelve grand on ovens. But I remember complaining about how many dance classes we would have to sell to justify our million dollar facility too, and while it seemed an impossible leap, it did turn out to be a very wise decision. I guess it’s all in the big picture, how one element of an enterprise supports another and helps create one wonderful whole. You can’t pick apart the individual elements too stringently or expect each and every element to hold it’s own, because how it contributes to the other facets counts. Otherwise it would be like expecting one gear in a clock to be of service on it’s own, when the truth is, it takes all the clock parts to make the thing tick.

I wonder if I should get a job in a kitchen somewhere, or go to school to learn to cook professionally or something to be more prepared. But the cooking thing is only one area of my world, and not as important in the big scheme  as other things, so how involved do I want to get? I love to cook and I’m an early riser, so the plan was simply that I would steal into the Bean Tree at 5am each day to whip up a few gourmet treats for the day. I imagined myself alone in the shop, sipping some organic coffee, music blaring, singing “Peel me a grape” with Blues Diva’s on the stereo, and following my inspiration to make whatever tweaks my fancy from a recipe book. (I hate to cook the same thing twice, experimenting is my passion – customers will have to get used to it.) I figured with no one around, I could dance around with flour on my hands, and maybe even pause to step outside to watch the sun rise to feed my soul, sort of like I did every day when I was an early runner. 

But then, I planned to go home and turn over the serving and the coffee pouring to an employee. I can do marketing from home, brainstorming, and other office duties. I’ll put in my time ordering, working the special functions, writing newsletters etc… I understand the concept of work. We’re opening this business and I plan to devote energy and attention to it.
But I don’t loose site of one truth –  writing is still my main squeeze.

As I did my research I skipped looking at actual coffee equipment because we will learn all about that next week. I’m busy enough looking at air circulating, dry and cool display cases, refrigerators for under the counter and in the kitchen, freezers, an ice machine, sandwich prep table etc… etc…. I’m supposed to know where these appliances go, too. Do I want smoothies? Well of course. There isn’t a natural smoothie distributor within 30 miles of here and I happen to miss them. So, I’ll need blenders and storage for frozen fruit too. I have to remember you can’t allow veggies to touch meat preparation areas (if you are making sandwiches and soup, which we had planned) etc..
Baked goods, such as muffins, fall under the jurisdiction of the agriculture department. Sandwiches are manned by the health department. That’s two separate departments to deal with. I don’t know where the heck coffee lands. I hyperventilate just thinking about it.

I ended up picking out potential equipment and thrusting it into Marks hands and saying, “Here, pick what fits best and place it on your grid. You’re the design guy.”

He reminded me that I will be the kitchen director (as if a title will make me embrace this new chore more enthusiastically, like I’m gonna fall for that) and as such, I have to go take an eleven hour course in Atlanta on food safety – so I don’t give half the town botulism or something.  Oh yea, that. Can’t wait.

It’s only a matter of time until the local restaurateurs are going to start wondering about the chick who keeps sitting next to their kitchens, peering into the swinging doors every time the waitress walks through and asking innocently, “Um.. was this muffin made in a convection oven or a traditional over?”
I’ve had so many cups of coffee in so many bistros my eyes have turned brown. Oh, they were already brown. Well, you know what I mean.

Overwhelmed, I said, “Remember, we’re not opening a coffee shop. We’re opening an art gallery, cabin decor store with a coffee bar in it. Perhaps we should focus more on the wood displays and all the stuff you’ll be making. That’s the nuts and bolts of the business.”

“We can’t build this damn thing until we figure out the kitchen, as per the business plan,” Mark says. ‘Unless you want to the drop the food portion/event planning (which means the open mike poetry readings and other writer’s perks would vanish). And that means going back to the bank with a new plan. Up for writing one? ”

Never mind.

The good news is we are leaving this weekend for intense training at the Barista Academy in Oregon. They will show us everything there is to know about coffee and Panini sandwiches. We will get to play with some of those ten thousand dollar espresso machines (gulp) and discuss cup by cup financial analysis, stock ordering, and cost of sales. Whoopee. I know you’re jealous.

I hate feeling like a newbie. I can tell you exactly what a dance school is making by their enrollment and a short glimpse into their activities. I know what it costs to service a student – insurances, staffing, etc, etc…. I remember sitting with the new owner of FLEX at breakfast a few months after we sold. I was really annoyed at how they were managing things and I looked him in the eye and said, “Listen, Bud, the business can not support your spending. It has to stop.” He waved me off like I was clueless about just how great they were doing, gushing on about enrollment and his price increases, but still I knew they were headed for disaster and there was nothing I could say or do to make them listen. He was so sure he knew better than us about a business we had spent eighteen years living and breathing. I couldn’t conceive of such arrogance when so much was on the line, because I knew that if I were entering a new field, I’d be hanging on the voice of experience.

   I turned to Mark and said, “He forgets who the hell he’s talking too – like we don’t know what every student and fee paid represents or what his costs are, or how these decisions will affect the enrollment and budget in the long term….”
     Mark kicked me under the table and said, “Shhhhh! It isn’t ours anymore. Everyone has to do things their own way.”   
       I was banned from any of those business meetings after that day because everyone involved claimed I was too outspoken and too “hot headed” about the school. I confess, it’s true. Mark is far more diplomatic than I, at least in all areas pertaining to FLEX, but I was just so passionately concerned and so frustrated to see what I considered such obvious mistakes being made.
     Even the first week when we were training them and they missed multiple appointments (choke), I warned the new owners that they HAD to get serious about learning the business, visit the competition’s recitals, and stop spending so much until they knew more about where to best allocate their capitol. They rolled their eyes at me and said, “It’s just the honeymoon phase for us, we’re having a little fun. Don’t worry. We know what were doing.
     And Mark gave me that “Don’t go crazy here, dear,” look.
     And I thought, How so? It took me years to get understand it all, and after a wealth of training, education and experience I STILL stay up nights trying to figure it all out. 

  The point is, I think about their mistakes a lot with great empathy. When you know a business – really know it’s cycle and unique elements, you’re prepared for all the problems you’re going to get broadsided with. They were clueless, and because they didn’t recognize this, they didn’t do what was necessary to develop a full understanding of just what they were manning. They were bright people with lots of energy and good intentions. And they had lots of capitol to work with. They were nice people too. But arrogance kept them from being open to all those things they needed to focus on. You can say it’s their own fault, but still, that doesn’t make it any less sad.

Because I believe that, our not knowing the coffee shop/gallery business is terrifying.

I have no idea what it costs to pour a cup of coffee or how to estimate how many drinks a location will sell depending on traffic. (though I do know how to determine traffic and a projected customer base because that is basic business stuff.)  I don’t know how to determine a customer return analysis or how to avoiding being clobbered by perishable stock. Heck, I can’t even make a latte . . .  YET.

We know all about running a small business, true. But really, every business is unique and until we have some hard core, hands-on experience, we are bound to make mistakes. The goal is to keep them from being so costly it threatens success. We’re bending over backwards to see all those elements we will no doubt be blind to, simply because we are novices in the field. 

As such, we are the Rudy of enterprise (you know, the Notre Dame football wannabe who accomplished the impossible because he had the attitude, “Is there anything more I can do to be achieve my heart’s desire.”  Yea, Rudy’s always been my inspiration. 
So, I’ve read all the books I can. I’ve visited about a hundred like businesses to get an overview and talked with anyone who knows anything about coffee or art or natural products or crafting, and we really listened to everything they tell us – the good and the bad. We discuss fall back plans – what we will do when things don’t work out as planned.

    Mark is in the workshop, making stock for the gallery, in each case doing a quick analysis on the cost of goods, labor required and what the item could sell for. Takes the fun out of free form creativity, I tell you.  And we are suddenly thinking of all those other pesky details of servicing and actually implementing things, for example, it’s all well and good to sell a kick-butt handmade table, but will we have means to deliver it?  We slog through all the other distribution sources for similar products to consider where people might chose to purchase this kind of thing rather than from us. Meanwhile, I’m cooking at home, experimenting with recipes, doing the same kind of cost and labor analysis. It’s all trial and error and constant evaluation. And while that’s fun in one way, it’s daunting in another. 

I love learning new things, but I must admit, we both have deep seeded concerns as we boldly strive into this new territory. We alternate between feeling excited and on fire, and feeling we don’t have it in us to go the distance. I suppose we’ll land somewhere in between. One thing is sure, we’re not fueled with the same passion for this project that we had for FLEX in the early years. But perhaps that’s our age and a result of practical  hard earned wisdom rather than a lack of enthusiasm for the actual dream. It sure is easier to be confident when you know a field backwards and forewords.

“Are we sure we want to do this?” we say time and again, bucking each other up when the other is getting cold feet.

We look at each other and shrug. We’re standing on the edge of the cliff. Might as well jump.

Everyone around here is gushing about how we are in the right place at the right time, how our concept is fantastic and how well we are going to do. We’re told everyone around town is talking about our plan and excited to become customers. People drop by our site and urge us on with nice comments. That all feels good, but honestly, outward support and enthusiasm is just that. We know success never comes easy, and every new business thinks it will be a hit.  No one makes an investment thinking there’s a 50/50 chance things will work out. So we curb our inner excitement and stamp out our longing to get all creative and follow inspiration despite practicality, and remind ourselves that there will be time for play later. Now, we must make careful, well researched decisions, control costs, and figure out what might go wrong and avoid it.  We must proceed gingerly, dipping out toes in the water with care until we know how to swim.

So, now I’m working on the menu even though it’s hard when the very idea of opening this place makes me loose my appetite.

I suppose a few years from today, I’ll read this post and laugh at just how naive I was in the beginning. By then, we’ll have journeyed long and hard and we’ll be seasoned coffee masters. I’m guessing by then, our business will have evolved into something different than what we think it’s going to be at this stage. We’re bound to lean one way or another as we expand our concepts and/or make compromises while sinking our teeth into the daily grind. We might have opened a dozen stores by then, or dropped the coffee part altogether, or developed a huge on-line store or . . .well, anything can happen. But growth is the easy part. It’s getting the first enterprise to work that is the struggle. 

Anyway, we’re leaving town for a week. My laptop is broken, so the only writing I’ll be doing will be private journaling and note taking. I’ll be back later to share what I learn, about coffee and about us.
Meanwhile, you’ll have to use your imagination – you can picture us drowning in lattes, hyped up on caffeine, getting competitive when we practice latte skills as we try to prove each of us has the more artful hand. (You see, I know the dynamic of our relationship too well.)

My husband will be teacher’s pet. I’ll daydream and get nudged a few times and need Mark to remind me of what I just learned later when we are in the hotel (because I have a memory like a sieve.)
You see, you can go someplace new, but dang if you don’t end up taking yourself along. 
We will be trained this week, but mostly, we will absorb the flavors and textures of an entirely new world with no pre-conceptions. We will  think and think and think….  brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other then punch holes in them to head trouble off at the pass. And we’ll bounce those ideas off people who know the things we have yet to learn. We’ll do all we can to put the pieces of this puzzle together , proceeding gingerly. And then,  we can make Rudy proud.

Wish us good luck. 


I’m here.

Happy New Year.

Forgive me for taking so long to say that.

I haven’t been in a blogging mood. Usually this is because too much is going on in life to make writing a priority – or I’m awash in stress. Sometimes I’m just feeling blue. I often go through periods when I want to kill the blog and I avoid the site altogether, because one strike of the key can make the entire 2000 pages cease to exist. I think about doing this all the time –you can bet every period of silence signifies my wrestling with feelings that I’m no longer wanting an audience for my life. Heck, some of you may remember my first blog, which I eradicated one moody day but reactivated under a new name a few weeks later. In the end, deep down, I returned because I felt it was important to keep a fragile thread connecting me with friends. But some days, I wonder . . . 
I’ve been thinking about my blog and its role in my life a great deal lately.
  The fact is, a blog is not a forum of honest communication. It offers a Swiss cheese version of life, at best. You can’t share your true feelings or an accurate picture of life in a blog anymore than you could have a heart to heart with a friend if you knew your words were blaring over the loud speaker at Disneyland. You can’t write anything real because everything real involves the people in your life, and they’re no doubt reading the blog. Be it a spouse, a neighbor, a daughter’s boyfriend, a work employee or your best friend, you run the risk of riling someone by airing anything that isn’t generic and impersonal. Which narrows conversation mightily.
  Real life is filled with rife. Your spouse is a prick, your neighbor insane, your kids annoy you, your boss’ an ass, and you’re always wrestling with feelings of inadequacy,  boredom and frustration. You’re horny, or feeling ugly, or mad as spit. How nice to be able to pour it all out on the pages of a blog, but how very unproductive at the same time. But does anyone really believe I write about spinning angora wool because that’s the focus of my new, unencumbered existence? 
  People think my life is charmed. This always makes me laugh. My blog is charmed, big difference. My life is as full of shit as ever, and I’m not talking about mucking horse stalls.  But a blog is a form of entertainment, and entertainment venues don’t attract attention if they’re focused on the zits of life – unless you’re trying to create a sad sack persona to amuse people or your blog is designed to attack a specific issue. I could have targeted this blog to specific issues, true – but creating a blog as a soapbox or advertisement was never my intention.
Anyway, who has time to report and reflect upon all areas of life? No one living fully, I can promise you. A blog is a very frustrating method of communication because it feels  superficial and trite as you scratch the surface of life and slant things to be merry. Does anyone really think the bulk of my days are spent playing with llamas and a donkey, or that spending two years teaching one person to read is a constant inspiration? Get real. Some days I want to take the animals to the meat factory because I’m dead sick of caring for them and I wonder what the hell I was thinking when I bought them. Some days I want to slam a third grade reader in front of my student and say, “What the hell is wrong with you that you can’t remember the “k” is silent in knife. Duh!” And I catalogue all the things I could do with my time that would serve my own interests instead acting like some bleeding heart.  You see, I’m no saint and  despite my positive outlook in the blogsphere, I get downright ornery about life sometimes. But sending positive messages out to friends is a way of telling them “Don’t worry, we’re OK”, and it’s a way to encourage them to be happy too.
   I’ve never been a very open or “needy” person regarding friends – some consider me downright antisocial. I don’t talk on the phone, don’t write letters. I simply don’t keep up. I sort of take it for granted my friends will be there if I ever need them, and honestly, I try not to need them. Mark is responsible for all the family interaction with friends. Without him, I’d be old, forgotten history in everyone’s eyes. So, I certainly don’t need a blog as some kind of surrogate buddy. But does help me keep up with friendships in the most casual way. For someone who doesn’t connect easy, this works.   
       Nevertheless, one of these days my friends may tune in to this e-address and simply come up with a blip on the screen. I’m getting closer to ending it all the time.  But not today.  Because, in the end, I believe a fragile thread of connection is better than nothing. And I don’t succumb to moods or emotional knee jerk reactions to my doubts and frustrations like I used to. I’m here for a reason.
     Mark says, “Who are you blogging for, the people we willingly left behind?” Yes. And no. I don’t believe severing all past connections to my past is necessary to be fully engaged in my current life . True, there are people from my work past who tune into this blog with the same curiosity as people who slow down to stare at a car crash hoping to catch sight of something disturbing. I really rather not be on display for these folks. At the same time,  we’re all nothing but the sum of our experiences, both good and bad. I tend to look backward at what I was before with a certain amount of reverence. I don’t feel staying connected to the past makes me embrace the future with any less conviction.     
I actually believe people should not be so quick to put their past behind them, because our history serves to widen our perspective on the world. Nothing is black and white, so while my husband complains that I’m always playing devils advocate when I champion someone who has done something seemingly wrong, the truth is, I’ve learned that there are two sides to every issue. And believe you me, there are always pieces of the puzzle missing, no matter how convinced you are that you understand what’s going on. Whenever we pass judgment, we are always doing so with limited information. Fact. In the end, wrong and right are not opposites, but a murky blend of shifting perspectives that depend on where you’re sitting and what information you’re privy to in any given moment.  Life is complex, like it or not – and the more you experience the intensity of living,  human flaws notwithstanding, the clearer and more precious life becomes.    

So, as the new year begins and I clean house in my mind, I ask myself if I should continue blogging.  Why, really, am I here?

That’s easy. For the same reason I first began.

I blog to make sense of the world. To make it possible for a friend to check in now and again and save me the trouble of explaining it all over the phone more than once. To remind people that I’m still alive and kicking, still moving forward, for better or for worse. To allow friends to laugh at my foibles, and to remind them not to fear change and to celebrate the little blessings in their world. You see, in the end, a blog serves as cliff notes to a person’s life. I occasionally look back at my entries marveling at the changes I see – I can actually pinpoint those events that triggered the next, and I see things that resonate within me long after the moment has passed. My blog isn’t a case of show and tell. It’s discovery, and often I’m learning about myself at the same time my readers are.

Many entries are mindless drivel, true- but some touch upon subjects that actually qualify as thought provoking. And since I’m not trying to impress anyone and no one really has to show up, what difference does it make what I write about? You may think a blog is indulgent – who the hell really cares what one individual has for lunch or what they think about life? In a world drowning in information overload, perhaps adding to the noise is not only unfair, but abusive. But that assumes the writer is laying words down for attention or that she or he has expectations from the audience.
  What if it’s all simpler than that? What if it’s just about keeping that fragile thread, for no other reason than instinct tells you to keep you voice active, even if it’s only whisper in the background of everyone’s busy existence? The worst that can happen is you spend a lot of hours pounding the keyboard and no one at all is on the other end, reading. But in the end, that’s OK too, because it’s the act of doing that counts. We are each responsible for what we give, not how (or if) our offering is warmly received. All it takes is one person reading to make it all worthwhile. But if that one person doesn’t show up, I think the act of putting yourself out there still counts. Intention is everything.

    I have good friends from my past that I lost track of long ago. I have no clue of where they are living, or with whom. I don’t know if they’re alive or dead. They might be battling cancer, or have adopted a child from Guam or maybe they took up the bagpipes. And I wonder about them all the time. (Still looking for you, Pam Spence) Sometimes, it’s comforting to know the basics about people you’ve cared about. And when old friends show up here, I know I’m not alone in that kind of curiosity. It always amazes me, when a friend I haven’t spoken to in years suddenly writes. They say they googled me and found my blog. Now, I’ve never googled anyone in my life – I simply don’t think to do that. But obviously, we all wonder occasional about people who have influenced our lives one way or another. And sometimes a spot check is nice. It can lead to a short hello before we fade away into our own worlds again. But to me, that hello is precious.

I’ve had periods when 400 people were reading this blog regularly – but mostly because they were waiting for the other shoe to drop in the FLEX trauma. As the issue resolved, most of them faded away, or at least I’m guessing they’re gone. I have friends who say, “Gee, I haven’t read your blog in weeks, what’s up?” and I know their interest in our world is fleeting at best. But they stop by once in a while, and that’s nice. I have parents, siblings, cousins and other close acquaintances who don’t bother to read it at all because frankly, it’s boring to them. I know my husband reads the blog, not because he is engaged by my mind or needs to read a reenactment of our daily life. He feels he has to police any information I unleash. More than once I’ve removed a post at his request, and you can bet he offers me ongoing critique and mild censorship about my posts. I’m respectful enough to avoid any subject he asks me to avoid. Blogging can be mighty intrusive when you’re the subject being meandered – and that brings up all kinds of respect and confidentiality issues too. This all builds up to make you feel self conscious and as if your wings have been clipped. But that is a part of the challenge, and challenge isn’t a bad thing. And if you ever become a student of writing, you learn that self-censure is our killer. It makes it impossible to reach that authentic, poignant level that makes your work sing. . . never mind, that is another subject. (By the way, I taught a seminar on blogging pro’s and con’s so this issue is one I’ve pondered long and wide.)    
   There are the people who come up to me (like the director of the literacy program at the college) and say, “Hey, I found your blog last night. Interesting.” This always unnerves me, because when I’m blogging, I imagine I’m talking to a casual friend from far away, not people I interact with daily or people in current professional areas of my life. I wonder what provoked them to look me up in the first place. Hummm……..  But things like that serve to remind me that words spoken aloud don’t really fade into oblivion, even if it feels like they do. They hang in the cyber air waiting to be picked up by anyone with an ear for it. Kind of like sending a message into space on the off chance a new life form will respond.  Can’t act surprised when they do.

My life is always evolving. Three New Year’s years ago, Mark and I hadn’t even thought of selling FLEX. Two New Year’s ago, it was gone and we were suddenly living in a dilapidated cabin without a roof, shivering because there was snow on the toilet seat. Last New Years we had just moved into our dream house, but that very month we learned that our former business was crashing and everything we had carefully planned was suddenly at risk. This New Years, we sat together forming a plan for selling this house because, as things worked out, (considering with the huge losses we incurred by the mismanagement of our business by the new owners, legal fees and having to support empty buildings for months on end after they crashed – still doing that, in fact) we can’t afford this lifestyle any longer. So, next New Year we’ll be living someplace else. Here’s a kicker – our  house will be featured in Country Log Homes and people will say, “what an amazing house” but it won’t be our amazing house. Ah well.
  We’ll have a new career hopefully, a new business, and all the headaches and struggles that kind of thing involves, and who’s to say if I’ll have a garden or animals or even if we’ll be in Georgia. We don’t have as much invested in this life as we had in the last, and we’ve discussed packing up and starting over someplace altogether differently, because life is trial and error, and we’re not convinced this existence is a perfect fit. We’ve learned a great deal from our adventures and the experience has been marvelous, but we have reservations about planting roots and getting entangled in another complicated life for personal reasons. We’ve been deeply disappointed that things did not work out as planned, because frankly, we’ve suffered and made sacrifices to get here. But hey, life is like that. And you can bet the adversity and disappointment has helped us to grow and see the world with a wider perspective too, so perhaps it was meant to be. 
  Then, there’s the fact that our homesteading choices are only one small facet of life. Throw into the mix our personal interests, family shifts, writing aspirations, health issues etc.. etc… and you can see that deleting the blog would find friends totally lost on the whereabouts of the Hendry’s pretty fast. Not that our life is so very interesting or that people need to know details. But I do think it’s nice they can tune in for a general clue of what we’re doing and why. And people have been impressed with our luck so far, so to leave them now would give them a false impression of what our life ended up to be. Our luck may be turning south, so we are going to get creative and try to turn adversity into advantages – hey that’s good fodder for blogging. If anything seems too good to be true, it probably is. But life is a roller coaster and there’s good embedded in all the bad. It’s just a matter to pausing to reflect upon the lessons gained along the way. Blogging forces reflection, I think. 

I guess to me, a blog feels like home base, a safe place to meet and converse without things getting threatening or uncomfortably personal. It’s a place to gather together to laugh or cry, to get an overview about interesting developments or just to touch base. It allows friends to visit with the option to come and go at their leisure, without pressure to show up regularly or worrying they are interfering with the steady unfolding of our days. A blog is really a one way mirror. From the author’s side, you only see a familiar reflection of yourself, but friends can show up and, even though they can’t speak to you or touch you, they can watch from behind this comfortable veil. They can turn away if and when they want or they can pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine and enjoy the view.  
  I wish everyone I knew had a blog just so I could tune in when and if I felt like it. It’s a very non-committal way to keep abreast of friends. Well, that’s not true. It requires a great deal of commitment – but only from the writer. Several former dance students and writing friends have begun blogs and I loved checking on them, but after a few months, they fizzled out. Always disappoints me a bit, but I understand. The issues connected to blogging are complex, and in the end it’s easy to think, “what’s the point?”  We are a results oriented society and we look for a return on every investment of time or energy. A blog really doesn’t have a tangible payback, and often feels like a frustrating, self serving, waste of time. Meanwhile, people assume anyone putting that kind of time into a ongoing project must have an alternate motive, and you find your explaining yourself all the time too. Some things defy explanation. It’s as easy as that.

As far as I’m concerned, a blog isn’t about the readers at all, but about the writer. Consider it a strange method of  talking to yourself. If others overhear the conversation and find it interesting, good. If they want to make their presence known, they can make a comment, and that’s nice too.
  If you think a good day is a day without Ginny, then don’t tune in. But if a dose of Ginny makes you grin, swing by. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.   
  If I was to create a case against blogging, the only thing I can truly say as a downside is that it does eat up writing time that might be more productively spent. I could have pounded out four books with the word count in this blog. But the question is, would I? Or would that time have been spent watching TV or reading magazines? And would my real writing projects be less insightful if I alleviated the ongoing practice of putting my thoughts on paper in this casual friend-to- friend way? A person can always write privately, diaries are timeless, but self discipline can wane when you know the only person you’re letting down by not showing up is yourself. I think, for me, my blog is connected to my muse. I simply can’t ever willingly shut that off.
   A blog even serves to keep you active. I often  find myself thinking I’ll forego an experience because it’s too much trouble, then thinking, “What the hell, it will give me something fun to blog about.” You see, there’s something to be said about having an audience to your life, even if it is only an imagined audience. It’s like standing at the edge of a lake and prudishly thinking you rather not get wet, but when it occurs to you your friends are privy to your every growing fuddy duddy-ness, you decide to dive in just to prove you will. In other words, blogging  keeps you from falling asleep at the wheel of living. For all that it’s limiting in some ways, it’s expansive in others.

I blog, just as I cook or make wine or work out or read racy novels, or do community service, or raise my own eggs or flirt with old men. It’s just something I do because it suits my personality. I want to nurture the fragile thread that links me with others, a thread with no strings, so to speak. Without it, I’d feel more alone, I should think.

I guess I blog to say I’m still here. And that doesn’t hinge on whether or not anyone else is. . . .   Like everything in life, it’s a choice.