Monday, December 11, 2017

Songs to Add to Your Holiday Playlist That Have Nothing to Do With the Holidays

Once upon a holiday season, I worked in a gift shop with a young woman who was uncomfortably 8 months pregnant. The world outside was bitterly cold, snowy, and icy, and she had to waddle 15 minutes through all this to the nearest bus stop to get to work, where she then had to stand for 8 hours on her feet on a concrete floor in an old building with only a single heating vent and walls largely made of single-pane windows. She was not in the "holiday spirit," and listening to the nonstop overly chipper Christmas tunes we've all heard a million times on our store playlists drove her insane.

So I made a special playlist, hoping to help ease her stressful December. The bright look of utter delight and relief on her face when "A Hazy Shade of Winter" by Simon & Garfunkel came on the stereo is something that will stick with me. I still listen to this playlist, my "Crystmas" playlist (yay puns) every season. Being more than long enough to get us through an 8+ hour day, there are holiday songs on my list, but I strove to find nontraditional songs, or versions that were less well-known, and Hanukkah is featured alongside Christmas and secular tunes.
Here are 30 of my favorite non-holiday seasonal songs:

1) A Hazy Shade of Winter
Originally released by Simon & Garfunkel in 1966, this song was covered in 1987 by the Bangles as "Hazy Shade of Winter." I enjoy both versions.

2) Winter Weather
This an older song by Peggy Lee with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. I like it for its swinging sound, exploitation of the cold to snuggle with your special person, and lack of Christmas.


3) What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
Another old song from the 40's, covered by countless artists, that I appreciate for its lack of a religious holiday. New Year's is arguably a holiday (I do get the day off work), but a secular one, and one that, like Thanksgiving, is losing its importance in the retail world while more and more businesses stay open.

4) A Winter Romance
The title song from Dean Martin's 1959 album is about meeting his love in winter. The last few seconds include the tune for "Jingle Bells," a secular song originally intended as a Thanksgiving song that, like the Halloween "Soul Cake/A' Soulin" song, fell victim to Christmas absorption. 

5) Winter Winds
Mumford & Sons brings us into more modern times. This is a catchy, uplifting-sounding song with interesting lyrics.

6) Winter
Joshua Radin offers up a sweet-sad, pretty song devoid of holidays.

7) Song for a Winter's Night
Winter is not the happiest of seasons being so deathly cold in so many parts of the world and all. It's a time for solitude and reflection as Gordon Lightfoot has penned in these haunting lyrics.

8) Song at Midnight
Another New Year's pining romance song from Peggy Lee.

9) Our House
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sing about lighting a fire and snuggling cozily. That's how I wish to spend my winters!

10) Winter Time
Steve Miller Band would like to remind you that the leaves are brown in winter. I love the instrumentation in this one.

11) Early Winter
Gwen Stefani uses double entendre to perfection in this song from January of 2008. (January is kind of a late winter, though, Gwen...)

12) Cold Cold Heart
Cold. Just like winter. (Get it?)

13) Don't Gotta Work It Out
Looking for songs for this playlist is how I discovered Fitz and the Tantrums. Another song where it's cold outside.

14) Peace
This beautiful song by Norah Jones sounds Christmasy, but it's not, though it is included on a Christmas album.

15) In the Cold, Cold Night
Though Tracey Thorn covered this song on her 2012 Christmas album, again, not Christmas. In fact, that entire album has a lot of secular winter songs. I recommend it in general.

16) December
Basia Bulat sings another catchy breakup song. I guess people are looking to start the new year fresh - and single.

17) A Long December
How could I not include this mid-90's classic by the Counting Crows?

18) December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)
Here's a much happier December remembrance!

19) I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
This classic was written in 1937 and covered by pretty much every crooner ever. For a more modern take, try the Stuhr Remix of Kay Starr.

20) Wintertime Love
A hopeful winter romance song from the Doors. (Yes, those Doors.)

21) White Winter Hymnal
This song by Fleet Foxes in July of 2008 is pretty and makes interesting use of rounds.

22) A Winter's Tale
Let the sultry voice of Freddie Mercury ease your winter blues.

23) When You Wish Upon a Star
Idina Menzel includes this one on her CD Holiday Wishes. A non-Christmas song from a not particularly Christmas album, which is fitting coming from a Jewish artist. Also fitting: it's a Disney song.

24) I Am Blessed
Nina Simone is one of the greatest singers of all time. If you must have a more modern sound to this song, try the Wax Tailor Remix.

25) Hold Each Other
This is an adorable song by A Great Big World that I had on my wedding playlist.

26) Everything is Sound
A song about love and singing by Jason Mraz. 

27) Sweater Weather
A winter song from SoCal by the Neighborhood, where it rains and people wear sweaters.

28) Winter
Tori Amos' song "Winter" is layered and filled with fairytale imagery. The piano gives it a very wintery sound.

29) Snowbound
Sarah Vaughn really warms up winter with this one.

30) Dreidel
This song by Don McLean has nothing to do with Hanukkah outside the metaphor of a dreidel, or spinning top. When you think about it, a dreidel is a pretty good metaphor for life, but this song is still not a holiday song.

Songs That Are Secular But Overplayed:

1) Jingle Bells
2) Let it Snow!
3) Sleigh Ride (original lyrics)
4) Frosty the Snowman
5) Winter Wonderland
6) Baby, It's Cold Outside

Honorable Mentions:

1) "Fairytale of New York" should be on every holiday playlist. If you're looking for a "work-safe" version, try KT Tunstall. (It's still Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, though.)

2) "Don't Shoot Me Santa" by the Killers is a fantastic song for people sick of conventional Christmas songs.

Monday, November 27, 2017

6 Books That Will Take You Away This Winter Season

I love traveling and reading, and when I can't travel, I read about places from around the world and throughout history (bonus points for a book that has both). These six books are some of my absolute favorites that have stuck with me and that I know I will continue to think about long after the last page was turned.

If you have a favorite book that swept you away to another time and place, please post it in the comments!


Amy Tan is probably best known for her book The Joy Luck Club, a now-classic story of mothers and daughters that was made into a movie in 1993. I have yet to read the book or watch the movie, but I was impressed by Tan's 2013 novel The Valley of Amazement, another tale that involves the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters largely set in Shanghai of the early 20th century. The characters are complicated, have depth, and the backdrop of Shanghai is beautiful, well-developed, and has its own complexity. I felt completely absorbed by this unique and colorful landscape, and I was sad when I had to let it go upon completing the novel. The audiobook is excellent, as well, and I very much enjoyed the different ways the narrator was able to capture each character's manner of speaking. For fans of Amy Tan and historical family sagas.


I read Ruta Sepetys' young adult novel Between Shades of Gray as part of Washtenaw Reads 2012. Though rated for ages 12 and up, I was riveted and horrified by the ordeals that the characters face after being forced from their homes and ruthlessly transported across Russia to winter in Siberia where many froze and starved to death. I could not put this book down! It's a chapter of history that I was previously completely unaware, and I suspect so are many others, as well. For fans of The Book Thief, Number the Stars, Diary of a Young Girl, and little known historical events.


National Book Award finalist Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is another chapter in history of which I was not well aware. I read books as a teen about the Japanese occupation of Korea from the perspective of Korean children living in Korea at the time, and I studied in overview, as only a college student getting a degree in Asian Studies could, the history of the Japanese occupation and lingering hostilities between the three countries. But Pachinko sheds light on a population that was never touched on in any of my classes or readings: the Korean people who lived in Japan during and after the occupation. This novel transports you fully to that world of early to mid-20th century Japan. The characters are distinct and have their own unique struggles as each generation grows and the world changes. For fans of family sagas, historical fiction, and anyone with an interest in east Asia.


The plot of Yangsze Choo's historical and supernatural novel The Ghost Bride is unusual to modern readers. Taking place in late 19th century Malaysia, the main character is offered the chance to become a "ghost bride" to a wealthy family's dead son. Choo beautifully brings to life not only colonial Malaysia, but a Chinese afterlife filled with wonder and perils. For fans of Amy Tan, Lisa See, and the film Spirited Away.


French mystery and thriller author Michel Bussi transports his readers to Giverny, a village in northern France and home to impressionist painter Claude Monet' home and garden with its famous Japanese bridge and water lilies. As far as I can tell, Black Water Lilies is only Bussi's second novel to be translated into English, the first being After the Crash. The narration style is unique and took me some time to get used to as it floats seamlessly between first and third person. (I listened to the audiobook with the fabulous narration of Joan Walker, who has an English accent, but pronounces the French very well.) This story and its characters struck me as very French, a mystery and a love story, and I felt I learned a lot about one of my favorite eras of painting along the way. Though I haven't read Agatha Christie, I've seen a number of BBC specials made from her books and short stories, and I'd say Black Water Lilies is one for fans of Agatha Christie, mystery, and romance.


If you aren't familiar with international bestselling author Kate Morton, that is a damn shame that needs to be rectified. I love every book I have read by her so far, but The Forgotten Garden is my favorite. (The Secret Keeper is a close second.) This saga spans over a 100 years and crosses two continents, taking place in both Australia and England. It contains a family mystery that two generations of Australian women are seeking the answer to while also following the story of the ward of a wealthy English family of the early 1900s as she and her beloved cousin grow up together. How do these three stories fit together? That's the beauty of Kate Morton's writing. You don't see the whole puzzle until she wants you to, and it's always a delightful journey. For fans of family sagas, mysteries, and historical fiction.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Belle Isle Park, Detroit, Michigan

They aren't kidding when they say that Belle Isle is a shining green gem. Connected to Detroit via a picturesque bridge, Belle Isle is located in the Detroit River between Michigan, U.S. and Ontario, Canada (your phone may send you a "Welcome to Canada!" text) and is now a Michigan state park, which means that if you have the recreation pass on your license plate, you can get in for free (but if you don't, you pay at the entrance gate). And that isn't all that's free! I recently spent a day on Belle Isle with my husband, and probably the most expensive part of the day was spending the gas to drive out there. 


Dossin Great Lakes Museum
First, we headed to the Dossin Great Lakes Musem where admission is free. It's a quick museum with a number of interactive exhibits for kids (ever wanted to race a virtual speed boat?) and a focused history of Detroit and the immediate surrounding area. The lobby is the restored Gothic Room (life goals), the former smoking lounge of the cruise ship S.S. City of Detroit III. You will also find the bow anchor of the famous Edmund Fitzgerald. ("The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee...")


Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
Next, we walked over to the Conservatory. A small river runs between the Dossin and the Conservatory, and the water was filled with merry kayakers. More groups of day-trippers were enjoying the myriad of plants in the Conservatory's six distinctly themed rooms and the koi pond outside. There is also a large lawn/garden with a fountain that attracted many amateur photographers and selfie-takers. There was also an ice cream truck parked out front, so we got ice cream, the first bite of chocolate I've had in weeks (it was wonderful). Ok, I'm going to level with you. While the inside of the Conservatory was lovely and delightful, the outside lawn/garden smelled like cat pee. Not because there was actual cat pee, but because perennial salvia was in bloom, and perennial salvia smells like cat pee. (So do paperwhites.) Lots of great photo ops, though, as evidenced by the number of wedding goers posing all over the place.


Belle Isle Aquarium
The 113 year old Aquarium is right next to the Conservatory, on the way back to our car, so we hit up this next. It was by far the most crowded building of the day, probably because it is basically a long and skinny tunnel. This is definitely a kids' favorite spot! Having gone through once before, we went through pretty quickly rather than fight with children for better views.


Belle Isle Nature Center
A trip to the Nature Center on Belle Isle takes as long as you want it to. There are tanks with animals, a couple of chairs next to a window overlooking bird feeders where a hundred or more birds gather (plus bees for the nearby transparent hive), a kids playground (plus a larger one across the parking lot), and the outdoor deer encounter that happens three times daily. We ended up leaving before the deer feeding time in favor of the beach.


Public Beach
On the north side of Belle Isle is a strip of sand and a bath house, also known as a beach. The river water is calm here, and the views of Detroit are spectacular! Another ice cream truck was parked nearby along with a hot dog stand. If we weren't planning on dinner with friends later, I probably would have taken advantage of the hot dogs because they smelled delicious! No grilling is allowed on the beach, but people had set up little travel grills in the grass next to the sand, and picnics abounded.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Ohisashiburi! (It's been a while.)

I had started off this year ready to throw myself into my writing, then January 20th happened, and my focus shifted dramatically. Countless times I have sat down at my computer wanting to update this blog, and I just didn't know what to say. There are so many hashtags... Here's a summation: #resist

January 1st also marked my ascension to Book Inventory Manager, which has turned out to be a lot less fun than it had sounded when I accepted the position last fall, and that is a little weird because it didn't involve doing much more than I was already doing, I just got pulled into a lot of unnecessary drama that has taken a toll on my soul. I have spent many days this year in some very dark places... #bummer #dramallama

July of 2016 found me and my now-husband, then-fiance, Greg headed to Motor City Steam Con (you may have read about this on my bio page) as guest authors and panelists. We went again this year and fully intend to be involved next year! For me, it's a fantastic weekend of geeking out with fellow writers, making connections, and reinvigorating those writing juices. #alwaysbewriting

At the first MCSC, Greg and I made a fantastic friend with fellow steampunk writer P. R. Chase, who has a story in Valves & Vixens III. It turned out that he read my story "The Waiting Future" in V&V I, and was so inspired that he submitted to V&V III! Pretty cool, eh? And now he's a great friend and inspiration to me, so yeah, it's pretty fantastic really. #writingbuds

Since taking on editing responsibilities in addition to writing for the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, and now with the added inspiration of this year's MCSC, I've decided to begin self-publishing. I have some great writers working on stories for an anthology I'd like to put together, and in order to get in practice with the whole self-publishing thing, I'm going to try with a collection of my own poetry. You might be thinking, "Isn't that expensive?" And the answer is, I really don't know the cost yet in terms of dollars and cents, but I already have a pretty good sense of the cost to my spirit by not doing it, and it's not a price I'm willing to continue paying. #dontdreamitbeit

So that's where we are. Some great ways to keep up with me are Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Links to all are found on the About Me tab up above. If you'd like to buy the complete collection of Valves & Vixens, here they all are. Aren't they lovely? #buymybooks


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Plymouth Ice Festival 2017 (Ringing in the New Year)

Click the pictures to enlarge them.
This past weekend, January 6th through the 8th, was the Plymouth Ice Festival, which, since moving to southeast Michigan, I have frequented with my husband Greg. It seems a fitting way to ring in the new year, a time when winter has pretty firmly taken hold here in Michigan. 

We arrived a little late, so a lot of the shops were closed or closing, but my schedule has been busy, often working six days a week, over the few months, so I'm glad I was able to participate this year at all! Squeeze it in, as it were. 


I've always found ice (that isn't on the road or sidewalk) beautiful, and I love the creativity and skill put on display at the Ice Festival. And the festive atmosphere! There's music, toasted almonds, hot chocolate, activities for kids, a tower made of ice and filled with burning pallets... 

Plymouth is a cute, if Conservative, town with a downtown full of shops, restaurants, and a surprising number of candy shops. My favorite store is Earth Lore, on Wing St near the corner of Forest. Greg loves Espresso Elevado, a coffee shop right by Earth Lore. Sadly, we missed both this year. 

The next winter event for us is Zehnder's Snowfest in Frankenmuth, MI lasting from January 25th to the 30th. If you have not been to Frankenmuth, it's a trip. (Read about my first visit here.) And the sculptures carved out of snow at the festival are truly impressive! (Read about when we went in 2015 here.) 

I'm hoping to go this year with friends who have not been, which is always fun. I love sharing quirky things with people. I do hope there will be more snow than there is now. It would be sad to have a Snowfest with no snow, and if it's so warm that the snow melts as it is being carved, that is even more disappointing. So here's to colder weather! Which is not something I say often. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

What am I Listening to?: the Omnivore's Dilemma

Lately, I've been listening to a lot of great audiobooks in my car. Top among them is probably This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs, read by the author, the self help book for people who hate self help books. But perhaps the most revelatory has been The Omnivore's Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. 

Having worked in multiple grocery stores over the course of eight or so years (five at Trader Joe's), I know a fair amount about the food business - where it comes from, where some of the best growing regions, how far it travels to get to us, how much is involved in growing, what all the labels mean such as organic, all natural, cage free, free range, vegetarian fed, fair trade, etc. 

I know because people ask a lot of questions. NO, you cannot buy vegetarian fed, free range eggs. Free range chickens eat bugs that they peck from the ground. And NO, organic wild blueberries do not grow in Quebec in the winter. Quebec is covered in snow in winter. Nothing grows. So quit asking! 

The answers to these questions and more might seem obvious to a lot of people, but clearly not all. When I told one woman in California who complained about the lack of organic wild blueberries from Quebec in February that they were out of season stared at me blankly.

Customer: What do you mean "season"?
Me: It's not their growing season.
Customer: What's a growing season?

This is how disconnected a large part of Americans are from our food chain. The reason you can eat asparagus and other summer foods in winter? They're grown in the southern hemisphere - where it's summer - then shipped all the way here. This is how buying out-of-season food works. It's the same way clothing comes from Asia. And it takes a toll on the environment when you factor in shipping - literal shipping on cargo ships - and then trucking. So much gasoline consumption! 

Don't even get me started on industrial farming and how it ruins the land, wastes resources, poisons our water supply, and also consumes massive amounts of oil. All of this is covered quite succinctly in Pollan's book.

What I didn't know going into the book is that corn effectively poisons cows, but we force-feed it to them anyway. By the time a cow is ready to be slaughtered (and rot all of them make it that far), it's a mercy killing because the animal is so sick from being fed the wrong food. Hearing about how basically cows are being eaten alive from the inside by stomach acid for our human convenience horrified me. And the absolute torture we put pigs through made me grateful that I can't eat them.

Will I become a vegetarian now? No. Plants are just as alive as animals. It's cruel to go from abusing one species to abusing another. What I can do is support local, sustainable farms and businesses like Fluffy Bottom Farm, featured in the current issue of the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, and the copious farmers markets in the area, which is how I met Jen Gossett, the genius behind Fairytale Baked Goods (OM NOM NOM NOM). 

Happy local farm goat courtesy of the
Crazy Wisdom Community Journal.

I love knowing who makes my food! As much as I love Michigan-based Meijer (the family has done a lot for our state), the people at the Co-op are just more personable. And as a person who likes to cook, I find seasonal ingredients and recipes exciting.

Does buying local cost more out of pocket? Yes. But it isn't subsidized by the government and is far less likely to be polluting or destroy the land. And it's more humane. Happy cows do not come from California. They come from local pastural farms where they get to eat grass, not corn mixed with beef fat (cannibalism!) and antibiotics. 

I'm lucky to live in a state that has a thriving local food economy. But you'll find it everywhere if you look for it. And the higher the demand, the readier the supply. Let's make this change for the better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

House Update: We Planted an Apple Tree

Now that the weather has warmed up, our attentions have turned outward, especially Greg's because he kind of does yards for a living and the big empty yard was a big selling point for him. 

First off, we had our first fire of the season in the backyard! Whoo! Six people came, which isn't bad for a last minute shindig. (There will be more planning and prep next time. Probably.) Last year, we were only able to have one fire on Halloween, which was a pretty great inaugural event. Too cold after that.


We cleared a lot of trash that had somehow collected in the yard, probably due to the monster windstorms we kept having this past winter. Greg also cut down a lot of dead grapevines, most of which went on the fire. He also took out a large patch of a type of grass we don't want and put down seed for the type we do (can you tell this is not my thing?). Our yard is mostly dandelions right now.

And we planted an apple tree! It's a pink lady, my favorite kind of apple. So sweet! Like candy. Another apple tree of a different variety will be going in at some point so they can cross-pollinate. We used the sod we dug up for the tree to fill the mystery hole in one corner of the backyard. (It might have once been a fire pit, but we really don't know.) I used one of my father's old shovels to move the sod, one I sometimes used to help him in our garden growing up. It felt like a little piece of him is living on in my own garden I am building with my future husband. (Pa would love Greg. I wish they could have met.)


Beneath the tree, we also interred our beloved cat Sawyer's ashes. (Because he passed in January, he could not be buried out-right and his body was instead cremated to await the spring thaw.) We have talked about putting a bench there, as well, and maybe growing catnip in the area. We have some catnip in a planter in the kitchen that we bought for Sawyer not long before he died. Our other cats do not attack it with as much relish as he did.

Greg is outside now mowing for the first time this season (goodbye, dandelions! we hardly knew ye) and will soon be digging up an area along the side of the house for a garden. He got a great deal on mulch at work. I think he is going to plant lilies.

Well, I have a demanding kitty on my lap who is forcing me to type left-handed (I'm so much better with my right hand), so I will end this here. Ciao!