Colors in the Desert

Between December and the end of February, the mid-desert around Globe, Arizona, (higher than the desert floor, but not as high at 4,000 feet–the high desert) got nine inches of rain. Highly unusual in the desert. Seeds protected in casings, coverings and buried deep underneath the granite rock are coming awake. With that much rain, the Mexican poppies with their gray foliage and bright yellow petals will sweep across miles of desert. Lupines, in purpley-blue will be stitched between them.

Tomorrow, the last day of February, and a day as rare as the Spring abundance of flowers, I’m taking off and driving into the desert to see the flowers. I told Anna about it on the phone.

“So besides the poppies and lupines, what else is there?” Anna asked.
Mexidan poppies “I’m not sure. Plants grow in their own time, maybe it’s just the poppies and lupines now, and other things as Spring turns into summer,” I said.
“It would be better if they’d all bloom at once. That would look better,” Anna said.
I sighed. There is a special beauty in not having every fruit and flower available all year. Growing up, the only vegetables available in winter were root vegetables. When the first asparagus came in Spring, they tasted like the green of the season. We savored them. Today, you can buy new asparagus any time of year. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

“I think you appreciate each individual flower more in their own time,” I said carefully. Anna was sensitive, and I didn’t want her to feel wrong, just because I feel differently.
“It’s, like, a waste of gas,” she pressed on. “You’ll have to go back to see the others. It would be better for your vacation schedule if you could get it over with at once.”

I don’t want to get it over with all at once. I like to savor each moment Nature gives me. I’m fine with the idea of not having everything at once. I like waiting, it makes the arrival more special. And tomorrow, when I drive out to Globe, to see the arboretum, I’ll be happy that I can take another day off to drive down the road in sunshine in another few weeks.

–Image: Mexican poppy,

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who is learning about desert life, and the creativity it engenders. Her notes are gathered under the title “Under the Acacia Tree.”

Perfect Southerwestern Dinner Menu

Not far from where I live is the Mercado Hacienda (Spanish for Ranch or Plantation Store). If you live in the Phoenix area, mark your maps–it’s at the Southeast corner of the intersection of University and Country Club in Mesa. It’s a small store, but the ingredient list is perfect for a great little dinner.

guanabanaNext month, when Kent comes to visit, I want to do the cooking. He’s a personal chef, so I want to make sure he gets a vacation. Here’s the menu:

Drinks: Rum and fruit juice. The mercado carries guayaba (guava), tamarind, guanabana (soursop), mango, pear and pineapple. I prefer the fruit juice, but there is also a powder mix that would work well. It comes in pineapple, mango, guava, and my favorite, jamaica. I didn’t know that ‘jamaica’ is Spanish for ‘hibiscus.’ You can learn a lot in a grocery store.guava

Appetizers: The mercado has the best guacamole I’ve ever eaten. My husband’s was my favorite until I tasted this. Even he will agree that the rough-chop mix of perfectly-ripe, pale-green avocado studded with lime, jalapenos, red pepper flakes and onion is a perfect mix of spicy, but not fiery, ingredients. You can taste the fire and the sour tang of the lime, but the bland, creamy avocado soothes your tongue. I’ll cut up fresh corn tortillas and fry them to make nachos, hot and salty, for the guacamole.

Main course: Grilled shrimp tacos. The mercado has mouth watering meats, shrimp and fish. I’m going to get some of the larger shrimp, grill them under the broiler, and wrap them in hot flour tortillas filled with field greens, slivers of jicama and red pepper and moistened with green salsa, also from the mercado.

Dessert: I’ve got some choices here and haven’t made up my mind. I can certainly make Meyer Lemon posset and serve it over berries. Or the incredibly smooth coconut sorbet topped with dark chocolate shavings. Or keep it simple. Just a few grinds of pink, black, and green peppercorns over premium French vanilla ice cream.

Think I can get him to stay for a few days?

—Images: Soursop, on left, Guava, on right, –Quinn McDonald learned cooking basics from her mother, who was French. She practiced on various dates, unsuspecting visitors, and her son, until she became quite good at putting together a decent meal from a few, well chosen ingredients. You can see more, but different work of Quinn’s at (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Working Your To-Do List

It’s always the same. When people want you to do one more thing, generally something that is more important to them than you, they suggest you do it right before you go to bed. I now start going to bed at 5 p.m. just so I can get all those last-minute things done by midnight.

A few of my coaching clients tell me that they hate writing to-do lists. The reason, they say, is that it is a roll-call of failure. Items that don’t get done reproach them daily for being lazy. Being lazy is not a bad thing. Often lazy people are very bright, and they develop smart shortcuts that help them accomplish things quickly, efficiently and with accuracy, giving them time to do what they choose.

How can you make “lazy” work for you? Take a look at that to-do list. It’s probably filled with big, clunky projects that you don’t want to do. Maybe a few small things that you can do quickly. So you do those. If you are like most people (including me), you’ll put a few things on that list that you have already done, or do automatically (like brushing your teeth), just so you can get something checked off.

to do listHere’s a better way to manage the lists:

1. Write down those things you need to get done. Big, small, write them all down. That will not only keep you from forgetting, but also take a weight off your mind. That alone makes a list worthwhile. I like index cards for this, so I can keep the list in front of me, but you can use whatever makes you feel comfortable. It is easier to use a piece of paper you don’t have to re-write constantly–a page you can move in your notebook.

2. Create the list at the end of the workday. It preps you for the next day, and is a good way to wind up your time in the office. You’ll set priorities while they are fresh in your mind.

3. Circle three things that have to get done. Just three. The things that make the most impact, have the highest priority, clear the widest swath of time in your day.

4. Take another 3 index cards. Writing just on the front, put one item on each card and jot down the steps needed for each. People you have to call, meetings to set, research to be done, things to look up. Some lists will have one item on them, for example, “Call  Jason Pierce for article interview.” Others will have several steps. That’s it. Walk away from your office.

5. The next morning, once you arrive at work, pick up one of the three index cards and get to work. Don’t check your emails first. Checking emails is a sabotage of getting work done. Don’t take phone calls until you get the items on the first index cards done. If one of the items is to do an interview, pick up the phone and get it done. If you haven’t made an appointment, get that part done.

6. Once you have accomplished the steps on the first index card, you can look at your emails or pick up your voice mails.  Don’t get sucked into your emails. Answer the most important ones, but if there is a task to do, it goes on your to-do list. Most people waste an enormous amount of time reading and answering emails in the order they receive them instead of in the order of importance.

7. Tackle the second index card before lunch and the last one by mid afternoon. Getting three items accomplished well and completely is not as common as you might think. You’ll have to fight off interruptions, the drifters who come in to waste your time, and the drama people who like to create emergencies so they can be heroes and solve them.  Tell them you are busy right now. It’s true, and it works.

At the end of the work day, repeat the to-do list process. You’ll find your to-do list shrinking and your email list manageable. Many emails are simply people commenting on your emails because they feel they have to.

Once you get into the habit of doing three important things each day, and doing them well, you will find yourself less stressed, less crazy, and more productive.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who develops and teaches business communication courses. You can see her work at (c) 2008 All rights reserved.  Image: Einstein’s to-do list:

Tutorial: Paper and Ink

Ink and brush are an ancient combination that create contemporary art. These illustrations make wonderful handmade cards. With a little practice, the art of sumi-e yields wonderful results. You can leave them black and white or you can add a touch of color. You can buy the ink, or you can buy a stick of sumi-e ink and a grinding block.

sumi-e bamboo

The ink stick looks lacquered. It is. Rub the short end against a wet grinding block until you have a puddle of ink. I like to use distilled water in a spray bottle to create a deep black ink.

If you buy the fat brushes traditional for this art, soak and rinse the brushes. They are stiffened with fish glue to help them keep their shape in transit.

The basic strokes are simple: hold the brush upright, start with the tip of the brush, then push down, drag, then lift up as if it were an airplane taking off. That’s a leaf. A stem uses the tip of the brush pushed down and dragged, then pushed again.

The rest is practice. 15 minutes a day yields good results in about a week. The minimalism is soothing. The suggestion of the completed piece is all you need. Your mind does the rest. Creativity in action.

sumi-e butterfly

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and an artist. She develops and runs training programs in communication. She believes art is an important form of communication that doesn’t require words, although words are art in themselves. (c) All rights reserved. 2008.

The Choice

“Upgrades to your kitchen and bathroom always give you a big return,” the real estate agent said. We looked at our new downsizing house, knowing that the kitchen and bathroom would need to be redone. It was a big expense. But there it was, falling out of the real estate agent’s mouth. Hope in the form of a ROI–return on investment.

Now it is three years later. The agent says, “Upgrades, improvements, it doesn’t make any difference. The only thing that matters is what you can sell it for.” She makes it sound like our house, upgraded and redone, refinished floors and installed crown moulding, is a commodity instead of a lovingly improved home. We sunk so much time, so much work to make it beautiful. And now it doesn’t matter? The time isn’t important? The work makes no difference? I simply don’t understand.

paper bag sketch The person who buys our house moves in and sits down. Maybe adjusts the top-down, bottom-up custom shades. Maybe turns on the super-quiet new dishwasher with no concerns about blowing a fuse, as our house has 200 amps, twice the amount of any of our neighbors. And yet, astonishingly, we keep being told that none of that is important. Only the price is.

It’s as if the greed of bankers and mortgage companies wadded up the American dream of owning a house and chucked it into a paper sack. We are no longer young, we worked all our lives to have a nice home, and we sunk our savings into it.

And now, our choice: sell it far below what it is appraised at, what we paid for it, or live apart, for however long it takes for the economy to come to its senses– me in the Southwest, where my business is starting up, and him in the East, where his business is going so well.

The new reality: If you avoid bankruptcy, you still have to choose a loss of one sort or another. Which reminds me, again, what I remember from the overblown 80s. Greed will suck the light out of a life. Greed never strikes in solitude. It spreads like ink on wet paper. It stains the innocent and guilty alike.

(c) Image and story. Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. 2008.

Journal Prompt: Understanding Words

Journal Prompt: What do you remember about learning to read?

What I wrote: We were the only family in town with a library in the house. When the carpenter put up all the shelves in the combination dining room/library/office for my Dad, he asked, “You opening up a grocery story or what?” When we told him it was for the books, he grunted and said, “Past the Bible and the Sears catalog, don’t have much use for them myself.”

The room was soon filled with books, top to bottom. I learned to read early, and after I mastered the comics in the newspaper, and the Betsey McCall section of my mother’s McCall’s magazine, I began to read National Geographic.charcoal mouse

One day, I considered all the books in our library and asked my father if I could read one. (It wold not have occurred to me to simply take a book without asking. Different times, very different upbringing.) My father told me, kindly, that I wouldn’t understand them.

“Why not?” I asked. “I can read English.”
My father smiled and handed me a physics book. “Read this, then,” he said.
I worked through the introduction, getting the words right, but with no idea about the ideas in the book. At 5 years, physics isn’t a familiar concept.

I remember the mix of awe, anger and concern that I could not grasp the material. It was English. I knew how to read English. Why couldn’t I understand this English?

Slowly I came to understand the difference between reading and comprehension; between seeing and knowing. The complex relationship between seeing words and understanding concepts came slowly to me, but I began to read more, eager for the ability to link words to concepts.

There are still many books I don’t understand, and many I don’t try to understand, but the joy and mystery of reading can fill me with a joy that few other things can reach. I hope the love of reading doesn’t fade away, replaced by electronic pastimes. Reading was my comfort, excitement and cure for loneliness. It still is.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches others to write through training programs. See her work at Image: Mouse, charcoal on paper. Quinn McDonald. (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Two Wolves in Us

This story is not mine. I received it as an email the other day, from my friend Allan, a freelance financial writer in Vermont. Generally, email stories get spiked before I open them, but this one is worth another read. So here it is:

two wolvesTwo Wolves
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at

Value Your Time in Pricing Your Art

When I first started exhibiting my work as an artist, I was afraid to charge a fair price for my work. Like many women, I didn’t think I deserved to be paid for work that was so fulfilling. Never mind that doctors, engineers, lawyers and computer program designers also love their work and get paid well, I didn’t have the nerve.
Waiting on the Shelf
I had created an elaborate, contemporary necklace; it has taken about 20 hours. Scared that it wouldn’t sell, I put a price tag of $60 on it. The first show I took it to, it got lots of looks, but didn’t sell. The same happened at the next four shows. Secretly, I wanted to mark it down or take it apart.

Putting a Price Tag on the Work
Then one show, I was across from Mary, a watercolorist and collage artist. She came to my booth and looked at the necklace. “Why isn’t it priced much higher?”
images42.jpeg for sale sign “No one will buy it if it’s higher,” I said.
Mary looked at me. “You did the work. You don’t know what other people consider ‘too much money.’ In any case, the price needs to be higher. How many hours did you spend on it?”
“About 20,” I admitted.
“You are going to mark that necklace up to $200,” Mary said.
I gasped. “Who will buy it?”
“That’s not your problem,” Mary said. “You are still getting paid only $10 an hour. But just to prove to you that good work gets paid, mark up the necklace to $200. If it doesn’t sell by the end of the show, I will buy the necklace from you for $200. OK?”
I couldn’t lose. I marked up the necklace.
Twenty minutes later it sold.
I learned the lesson that quality work deserves the price it took to create it.
In the intervening years, I have done the same thing for many starting artists. I have purchased only one item in all the years I’ve told artists it’s OK to get paid for creative work.

Your Time, Your Worth
It was a great feeling to see artists believe in themselves. We don’t teach art in schools, so an artist has to do the artistic, emotional, and business training all alone. It shouldn’t be that way. It doesn’t have to.

The biggest fear is to charge for time. In years past, women did needlework or other art after all the work was done. Women produced quilts, rugs, tablecloths and other useful items because they were needed. But they made them beautiful to satisfy a need for. . .well, beauty. Today, we charge for time. When we work more than we expect, it’s called “overtime.” We say “time is money,” and “you can’t buy back time,” but women are still reluctant to charge for their time making art.
It’s time we get over that.

My car mechanic charges plenty for time. So does the plumber, who installed a $39 part for $356 because the time he came was at night. On a Sunday. And I felt lucky. Art may not be the furnace, but it fuels so much more of our lives.
–For more on creativity, visit Quinn McDonald’s website.

Vegetables for Those Who Hate Vegetables

Maybe it’s just a sudden blah-spot, maybe you’ve always hated vegetables. But now you are brave and want to eat some. Just not the same tired green beans and iceberg lettuce.

Lucky for you, a world of adventure is there for you. Here are some interesting, fun, and great-tasting ways for you to eat vegetables if you are bored with your current menu. And yes, avoid all those things you are allergic to.

1. Edamame. (Ed-ah-MOM-ay). Simply put, soybeans. You can buy them shelled, but edamameas a snack, they are more fun in the pea-like pod. Buy them frozen, simmer them for about 5 minutes, salt them with Kosher salt and pop the round little soybeans out of their shell into your mouth. The husk is tough, don’t eat it. Great mild vegetal taste and a complete protein on their own.

2. Jicama. (HICK-ah-ma). Looks like a dead turnip, tastes like a cross between a crisp apple and a raw potato. Peel the fibrous outer skin and eat the pale insidesjicama raw or cooked. I prefer to eat it raw, because of the crunchy texture and fresh taste. Cut it in matchsticks and dip it in onion dip. Slice it thin and put it on a ham sandwich. Cut it in chunks and mix it in with a chicken salad. You can cook it like a squash, or put it into soups, but I find it much more interesting before cooking.

3. Snap-Pea Crisps. OK, this is sort of like saying a potato chip is a vegetable, but these are worth finding. Crunchy, salty and crisp-baked snap peas. That’s it. Not a diet food, but not nearly as bad as potato chips. I’ve found them in Trader Joe’s  and local food stores. snap peasThey are great right out of the bag, but you can mix them in salads and use them as a dipping object. They really don’t need a dip, they are great right out of the bag.

4. Field greens. Buy them in the easy-to-use bag. Yes, you can buy them all separately, wash them, pat them dry between paper towels and make Maria Rombauer Becker happy.  She was the author of The Joy of Cooking, a book so complete in cooking instructions it tells you how to skin and gut a rabbit. But if you are a bit shy of salads and veggies, buy them read to eat in a plastic bag. They are delicious mixed with, well, jicama, edamame and baked snap peas. You can also pile them on a sandwich or wrap instead of lettuce.

5. Eat it at a different temperature. Tonight, I decided to try something completely different. I had made mushroom ravioli, boiled and drained them, then created a sauce of brie, yogurt and chicken stock. It was an incredible cream sauce without the cream. I then cut up some leftover chicken sausage into the sauce, added the cooked ravioli to heat them, and then poured this mixture over a pile of field greens. It was absolutely wonderful. The field greens were fresh and cold; the sauce rich and hot. The cheesy, creamy sauce paired itself wonderful with the slightly bitter greens into another dimension of flavor. And I felt virtuous because I ate all my salad.

–Images. Edamame:;