Thursday, March 19, 2020

Changing the Mindset

The other day I went to Trader Joe's. Like many groceries, a sign outside announced limited hours. While flowers abounded, the normally well stocked shelves were pretty much bare. Smartly, Trader Joe’s limited the number of each item type one can buy to two to avoid hoarding. But there wasn’t much left to buy.
In produce, I was able to find salad, bananas, and one of the last bags of navel oranges. No toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and hand balm remained in the health and beauty aisle, and most of the hand soap was also gone. Of the baking products, where chocolate chips, flour, and sugar should have been the shelves were stripped. The only flour left was almond flour. At 7.98 a bag I figured I didn’t need to bake anything. I had eggs at home, so I didn’t buy one of the half dozen left in the case. I’d hoped to find Havarti cheese, which I did, but it was lite. Lite Havarti is better than no Havarti.
At a nearly empty freezer case I picked up the last bag of frozen corn. All the frozen fruit, broccoli, green beans, and mixed veggies were gone. Further down in the empty freezer case I looked to see if they had my favorite: bean taquitos. “They’re sold out of all my usual favorites,” I said aloud. A young man standing at a social distance from me said, “I guess this a good time to try something new.”
“That’s one way of looking at it.” I picked up one of the three remaining packages of Cheese enchiladas. I’d never noticed them before amid the normally overflowing freezer case. Other than the enchiladas having a high fat content, they’re tasty, and will make a good temporary substitute until they restock my bean taquitos.
Right now, with social isolation, we’re all trying something new, seeking ways to maintain connections while also social distancing. It’s a massive reboot of our personal systems. I’m cleaning our junk drawers and cabinets and dusting more often. Today I flipped my mattress, (something I’d been meaning to do for ages,) and reduced the stacks on my nightstand.
Lucky for us in Seattle, one of the hot spots for the virus, our weather is sunny this week. It’s still chilly, but it may be warm enough later for me to clean out my car. I need to keep moving in order to burn off the 38% fat content of the cheese enchilada I ate for lunch.
If you can't find what you want, try something new.
Happy Coping

Monday, March 16, 2020

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Before I retired from teaching six years ago, I used to joke with my students that when the Apocalypse happens, people from my generation will be the ones they turn to for leadership and guidance. I also used to encourage my kids to leave the country. Go to a Third World country and see how the rest of the world survives. I wanted them to stash a global perspective in their tool boxes. They scoffed, believing that apocalyptic events were the fiction comprised of zombies and aliens. None considered a virus would change all our lives.
Right now, hordes of people in the US are freaking out from the lack of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Small conveniences that we in First World countries expect access to any time, anywhere. The Rolling Stones wisely sang, you can’t always get what you want
For three years my family lived in Bangladesh. At the time, it was a poor country with one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. Bangladesh, like many Asian countries, has modernized through technological advances, yet large segments of the population still survive in poverty conditions. Living overseas in a poor country has given me an advantage to thrive in this current crisis.
In order to maintain a Western lifestyle, a couple times a year we ordered bulk shipments from Singapore of items we take for granted such as toilet paper, shampoo, coffee, oatmeal, chocolate chips, canned goods, peanut butter, and for my parents, booze. (My parents quickly learned to order more toilet paper and alcohol than our family needed in order to share with the nuns, priests, and staff at Holy Cross who weren’t privy to Singapore shipments.)
Until our supplies arrived, we used local products. Local TP was brown, and had the texture of paper towels at a gas station. Fellow Americans sometimes bartered with each other and traded products. Westerners returning to the sates often donated or sold what was left in their cabinets. But for the most part, we relied on what was available.
With the closure of restaurants and bars, you will crave what you cannot have. Our cook went to market daily and we ate quality food. But we spoiled Americans craved processed foods and brands we couldn’t get on the other side of the world. I once paid three dollars for a can of Campbell’s bean with bacon soup. That was in 1969, which is probably equivalent to twenty bucks.
We also had limited access to English speaking TV. We read a lot of books. We practically tackled the book wallah when he pulled up to our house with a basket of books to sell. Because the  country was in political upheaval, for our own safety, we were often remanded to our homes under Martial Law.
Life was vastly different overseas than it was back home, but overall, we adapted. And you will too.
My generation grew up without instant gratification. We had to wait for things. We communicated by mail rather than IM or text. If we craved fast food, we had to drive out of town. We knew we couldn’t always get what we wanted, but we got what we needed.

Hang in there. .

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Great Reads

As we remain self-quarantined, one of the best ways to treat ourselves is to read.

MEMORIES LOOKING THROUGH A SCREEN DOOR by Gerald Bigelow is a collection of poems that are a quiet protest against racism, a tribute to loved ones, a snapshot of communities, a history of time and place, an exploration of spirituality, and ultimately, the inevitability of aging.

Read them for the beauty of language, and lines that shatter you like ones from Must where a circus parade goes through town and “lions reach out/paw the air/create a fearful silence.”

The accompanying illustrations make a great companion to each section to the text. In his early years, he shows the precariousness of the world in which he lived, where fires erupted often. In poem #6, Bigelow writes, “I guess it was just the cost of doing business” of the the Plastics Factory fire, and “in those days people just died early.” “And they didn’t complain because they didn’t know any better.”

Bigelow points out how “grown folks give you directions… but “rarely do they give instruction on the safest way to get there.” Each poem in this collection of 87 has its own power. One that speaks loudest to me are Time Knows, in which “time knows the river, the same river flows/neither greeting/nor bidding farewell.”

Read them for their exploration on race, in It no longer matters, where Bigelow explores how “Your 1950s and my 1950s were not the same.” And finally, read these poems for the universal truth of growing older. “[in the mirror] I look and see lines and creases/ must be some kind of flaw in the glass.”

Happy Reading!

Friday, March 6, 2020

Writing in Captivity

I live in the Seattle area, a hot spot for the corona-virus.

I'm writing a novel about a couple quarantined. (It's being written by my alter ego, a much younger, more attractive redhead who pens steamy romance. I'm not revealing any more.) Ironically, I'm on a self-imposed quarantine as the Seattle area is a hot spot for the corona-virus, aka COVID-19.

Part of the problem with COVID-19 is not its deadly stats. We still have a better chance of dying from flu or pneumonia that corona-virus. The issues are that we don't know how its spreads, there is no definitive treatment, and there's no vaccine.

Unlike my characters, I am free to come and go as I please. I just choose to stay at home to minimize exposure unless I need to go out. My kitchen is well stocked with food, cat food, tea, and wine. The cat and I are ready for the zombie or virus Apocalypse.

The word 'Quarantine' makes me envision cages and dining on food slid to me through a narrow window. But for an introvert and a writer, (often one and the same) it's not a bad deal. If I turn off the TV and its endless political, disease filled rhetoric, I may actually get a lot of work done. Several events for which I was supposed to attend next week are canceled. I'm caught up on laundry. If I don't leave the house, all I need to wear are pajamas. (I don't write naked. Yikes. I live in an earthquake zone.)

If schools close, the ones who will suffer most are parents and extroverts. Around here, where tech is a big employer, parents are already working from home. But their kids are still at school, so they can get work done. If the kids are home and locked inside, it will be like an extended snow day,  If parents are wise, they will stock up on games, puzzles, books, and batteries along with food. Libraries and bookstores are still open, and some bookstores like Third Place Books, will ship to you with FREE shipping.

IF you go out to eat, please give your server a big tip. Chances are they aren't serving as many customers as usual, and they can't work from home.

Once I buy cat litter later today, I'll be good for the next couple of weeks.

Happy Writing and reading.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Beginning with the Middle

In the monthly writing workshop I conduct at a local library, the other night I talked about Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell. The concept is described as “like popping open the hood and showing writers how they can be intentional about the story.
In this book, Bell claims that for a book to be effective, there must be a “mirror moment” where the main character can literally or figuratively look in the mirror and questions his/her beliefs about himself. It helps enormously to know the middle moment/mirror moment, because knowing this moment “illuminates the entire book you’re trying to write. It’s the “deep tissue of the story,” (or the engine that drives it.) which many writers don’t discover until much later, sometimes after several drafts or even once the book is published.

When Breakfast with Neruda came out and reviewers had their say, they found things in my novel I hadn’t realized were there. 
Bell also claims that a good novel [or memoir] is about one of three types of “death stakes”:
the real death of the body,
death of a career or passion,
death of the inner self.

Once the writer discovers what type of death takes place, the transformation the protagonist needs to make to accept the death makes the story fall into place more easily.
For example, In the middle of the classic film Casablanca, Ilsa comes to Rick after closing time, to explain about why she left him. He calls her a whore, making her cry and leave. As Rick buries his head in his hands, he realizes he’s a selfish man who all along keeps love at arm’s length. The rest of the film is about what his transformation, and his ultimate sacrifice in his love for Ilsa by letting her go.
Exactly in the middle of The Hunger Games, Katniss accepts that she’s going die, and she prepares herself for death, but when she doesn’t die, she makes the realization she has survived in order to fight on.
Interestingly, this concept of beginning with the middle works equally well if you’re a pantser like me or a plotter. Pantsers may write many drafts before brainstorming the mirror moment. But then, once you know it, your pantsing will have a focus and guide you to the end. A pantser could also start with a mirror moment “out of the blue,” and then write a whole novel around it. Plotters will love knowing the mirror moment because they usually have a structure to build around it, and planning scenes will be easier as a result.

In my workshop, I asked my participants to go into the library and find a book they had already read and find the mirror moment. In most cases, that moment was exactly in the center of each book. Books that have multiple main characters the position of the transformation will vary, but essentially it works best near the middle.

I looked inside my own book Breakfast With Neruda, and Michael’s transformation takes place at the end of chapter Eleven, smack in the middle of the book (no spoilers, in case you haven’t read it.) The upshot is, if you’re having trouble with your manuscript (In my current work-in-progress, the second half has issues) go to the middle and see if the main character has had a "transformational" moment, and define what type of "death stake" it is.

Happy Writing!