The Definition of “Tough”

My friend, Nina Augello, shared with me something she wrote while at Elmhurst General Hospital with her father last month. I’m pleased to be able to share it with you.

What does it mean to be tough? Archetypes like the 6 foot 4 inch cowboy battling the elements in a lawless landscape come quickly to mind, but they’re probably a bit simplistic. I am sitting besides my 90 yr. old father in his hospital bed where he has been wrestled into submission by 4 injections of sleep medication and a powerful tranquilizer. He doesn’t want to be here and he is periodically still yelling orders in his sleep. Yesterday when it finally hit him that he was in a hospital, he looked me in the eye and in the most lucid tone told me that I had no brains for bringing him to a place like this.

In many ways he was right on point because the ER was a noisy beeping madhouse of the screaming unwashed with no Mother Theresa in sight and I was supposed to be the smart one—so there was no greater insult he could hurl that would hit me where I live. He has always been a take no prisoners tough cookie.

To say that my father is strong willed is a laughable understatement. Even as his dementia has progressed he has maintained a strict schedule of grooming and exercising and hasn’t relented in his demand for home-cooked meals prepared to his specifications. I am strong-willed too and as the first born and the “son” he never had my childhood is littered with many a clenched jaw confrontation that I am surprised to say didn’t cause us to pulverize our back molars—apparently our teeth are strong-willed too.

Notwithstanding the breathing problems that sent him to the ER, he is at once whistling in his sleep and then asking for coffee in Italian. Last night (his first day in the ER} he asked me if I had prepared dinner and do we have enough to feed all these people–a perfect coda to my running joke that when I was growing up, my family cooked enough food to feed Nebraska if it dropped by unexpectedly.

The electrical system of my father’s heart is winding down and there is a circling the drain effect on his lungs and kidneys. Being old is not for sissies but being “old” old is a whole other deal that no amount of jaw clenching is going to ameliorate. At some point soon I will be faced with difficult choices and will have to decide in proxy when it’s time for him to stop fighting the good fight.

In the coming days I’ll get to see just how tough I really am.

In Memory of Angelo Augello

1926-2016

Angelo Augello passed away Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016

 

Book Review: Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

The main character of John Irving’s novel, Avenue of Mysteries, is a writer named Juan Diego Guerrero. Irving says this about his protaganist’s writing:

“In a Juan Diego Guerrero novel everyone is a kind of outsider; Juan Diego’s characters feel they are foreigners, even when they’re home.”

avenue-of-mysteriesThe same can be said about John Irving’s novels in general, but this is especially the case in Avenue of Mysteries. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Juan Diego and his sister, Lupe, are los ninos de la basura or dump kids. Their mother was a prostitute and they were raised by el jefe, the dump boss, who had a relationship with her at one time. Whether or not el jefe was Juan’s biological father is one of the book’s many mysteries.

What is extraordinary about Juan Diego is that he has taught himself to read, scavenging books that have been tossed in the garbage. Even more remarkable, he has taught himself to read both Spanish and English. Lupe, on the other hand, speaks her own language that only Juan Diego can understand. He is her translator. Some people think she’s retarded, but  she often surprises them because she can read their minds and sometimes she can even foresee the future.

We learn the story of Juan Diego’s life in Mexico and later in Iowa, mostly through his dreams and memories. After the luggage carrying his medication is delayed on the first leg of his flight to the Phillipines, Juan Diego’s “thoughts, his memories—what he imagined, what he dreamed were jumbled up.” And thus begins a masterfully crafted story that moves seamlessly from the present to the past and back again.

On the back jacket of Avenue of Mysteries is a blurb lifted from a TIME magazine review. It says:

“…unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he [John Irving] manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability.”

I have to tell you I laughed out loud when I read that. So, was the reviewer acknowledging that critics like books that are unreadable? I have read my share of critically acclaimed, prize winning novels that experiment with time…no boring, formulaic beginning, middle and end for them. Quite frankly, they make my head hurt. Half the time I’m not sure who’s speaking or what century we’re in. I do believe those writers should read and study Avenue of Mysteries. This is how you do it so that your reader is with you every minute, enjoying the journey, spending time reflecting on the ideas you’re writing about, not struggling to figure out who’s who and what time period we’re in..

"The books which help you most are the books that make you think the most." Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.

“The books which help you most are the books that make you think the most.” Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.

There is so much more to say about this book. Irving expounds on various topics —writing, life’s mysteries, Shakespeare and the Catholic Church (anyone who went to Catholic school will most certainly recognize Sister Gloria) to name just a few. There’s also one wonderful episode in which Juan Diego views a book store bulletin board in Lithuania and mistakenly thinks he’s stumbled on a dating service that matches people based on the novels they read. He thinks it’s a wonderful idea. My question is why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

I look forward to writing future blogs inspired by Mr. Irving’s reflections. I’d love to  share some of his thoughts on writing and I especially can’t wait to write my answer to the question “Who wrote Shakespeare?”

Just a word of caution. In previous blogs, I have expressed my love of cozy mysteries and happy endings. The word cozy is not one that could be applied to John Irving’s work, and satisfying might more aptly describe his endings than happy. If you’ve never read John Irving before, you might prefer to start with his all-time, best-selling novel , A Prayer for Owen Meany. However, if you are looking for a masterful piece of writing that gives you much to think about, Avenue of Mysteries is the book for you.

Spring Fantasies

According to the Book of Genesis human life began in a garden…the Garden of Eden. Any wonder why so many of us love to cultivate the soil and grow things? I have so much I want to say on this topic that I’m sure I can’t get it all into one blog. I also don’t know where to begin or how to organize my thoughts, so let me just jump in at the point where I got the idea for this blog.

Purple and Gold Pansies, March 18, 2016

Purple and Gold Pansies, March 18, 2016

On February 28th, I think it was, I marveled at the display of pansies at either end of a planting island on my street. The picture you see here was taken today, March 18th, but I have to tell you the plants looked almost as good a month ago. We have had an unusually warm winter, even for the South, so the pansies that normally survive the winter here, are thriving. What a delight to see them every day! (I smile whenever I look at the rich purple and gold hues…Garfield High School colors.)

One of the many reasons I chose the condo I live in is that I have my very own patio surrounded by mulched flower beds. The same way I pictured my furniture inside, I envisioned lush plantings of flowers and

June 2015

June 2015

vegetables in those empty beds. That brings me to another thing that triggered today’s topic — a quote from Marian St. Clair, a Master Gardener who writes a blog and a column for The Greenville News.  In a column a few months ago, Ms. Sinclair wrote: “Despite challenges and constant setbacks, or perhaps because of them, gardeners are stubborn folks who nurture a dynamic fantasy life. In our minds, perfection is always within reach and next year’s garden is bound to be the best yet.”

I just love that quote. Until I read it, I never thought about gardening as fantasy fulfillment, but that really is an accurate description. When you put daffodil, tulip, and hyacinth bulbs in the ground in the Fall, you are planting based on some fantasy you’ve conjured up in your head about what they will look like when they come up in the Spring. You’ve imagined it all first. (I do believe the rich fantasy life that drives gardeners is the same one that drives fiction writers…but that’s a topic for another blog, of course.)

I still remember the first time I planted red tulips and purple grape hyacinths in my yard in New Jersey. When they bloomed in the Spring, the shock of color nearly made me giddy. And, yes, as Marion St. Clair stated, I began imagining what I would add to my garden the next year to make it even better. Every year I added not just bulbs and perennials, but whole garden beds to my yard. One of the hardest parts of leaving my home in New Jersey, was saying goodbye to the many plants I’d nurtured over 25 years.

Snap peas, March 18, 2016

Snap peas, March 18, 2016

Not to worry, though… I’ve already begun anew. Just last week, I got out my basket of saved seed envelopes and planted what was left in a packet of snap-pea seeds. When the green leaves started to poke their heads through the dirt after the rain last week, I was ecstatic. Yes, we gardeners are not just stubborn; we’re resilient and ever optimistic.

Oh, I have so much more to say about gardening, but I’ll save it for another day. I must, however, end with a appreciative nod to the Simpsonville Garden Club which my sister and I joined last month. At this month’s meeting, we elected new officers. This is how it went:
1. Eileen Hofmeister from the nominating committee presented the slate of nominees: Judy Rogers, President, Judy McGinty, Vice President, Sylvia Lockaby, Treasurer and Christine Barnett, Secretary.
2. Current President Christine Barnett asked if there were any other nominees from the floor. There were none.
3. Eileen made a motion that we accept the proposed slate of nominees by acclamation.
4. Someone seconded the motion. All were in favor, and no one opposed the motion.
5. The slate of nominees was elected by acclamation.

I do believe our nation would do well to look to the Simpsonville Garden Club as a model for how to run an election. Congratulations, ladies!

Until next blog, whether you’re a gardener, a writer, or both, I wish you boundless optimism, limitless imagination and an abundance of rich fantasies to carry you into Spring.

Good Reads and Happy Endings

Well, it’s the end of February and this is my first post. Tsk! Tsk! But it’s been a really good month because I’ve accomplished a lot and, most importantly, I found an editor for my cozy mystery, Second Bloom. I’ve only got a few more chapters to revise before I send it off to her. That means I can start writing Book Two of my planned series in March. Finishing something, however big or little, is always satisfying. The end of one thing allows for new beginnings and that’s always exciting.

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

That brings me to my topic for today…good reads and happy endings. This month I discovered that Emma Watson has created a book club group called Our Shared Shelf on the website GoodReads.com. (I know. Can you believe our little Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies is all grown up and the Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women?) Of course, I joined Goodreads.com and also Emma’s group…I’m one of 115,569 members.

If  you find yourself searching for “good reads”, I think you’ll really like GoodReads.com. What I love about the site is that you get to see what your friends are reading. You can also read reviews they’ve written and decide whether or not you want to try a book. When you sign in, you link through your Facebook account, and your Facebook friends who are also members of GoodReads.com, automatically become your Good Reads friends. It’s simple, uncomplicated and it’s free.

As a result, I’ve been reading a bit this past month…of course, I’m always reading. I’m a member of a book club for over thirty years. Since I moved to South Carolina, I “skype” in. (Skype is just the most wonderful communication technology…but that’s a topic for a whole other blog.) This month we read How to Be Both by Ali Smith. Does the title make you scratch your head? Well, the whole book left me scratching mine. Here’s my Good Reads review:

How to Be Both“Not a fan of this style of writing. From the title to the very end of the book, I longed for a simple declarative sentence to dispel the murkiness of the convoluted dual narratives. I know this was a prize winner lauded by critics, but I was neither enlightened, inspired nor entertained.”

So there you have my criteria for a “good read”. I want to finish a book feeling enlightened, inspired or entertained. Otherwise, I feel cheated. I admit that, left to my own devices, I’d read nothing but murder mysteries. Clearly, they fall under the entertainment category, and, after all, that is one of the reasons I belong to a book club.  I want to be pushed out of my comfort zone. Most of the time, I am rewarded with the enlightenment or inspiration, if not always entertainment, that result from reading books I wouldn’t ordinarily choose myself. All the Light We Cannot See by A. Doerrs and State of Wonder by Anna Patchett are two that come to mind.

Ironically, I think my tendency to read mysteries is that they tend to have satisfying, if not entirely happy, endings. The puzzle is solved, the murderer is caught and everyone can go on and live happily ever after. In spite of that general rule, I was recently horrified by the ending of Anne Cleeves’ murder mystery, Blue Lightening. I won’t give it away, but I felt quite blindsided and heartbroken by a murder that occurs near the end of the book.

Okay, I confess. I love happy endings. I mean, who doesn’t? If I want to feel hopeless andOld Yeller depressed, I can read the newspaper or watch the news on television. If I want to feel baffled and confused, I can watch the political debates. When I invest my time reading fiction, I want to conclude feeling something positive. No matter what awful things happen to the characters I read about, I want them to triumph in the end. If fail they must in order to move forward, at the very least, I don’t want their spirits crushed, because my spirit will be crushed as well. Remember Old Yeller? I cried my eyes out when they had to shoot him, but he died a hero, and the movie ends with Yeller’s puppies running around, making us smile as only puppies can. That’s what I’m talking about.

Low Country BoilRight now, I’m reading Carl T. Smith’s Low Country Boil, set in a small fictional town on the coast of South Carolina. When I met Carl at a Creative Writers of Greenville Meetup, he told me he writes stories about “strong women and enigmatic men”. How could I not want to read one of his books? I just started, but here’s what I wrote on GoodReads.com:
I’m on page 27 of 395 of Lowcountry Boil: After reading Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, this book is like a tall, cold glass of water following a walk in the desert. Beautiful, crystalline prose: “There was no moon to speak of — a slender cut that chiseled shafts of light through the limbs of the live oaks and created quiet shadows and sequined reflections on the surface of the water.” Can you ask for a better opening line? —

Another book I’m reading at the moment is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. How I love this man and his enthusiasm for writing! But that, too, is a topic for another blog. Nevertheless, I want to end by sharing with you a quote from his essay, “How to Keep and Feed a Muse”, in which Mr. Bradbury contends that we must surround ourselves with experiences that “feed” our inner spirit if we’re going to be creative:

“Look at yourself then. Consider everything you have fed yourself over the years. Was it a banquet or a starvation diet?
Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t friends. Go find some.”

Gosh, I just love that. No starvation diet for me, thank you. Books, like good friends, must nourish us.  Go find some good reads and have a feast. Till next time, Happy Reading!

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You may be hearing from me in the form of quotes or book reviews posted on  GoodReads.com  and shared via Facebook. If you’d like to share what you’re reading with a community of readers, I encourage you to check out GoodReads.com. Alternatively, feel free to share your book recommendations by adding a comment to this blog. And, don’t forget that by adding your email to this blog’s subscribe list to the right, you’ll receive an email when new blogs are posted. At the rate I’m posting, you clearly don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed by too many emails. LOL

No Longer Riding on the Merry-Go-Round

Those words just popped into my head the other day, and I wasn’t sure why.  Of course, they seemed a perfect metaphor for retirement.  If you ever stepped off a moving merry-go-round as a kid, you remember the dizzying feeling you experienced.  It took a while to get your footing on solid ground…not unlike the feeling you have when you step off the career carousel.

CarouselThe dizziness you experience is both elation and fear… happy to be off the work merry-go-round… hopeful, yet uncertain, that retirement will turn out as well as you imagined.  All I can tell you is that after flying by the seat of my pantyhose for the last six months, buying and selling property, and relocating 750 miles, it didn’t take long for me to adjust.

Of course, I’m not entirely retired…I am writing a mystery, collaborating with another writer on a Young Adult novel, sampling every writer’s group in the South Carolina upstate, co-organizing a Cozy Mystery Writers/Readers Meetup group, joining a community Garden Club, making a list of local colleges where I can teach English Composition as an adjunct next year because I miss teaching, attending every cultural event I can fit on my calendar, writing a blog…well, you get the picture.

It took some time for me to remember where today’s title words came from, but after a bit, I heard John Lennon’s voice in my head.  After searching my I-tunes I found Watching the Wheels from his Double Fantasy album and played it.  In the song people questioned John’s stepping off the merry-go-round.  By contrast, many of my friends and former colleagues sent me congratulatory messages and a few open admissions of envy after my announcement of retirement last week on Facebook.   Of course, John Lennon was only 40 years old at the time he wrote that song and the lead-off song on the album was Starting Over … don’t you ache for all the songs he didn’t get to write?  Don’t you yearn for someone to express the profound as simply and clearly as he did? But I digress…

In that song, John Lennon said he was enjoying “watching the wheels go round and round”.  For some of us, that’s the image of retirement we fear, but I have good news.  Many of my fellow baby boomers who contacted me said they were “semi”-retired or still consulting.  Whether we continue working for financial reasons, or because we are doing something we love to do, or because we just can’t imagine stopping, we need a new word to describe the period of time now known as retirement. After all, here’s the dictionary.com definition:

  1. 1. the act of retiring, withdrawing, or leaving; the state of being retired.
  2. the act of retiring or of leaving one’s job, career, or occupation permanently, usually because of age

Well, neither of those exactly describe what I’ve done or what many who wrote to me are doing.  Maybe we need more than one word to describe this phase of life.  How about “extended earning” if you’re working for financial reasons?  And “fulfillment” if you’re continuing to work because you love it?  And “renaissance” if you’re doing what I’m doing?

Whether the period “formerly known as retirement” is imminent or a decade or two out there for you, I hope all of you reach the “renaissance” phase.  I think it truly can be the best time of your life…the best shot you have at really doing what you’ve always wanted to do…the thing you’ve never had time to do.  A time for renascence, for starting over…IMAGINE.