Thursday, February 28, 2013

Quite Contrary

Sometimes we have to bend the rules. In life, as in writing, what works for one person doesn't for another.

If we hit a wall at work or with a work-in-progress, it makes sense to consider another approach or look at our tried-and-true methods from a different angle.

The following are four articles or blog posts that made me smile, think, and begin again with a changed attitude.

At Lifehacker Alan Henry takes aim at productivity myths. Hey, if getting up at four-thirty every morning works for you, keep doing it. But if you fall asleep at the computer monitor at three in the afternoon, make a change that fits your body rhythm. 

James Altucher at The Rumpus describes himself as "mediocre." If that's true, I'll have what he's having. Read his "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Mediocre People." 

Hilary T. Smith, the writer formerly known as The Intern, debunks the kind of advice commonly tossed at novelists. While the advice itself has merit, it doesn't fit every writer or every type of story.

Finally, author Pam Morsi warns fellow writers against repeating the kind of book that's succeeded before and advises her peers to buck trends if their hearts and stories lead them down less traveled roads

Ta da! An announcement: For the next couple of months, due to self-imposed deadlines, I'll be blogging here just once a week, on Thursdays. I hope you'll stop by. Thanks for reading and for leaving comments that buoy my spirits. Want to get my Thursday posts my email? Sign up at the bottom of this page. Again, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Six Things Learned from a Wedding in Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico near Puerto Morelos

1. A few Spanish phrases: Buenos días (Good day), Gracias (Thank you), Por favor (Please) and Disculpe (Excuse me) take a person far and elicit a warmer response than the same basic French phrases do in Paris. I am not putting down the French; I'm acknowledging the warmth of Mexicans.

2. It's both soothing and exhilarating to see the sun rise over the Gulf of Mexico.

3.  The turquoise sea south of Puerto Morelos is as delicious to swim in as it is to watch.

4. Destination weddings require guests to shell out a fair bit of cash and vacation time, thereby excluding many who wish the bride and groom well. On the plus side, those who gather in a far-off place have the chance to visit, talk, and get to know one another over two or more days.

5. No matter where a wedding is held, it's magical to witness two people vow to love and honor one another.

6. In the bridal-bouquet toss, the woman who really, really wants the flowers wins them.

The jumper's my younger daughter.  What can I tell you?
 She must have a thing for calla lilies.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

This Blog Has Been Interrupted by Joy

How happy are they! The bride's my daughter's best friend, and I'm celebrating,
reminiscing, and wishing the couple well. The blog will be back next week. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Who Wants to Hear Bad News? Nobody

I'm good with faces and lousy with names. I can recount the plot of almost any movie I've seen but don't remember titles. I've always considered my lapses everyday and average, but there may be something sinister at work.

Last week, the New York Times ran an essay about the possible link between hearing loss and dementia. (Find a story about the research findings the essay refers to here.) The essay's author, Katherine Bouton, is a former Times editor and the author of the new book, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You.”  She wears one hearing aid and has one cochlear implant. In other words, she has a powerful, personal interest in the research findings.

So do I. Two cochlear implants pulled me out of deafness, and I don't want to forget that fact-- or anything else that matters to me.

So far, there's no causal connection between hearing loss and dementia. That is to say, one doesn't appear to cause the other. There is, however, an "association" between the two that has spurred further research.

The first explanation for the association, as explained by Bouton, is that people with hearing loss tend to isolate themselves, and isolation ups the risk for dementia whether a person hears well or not.
The second explanation is that people who don't hear well work so hard to hear what another person is saying, they may not absorb the message. 
The third's the scary one.  There may be an underlying pathological mechanism that triggers both hearing loss and dementia. According to Bouton, "It could be something environmental. It could be something genetic. They just don’t know."
Do the research findings concern me? Sure. So far, though, I haven't lost sleep over them--not that I remember, anyway.
Believe it or not, there are collateral benefits of hearing loss. One, those of us with it develop coping skills. Two, we learn not to worry overmuch about things and situations that are out of our control. A noisy restaurant means we'll have to read lips to follow conversations. If, on the other hand, we're riding shotgun in a roofless Jeep on a windy day, we won't hear a thing the driver says and will focus, instead, on the scenery.
Thanks to lessons I've learned from hearing loss, I'll stay a few steps ahead if dementia stalks me. I'll cope with lists, sticky-note reminders, exercise, and vitamins.  I will not, however, say, "Why me?" or moan. 
Cancer, heart disease, mental-health problems and a host of other problems may challenge us one day, but we can't live our lives in fear. We can, however,  really live our lives and wring something good and pleasurable out of every day we've got. 
I'm curious about the kind of memory lapses I consider everyday and average. Have you ever called the cat by the dog's name? Put the peanut butter in the fridge instead of the pantry? Forgot where you hid something really, really important. Tell me quick before I forget the question.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What Sundress-Shopping Taught Me about Book Reviews

Soon I'll attend a wedding on a beach in a warm and festive locale. Because I've been focused on the "wedding" rather than the "beach" part, I hadn't given much thought to clothes.

Luckily, I talked to friend (and friend of this blog) Lark Howard last Saturday, and mentioned I was planning to wear a dress I'd already worn to a couple of weddings to the exchange of vows on the beach. Her initial reaction: utter stillness. That muted response warned me my tried-and-true dress, so appropriate in a traditional setting, would be a wash-out on the beach. 

Lark suggested a pretty sundress or white slacks and a knockout blouse, and I'm on the hunt. 

Tomorrow, I'll hit bricks-and-mortar stores, but in preparation, I've "shopped" online for ideas and inspiration and have read roughly 200 posted reviews of dresses. (Yes, that many. Apparently, women don't hold back when they like or hate a dress.)

Reading all those dress reviews changed my attitude toward book reviews. I used to think one-star reviews of books by my favorite authors were written by unhappy, impossible-to-please trolls or mean-spirited competitors. Now I view the giver of one-star as a pear-shaped woman with buyer's remorse over a pleated skirt.

It's easy to accept outlier opinions about dresses because a quick look around the office, gym, or street shows that two women, both size twelve, may be built so differently, it's hard to believe they wear the same size. What's more, we all have assets we want to play up and flaws we want to minimize. If I read ten reviews in a row that say a dress fits bigger than expected and one that says it's tight, I know the unhappy reviewer means the garment highlights an area she wanted to hide--or she gained weight and doesn't realize it. 

One-star book reviews may be written by plot-centric readers who find character-driven stories dull or by character-happy readers who prefer to take their pivot points with lots of introspection. If a main character reminds the reader of a hated ex, the book may be doomed from the start. If, on the other hand, a hero or heroine shares a name and traits with a loved one, the story may benefit from a unjustified halo effect.

Sundresses that require dry-cleaning are doomed from the start with me, and those that can be laundered and pulled from the dryer wrinkle-free get points. Why, then, are writers baffled by readers who won't pick up a 400-page book or say their workdays are so stressful they need light reads at night? "If you try this book, you'll like it," we say, forgetting that we'd shut the fitting-room door on a saleslady pushing linen. 

Some women won't consider a hot pink-colored item of clothing, and some readers won't pick up a book with a whiff of suspense. 

When a dress or book shopper steps outside her comfort zone and likes something she expected to hate, the result is especially sweet. The following is a compilation of phrases I read in those sundress reviews: "The sale price was irresistible, and I needed a dress at the last minute, so I tried on such-and-such and, to my surprise, it looked great on me."

As readers, haven't we stumbled across a writer and then read her entire backlist, including books we wouldn't have picked up before because the premise or plot didn't grab us? 

While some reviewers are impossible to please, others are too rah-rah. Read enough reviews, though, and it's possible to get a good feel for a sundress--or a book.

Wish me luck shopping!

Your turn: Do you read reviews? How much or how little do they influence you? Do you refuse to consider a certain color of garment or a certain genre of book? What was the last book that surprised you in a good way?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

He Kissed a Kitten

Lucky (left) and Scout (right) sitting in MY chair.

Scout, one of my cats, recently went to the vet for a routine exam. During the course of the exam, the vet kissed the cat's head and told him he was a sweet, sweet boy. Scout lapped up the attention and gave me a look that said, This is how I should be treated 24/7, Pat. Take notes.

The vet then told me a story. Years ago, a woman of about twenty brought in a kitten for its first-ever exam. The vet kissed the kitten. (Those of you with cats aren't a bit surprised. What are kittens for if not kisses and cuddles?) Anyway, the kitten's owner reacted with horror. "How can you kiss that animal? You don't know where it's been."

The vet reacted with disbelief. The woman apparently equated kissing cats to having unprotected sex. He wasn't happy leaving the kitten in the care of a person who didn't approve of displays of affection, but what could he do? He examined the animal, pronounced it healthy, and vaccinated it. 

The young woman never returned to the practice, and the vet was glad. He thought about the kitten from time to time and hoped it was okay.

My point, and I do have one, is that animal lovers, particularly those of us who share our homes with pets, are different than people who dislike animals.

Animal lovers share the patch of shade, the couch, and even a corner of the bed with their pets. 

We accommodate our pets' quirks and habits. For example, I no longer set the table in advance because if I do, I'll return to find a cat sitting on a dinner plate. Valentine's Day is coming, but I can't have a bouquet of flowers in the house because cats will nibble at it. At Christmas time, I don't hang ornaments on the tree's lower branches. 

One of my cats believes any unattended glass of water is meant for him. It took me a while to tumble to this fact, and when I did, I realized I'd been sharing H2O with him for months. 

The story of the kitten that had never been kissed (by its owner) haunts me. Nature makes baby animals, humans included, adorable for a reason. Their roundness, soft features, and eyes too big for their faces ensure they'll be cared for by adults. 

In fairness to the kitten's owner, she ensured the animal's healthy start with a veterinary exam. I give her props for that. As for affection, I hope the kitten got it from someone else in the household. 

Would you kiss a kitten? 

To what lengths do you go to accommodate your pets?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

All Work and No Play Make Writers Dull

The Muse is hungry. Take her out for a meal.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. It doesn't do much for Jill, either. 

Writers, illustrators, composers, and other creative types are thought to toil in solitude and engross themselves in work to the point they forget to eat and sleep, never mind drive car pool, grocery shop, fix dinner, and, oh yeah, work the day job.

In "Draft," a New York Times series about writing, novelist Benjamin Nugent describes how a too-intense focus spoiled his prose. His writing improved once he threw himself into interests and amusements that fed the muse. 

If you've got a case of the guilts because you watched the Super Bowl, slipped out to see Silver Linings Playbook when you should have been researching alternative book titles, or, gasp! read a book when you could have advanced your page count, click on that article.

Writers must feed the muse, and she's a hungry beast. Luckily for us, she doesn't require three squares a day, just a reasonable number of snacks and the occasional feast. 

Last week, a friend and I took our muses to see a movie on Monday. Then, on Friday, I met up with my husband and a friend for happy-hour wine and conversation followed by a visit to a photo exhibit. Recently, I varied my walk-in-the-park route and happened upon this:

Ooh, a tasty snack for the muse

Deadline-hell weeks aside, how do you balance writing with the other demands on your time? What and how often do you feed the muse?