Not Quite Story Time

It’s been an intense month.  There have been lots of things going on at home and at work, but I have kept at it:  writing my novel.

Despite all of the hours I put in, it is not finished.  So I don’t get to be one of the “winners” for NaNoWriMo.  Their criteria is simple:  write a 50,000 word story in the 30 days of November.  Simple and HARD!  I have fallen about 14,000 words short and am not going to meet this deadline.

Scruffy - he was a great dog!

Scruffy – he was a great dog!

But I do not feel bad at all about where I am in this process.  In fact, I feel pretty good about it.  I set out to create a fictional story that is based on a very real dog that we once had for a short period of time.  Honestly, I really have loved writing about that dog.  It has brought back wonderful memories for me and I have been very much enjoying the process.

For a first effort at writing a novel, I guess it has gone okay.  It is a huge undertaking.  Those who have done this before must know that it is extremely hard to stay focused, especially when the writing is part-time and the rest of your life is full-time.   But I have definitely learned some things:

  1. Write something that is related to the story every day – a character study, a plot turn, a descriptive passage – something, even if it’s just a paragraph.
  2. Writing honest characters is hard work.  People are multi-faceted, and a character in a book should be as well in order to be believable.
  3. Keep at it.  Once it’s in your head, it has to be written.  No one else can bring this tale (tail) to life because it’s mine to tell.

So I have a plan:  I am going to set aside my 36,000 (36,289, to be precise) words for the month of December.  There are many things to be completed before Christmas now, including some sewing projects for gifts.  These other things will become high priority, and I will come back to my story in January.

For a month, I will try not to even read what I have already written.  I want to take a fresh look at it a month from now.  Then I will dive back in, writing, editing, and crafting this book until it is complete.

I’m not done….but what a great start!  I’ll let you know how this goes when I get back to it in January.  This is already giving me something to look forward to when the cold, gray winter settles in.

Thanks to all of my friends for the words of encouragement.  You are the best!

Thankfulness

Gratitude.  Appreciation.  It’s so nice that we set aside a day in this great country to give thanks, and one of the truly great things about Thanksgiving is that it is inclusive.  We can all share in this holiday, regardless of race or religion.  We can all be grateful for something or someone.

So this Thanksgiving I am giving thanks for all of the people who have made my life richer for simply having known them.  I have learned so much from so many, and for that I am truly grateful.

For my husband, who makes me want to be a better person every day, I am thankful.

Two of my greatest blessings.

Two of my greatest blessings.

For my children who challenge and inspire me, and have filled me with more love than I ever knew possible, I am thankful.

For so many friends, the old and the new, who have listened, shared, comforted, cared, and laughed wildly with, I am thankful.

For my mother, who as an almost 84-year old demonstrates daily what it means to grow old gracefully while fighting it every step of the way, I am thankful.

For my siblings, nieces and nephews, aunt, uncle, cousins, and in-laws; because the older we get the more we realize that extended family is truly a gift, I am thankful.

There are definitely things that I don’t have in life.  I will never be wealthy and may never be able to do all of the things I would like to do.  But there are so many things I have and so many things I can do.

For a job, despite the pitfalls and problems that sometimes come with it, I am thankful.

For a home that is comfortable and cozy, I am thankful.

For food on our table, I am thankful.

For my family’s health, I am thankful.

For time to give back to my community, I am thankful.

For talent to create and (a little bit of) patience to make things work, I am thankful.

And because time is too fleeting, I am truly thankful for all of the good days, and even the bad days.

For all of my family and my friends, I wish you blessings too numerous to count.  Happy Thanksgiving.

TV and the Death of JFK

I was just a four-year-old kid when President John F. Kennedy was shot.  But the reactions of the adults around me made it clear that something was horribly wrong.  In fact, it is one of my earliest real memories of anything, because it was so unusual.

My family did not have a television at that time.  (I know, right?)  But lots of homes did not have TV in 1963.  We went to my grandparent’s house to watch coverage, including the President’s funeral, on TV.  The solemnity was overwhelming, and was not lost even on a four-year-old.  It was clear that this was something deeply and tragically wrong.

As a book group choice, I quite recently read Jack Kennedy:  Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews.  The book taught me some things about our 35th president that I did not know.  For example, I did not have a full understanding of the depth of his physical ailments and the pain he suffered throughout most of his life.  When considering the MAN in the office, it is quite remarkable that he was able to make the impact he did in such a short time given his real limitations.

But as an amateur student of history, I know this much:  the world changed a great deal in the early 1960’s.  The end of our simple, coddled, and possibly make-believe, pleasant suburban culture may be due to two key factors:  the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and the soaring prevalence of television.

Suddenly, we had a president unlike any other.  He was young, he was very forward-thinking, he was Catholic, and he was a proponent of civil rights.  He was undoubtedly polarizing.  And then, just as suddenly, he was gone.  And much of his work and the tragedy that was his death played out on television.

What TV used to look like.

What TV used to look like.

Television brought violent and sometimes very graphic incidents into our homes in the 1960’s.  TV news showed us civil rights riots, and the Vietnam War, right at the dinner hour.  Our cocoons were busted wide open.  With no blinders on, we stood up more and more for human rights, women’s rights, and eventually for the end of a war we didn’t understand.  Our sheltered lifestyle was unmasked and rock and roll liberated us.  We watched in awe as man landed on the moon – all available to the masses from a relatively small box in our living rooms.

Now, I am not a sociologist, and these are just my perceptions.  But one thing is clear to me.  Our nation changed dramatically on November 22, 1963.  Our eyes were opened in ways they had not been before.  We had no choice but to see hate and injustice around us, and to respond to it.

Over the years we may have grown more immune.  Violence is so prevalent now on every screen.  We can never return, nor should we, to burying our heads in the sand.  But we should stand up for what is right.  And wouldn’t it be nice if we could find civilized platforms for open, honest discussion?  Couldn’t we set aside the violence and TALK to one another?  Can’t we iron out differences in a meaningful way?

I think that’s what JFK would want us to do.  And he might want us to do it on television… or the Internet.  Just a thought.

Living with Illness

Sometimes in life we take things for granted, including our health.  One moment we feel just great, and the next moment something happens and our life is being changed.  That’s how it often is with illness.

In the spring of 2009 I started waking up at night, coughing.  I thought it was just a cough or cold, but it persisted and I went to my doctor.  He ordered a chest x-ray, said it didn’t look right, and sent me to a gastroenterologist for some additional tests.  Esophageal Achalasia, the fabulous gastroenterologist told me.  I had never heard of it.  How could I have a disease that I had never heard of?  I only learned later through online research how lucky I was that HE had heard of it.  Lots of people never have, including many doctors.  He sent me to a specialist – a surgeon.

Profound thanks to Dr. Thomas Rice, who changed my life.

Profound thanks to Dr. Thomas Rice, who changed my life.  (photo from clevelandclinic.org)

So off we went on the 150 mile trip to the Cleveland Clinic for a meeting with a thoracic surgeon who is considered one of the most experienced in the world in the surgical treatment of Achalasia.  Dr. Thomas Rice and his entire team were incredible.  He informed me that I may have had this disease for many, many years without knowing it.  I left his office scheduled for surgery six weeks later.

Let me back up for a moment and tell you about this illness.  Esophageal Achalasia is both a disease and a condition.  It means the smooth muscles in the esophagus that push food through the lower esophageal sphincter and into the stomach no longer work properly.  They lack the peristalsis (motion) that forces the food through the esophagus and into the stomach.  In addition, that sphincter tightens up.  So food becomes stuck in the esophagus for long periods of time and the esophagus, itself, becomes misshapen and distended.

Between my diagnosis and surgery, my condition worsened quickly.  I was no longer able to sleep lying down.  I had to sleep propped up on the couch to keep from choking and aspirating food into my lungs.  I was able to eat only small amounts at a time, and even liquids were hard to get down sometimes.  But the lack of sleep was the worst.  It’s very hard to function with chronic sleep deprivation.

The surgery is called a Heller myotomy – a permanent opening of the LES.  It is often done in conjunction with a partial fundoplication – a wrapping of the upper part of the stomach in an attempt to prevent acid reflux.  I had laparoscopic surgery in January, 2010, with Dr. Rice as my surgeon.  I was in the hospital for just two days, and it changed my life.

Recovery went well.  I was not allowed to lift anything heavy for six weeks, was on a liquid diet for a week, and then graduated to soft foods for several weeks:  pasta and applesauce.  It was a month before I could eat anything crunchy.  The liquid/soft diet is designed to allow the internal incisions to heal without tearing.  I was also allowed no caffeine, mint, tomato, or acid-based foods that could potentially cause reflux.  Herbal tea became my substitute for coffee.

The surgery is not a cure.  Achalasia does not go away.  It will always be with me and my condition can, and probably will, get worse over time.

One of the worst parts about having Achalasia is the esophageal spasms that sometimes occur.  They are incredibly painful.  When I have them it sometimes feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest.  Sometimes taking high powered antacids helps, and sometimes all I can do is try to take deep breaths and wait until the pain passes.  I am so fortunate that they only happen occasionally, but they still happen even post-surgery.

For now, I have far more good days than bad days.  I am often the slowest eater at any table, making sure to chew food thoroughly before swallowing.  But there are times when it feels impossible to get food down.  The textures of some foods make them very hard for me to eat:  very doughy breads and tough meats are especially bad.  And sometimes I can eat spicy Italian or Mexican with no problems, while other times the acid reflux leads to severe spasms.  Extreme cold has a terrible effect on my esophagus and LES, so getting really cold drinks and soft ice cream down are almost impossible.  For some reason hard ice cream is okay, if I take it slow.  In addition, stress can make it worse, so I work very hard to try to manage my stress level when possible.  But I can sleep lying down, and that’s a blessing.

There has been very little research into what causes Achalasia, but it is generally believed to be an autoimmune condition.  It is rare, affecting only about one in 100,000 people.

Now I make an annual trip back to the Cleveland Clinic for some tests and a quick checkup.  I recently learned that Dr. Rice is retiring, which is sad since he has so much experience dealing with such an unusual condition.  I hope to still be able to see his PA, who has been absolutely wonderful over the years.

Thanks to the Internet, I have been able to connect with others who have the same disease/condition.  In making those connections, it has become apparent to me that many cases are much more severe than mine, and that makes me sad.  It can affect people of all ages, including children.  In addition, this disease affects each person differently, so that our symptoms are not uniform and the foods we can manage are not all the same.  For example, hot beverages are very helpful for me as the heat seems to keep my LES open better.  Ice cold anything is often a problem.  But there are some who find that very cold food helps more than hot.  This is just one of the oddities of this condition, but it helps tremendously to know that there are others who can be a sounding board from time to time and we can encourage one another online as we try to navigate this unusual illness.

I have written this with some trepidation, because the very last thing I want is for people to treat me differently or feel sorry for me.  I do not need or seek sympathy.  My family and many of my friends already know about some of my struggles with this illness, but I do not dwell on it.  This is something that I have learned to live with and am fortunate to have excellent care that is not too far away.  But I have become more and more interested in raising awareness about this rare disease, and letting others who have it know that there are treatment options – many of which do not include surgery if that’s not right for some.  This is one platform that allows me to spread the word, and if you have questions I would be happy to try to answer them.

In addition, I would encourage you to consider for a moment that people may be afflicted with something that has no outward symptoms.  Let’s not judge each other for things we can’t see and may not understand.  Each of us carries some burdens in life.  Let’s try to buoy one another up when we can!  And for all of the things and experiences I would still love to have in my life, I can tell you this quite honestly:  if you are lucky enough to have good health and to be surrounded by people you love, you’re lucky enough.

Travel Bug

Youth is not always wasted on the young.  As a matter of fact, I find myself (more often than I would like to admit) jealous of my children.  In our more than two decades long quest to encourage them to do great things, we have afforded them opportunities that we either never had or squandered somewhere along the way.

My greatest jealousy stems from their very casual attitude about travel.  We always joked about our daughters and the lyrics to a very old song:  “How are you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Par-ee?”  Guess what?  It’s true.

Daughter #2 was the first to go abroad, spending a week in Paris with some fellow high school French students and their teacher.  She has also been to more US cities than I have, and I’m certain she’ll travel more.  It is part of who she is.

Daughter #1 in the Paris Opera House last week.  I "borrowed" her picture for this post.

Daughter #1 in the Paris Opera House last week. I “borrowed” her picture for this post.

Daughter #1 is in graduate school in London, did a semester abroad in Wales during her undergrad years, visited Amsterdam, and has flown halfway across the country on more than one occasion.  Last week she went to Paris to spend time with another friend who is working there.  Her friends are from, and have visited, many lands.

When they were younger the only foreign city we took them to was Toronto a couple of times.  Since it’s just a few hours’ drive from our Western New York home, Canada almost doesn’t even feel like a foreign country.  They loved that city, and also loved our occasional road trips:  Maine, DC, Tennessee, Ohio, and others.   They caught the travel bug.

To be given a gift of travel right now it would be hard to choose a location.  My long wish list begins in the Midwest, continues to the West Coast (northern, mostly), circles back through the Southwest and Deep South, and includes parts of Canada I have never seen.  And that’s just on this continent.  European stops would include Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Greece, plus the requisite visit to London while Daughter #1 is there.  With unlimited time and resources, I would also love to see other parts of the world:  Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Japan.

The dreams are all there, but then reality strikes.  There’s a mortgage to be paid, cars to maintain, food to put on the table, and – oh yes – college expenses for said daughters.   In fact, this year we had to scrub some travel plans due to other expenses.  But there we were sitting at the dinner table last night and my husband, who is more of a homebody than anyone I know, said, “I wish we could go somewhere.  It would be great to get away.”  So there is hope.

Somewhere along the line we made the decision to raise a family – a great adventure in its own right.  We could be a duo and travel once in a while, or we could be a team and have a modest home to enjoy.  We have absolutely no regrets about those choices.

And so the next generation is on the move.  They should go.  Somewhere.  Anywhere.  Everywhere.  I want them to know so much more about the world and other people and other cultures.  They and their friends, who are from all over the globe, are living my aspirations.  To them, the world is a much smaller place, and one to be seen firsthand.  Color me green with envy, and very proud.

But given the right circumstances I could be packed for just about any trip of any length to any location in less than twenty minutes.  I can only hope we’ll still be able to walk by the time we can afford to go.

Out of the (Writer’s) Block

I used to be a writer.

I wrote my first poem at age three.  Honestly.  Since I could not yet create the letters on a page my mother wrote down the words I had spoken.  I still have that piece of paper tucked away in a box somewhere.

As a school aged child I wrote short stories for class projects.  In middle school and high school I did a little creative writing.  I journaled.  I wrote down my thoughts.  Hardly anyone ever looked at that writing, except for a small handful of English teachers.

Then I was a news writer.  Radio news is an animal unto itself.  You write for the ear, with the belief that listeners will hear about half of what you speak and will understand or assimilate only about half of what they hear.  At least that’s always been my theory.  So that writing was always crisp, clear, and direct.

Radio news writing morphed into newspaper writing, bringing me to the stark realization that people care more about their news when it’s in print.  Virtually identical articles for the radio and newspaper carry different weight in the minds of the listener/reader.  Pieces that no one ever commented on for the radio were suddenly fodder for discussion after they were placed on a page.

For some time my writing turned to public relations pieces, news releases, and annual report articles for small non-profits.  This type of writing actually bores me, since it often doesn’t so much as tell a story as it reviews facts and figures, announces upcoming events, or recaps some pedestrian series of occasions and initiatives.  Writer-once-upon-a-time

Beginning this blog moved me back towards some of my creative writing roots.  And then this month I signed on to NaNoWriMo.  It was a last minute decision to try to write a novel in 30 days.  I signed up just as October was winding to a close.  I agonized over this decision for all of thirty minutes, and then decided there was nothing to lose.  Absolutely nothing.

Now, just over one week in, I realize that there is everything to gain.  I am writing as never before; weaving a plot line with descriptive passages and character studies.  This feels brand new to my former writer self.  There are hours when I can barely contain the words flying from my brain through my fingers and into my story.  There are also hours when I have to concentrate on what comes next for these starring characters.

Several things have occurred to me as I write.  I absolutely will finish this story.  Whether it will meet the NaNoWriMo criteria of 50,000 words in 30 days no longer matters to me.  If it takes a little longer to make it into what I want it to be that’s okay, but this artificial deadline and impetus to start have certainly created compelling reasons for me to write – or at least stripped away the reasons not to.  I will work towards the deadline, because that’s what deadlines are for.  And if no one but me likes my story when it’s done, I won’t really care.  This is not about the reader.  It’s about my story.

My story.  I never really wrote one before.  Not like this.  Not with the purpose and compassion and focus and complete emotional abandon that I have invested in this story.  And I used to be a writer.

Writing through November

I had a few projects planned for the month of November.  Then I got sidetracked.  In a big way.  Instead of doing my Christmas sewing projects and teaching myself to reupholster our family room chairs, I am writing.  In fact, this blog post is a slight detour and a way of seeking some feedback.

There are legions of people focused on writing right now as part of National Novel Writing Month, and I have joined them.  The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month.  In my mind that makes more of a novella, but that’s okay.  Anything that focuses people on reading or writing is just fine with me, and if I come out of this with a half decent story then so much the better.

Scruffy...my muse.

Scruffy…my muse.

So let me just give you a little excerpt and you can feel free to comment.  A dog adopts a young couple in the throes of renovating their first home.  This story is based on my love for a particular dog many years ago.  His picture is here for inspiration.

   It was the worst looking house in the neighborhood.  The front porch was in terrible condition, the steps were sagging, and the windows wore the grunge of what may have been years of neglect.  Some of the roof shingles were crumbling and the paint on the siding was peeling so badly in spots that it barely looked painted. 
   But the price was right.  And these new owners were young enough to put some muscle into repairs and naïve enough to approach this massive project without any real understanding of the commitment and costs involved. 
   They pulled into the driveway and approached the house now with eyes wide open.  Eyes that simultaneously looked like “we can do this!” and “Oh my God what have we gotten ourselves into.” 
   With the key now firmly in hand, this home was theirs.  It was not the ever so warm and cozy townhouse apartment they had rented for the past three years.  It was seven rooms and a bath, with a wide front porch held up by broad stacked stone columns.  Craftsman, the realtor had said, but they already knew that.  A great starter home, she added, but they already felt like this place could be not only starter, but a finisher, and every home in between. 
   The location was perfect.  This was a neighborhood where all the houses had the same Arts and Crafts warmth, each with its own character – a different porch here and there, a different type of dormer, or some unique leaded glass or stone in the construction.  They were not cookie cutter, and they all looked sturdy.  Except for this one.  The other homes had either been very well maintained all along, or had already been fixed up to look crisp and elegant.  They housed families.  This was a neighborhood where the streets were lined with decades old oak and maple trees, children rode their bikes up and down the sidewalks, and middle aged people were walking dogs.
   “Look,” she said.  “That could be us someday walking our dog here.”  She pointed towards the older couple with a schnauzer at the end of the block. 
   “We don’t have a dog,” he noted. 
   “Not yet.  But someday.”  She looked hopeful.
   “Definitely.  Someday.” He answered. 

So…that’s my opening.  PLEASE be honest with me – brutally honest.  Are you interested in dog stories?  Do you want to know more about this young couple?  Any feedback on this?

I’ll try to post more excerpts once in a while, but bear with me if my blogging is less frequent for a bit.  I’m really engrossed in writing this story and my brain is moving much faster than my fingers.  So my beautiful upholstery fabric will have to wait.  Maybe I’ll do that in January.