Promise of a new year

“Hope
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier’…”

― Alfred Lord Tennyson

Christmas is not my thing.  I make no bones about it, and offer up no apology.  If I had my way, I would spend the entire month of December on a beach in the Caribbean – book in one hand, frozen concoction in the other, the grit of sand between my toes, the roar of surf in my ears.   No traffic, no clutter of decorations, no batshit crazy holiday-goers with blood in their eyes.

Of course, it’s not all about me.  Ever the humble conformist, I bow to social convention.  I put up a tree, battle the mall, send out Christmas cards. All the while, with an eye to the horizon.  The new year shining in the distance, a whispered promise drifting in on the wind.

Change is in the air.

As I write this, I am well aware that the new year has come and gone.  My January was a fantastic whirlwind.  But that is a blog for another day.  I’m only just beginning to collect my thoughts:  reflecting, evaluating, forging the plan ahead.  I’m not one to make resolutions. To me, they amount to nothing more than simplistic commitments bearing unrealistic expectations.  Having said that:  I do look upon the new year as a period of renewal. Redemptive, in a way.  A chance to build upon what works; adjust what doesn’t.

Last year was a period of transition for me.  The hip injury I suffered a few years ago progressed into something too significant to ignore.  I was forced to address it once and for all.  It was a frustrating process – slow and tedious with more setbacks, more pain, more tears than I care to remember.  It took almost a year, but I have finally put the “yoga class from hell” to bed.  It’s quite liberating to be out from beneath that beast.  Physically, I am in great shape – the best in five years.  I’ve slimmed down and toned up.  I feel fantastic.

With a look ahead to 2016 and in an effort to exploit this new found freedom, I began to explore an idea that has rolled around in my head for a while now – tennis.  I wanted to play tennis again.  I played when I was young, but haven’t in over twenty-five years. There are a lot of reasons for this – lack of opportunity, physical challenges, my social introversion.  Joining is difficult for me.  But if there is one thing I have learned over the last few years, it is that one cannot truly live within the construct of self-imposed isolation.  ‘I can’t’, ‘I don’t’, ‘I won’t’ are phrases born out of fear.  And fear is detrimental to our natural evolution and quest for a satisfying and fulfilling life.

Bearing that in mind, I signed up for tennis lessons last week.

I think 2016 is going to be a fantastic year.

Let’s see where it will take us.

 

 

Things I’ve learned: Summer/Fall Edition

“And the yellow sunflower by the brook, in autumn beauty stood.”
― William Cullen Bryant

I always go into summer with three basic goals:

1.)  to write a lot;

2.)  to read a lot – preferably while lounging by the pool under a hot Texas sun, sipping a frosty margarita; and

3.)  to spend some quality time in nature – just me, my camera, and a blank Moleskine.

I always go into fall wondering what the hell happened to my summer.

It’s an eternal struggle.  The “best-laid plans” and all that jazz.  The truth is: summer is never as free-flowing and easy-going as I like to believe.  It is hectic and frenzied, a precarious balancing act dictated by obligation and commitment – life, love, band camp. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is a fruitless endeavor.  Quite the opposite. My summer was filled with moments of unscripted relevance, and it is within these fragments where true clarity is discovered. Here are a few things I learned over the summer…and into the fall:

1.  Sometimes the hype is right.  I’m not one to blindly follow the crowd.  I think it’s fair to say I spend a majority of my time in perpetual lag  – always trailing a few steps behind the cool kids. I attribute this to two things:  a.) an abundance of ignorance, and b.) an unwillingness to trust in the judgment of others.  One doesn’t have to look much further than E.L. James, comic book hero movie reboots, and selfies to understand the latter.  I hold firm in my belief that popularity rarely equates to anything worth a damn.

While this line of reasoning is beneficial in sidestepping steaming piles of mindless nonsense, it also tends to isolate me from the more noteworthy components of popular culture.  The Showtime series Homeland is one such element.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I make a concerted effort to avoid original programming distributed by pay-cable networks – HBO, Showtime, et al.  This has less to do with the quality of the works produced and more to do with my prudish nature.  I find the nudity and explicit sex depicted in these shows gratuitous and unnecessary.  There is an adage:  just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  I mean, really, explain to me how opening a scene with a main character receiving sloppy fellatio from a handful of naked courtesans contributes to the art of storytelling.  It is beyond my capacity for comprehension.

But…I digress.

homelandHomeland is the American version of an Israeli series called Hatufim.  It’s a spy drama – well-written, well-acted, and character driven.  All things that put it right up my alley. The only problem – it’s put out by Showtime, i.e. lots of gratuitous sex with little to no intrinsic value to the overall plot.  And so, despite the critical buzz, the media hype, the constant nagging from my inner circle, I ignored Homeland – for four seasons.

What changed?

Boredom (and maybe a little wine) on a soggy weekend in early June.  I binged for two days straight.  On the show, not the wine.

Turns out, all that hype was right.  Homeland is fantastic.  Claire Danes is wonderful (a total nut, but great).  Mandy Patinkin is brilliant.  Mr. Wickham plays an assassin.  An assassin!  How awesome is that?

rupert friendThe lesson here:  Mr. Wickham makes a great assassin…oh wait…it is really easy to fast forward through all that icky parts to get to the good stuff.  Who knew?

Everyone, but me.

2.  Nothing beats a birthday at the beach.  Birthdays depress me.  I know, so cliché, but it’s the truth.  I spend half the day contemplating the reality of my own morality, and the rest stuffing my face with cake to mask the pain.  Of course, then I feel guilty and spend the next two weeks at the gym trying to undo the damage.

This year, I took a different approach.  I went to the beach.

IMG_7716We spent the week in one our favorite places, just exploring.  There were sunset cruises and wildlife eco tours; a bit of shopping, a little sunbathing, a lot of food and wine.  On the morning of my 43rd birthday, I took a solitary walk along an empty beach as the sun came up, had a photo shoot with a cooperative Great Blue Heron, and ate my weight in mussels.

It was the best birthday ever.

From now on, all my birthdays will be celebrated at the beach.

3.  Starbucks has desecrated the sanctity of Christmas.  If I can’t have snowflakes and sledding dogs with my overpriced, calorie-laden latte then it is all for naught.  We might as well just cancel Christmas.

4.  Letting go and moving on.  I once wrote a blog about the ten things I learned in my thirties.  One of the most important lessons:  nurturing healthy relationship, and eliminating the bad.  Easy advice to give, tough advice to follow.  This is especially true when you fail to recognize the signs of a shifting landscape.  No partnership is perfect, of course – be it familial, marriage, or friendship.  We are only human, and thus inherently flawed.  Yet, if we take care and are vigilant, we are able to forge meaningful and beneficial bonds.

In every relationship, there is a certain degree of compromise and acceptance – the old give and take.  My husband snores like a freight train, but he takes out the trash.  It’s a trade-off.  We make it work.  It is along a similar vein that I measure all the relationships in my life – give and take.  Is it mutual?  Is it proportional?  Is it fulfilling?  Often these are easy questions to answer.  But sometimes I am blindsided by the realization that what was once mutually satisfying, is no longer viable.

For the last year, I’ve struggled with such a revelation.  In hindsight, the writing has been on the wall for a long time.  I blame complacency.  I am a creature of habit, and will sometimes go out of my way to avoid confrontation in order to sidestep the unpleasantness of change.

My epiphany came with an incident last Christmas that to most may seem trivial – a homemade gift given in love without so much as a thank you.  Yes, I know.  Trivial.  In the spirit of the season, gifts should be given without the expectation of reciprocation.  But the lack of acknowledgment hurt my feelings – deeply.  I’m not sure why it affected me in this manner.  I’m not prone to such sensitivity.  Yet, it did.  I suppose it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  One more thing added to a growing list of irritating and hurtful trespasses.  It changed my whole view and shined a light on something that I had long denied.  The friendship was dead.

And so, I have spent the better part of the year coming to terms with that reality.  It’s been difficult.  There is a certain amount of grief that comes with it.  And resentment.  But I have come to accept the fact that the friendship, in its original state, is gone. It is through this acceptance that I have found peace.  I suppose that is all we can hope for in life – peace.

5.  Awww moment of the week:  This is the part of my blog that I reserve for a picture of something adorable.  In light of recent events, I’d like to take a moment to pay my respects to the victims of the Paris terror attacks.

paris peace

Things I’ve learned

It’s been a while since my last real blog post.  Even longer since my last “things I learned” post.  I wondered at that.

But only for a nanosecond.

Let’s get to it.  What have I learned?

I learned:

1.  I’ve missed yoga.  Three years ago I took a yoga class to fulfill a college credit requirement.  I registered for the beginning class even though I had previous experience and was probably more transitional intermediate than beginner. I did so out of fear.

A costly miscalculation on my part.  As it happened, the instructor was the Antichrist and seemed woefully unaware the course was entitled “Yoga for Beginners.”   Think wine-soaked ballerina with severe Adult Attention Deficient Disorder.  Who teaches a yoga class set to swinging show tunes?…and sings along…and twirls…oh, so much twirling…She taught the class from her own private padded bubble, offered no modifications, and failed to understand the core principles of yoga.

I have many personality flaws.  Chief on the list:  Type A.   I’m an overachiever. That is especially true if there is something I value at stake.  At the time, it was my GPA.  I wanted an A and it is not in my nature to quit once I’ve committed.

Oh, the clarity of hindsight.

Three years later, I am still suffering the repercussions of that earned A.  My diagnosis: persistent grade 2 hip flexor strain with severe pain and limited ROM. Could be worse. Could be better.  But I’m making progress with the help of some wonderful physical therapists.  Last week, at their badgering urging, I started to practice yoga again.

I’m not going to lie.  The first few dozen sun salutations were rough.  But, at the same time, it was an incredible feeling.  Of course, I needed an extra day of physical therapy to recover, but they assure me it will get easier.  I’m going to choose to believe they are right.

Namaste.

2.  The X-Files is returning to television.  I’m conflicted.  I always loved the X-Files.  It was great television.  But reboots, remakes, and sequels annoy me.  A few years ago, I wrote about it. On the one hand, I am curious to see Mulder, Scully, Skinner, and Cancer Man reunited.  They were fascinating characters.  On the other hand, I think it is often better to remember something beloved in its original, unblemished state.  I probably won’t watch.

Of course, for all of my righteous indignation, I am a total hypocrite.  There are two films looming on the horizon – one slated for release later this year, the other next year. Jason Bourne and James Bond.  Both are sequels/remakes/reboots.  Both make me giddy with excitement.

I thought about arguing the merits of these franchises and how they differ from all the unoriginal rubbish out there.  But I don’t need to explain myself to you. Instead, I offer you a peek at the new Bond.

Savor it.

3.  I don’t like cherries.  I’m forty-two.  I’ve spent most of my life believing that I don’t eat cherries because I am allergic to them. Turns out – not true.  I just don’t like them.

Strange.

4.  Spring in Texas:  Bluebonnets and bees.  What else is there to say?

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5.  Miles Davis makes the perfect background for writing.  As a general rule, I don’t listen to music when I write.  It’s distracting.  I do much better with everyday white noise. Well…unless, it’s “screaming toddler Tuesday” or “”where’s the damn coffee in this place’ octogenarian Thursday” at my favorite coffee shop.  The latter is always a special treat.  There’s nothing quite so entertaining as a group of filter-free, half-deaf senior citizens out for their weekly breakfast social.

Last week, I discovered Miles Davis.  I’ve never been much of a jazz fan.  I much prefer old-school soul, sixties R&B, anything touched by the hands of the almighty Sting, and Florence and the Machine.  Jazz always seemed like too much work to fully appreciate. Does that make sense?   Probably not.  Sorry.

Anyway, I was researching Jazz artists/albums in reference to a character development I am doing for my current WIP and happened upon Sketches of Spain, a Miles Davis work conducted by Gil Evans (fun fact:  Gil Evans and Sting recorded a live album, Last Session, in 1987).  I liked the title; the cover art was warm and inviting.  I took a listen.

It was spellbinding; yet, subtle and unobtrusive.

I bought it.

This week on “screaming toddler Tuesday”, I plugged in my headphones, turned up Sketches of Spain, set it to repeat, and just wrote.

Fantastic.

Here.  Have a listen for yourself.

NaNoWriMo – Week 1 update

Total words written since last Saturday = 15,850.

I started out slow but have gained a lot of momentum in the last few days.  It’s amazing what an outline and few zippy action scenes can do for you.

Wish me luck for week two.

Write on.

On graduation, moving on, and NaNoWriMo

<tap, tap, tap>

Is this thing on?  Are you still out there?

Yeah.  It’s been a while.

Okay, six months.  But really, who’s counting?

Look, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by throwing out some half-baked excuse. The truth is: I haven’t been in the mood to blog.  I offer no apology.  It is what it is.

On graduation…

So, as some of you may recall (or not…it has been a long time), I’ve been busy doing that whole college thing.  It dominated my life for a couple of years, but in May, I finished one leg of that journey.  I have to say, I was a little unimpressed with the whole graduation thing.  It was anti-climatic and…well…boring.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my accomplishment, but there is this sort of fizzling deflation to it all.  I spent a long time entrenched in projects and presentations, lectures and exams.  I endured the humiliation of “yoga for a grade”, suffered the frustration of group work, and survived a brief foray into historical geology. All of it accomplished without breaking a bone or committing a single felony.  Of course, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did spend two months in physical therapy for a blown hip-flexor after the whole yoga fiasco.  But thus far, I have succeeded in resisting the urge to run the instructor over with my car – hence the felony-free status.

Namaste, bitches.

I suppose it’s my own fault really (the graduation thing – not the yoga thing).  In my single-minded pursuit of that little piece of paper, I allowed myself to develop unreasonable expectations for what it inferred.  I elevated its celebratory value to an unattainable height, and summarily, set myself up for devastating disappointment.

The lesson learned here:  next time I will skip the commencement and opt for something a little more exciting like watching the Bourne trilogy on Blu-ray in my pajamas and mortarboard, eating take-out, and drinking a bottle of Costco’s finest store brand Cabernet.

Moving on…

My post-graduation summer was low-key – just how I like it.  I read a few books, dabbled in a bit of writing, staked out my favorite table at the local bagel shop.  I took it easy – a well-deserved break.  By contrast, fall has been a whirlwind.  My daughter is a high school freshman in the marching band.  That’s a blog for another day, but let me just say one thing on the subject: EGADS.  Fortunately, this Saturday marks the end of competitive marching season.

It’s also the beginning of NaNoWriMo.  Participant-2014-Twitter-Profile

A coincidence?

I think not.

I have participated in two Camp NaNo events – you now the one with the adjustable word count?  But I’ve never had the time come November to commit to NaNoWriMo.

Until now.

I’m excited for the new challenge, but a little intimidated.  My writing style – the physical act of writing – is slow and tedious.  I like to ponder an idea; try it on; strut it out in front of the mirror – really get a feel for it before I buy into it.  Definitely not an efficient way to write fiction and needless to say, my current word count reflects such.  That will have to change, of course.  Otherwise, I will be doomed to failure.  I think I’m up for it, though.  I’ve started a new project, fallen down the research rabbit hole, dusted off the old Scrivener, and fleshed out a workable plot – albeit rough.

I’m ready for this.

Bring it, NaNoWriMo.

Write on.

4 Notable Reads from 2013

I used to be an avid reader, devouring books by the truckload. Classic literature, chic-lit, crime novels, spy thrillers, historical fiction, creative non-fiction, traditional non-fiction – it didn’t matter, I read it all.  But in recent years, my appetite has waned.

My problem is two-fold: 1) too much academic reading tends to diminish my desire to read for pleasure; and 2) as my own writing evolves, I find myself increasingly critical of the works I read, and incapable of suffering bad writing for the sake of a story.

That last part makes me feel like a pretentious jerk.

And perhaps I am.  But more likely, its just that over the years, my taste in reading material has become more discriminate.  I think it’s only natural.  I mean, twenty years ago, I drank fruit flavored wine coolers because they tasted like punch and provided a nice little buzz.  Today, I have learned to savor and appreciate the bouquet of a full-bodied Cabernet without devolving into a drunken train wreck – usually.

In 2013, I made a point to read more.  I participated in author Patricia Burroughs’ Embarrassment of Riches – TBR Challenge.  I did fairly well, though about halfway through, I began to turn away from the books I’d been meaning to read, and moved toward new titles.  But I read, and that’s all that really matters.

I completed about a two dozen books.  Not a huge amount, but it was a decent start.  I finished working my way through Daniel Silva’s complete body of work.  Some were good, some were not.  Against my better judgment, I was suckered into reading Dan Brown’s latest – hated it.   I also discovered that I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy’s written work, which was disappointing; and I found the classic Sherlock Holmes adventures to be a bit tedious – also a grave disappointment.

Despite this, there were a handful of titles that I did enjoy – very much, in fact.  Here are four that left an impression (in no particular order):

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J.K. Rowling):  At the risk of provoking the wrath of my limited readership, I have a confession: I am not a Potter fan.

I’ll give you a minute to digest that tidbit.  

Are we good?

Cuckoo was an impulse buy, picked up at the last-minute while standing in a ridiculous line at my local big box booksellers.  I brought it home and did with it what I usually do with such purchases – I put it on my nightstand and left it to collect dust. Two months later, after reading a couple of historical books on religion and ready for a change of pace, I plucked it off the nightstand, wiped away the dust bunnies, and prepared to be underwhelmed.

I confess.  I never read the jacket blurb.  If I had, I might have delved in sooner. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the main character was a down-on-his-luck gumshoe.  I’m a big fan of the whodunit – Edgar Allan Poe, Carolyn Keene, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen (Dannay and Lee).  I spent my formative years devouring every such novel I could dig up at my local library.  While my friends were reading Sweet Valley High and Beverly Cleary, I was immersed in detective stories.

Needless to say, I was captivated by Galbraith’s (Rowling) Cormoran Strike.  There was an old-school feel to him that called to mind Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – smart, capable, a little fucked up.  The plot was compelling, the pace typically British – slow but persistent, the conclusion satisfying and not altogether obvious.  I was at times irked by Rowling’s general writing style, but it was nothing too traumatic, and easily overlooked by my need to discover the killer.

I am not often surprised by a book, so to that I say:  Bravo, J.K. Rowling.  Bravo.

I hear there will be a follow-up.  I look forward to it.

The English Girl – Daniel Silva:  I did not intend to read this novel when it was released last July.  As I said above, I’d just spent the better part of six months entrenched in Silva’s work, and was suffering from burnout.  I pre-ordered a signed first edition, of course.  How could I not?  It’s Daniel Silva.  Duh.  But I did not set out to read it immediately.

Then it was delivered.

I read it over the course of two days and loved it.  What struck me about this particular offering was Silva’s move away from the formulaic plot structure that seemed to dominate most of the Allon series.   He brought back a key character from early on, Christopher Keller, who first appeared in The English Assassin as a former SIS officer turned contract killer hired to eliminate Gabriel.  One of the great things about Silva is his knack for writing bad guys in a sympathetic light – he makes them human.  I was intrigued by Keller from the outset, and knew there was a certain depth of character in him begging to be explored.

In The English Girl, Silva brings Keller into the fray by forcing Gabriel to elicit the assassin’s help in finding a missing woman for a well-connected friend.  It’s a contentious arrangement, and one that rewards the reader with some witty and off the cuff banter.  Moreover, he brings to life a certain professional rivalry that highlights their individual strengths by forcing them to work in conjunction with one another in order reach a common goal.  It’s fascinating to watch, and really gives this thirteenth Allon novel some meat to go along with the usual potatoes.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan:  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  I am not an overtly religious individual.  Sure, I was raised in the Catholic church, received all of the necessary education to achieve a certain standing within the Church, but at my core, I lack the deep sense of spirituality required for unconditional faith.  That being said – I am drawn to religious history, particularly how it relates to the social, political, and economic development of civilizations.

I stumbled upon Zealot while listening to NPR during an afternoon commute.  I was intrigued by the author and found some merit in the premise he presented.  I picked up a copy during my next visit to my favorite booksellers – and if truth be told, I believe this to be the visit I also acquired The Cuckoo’s Calling.

There is a certain aura of controversy surrounding the book.  The author’s Islamic faith has caused some in the media to question the legitimacy of his claim that Zealot is an unbiased biography of Jesus – the man as he was in first century Palestine, not the revered figure we know from Christianity and the Bible (for a bit of context and a good laugh click here).  Given the author’s extensive education and employment history, I am apt to dismiss such questions as right-wing rhetoric.  Though, I did have a professor who lectured that there is no such thing as an unbiased retelling of history.  As humans our worldview is influenced by emotion, education, and experience, and thereby, naturally skewed.

It’s a valid view, and I think one that holds true with this book.  Nonsense aside, I did enjoy the book very much.  Vivid in its descriptions, it read like a novel, filled with all those things I love: murder, intrigue, and betrayal.  It was well-researched with a clear point of view.  If I were to have an issue at all, it would be with Aslan’s dismissal of the Apostle Paul’s importance to the evolution of early Christianity.  He tends to lay most of the credit at the feet of James, brother of Jesus.

This would be the point where my own biases come into play.

Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State – Randolph Campbell:  When I moved to Texas as a teenager in the late ’80s, I went through a period of culture shock.  Texas was unlike anywhere I had ever lived.  I often equated it to moving to a foreign country – you might reside within the borders of the United States, but it’s a whole other world down here.

I always wondered why.  What gave Texas its tenacity, its iron will, its independent spirit, its unabashed balls of brass?

Last semester, I took a Texas history course, and Gone to Texas was the required reading. Unlike other course readings, this one didn’t have that textbook feel.  Campbell’s writing style is easy and fluid, a bit tongue in cheek in places, and at times, ironic.  He provided a fantastic survey of the state, spanning more than four and a half centuries – from the first ill-fated Spanish expeditions, to Coronado and La Salle, to the rise of Spanish occupation and the establishment of the first missions, to Mexican independence and Anglo infiltration, to Moses Austin, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and Santa Ana, to the battles of Gonzales, Goliad, the Alamo, and San Jacinto, to the rise of the Republic, Annexation, Secession, and the Civil War, to the age of cattle, the oil boom, and beyond.

Whew.  That’s a lot of history.

It was great book, and even though I paid an exorbitant amount of money for it (that’s a blog for another day), I’m glad I read it.

As for Texas, I think John Steinbeck captures the essence of the state best:

“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America


Photo of the day

Bear with me while I continue to sift through my photos.  I am in a wondrous state of rediscovery.

This one was taken along the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.  He seemed quite determined, almost as if he were a duck on a mission.  I watched him for long time, followed him, harassing him with my camera – but he was steadfast and never altered his path.

My writer’s mind imagined he was a covert agent on the way to a clandestine meeting with a top-level CIA official.

What?

IMG_3693