Writing in the Fast Lane

Remodeling the Hero’s Journey

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We’re finally finished with our kitchen remodel. This was a big one. We completely gutted the aging kitchen we had for seventeen years.

Thanks to a five-year-old who liked to swing on cabinet doors, we’d been displaying our mismatched dishes and pantry contents for the world to see for years now. And because of an odd kitchen layout, a sink with dirty dishes was the first thing anyone saw when coming through our front door.

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Before: Proud display of dirty dishes

I knew the remodel would be a chaotic inconvenience. Microwaved food on paper plates for at least six weeks. Strangers in our house every day, sledgehammering, dry walling, cranking classic rock and Mexican tunes on the radio and yelling at each other. There would be dust in all our rooms, because there is no place that stuff doesn’t reach. My noise-averse husband and son would burrow into their respective hollows, with their headphones on.

That’s exactly what it’s been like. Some mornings I’ve walked through the kitchen and reminisced about the semi-darkness of our old kitchen with its flickering 1970s fluorescent light. Was it really that bad?

I’m a writer and an English teacher, so I know a messy middle when I see one. In a story’s messy middle, the protagonist has left the land of the ordinary, often reluctantly, and entered into the crazy, hostile world of the extraordinary. Think of Bilbo Baggins leaving the peace of the shire, at the wizard Gandalf’s urging, to steal the dwarves’ treasure from the dragon.

Bilbo doesn’t think he’s suited for this adventure. Gandalf thinks otherwise, calling Bilbo “the Burglar.”

I like living in the shire. I like tidy, peaceful places that are quiet. I don’t like being in messy, in-between states where power and water are turned off and perfectly good dishwashers are accidentally carted off to the dump.

My toddler-sized brain looks at the daily chaos and thinks only, This will last forever.

But like so many transitions we deal with in life, this is not true. Things do resolve, and the reason we human beings love stories so much is, their beginnings, middles and ends are so comforting. We hold on to this cycle for hope. When we are old enough to have gone through enough messy middles, we know in some way, things will change. This too shall pass.

A remodel is not up there on the scale of life changes. It isn’t divorce, death of a parent or spouse, or the loss of a career. At least one of those things will come my way soon enough.

This remodel is a light practice run.

The kitchen is looking wonderful, thanks to the contractors who have worked till dusk over the past six weeks. After everyone’s packed up at night, I walk on the smooth, new tile floor and think, Is this really my kitchen?

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After:  All done!

Oh, yeah, that’s another thing. I didn’t even do the actual work myself. I’m thankful for that, because I’m not a fixer-upper person. The results would not be good.

Here’s to life’s transitions. And to the good that awaits on the other side.

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Home again, but better.

Endings and Beginnings

I don’t like when things end. And I especially don’t like when they end before they should.

Last week, on my birthday, one of my favorite authors passed away unexpectedly. From the very first book, A is for Alibi, I was hooked by Sue Grafton’s style and her private detective creation, Kinsey Milhone. Divorced three times and living on her own, Kinsey pokes around the seamy side of central California, solving murder mysteries that involve things not especially glamorous, like insurance fraud. Grafton’s books paint a very different image of California than the dreamy one the rest of the world sucks down like an acai berry smoothie.

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Back when I was a single parent, I read Grafton’s books after I put my son to bed. I couldn’t wait to get back to that world, with Kinsey, her octogenarian landlord Henry, and the tacky Hungarian restaurant where Rosie tells you what you’ll eat for dinner.  I related to Kinsey and her bare bones wardrobe:  her one crumple-proof black dress, her struggles to find a pair of panty hose without a run. That was my life, as a mom and tech startup employee. She was a woman, doing her job and triumphing over the bad guys. My existence at that time was pretty scrappy, too. I worked my ass off in start-up land and lived in an apartment about the size of Kinsey’s tiny studio in Santa Teresa. Kinsey was my relatable but way more badass friend.

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So when I heard Sue Grafton died, I felt like I’d lost someone close to me. I wouldn’t get to see Kinsey grow and deal with her past (though on the plus side, kindly Henry and his elderly siblings will never die, either).  After Grafton’s Y is for Yesterday, there will be no Z to finish the alphabet. As a writer, I always cringed at the enormity of the task facing Grafton, to finish 26 books and do them well.

Yet I was hoping. I wanted to see where Kinsey and her world ended up.

Maybe ending with Y is just fine, because Grafton finished what she started. She created a strong, unforgettable female character and opened the door wider for women mystery writers. She influenced and inspired me, from back in those days when I stayed up too late on a work night reading her books. I told myself, someday—after all the software releases and child raising—I would do the same.

And now I am.

My 30-year literary crush

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Today I taught my senior English class a lesson on my literary crush.

I’ve been carrying a literary torch for this guy for about 30 years.

Years ago, in my sophomore year in college I signed up for a required English literature class. I wasn’t at all excited about 18th century literature, so I gritted my teeth and settled in for what I thought would be a very dull ten weeks.

I found out right away what a difference it makes when your professor is bursting with passion for his subject. Dr. Max Byrd loved the writers we studied so much, it seemed like he had just come back from chatting with them at the literary salon. He bubbled over with their ideas and talked about their work as extensions of the lives they’d led.

One writer he couldn’t stop talking about was Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Over the course of the class I fell in love with Samuel Johnson. I didn’t see this coming. Most of my exposure to English literature to that point had been Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the Brontes. Samuel Johnson hadn’t written any novels or any plays I’d seen, so he wasn’t on my radar.

Samuel Johnson became a real person to me. Dr. Byrd talked about Johnson’s laziness and his inability to live up to his own standards, which I related to very much. Johnson, with his foibles, physical impairments and grand ideas, became very human. I had never learned to read literature this way—through the lives of those who wrote it. It brought deep philosophical readings like Johnson’s Rasselas to life.

Dr. Byrd wanted us to be excited about what we were reading. He said something like this once in class: “I want you to feel so strongly about the ideas we’re discussing that you’re willing to get into fisticuffs over them.”  My boyfriend at the time, who was also in the class, thought that was hilarious and intriguing. I remember him going to office hours to ask Dr. Byrd what that meant.

A decade after Dr. Byrd’s class, my husband (not the aforementioned boyfriend) and I traveled to London for my work. I told my husband I needed to see Johnson’s house on Gough Street. It felt amazing to be able to see the home of my literary crush, the place where he’d spent ten years writing his dictionary of the English language.

But the biggest reward from Dr. Byrd’s class was today, when I was able to teach my students about Samuel Johnson myself.

I could not have foreseen thirty-odd years ago that I would be a teacher, but two years ago I began teaching high school English on a contract basis for a charter school. All that I learned as an English major and never thought I’d use is coming back to me. I’m finding that I am teaching literature through the lives of the writers as well. I tried my best, as Dr. Byrd did, to resurrect Samuel Johnson for my class, to let them see him as the unusual, gifted and flawed person he was. The wit, the thoughts and ideas that made Johnson great came pouring out of me in that weirdly effortless way that happens when you’re talking about something you love.

I love that teaching is like a chain: we teach what we’ve been taught, carry on the best that we’ve been given, and inspire others to do the same.

Thank you, Dr. Byrd. It felt amazing to pass on the gift today.

When my husband talks tech

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My husband is a software engineer, and he loves his work. He writes and troubleshoots code for a graphics card company every day. Then he comes home and writes more code.

Because it’s so much fun.

But when my husband wants to share with me the thing he’s devoted most of his waking life to, I feel like I must strap myself to a rock and let the waves hit me.  I buckle down, grit my teeth and lock my eyes onto his in a listening stance. I maintain constant vigilance over my thoughts. If left untended, they will wander the room like one of those Roomba automatic vacuum cleaners, pinging randomly off walls and veering under the furniture.

This morning was a good example. My husband and I went out for a breakfast date. After listening to my conversation, my husband said, “Can I tell you now? About that modification I made to the Minecraft clone I’m working on?”  His eyes shine with the wit and elegance of the breakthrough he’s made in the game he’s programming. He’s been thinking about this for two weeks. This is big, baby. He wants to share this with his wife.

So he begins. I try hard to focus. I try to picture what he’s saying in little drawings in my mind so that I can relate to all the intangibles. I have Sal Khan from Khan Academy in my head, helping me out with a play-by-play explanation on a white board. My husband is using words like stack and arraymemory and processing speed.

Then suddenly, I veer. A fly is hovering over my husband’s head. Will it land? And where? Does my husband know there’s a fly over his head?  

I start eating my food, and continue listening. He’s saying something about cubes in a stack. Okay, got it. Dang, this linguica is good.  I’m smelling tarragon somewhere in the restaurant.  Now that’s interesting. What breakfast food would have tarragon as an ingredient? Who would even think of that?  

Sal Khan is rolling his eyes at my distraction, but he gently nudges me to return to the topic at hand. He draws a cute picture of Minecraft cubes in a stack to cajole me into listening. I return to the information I stored in my head–the last thing I remember my husband saying before I drifted.  Something about some images in the game being stored as half cubes, not full cubes.

In an unexpected leap, my brain translates the information my husband has given me into big picture form. I am able to grasp what he is taking about. So this is it: He’s figured out a way for vertical stacks of repetitive graphics to be stored more efficiently so the game runs faster, and a way to make water look more realistic on the screen. I get it. Sorta, kinda.

“That’s kind of a big deal,” I tell him. “Doesn’t it make you want to go home to your computer and do this, right now? This is so much better!”  In some weak way, I have been able to connect with what he’s been so excited about.

My husband’s face is lit up by the enormity of what he has done. And I see, through all my inattention, that it’s worth fighting the fight. It’s worth trying to stay connected through the techie bits. If not for the subject of programming, which doesn’t interest me, then for my husband, who interests me very much.

Silicon Valley’s seductive trees

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Eucalyptus trees appear frequently in the mystery novel I’m writing. They’re kind of my muse. When I want some inspiration, I go for a walk and breathe in the deep, menthol scent. It’s intoxicating, especially after a good rain.

On my morning hikes along the Los Gatos Trail, I often see the scythe-like leaves and long peels of eucalyptus bark littering the path. Obviously rubbish from some wild picnic the trees hold at night when we human aren’t around!

But that litter can be extremely dangerous. Eucalyptus trees, with their high oil content, can actually explode at high temperatures. In 1991, a devastating firestorm swept through the Oakland-Berkeley Hills. The National Park Service estimates that 70 percent of the fire’s fuel came from the dense eucalyptus forests in the area.

Eucalyptus trees are not native to California. Australian miners brought them over during the gold rush. Happy in this climate, the trees multiplied like rabbits, and this was encouraged further by a state forestation project in the early 1900s. In the 1970s, however, a movement began to remove them in favor of plants native to California.

The movement was not successful–thankfully. That seductive eucalyptus smell will always be Northern California to me.