Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Why I Love Project Runway and American Idol

I'm learning a lot from watching Project Runway and American Idol about my own craft of writing. This is triggered by both Sharon and Jim-Boy's goal commentary this AM.

1) Deadlines. Absolutely necessary to push oneself to achieve. In our desperation, we allow our creative subconcious to come to our rescue, the switch tripped by the adrenaline rush we get when we're about to fail to meet a deadline.

2) Talent. We've got to have some basic inner spark to start with. I'm not sure what the right word is, but somewhere deep inside we must not be able to let go of the dream, no matter what we may think out loud to anyone who will listen. I don't know if this is talent, passion, desire, fear. It doesn't matter, but when we watch these shows, we can see who has it and who doesn't. I'm not really talking about Simon's X factor. That's really more about the audience. I'm talking about inner belief that whatever we have to do to get it, no matter how long it takes, we will not give up.

3) Confidence...even if you have to fake it. Don't give up and be careful who sees you might give up. The minute someone on this show begins to doubt they want it, they lose it. Look at Nick on Project Runway. "I just want to go home. Why did I stay long enough for this damn flower project" or words to that effect. After that, he was never the same. He gave into the idea of NOT doing it. And the same thing almost happened to Chloe. If she hadn't been so talented and hadn't won challenges, she would have been "out." She was lucky that Kara was off her game (if she ever had a game). Same thing for that Stevie girl on AI. She looked nervous and uncomfortable which made me say: AXE the wimp.

4) "Lighten up. It's only fashion!" Thank you Michael Kors. The people who win on these shows love what they do. They take risks. They risk failure and although they want to win, they aren't just doing it for the win. They are doing it because they understand that under pressure it is possible to leap to another level. And there is fun in that leap. That's actually why we do it. We do it because it's like playing house, or war, or Superman when we were kids. We love the charge of "making things up" and as Tim Gunn reminds us, "making things work."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Getting Old...and then Older

I'm learning these days about getting older. I don't like it one bit. And it's not even about me. It's about my father-in-law who is 88 and not well, and my mother-in-law (Mil) who is facing some serious decisions. She can no longer care for her husband alone. She wants to, but physically can't. Mil keeps hoping she'll wake up from this nightmare, but that's not going to happen. All we can hope for is a loving, humane and well-considered solution. We want a clean, attractive space for my father-in-law with conscientious care-giving, a healthy quality of life, good food, and physical and mental stimulation. So we visited some Board and Cares. A Board and Care is a house for assisted living in a residential area of single family homes. The idea is to eliminate the feeling of nursing home sterility and to have the residents and caregivers create a community. We'd heard good things about them, so Mil sought out referrals.

Our first experience with B&C last week was mixed. On a beautiful street in a nice neighborhood, the house was large, open, and clean, and the residents seemed happy. We liked the B&C, but the manager made us feel as if we were shopping for a used car. She was constantly chattering away about adhering to the law, how residents always improve under her care, what a wonderful alternative a B&C is, and how costly all other choices (private in-home care and assisted living facilities) would be. Unfortunately she exaggerated these costs. We knew because we'd done our research. We'd been told this B&C would cost around $2500, so when the saleswoman popped the price at $4500, we felt conned. It was like taking a spin in a new car, wanting to buy, then having the manager say you have to pay over sticker price. But she was willing to deal. Just make an offer. The dickering was a turnoff.

Yesterday we gave Board and Cares another shot, but it didn't start off well. I noticed how all B&C are behind iron fences with locked gates. I understand there's a good reason for this, but it felt off-putting, jail-like. Second, I've never seen so much cement landscaping in my life. At the first house, the entire lot was encased in concrete. And not necessarily safe concrete. The wheel chair ramp inclined toward the steps, but dropped off on either side to more cement with no railing. When Mil and I were leaving, she almost stumbled over the edge of the ramp. If she'd fallen, it would have been smack onto the concrete.

Inside, however, it was open, bright, and clean with leather or vinyl couches lining three walls, a big screen TV on the fourth. The two residents watching TV seemed comfortable and well-cared for, but the place was sterile. No knickknacks, no pillows, no personal touches, even in the bedrooms. When I asked the attendants, a young girl and guy who seemed personable and kind, where they stayed, they said they lived at the Board and Care, but had no rooms of their own. They are on duty 24/7 and take turns napping on a narrow bed in the office. This room had nothing personal in it either. How long can a person care for others if he has nothing for himself? Isn't this exploitation of the care-givers and wouldn't this at some point spill into resentment?
Something about it bugged me.

The second place was worse. It was in a questionable neighborhood where almost every house had a wrought iron or chain link fence. Inside, the house was dirty. The couches looked as if they'd been found on the curb. The rooms were spare and the kitchen remodeled sometime in 1975. Everything had a worn-out look to it. The residents were sleeping in their rooms, except for one who was on the deck with a family member. Only one attendant was on duty. When Mil sat down on the couch at the invitation of the caretaker, I hesitated. She has a more generous heart than I and couldn't hurt the caretaker's feelings by refusing to sit, but when we left, she said she wouldn't put a dog in that place. The private room here had a whopping $3000 per month price tag.

Lest you think it was all bad, the last two B&C were clean and homy. One had a white picket fence (no wrought-iron, thank goodness) and a large grassy back yard with fruit trees. It felt as if we were walking into grandma's house, warm and cozy with magazines tucked neatly away in magazine stands, figurines in a book case, and a stuffed toy Labrador alert under the coffee table. The residents sat contented in the family room watching reruns of "Wheel of Fortune."

The last place had some of the charm of the "grandma's" house, but was smaller and felt more crowded with the same number of residents. But it had large light bedrooms and a pretty backyard. A wife visiting her husband told us they loved the place and a resident grinned that the caretakers were the best. We liked the director (she manages the last two places we saw) and the caregivers. The prices were reasonable, but the distances far from both of our homes.

We added the last two B&Cs to our list of possibilities with that of larger assisted living choices. Since his fall on January 18, we've been searching for solutions and hopefully we'll be able to decide today. There's much to consider: quality of life, distance, peace of mind, cost. It is a nightmare as my mother-in-law says, but it's one most of us eventually have to deal with.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Every Monday is a good day for me. Starting over is what keeps me going, knowing that I have a second chance this week to make up for what I didn't accomplish last week. I've never understood the disdain most people have for Monday.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Second Thoughts

Maybe limiting the editing process isn't such a good idea, even in a blog. I read over yesterday's piece last night and was appalled by my overall emphasis: Save the Louisiana coast for the FOOD!!!! I particularly love crawfish etoufee being Cajun myself, but I see now that I wrote more about the food and not enough about the people, the culture, and the environment. The issue goes far beyond menu options, and I need to call attention to that.

Although sometimes whole essays or stories present themselves as full entities, these occasions are rare for me. I need to revisit a piece of work several times before putting it out for public consumption and it's still flawed.

But I'm looking forward to the rewrite process. It's both lure and reward. Writing is organic. It grows and I love to watch it grow. When I first sit down, I'm excited to see what happens. I throw words and ideas down, conscious of, but not worried about, clarity, connection, conciseness. At this point, I don't stress too much because I know there are forgotten angles, structural screw-ups, words misused, people offended. It's on the revisits that a piece develops and deepens, and for me, that's where the fun is. I am seduced by the promise of discovering something in my head I didn't know was there the first time around. Returning to the work leads into "epiphany."

This self-enlightenment can only come from setting aside a project and letting it percolate. That's trite, but it's dead-on accurate. While the first draft is locked in my subconscious (the brain's back burner) , I go about my life. It cooks. I forget about it. Then I come back. The act of moving it out to the front of the stove (the brain) is rewarding. What do I have here? I made this? Let me taste it. Has the flavor of the dish (story/essay) deepened? What spices (a sex scene, more conflict, a startling fact) will it need to be better? What in the world have I forgotten? The best and most gratifying part is, if it isn't just right, gumbo or essay, I can usually fix it!!!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

We May Not Have Bayou Country to Kick Around Much Longer

According to Michael Tidwell, in his book Bayou Farewell, twenty-five miles of Louisiana coastline disappear each year. That's 25. 2-5. And this statistic may be more dramatic in the wake of Katrina and Rita, yet most of us are unaware of what is happening in the estuaries of Southern Louisiana. The state's rich supply of wildlife, animal, marine, and avian, is threatened by the advance of the Gulf of Mexico into the wetlands. It's turning fresh water into salt, drowning native grasses, oak trees, cemeteries, and small towns. Changes in the fragile chemistry of the wetlands endangers oysters and crabs. Eventually the migration route for the white and brown shrimp will disappear. The people of this area are in retreat. Louisiana fishermen supply "an astonishing 30 percent of American's annual seafood harvest, measured by weight." When the wildlife is gone and the people are relocated to higher ground, we all lose.

In recent years, many of us have experienced the unique culture of "Sout' Loosiane" by traveling to New Orleans and perhaps cruising down Bayou Black or Lafourche. Many of us know Louisiana through movies like The Big Easy and books such as Heaven's Prisoners by James Lee Burke. And most of us have fallen in love with the food, the shrimp okra gumbo, the blackened red-fish, the crawfish etoufee. Would there be the BAM of Emeril without Cajun food? What's Cajun food without Louisiana shrimp, red-fish, oysters, and crabs? The state's plight is everyone's problem and Tidwell's book takes you deep into the heart of the swamp.

Writing before Katrina and Rita, Tidwell relates his journey through the wetlands via shrimp trawlers, crab boats, and oil-company supply ship. He hitch-hikes down bayous and canals, meeting and talking with Cajuns, the Houma tribe, Vietnamese settlers, and the environmentalists who are trying to wake up America to this continuing tragedy. Author and Louisianan Burke says Bayou Farewell is "The best book on Louisiana I have ever read...stunning, beautifully written," and I have to add that it's a jolting call to arms for the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. It reminds me of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a book length essay about man's responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Silent Spring changed the way we think about our custodial duty to the environment and Bayou Farewell admonishes us as to how we have forgotten that duty.

Over thousands of years, the Mississippi has built the delta that makes up Southern Louisiana. The estuary and its wildlife developed because of the river's constant deposit of sediment at its mouth. This natural process has been interrupted by man and levee system which now takes that sediment and dumps it over the continental shelf and into the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, Louisiana wetlands are being starved of its nourishment of dirt, mud, silt, sand. As the sediment is denied into the area, the salty waters of the Gulf are filling the void, moving farther and farther inland. The end result is the disappearance of the land, the creatures that inhabit it, and a unique way of life.

There are solutions to help rebuild the coastline and estuaries, but Tidwell warns us to take action now. At the rate of twenty-five miles per year, that gives us maybe thirty years before it's all gone.

I urge you to read Bayou Farewell and tell others to read it. Send it to your congressman. Thanks for your attention and time.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Here's what I said to myself at the beginning of January:

"It's time to get serious."

It's taken me a month but I am finally in that "serious-state-of-mind."

"Goals: Work on What Came Before everyday...Minimum 2 hours."

Didn't meet this goal, but I THOUGHT about this goal every day. And I wrote many of those days, some for longer than two hours. I kept in touch. I made significant progress, and I am now in that "serious-state-of-mind!"

Here's an analogy from my fabulous exercise buddy, Estelle. She wants me to do side plank lifts. I'm not sure if that's what she calls them, but she asks me to lie (lay?) on my side, feet and legs stacked. Using my arm that's on the floor as a lever, I'm to lift my body up from my feet, all my core muscles tightened, and without the aide of my other arm or hand. This creates a nice effect when it works, one of those long low triangles that look like doorstops.

This is hard to do (I know, Jim, you can probably whip off a hundred of these with your eyes closed), but they are very challenging to me. When Estelle tells me that's what's next, I moan and groan and remind her that we COULD be on our way to a nice fat-free lunch instead. But she persists. What she tells me is this, "Even if you cannot lift your body off the ground at all, think about lifting. Concentrate. Focus the muscles. See the muscles lifting you up." Here's the point. After practicing doing this for a while, making a little progress at a time, I CAN LIFT MY BODY FAIRLY HIGH NOW for TWELVE reps. On BOTH sides each.

I won't explain the analogy because, you know, you get it, right?