Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 8

Progress! With a capital P. Here’s the pool deck yesterday. I filled in that gap and then some, today. Geez, I’m tired. But I have hope of getting it finished before we leave.

And here’s a new bit of railing. It replaces the well-crafted, elegantly curved railing that Allysen’s dad built, and which some boneheaded weekend tenant broke and tried to conceal by hiding the pieces in the bushes. Deep breath.

By the way, in case you’re wondering how I got those curves in the wood to so nicely match their pairs on the other side…

I found two pieces of warped lumber at Home Depot. Their curvature was exactly what I needed.

 

Blackberry Writing

It’s blackberry season, and as is my custom at this time, I went out this morning to pick from the brambles along our little country road. (We have our own patch, but the berries ripen later because it’s in a shadier place.) I try to do this early, when it’s cool and I’m not having to squint into the sun for the higher branches. As I picked, I thought about the story I’m working on (and currently stalled on 2 scenes-that-need-more), and also writing in general.

Blackberries are tricksy things. They can look ripe from where I stand, but turn out to be all red at the base. Sometimes I can tell the moment I touch the berry — it’s too firm and too tightly attached to the stem. I have to be ready to give up on what looked like a great prospect and move on. When I’m in the flow of picking, it seems I don’t even have to think about this. Isn’t this like a story that seems promising but doesn’t yet have the necessary depth? Occasionally — well, more than occasionally — my mind gets set on “this berry must get picked” and I force the issue. I’ll glare at the red parts and pop the berry into my mouth (“for private reading only”). Berries that are almost-ready go well in oatmeal. I freeze quarts and quarts of them for winter breakfasts. They’re too sour on their own, but they blend well, adding pleasantly tart notes. That’s not unlike taking several different story idea, none of which can stand on their own, and setting them at cross-purposes to make a much more interesting tale.

This whole business of “readiness” in a story is a curious one. It’s a bit like cooking without a recipe, because while there may be guidelines, there are no hard and fast rules of how to tell when a story concept is “ripe.” All too often at the Big NYC Publisher’s Office, after rejecting a work – especially if it was (a) slush and (b) got the standard slush reject letter, which was polite but clear that it wasn’t something they were interested in — the beginning writer would respond. Now, professionals know that, unless you are specifically invited into an exchange, you don’t respond to a rejection.  You take it, you consider what’s worth considering, and you move on.  That exchange is over.

Occasionally the appropriate response is to to ask for more details, keeping in mind that time-crunches didn’t allow the editor to do that in the first place.
More often, though, the editor gets a response along the lines of “My work is utter genius, and you’re too blinded by (fill in the blank) to see it!  But you’ll be sorry!”

I think this kind of reaction isn’t limited to beginning writers, but it is a particular trap. It’s far easier to think that your story got rejected because of the blindness/stupidity/conspiracy/conventionalness of the gatekeepers, rather than that it simply isn’t good enough. It could be a great idea and you weren’t ready to do it any kind of justice. It was a trivial idea that no one could have turned into a decent story. It could have been a nifty idea but it wasn’t developed, it wasn’t “ripe.”

One of the hardest things for a new writer to understand is that there is a threshold of quality — for ideas, for execution — for publication. It’s so hard to hear that the story you are so proud of isn’t good enough. Those thorns hurt as much when I’m pulling out as when I’m pushing in.

And here’s the catch: sometimes the story really is great. Sometimes the market just isn’t ready for the story at this time, but it will be in the future. Somewhere there’s an editor and a readership who will adore it. How can you tell? Continue reading “Blackberry Writing”

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 7

Puerto Rico is called the Isle of Enchantment. There is, in fact, remarkable beauty to be found just a short walk down the hill from Casarboles, the “treehouse” built by my wife’s parents. The first thing you see is the Caribbean, just beyond the view of Ponce. From here, you can turn to your left to enter the grounds of the Japanese Gardens and Cruceta del Vigía.

We were treated to a private tour by the lovely activities director Luciris on a day the museums were closed (Allysen’s dad was once very active on the board of directors). We first entered the Japanese Garden, which might seem a little incongruous in this land of Latin culture, but it’s enchanting, just as promised. Here’s a view across the grounds.

And a strange and beautiful tree. I don’t know what kind.

Continue reading “Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 7”

All Alone in a Sea of Alone

Remember this dress?

I had an existential crisis when I was ten years old.

Okay, perhaps I was an overachiever, anxiety-wise. My class was studying the sense, and the subject of differences in individual perception came up, like it does. It’s very likely, my teacher said, that humans perceive things like color, or certain scents or tastes, differently from one another: that I might experience the color I characterize as yellow differently from you. In terms of light and spectra, the color yellow is the color yellow is the color yellow, but my experience of yellow is based on my hardware and software: that is, my eyes and brain, as well as my experiences in interpreting color.

My class had some fun with this; ten year olds are not notably sophisticated about humor, and for a day or two there was a rash of “Nice red shirt,” comments to people who weren’t wearing red, and so forth. In science class the next day, someone asked, if our experiences are all different, how can we knew that yellow is yellow? My teacher fumphed a bit and got sidetracked talking about light and the visible spectrum, and… my classmate never quite got an an answer, but I remember sitting at my desk feeling deeply unsettled.

If my color  yellow was not the same as someone else’s color yellow, how could I be sure that the word yellow when I spoke it would sound like yellow to a person I was talking to? How could I make sure that anything I said or experienced was the same thing someone else heard or experienced? Short of crawling into someone else’s head, how could I ever know? Which made me feel as alone as I had ever felt in my young life. I felt suddenly like everyone–me and everyone I loved–were all just individual objects blithering through the world, crossing paths but unable to confirm our experiences. It was a kind of lonely I had never suspected existed, and I lost several nights sleep trying to devise different ways that I could confirm with someone that yellow was yellow.

And then, gradually, the anxiety diminished and I stopped trying to invent telepathy or some other way to contact and verify that the reality I live in is, in fact, consensual. I don’t think about it too much any more–although back in the 1990s I wrote a story about a man who establishes a telepathic connection with a pair of genetically engineered lions–and while he’s delighting in the connection with another being, they’re sizing him up for dinner. 

When I think about it, maybe it’s just as well I don’t know what anyone else thinks is yellow.

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 6

Back pain and sunburn and plumbing, oh my! And Puerto Rican rain, which comes fast and goes fast. The rain cools things down briefly and washes the Sahara sand out of the air, which is great. And wets all my lumber, which is not great. Here’s where the pool deck work stands:

While working on the deck, I’d had the recurring thought: Don’t hurt yourself. You don’t have time! And so, two days ago, while l/i/f/t/i/n/g/ h/e/a/v/y/ l/u/m/b/e/r/ m/o/v/i/n/g/ c/o/n/c/r/e/t/e/ b/l/o/c/k/s/ bending over to pick up a screw, I did something and my back screamed. I jackknifed to my knees on the brick pool deck and hollered for help. My daughter and wife were both in online meetings with headphones on and couldn’t hear me. Finally Allysen looked out and saw me and yelled, “Are you okay?”

“NOOO!!!”  Continue reading “Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 6”

Things That Keep Me Up at Night

Our current civilization is built on many dangerous fallacies. Most of them have been debunked, but their impact is still felt. Here’s a few off the top of my head:

  • Some people are better than others.
  • The “better” people are entitled to take things from their “inferiors”.
  • The world is here for human use and it doesn’t matter how we use (or abuse) it.
  • Wealth is more important than ensuring that all have enough.
  • The natural world, both plant and animal, has no importance on its own.

I just read a short piece on how the indigenous people of what is now the Texas Gulf Coast lived for the 2,500 years before the Europeans invaded. They fished to their heart’s content in the bays protected from the Gulf by the barrier islands. They hunted inland for bison, deer, and other creatures, careful not to trespass into the territory of other peoples who lived farther inland. Lots of plant life grew in the area. They used bits of oil that came up in the Gulf to seal things.

Except for mosquitoes — I’m sure they had mosquitoes — it sounds like a pretty good life. The climate there is mostly warm and there must have been good sources of food year round.

I note that they did not build luxury homes and condos on the barrier islands, just temporary shelters where people could gather. I suspect they knew the signs of approaching hurricanes and moved inland ahead of them.

Here in California, the indigenous people used fire effectively in managing the forests and grasslands. They figured out that it was a necessary part of this environment. They, too, had a balanced relationship with a bountiful environment.

And now here we are, with the Gulf on fire from burst pipelines and wildfires already raging through the west ahead of fire season, plus condos on barrier islands collapsing. The people who settled here long before my Anglo ancestors knew how to deal with the environment, but their knowledge was dismissed and ignored.

Look at us now. Continue reading “Things That Keep Me Up at Night”

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 4

I’ve made progress on the home repair project, here in Puerto Rico. I’ve constructed a small Quonset hut over the pump for the main cistern, a task left over from the last trip. Not elegant, perhaps, but for the last couple of years the pump and electric motor have been exposed to the elements, which can’t have been good. Now they’re snug and protected, more or less.

Before:

After:

That, you’ll note, wasn’t on the to-do list I gave last time. There are many such things, and every one of them is going to take ten times longer than I estimate when I start it. Death, taxes, and ten times longer. You can count on it.

Remember the air conditioner I was working on? I got the frame installed around it. That took ten times longer, too. It doesn’t look good yet, so no picture.

Remember the pool deck I showed last time, in late-night mood lighting? Here it is, in daylight, close up. You begin to see the problem. They all have to be fastened from beneath. I estimate it will take… well, never mind.

Foliage in Puerto Rico is glorious. Here, to brighten the mood, are some trinitaria and flamboyán behind the house.

 

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 3

I’ve been here at Casarboles (Treehouse) in Ponce, Puerto Rico, a week and a half now, and it’s amazing how little I feel I have accomplished, despite feeling that I’ve done nothing but work. How can that be? All those trips to Home Depot, all that hardware purchased and wrestled around, all those damp, pressure-treated two-by-fours carried home in the little Kia rental car to be laid out in the sun to dry. Surely that counts for something.

Exhibit 1: Here’s the picturesque pool deck, photographed in a soft nighttime glow.

What you can’t see in the picture is that the whole thing needs to be replaced. Not the steel supports that Allysen’s dad built—they’re still solid—but all the decking, and all the railing. Since we can’t get anyone in our time frame to work on it, I’m afraid it’s my job. Hence all the two-by-fours. (Yes, I know I could order them and have them delivered, but I need to hand-select them to weed out all the warped, knotty, and split ones. Because they’re going to be decking and railing.) By the way, have you checked the price of lumber lately?! Anyway, that, I thought, would be my first big job. Except…

Exhibit 2: Jayce—in a laudable fit of cleaning and inspecting while she was here—discovered that the AC to the master bedroom was full of mold and ready for the junk heap. Well, no problem, I said, we’ll just replace it. Except that it wasn’t installed in a window. I had to chisel it, literally, out of a wall.

And then repair and build a new framework in the wall to hold the new, smaller unit.

And then trim it all off so it looks good. Days later, I’m finished with the first two parts, just starting on the trim. To be followed by paint. Soon, I hope, we’ll be able to move into the room. If it sounds like I know what I’m doing or am particularly good at any of this, well, remember that I’m a fiction writer. One step up from a grifter.

Amidst this, my brain has been hard at work trying to figure out how to rebuild the pool pump cover, which was badly designed and has warped and fallen apart. And the once-solid gate to the “back forty,” which now solidly thunks on your feet when you try to lift it aside from where it’s propped because it fell off its hinges last year. Or how to set up a gauge and alarm on our water cisterns, which are just big, dumb black plastic tanks.

Yes, the city water went off for about two days, due to electrical problems involving the no-doubt ancient pumps pushing water up the hill. Our cisterns kept us supplied, but only barely, owing to the fact that the way one discovers that the water is off is when your cisterns run dry. In this case, it was Frances next door who ran out first and alerted us. Usually, it’s the reverse. Well, at least we had the pool to shower in. But the water’s back on now, and the tanks are full. (For now!)

During all of this, Allysen has continued to work her regular job during the day, remotely just as she did from home. She does her part on the house around the edges of that work, on the domestic side of things.

Much of what we’re doing would be necessary anyway, but are really necessary if we’re to keep renting the place.

Let’s close with a nice picture. Here’s Jayce and Allysen on the outdoor terrace of the Vistas restaurant.

See that little (giant) cross up on the top of the hill? Our house is a smidge to the right of it. The best view of the ocean and the coast comes just as you are driving down the hill past La Cruceta (the cross).

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 2

As I said last time, I dropped Jayce off at the San Juan airport today, to fly home. (She is, in fact, already home with the dogs!) Time was, we used to fly straight into Ponce from Boston, via NYC or Orlando. But those flights stopped with the pandemic, so now we have to come in through San Juan, a two-hour drive over the mountains. (Just as well, as it turns out, since there were no rental cars to be had in Ponce.)

This year’s car has a stereo unit that picks up your smartphone as soon as you plug it in to charge, and shows your phone’s GPS display on a larger screen. This would be great, except for the occasional lag in update of the display. Said lag (and poor road signage) has resulted in some missed turns and frustrating detours. Today, after dropping off Jayce, I headed to Costco, not too far from the airport. I sort of spiraled in, like a vulture looking for its next meal to give up the ghost. Eventually, this and that aligned, and I made it.

After stocking up with various consumables needed for the house, I paid and headed for the pizza area. I had never eaten Costco pizza, despite my brother-in-law Andrew’s long-standing testimony to its excellence, and I thought: The time has come. So I bought a slice. I liked it! I ordered a whole pizza to bring home and hit the road.

Now, ordinarily, the route from San Juan to Ponce is pretty much a straight shot over the mountains on the reasonably well-maintained highway, PR52. Due to ongoing construction, Google Maps told me I’d save 20 minutes by taking an alternate route: Route 1, winding through the mountains. Have you ever seen the Snake River from an airliner while flying across the U.S.? Wind and curl and curl and wind and loop. Serpentine to the power of 10. That’s PR1 through the mountains, except much narrower, with tight turns, back and forth. Fractal, like the Norwegian coast. Throw in a driver in a Corvette who seems desperately to want to pass the car ahead, and who treats the single yellow lane marker like the centerline of a runway. And the little beer joints on the righthand side of the road, from which cars randomly back out into traffic. It’s fun! I pass some private driveways that look like the first hill of Cedar Point’s Millennium Force*. I’m getting a taste of the mountains. Despite all this, the detour ends up cutting my projected drive time by half an hour. That must have been some backup on 52!

Arriving home, I put the pizza box on the kitchen counter and went to find Allysen. I came back a few minutes later to find one of the neighborhood stray cats up on the counter, pizza box open, scarfing the cheese off the top of the pizza. He got almost half of it before I chased him away. Testimonial to Costco pizza?

Now what do we do (humanely) about the influx of stray cats on the hill??

*The Millennium Force in Sandusky, Ohio, is my favorite rollercoaster! I’ve been on it just once.