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”

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”

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.

 

Characters Hurling Insults For Fun and Profit

How many times has a discussion escalated into an argument, or an argument into violence, with the hurling of insults? It seems we human beings never outgrow the impulse to call people who disagree with us nasty names. There have been enough compilations of creative, gleeful, or historical insults to fill entire libraries. We so much enjoy our own cleverness that we blithely ignore whether calling someone names actually encourages them to change their behavior or whether it firmly cements their own negative opinion of us and their determination to not do whatever it is we want. The words we use and the comparisons we make say as much about us as about those we are insulting. The same is true for characters in fiction.

Let’s accept as given that the purpose of insults is not reconciliation. If that were true, we’d have long since achieved peace in the Middle East, not to mention a few dozen other places around the globe. What are the other possibilities?

 

  • Venting ill temper, including displaced aggression – that’s the man who kicks his dog instead of his boss, the real target of his anger.
  • Showing off for a third party.
  • Parroting what has been said by those the character respects.
  • Being out of control. If violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, then surely hurling insults is an expression of frustration in a person who simply can’t come up with a constructive response.
  • Trying to provoke a reaction, whether it’s loss of control in the other character or an escalation of violence.
  • Justifying previous ill-treatment of the person being insulted.

 

Some of these motives are deliberate, calculated to evoke a specific response, but others are just the opposite. Assuming a character knows what he’s doing and does it on purpose, how invested is he in the result? He might get what he wants, but he might not. One of those two overgrown schoolboys taunting one another might turn the other cheek. Or might laugh in his face. What does your character do then?

The parallel to this is how a character reacts when she realizes she’s crossed a line, that she’s out of control, and that to large extent depends upon how self-aware she is. Some people are so embarrassed, they escalate hostilities, trying to get the other person’s response to justify their own lapse in judgment. Others will back off if given the opportunity, for instance if a third party steps in and lowers the tension. A character could realize what he’s done, lack the skills to remedy the situation, participate in whatever bad things happen next, and carry away a secret feeling of guilt for the outcome.

Then there’s the particularly (and often deliciously) odious character who is in perfect control of himself and hurls insults deliberately. The cruelty has a purpose, and if the character is challenged on his own behavior, he justifies it as being in the best interests of the person being insulted. “For your own good,” “to toughen you up,” that sort of thing.

Sometimes insults are a form of betrayal. Is this deliberate or unconscious? Heated words inflicted on a friend or loved one in the moment, without reflection on the hurt they cause? Even if the hurt is verbally forgiven, do the effects of a moment of ill-considered pique change the relationship? And how might the resulting resentment and guilt play out over time?

Now to flip the mirror and look at the character being insulted, who really is the person with the power in this situation. She has the greatest degree of freedom in her actions, whether to respond in kind or in some other way; whether to walk away, whether to draw out the suspense of the encounter; whether to end the exchange for good or let it fester – or encourage that festering. What is his history in the relationship and will he use the insult to settle an old score or will he refuse to take it personally – and why?

Therein lies a tale or twenty…

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.

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 1

This continues a series I began years ago, long before Treehouse Writers came together, about my family’s trips to work on a house we call Casarboles. Treehouse. It’s in Ponce, Puerto Rico. It will all be explained; just dive in. My entries here lag a bit behind in time, so when I say “today,” understand I mean “very recently.” Here goes…

Today I dropped my daughter Jayce off at the San Juan airport to fly back home to Boston after ten days of sweat and toil in the Puerto Rican sun. Okay, I exaggerate. She wasn’t actually out in the sun most of the time. But she did work hard!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’re new to the Ponce Chronicles, Ponce is the second-largest city in Puerto Rico, where my wife Allysen’s parents built a home back in the 1970s. Sadly, her parents are no longer with us, so the home now belongs to Allysen and her brother. It’s a beautiful place, and popular among weekend vacation renters. It’s also a place that requires constant, intensive upkeep—which we’re not here most of the time to provide. So, usually, once a year, we come down to work on needed repairs. Sometimes much needed repairs, such as after Hurricane Maria and last year’s earthquakes. And this time, the pandemic. Not that Covid attacked the house. But it kept us away for longer than usual, allowing things to slide. (Unfortunately, we have been unable to find a caretaker who can both see to the needs of guests and perform the necessary level of ongoing maintenance. We really need a couple of people. If you know anyone in Ponce…)

Allysen and daughter Jayce came down ten days ago to get started, while I stayed home with the dogs. Earlier this week, I came down to relieve Jayce and—with a few days’ overlap—send her back to take care of the dogs.

So much work needed! My first day I was officially resting in honor of Father’s Day, so all I did was fix the dryer vent and refrigerator freezer-compartment drawers, which someone had removed for God-knows-what reason. After that, I fell apart in the heat and was essentially useless for a day, until I got back into the swing of things and renewed my old friendship with Ponce Home Depot. I shudder to think how much money we pump into the Ponce economy via Home Depot!

I’ll get to the repairs in another installment. Last night we took Jayce out to celebrate her time here, and we drove along the southern coast, ending at a restaurant that had been recommended to us, name of Lordemar, in the town of Patilla. The view was spectacular! We watched the Strawberry Moon/Supermoon rise from the ocean. The restaurant was… interesting. Could have been really charming, if they’d upped the service and ambiance just a little. Menu-wise, they were 86 on my first two choices, so I settled on filet mignon, though I’m not a big steak eater. It was quite tasty! It was served with lovely silver cutlery! Huh. I’m kidding, of course. It was served with really bendy plastic utensils that were nearly incapable of cutting meat. The rest of the meal was sort of like that. The tostones were excellent. The wine was swill. The beer was Medalla, which is basically the local Bud Light.

But the view! The sea and the Strawberry Moon and the pelicans and the little black birds that chased each other territorially across the lawn! Priceless.

Sorry, I guess we didn’t get a picture of the little birds. But you can picture it in your mind’s eye, right?