Thursday, April 30, 2015

Creative Writing: Setting

This week's creative writing assignment was to write a story where setting plays an important role. The result isn't completely satisfying. First, I simply ran out time and wasn't able to finish the story; and second, writing about one's parents is a difficult task: objectivity is impossible, and memories fade over time. Here's an initial attempt at describing my mother, an appropriate theme since Mother's Day is on May 10th.

Moving Away

How could you compress a lifetime into a one bedroom apartment. Deciding what furniture to junk, donate, or keep was easy. Not so with the clothes. Mom had trouble getting rid of clothes. They'd been her passion. As I watched her sort through the stacks of sweaters, blouses, pants, and dresses, she'd comment on this or that item. She remembered the exact details of each purchase. “I bought this with your cousin Lisa for that cruise in 72,” she said as she held up a polyester earth-toned blouse. 

“Mom, you've hardly discarded anything. You'll only have one closet at the new place. I don't know where all this stuff is going to go,” I said. 

Absorbed in her task, she merely replied, “We'll find a place,” caressing each item as she carefully placed it in the packing box.  

Glancing around the sparsely decorated bedroom, I noticed that things hadn't changed in forty years. Everything looked worn, like Mom. There was grandma's faded quilt covering the rickety brass bed, the red lacquered jewelry box filled with her precious baubles sitting atop the dresser, and the mahogany dressing table littered with ointments, oils, lotions, and sprays. The wallpaper was peeling, the ceiling fissured, and the carpet threadbare. The rest of house hadn't fared much better. The water heater needed to be replaced and the roof leaked. The new owners will have quite a job on their hands, I thought as I went into the living room.  

I wish she'd taken as much interest in the house as she did with her clothes, cosmetics, and jewelry. I picked up a dusty photo album poking from under the couch. Thumbing through, I found a picture of my graduation. As usual, Mom dominated the photo: she in the middle, me and sis off to the side.  Her hair was perfectly styled, her face coated in foundation, mascara, lipstick, and eyeliner. Boy did she love make-up. Not so much these days. Turning the page, I saw our pictures from the Disney World trip. Again, Mom front and center. She'd even cropped one photo, excising dad and sis, leaving only herself and Cinderella's castle in the background.  

The bookcase at the far end of the room contained only a few books, gifts from relatives. Most of the shelves were devoted to souvenirs and tchotchkes picked up at yard sales. Mom rarely read, and when she did it was Photoplay or People

(To Be Continued)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Creative Writing: Kangaroo Island

This week's creative assignment was to write a story involving sensory appeal. I came up with an idea almost immediately, but putting it on paper was more difficult than I'd imagined. In the end, I wrote the story as series of sketches.  

The Island

Day 1: The Ocean Cliff

Standing atop the cliff looking down toward the sea, Scott and Melissa looked with awe as they observed the sleek dark creatures glide and arc through the white-capped waves. Their dorsal-finned backs descending and surfacing like a musical composition in sync with the ocean. The couple stood transfixed as they observed this perfectly synchronized nautical dance. 

“Strange seeing them in the wild. So different from TV. We've only been here 20 minutes, and it's already better than we could have imagined,” Scott said half to himself as he tried to video the scene on his camera.

As the pair continued to look at the endless horizon, all they could see was a cloudless blue sky and a vast ocean that was punctuated by the dolphins rhythmically moving toward some unknown destination. As the dolphins vanished, only the din of the waves and an infrequent cry from a lone seagull remained. Scott and Melissa were at peace, a peace that would soon give way to flies.

Day 2: The Garden Cafe

How could the tour books and online blogs have neglected to mention the flies, thought Scott as he adjusted the net covering his face. The flies were the defining feature of this place. They would descend upon us like a squadron of military aircraft as soon as we left the hotel or car. They would get into our food, buzz around our eyes, and cover our clothes. Taking a short walk was annoying and eating outdoors was nearly unbearable. Yet, the Australians would merely shrug and when we complained.

As he sat with Melissa at a beautiful garden cafe, flies buzzing incessantly around them, Scott tried valiantly to shield his meal from the marauders. The charming woman who ran the place blithely said, “You should go to Alice Springs in the outback. I lived there for a bit, and there were so many flies that you had to shake your food before taking a bite.” 

Kangaroo Island, a place touted as Australia's untouched bushland, was Scott and Melissa's third stop on their second honeymoon. They'd loved Sydney and Melbourne, and had been looking forward to a tranquil place to relax. As it turned out, Kangaroo Island was neither tranquil nor inhabited with Kangaroos.

Day 3: The Beach Walk

Scott suddenly looked over at Melissa. “What's wrong?” Melissa asked, concerned at Scott's obvious distress.

“A fly flew into my mouth. I spit it out, and then it crawled away from the spit before it flew away,” he muttered. 

Melissa had no reply and reached tenderly over to swat away the dozens of flies that had settled on his back. They continued their walk along the pristine beach, trying to appreciate the beauty of the place through the mosquito netting that covered their faces. 

Day 4: At the Park

Watching from the air conditioned interior of the national park's visitor center, Scott saw a crowd of Japanese tourists sitting at patio tables. One could imagine they were all having animated conversations involving dramatic hand gestures. Except there were thirty or forty of them continually gesticulating, flaying their arms in a futile attempt to shoo away flies. They looked exhausted in the humid ninety degree heat. 

Though they were in the middle of a national park with exotic plants and animals in their unspoiled habitat, Scott and Melissa felt content to linger inside the visitor center's gift shop away from the flies.  

Day 5: Farewell

Scott looked down at the dry savannah landscape as the small plane took off from Kangaroo Island toward the mainland. It would be a short trip. As he glanced over at a dozing Melissa, he noticed a solitary fly sitting atop her nose. Were the flies following them? Oh my God, he thought, it was like a scene from The Birds. Should he swat it or let Melissa sleep? If the trip to Fly Island had taught him one thing, it was that for every fly you saw there were many, many more hiding and multiplying, just waiting.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Remembering the "Spend, Spend, Spend" Woman

Vivian Nicholson
Vivian Nicholson wasn't a household name in the USA when she died at 79 on April 11th. Yet, for over fifty years, Nicholson's extraordinary life held the United Kingdom's attention. She was a celebrity for being a celebrity and one of the UK's early tabloid darlings.

It all started in 1961 when she told the media that she would "spend, spend, spend" after she and her husband had won £150,000 (the equivalent of about $4.5 million in today's dollars) in a football pool. And spend she did. She bought houses, cars, couture clothes, and expensive jewelry. But by 1966, the spending was done, and Nicholson was penniless.

While most lottery winners fade into obscurity, Nicholson never did. Her 'rags to riches and back to rags' story was made into a book, play, and musical. Perhaps, if she had saved and invested well, Nicholson would have remained a wealthy. Instead, she spent recklessly and became a media curiosity until her death. In the end, I think Nicholson may have preferred it that way. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Housekeeper and The Supervisor

This week's creative writing assignment was a tough one: write a story based on an observation that made an impact on you. The following fictional story is told from the perspective of two women. One character is woman who cleaned my room at a holiday resort some years ago; the other, a woman I met during a holiday gathering in Kansas.

The Housekeeper

By 10 AM, Francine could already feel the beads of sweat forming on the back of her neck. She was exhausted. It was early February and already hot, even for southern Florida. As Francine navigated the cleaning cart to the one bedroom suite overlooking the pool, she touched her face hoping the make-up wouldn't run. In any case, she had her sunglasses. They were good camouflage.  

Sandra, her supervisor, had merely asked if everything was alright as Francine readied the cart for the day's work. Sandra knew the signs: denial, excuses, and low self-esteem.

After cleaning the bedroom, Francine entered the bathroom.  As she picked up the wet towels and discarded shampoo bottles from the tub floor, Francine saw herself in the mirror. She touched the slight redness on her cheek. No need for the doctor, she thought. It wasn't like Thanksgiving when she'd gone to the emergency room for a fracture. 

Nikki, Francine's next door neighbor at the Tranquil Oasis Mobile Home Park, had given her the name of an organization. But things weren't that simple. And then there was Emily and Ethan to think about. They were so young. She couldn't leave. 

As Francine finished the last room of the day, she tried to think how she could make things better. She knew it wasn't her fault. Yet, part of her couldn't help but feel she was to blame, and that feeling made her angry with herself.


The Supervisor

As Sandra got into the 1995 Ford Escort, she flicked the used cigarette onto the median strip, and said to herself, “That girl is on a collision course for disaster.” She'd seen it all before. She'd given the job to Francine partly out of pity, but Francine was a good worker and dependable, which was hard to find.

It's lousy how things happen to people, she muttered to herself. Yet, she knew there wasn't much she could do. She'd keep her nose out of Francine's business, but she'd say an extra prayer for Francine tonight.

As Sandra backed the car out of the parking space, she eyed the rear view mirror and looked approvingly at her new hoop earrings. She also noticed her dark roots. Time for Miss Clairol, she thought. She'd need to stop at the CVS on the way home. If she planned it right, she could do her hair while watching Dancing with the Stars

At the Quick & Go, Sandra waived to Tina, working the register inside the convenience store. Tina flipped the switch and Sandra pressed the nozzle as the gas poured into the near-empty tank. 

Inside, as she took the two twenty dollar bills from her wallet, as always she paid in cash, Sandra asked, “How's your mother doing?”  

“Doing a lot better now that she's on those new pills. Thanks for asking” replied Tina. Sandra was always asking Tina about her family. It made Tina feel good that someone cared.  
“You've been doing such a good job taking care of her,” replied Sandra. “You gotta take care of them as they get older. I got one of those pill dispensers at WalMart for my dad. Works wonders. Never have to worry anymore,” Sandra added in her usual loud and friendly voice as she rushed out of the store.

Driving down the interstate, Sandra's thoughts returned to Francine. She felt sad. “Oh well. Not much I can do,” she reminded herself.

Friday, April 17, 2015

What Happened to 'Who Am I to Judge'?

Ever since Pope Francis made his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican has basked in the glow of positive media as he touched hearts across the globe by embracing people with deformities, reached out to the mentally and physically disabled, kissed the feet of prisoners, and stated, "Who Am I to Judge?" when asked about gay people. 

Francis made the covers of Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. He was also named 'Person of the Year' by both Time and the Advocate, America's foremost gay magazine. Francis became a symbol of the new Catholic Church, a church of compassion, humanity and inclusiveness. 

Yet, for all this rhetoric, the Vatican has not confirmed France's ambassador to the Holy See, Laurent Stefanini. You see, Stefanini is gay. His nomination was put forward last January but the Vatican has not responded, usually an indication that the potential ambassador has been rejected. Reports in the press suggest the decision was clearly connected to Stefanini's sexual orientation. This isn't the first time the Vatican has rejected a gay ambassadorial candidate. In 2007, France nominated a gay man living in a civil partnership with his husband. The Vatican remained silent, and France had to nominate another person. 

Apparently, when push comes to shove, Pope 'Who Am I to Judge' Francis is all bark and no bite. That sexual orientation is keeping Stefanini from his ambassadorship shows that the Catholic Church has plenty of reforming to do before they can be considered as having moved into the 21st Century on basic questions of equality.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Creative Writing: The Schultüte

Starting school for the first time is a big event in the life of a young child. I can certainly remember my first day at school. In Germany, the first day of school is marked with an official ceremony and the presentation of a Schultüte (gift bag) to the student. When I was working in Berlin, my office overlooked a grammar school. Every fall I would watch with fascination the new students start school and proudly carry their Schultüten. Here's a story that blends some of my own experiences on the first day of school with the traditional Schultüte experience. 

The Schultüte

The day before, Emil had carefully laid out his school clothes: his new red sneakers, his bright green jeans, his checkered orange shirt, and a pair of well-worn yellow socks. Now that he was a big kid, he got to chose what he'd wear, and he wanted all his favorites for his first day at school.  

His mother looked bewildered and grimaced at the combination he'd chosen, but she didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm. She was sure that it wouldn't trouble the other six-year-olds anymore than it troubled Emil. 

As Emil and his mother prepared to leave for school, he grabbed his Schultüte. In Germany, children are given a Schultüte, literally 'School Bag,' a cone-shaped roll of cardboard, festively decorated and filled with sweets, little presents, and school supplies. It celebrates a child's first day of school.

In his arms, Emil proudly carried his Schultüte, two-thirds his own height. Emil thought it was the biggest and most elaborately decorated one he had ever seen. It was even bigger than his sister's, or so it seemed in his memory. Although, they had had an argument about it earlier in the morning. 

As his mother escorted Emil down the busy street toward the school, she pointed out the various stop signs and traffic lights, and reminded Emil always to look both ways before crossing. She also warned him never to talk to strangers or take candy or sweets from people he didn't know.

“I know! I know! You already told me,” Emil protested.

“Now Emil, I don't want you to eat those sweets all at once. Save them! We don't want you to get sick,” advised his mother, as Emil began to dig through the contents of the Schultüte. “And remember, mind the teacher and be polite to the other children. You don't want to start off on the wrong foot. And make some friends. Don't be bashful.”

Once at school, after the welcoming address by the school principal, Emil and the other children were sent to play while the parents met with the teachers. 

In the schoolyard, the kid's were all comparing their Schultüten out of friendliness, curiosity, and most of all, the spirit of competition. Some were bigger, some were elaborately designed, and some had lots of sweets.

Detlef, a boy that Emil had just met, proudly proclaimed that his Schultüte was bigger than Emil's. This frustrated Emil. He felt he needed to defend the gift his parents had given him.   

“Well, mine has Marzipan in it,” Emil exclaimed.   

Detlef's eyes widened. He liked Marzipan. “I have some Haribo Gummi Bears in mine. Do you want to trade some?”

Emil felt as if he had won a contest, and in a resulting burst of generous good feeling, he immediately pulled out a yellow wrapped piece of Marzipan for Detlef. “Here's a pineapple one,” Emil said. “It's my favorite.”

“Thanks. Here are three Gummi bears. One of each color,” replied Detlef.

Just then another little boy came up and said, “Hey, can I have a piece too? My name is Hans.”

Emil thought rapidly and took out some black licorice from his cone. Emil had never liked the stuff and this was a good way to get rid of it. “Take this,” he muttered, as he handed a small wrapped candy to Hans.   

“Thank you. Want some Gummi Bears?” replied Hans, as he placed a bunch inside Emil's Schultüte.

Emil felt guilty.   

Before long, all the children were trading and bartering the contents of their Schultüten. Emil quickly got into the spirit of the thing, trying to see how much he could get without giving away too much himself.  

Emil soon discovered he had a knack for identifying those kids who were making bad trades. From one girl he got a pencil sharpener for a stick of gum. From another boy, he managed to get a ruler and compass for a flimsy paper bookmark. By the end of the day, Emil's Schultüte was brimming with goodies.     

On the way home, Emil couldn't contain his excitement. He showed his mother his new treasures. 

“Look at what I got today,” he boasted, as his mother spied the bursting Schultüte. 

“Where did all this come from?” his mother said suspiciously.

“Well, this I got this from Hannah, and I only had to give her a five paper clips for it. And I got this from Dirk: a flashlight for a bag of chips,” Emil said, as he repeatedly turned the flashlight on and off. 

“Well, you're a very smart boy,” his mother said, as she patted him on the shoulder. “But how do you think those kids feel about those trades? How would you have felt if someone got you to give away something you really liked and you didn't really get anything for it?”

Emil's joy faded as his mother's words sank in. He realized that he had taken advantage of the school kids. He tried not to cry. He didn't know what to say. His mother could see the shame fill his eyes.

“I'll give it all back! I don't want it!” Emil shouted.

“No, that won't work. You can keep most of this. But you know what? I have an idea. This weekend we'll make some cookies, and you can bring them to school on Monday for all the kids to have. You can give a cookie to each child to enjoy. How does that sound?”

“Yes, please, Mom!” Emil said, as relief spread throughout him. His Mother gabbed his free hand, and they walked down the street toward home. Emil felt proud and happy once again.