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The Only Constant

field of daisy flowers

Not long ago I saw one of those posts that periodically make their way around social media, asking you to cite your favorite song, or TV show, or book. This one asked for a favorite quote.

Now, one of the things I like best about reading is the way you can suddenly come upon a sentence that makes you pause and say, “This. I feel exactly like this.” The books I own are rife with highlights, underlines, notes in the margins, and circled page numbers indicating I found a treasure there. So, I was ready to jump in. But I don’t actually have one favorite quotation. Instead I keep a collection of them on my laptop in a folder marked “I love this.”

When I looked through the file, I came across a quotation I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It’s from The French Lieutenant’s Woman. A character in the story is strolling through a meadow not far from the sea. His senses are awakened by the sight and scent of a colorful profusion of flowers, the melodious songs of birds, the blue sky above, and by the sunlight playing on the water in the distance. He feels a thrill at the lovely moment, but at the same time he also feels a wave of melancholy. The author describes the sensation this way:

“His statement to himself should have been ‘I possess this now, therefore I am happy,’ instead of what it so Victorianly was: ‘I cannot possess this forever, therefore I am sad.’ ” 

And that is me in a nutshell. I have lots of reasons to be happy, and I am, but that happiness is almost always tempered by the knowledge of and the resistance to the inevitable passing of the moment.

One of my sisters and I had a conversation about whether or not we would take a test that could definitively determine whether or not a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease, knowing that there is no cure at present.

My sister said yes without hesitation—that if she knew Alzheimer’s was inevitable, she’d spend all her money traveling and enjoying life before it was too late. I’d like to think that would be my response as well. But I’m pretty sure that instead of packing my bags, grabbing my passport, and heading for adventures unknown, I would be busy crushing the life out of any joyful experiences under the weight of my knowledge of what was to come. Sadly, I’m pretty much back in the meadow with the Victorian guy in the quote.

Still, I continue to strive to accept that the only constant in life is change. And that it’s not a bad thing, in fact, it’s a necessary thing. That’s why I chose this Chinese proverb as my favorite quote of the moment.

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills.” traditional Netherlands Holland dutch scenery with one typical windmill and tulips, Netherlands countryside

Bob’s your uncle

Silent Fighting

Silent Fighting

Probably all families have a store of catch phrases–familiar “in house” sayings that serve as shorthand for getting a point across, or calling up a common memory.  Some are universal, like “Don’t make me come up there,” or, “Do you want me to stop the car?

But others are particular to an individual family’s experience. My mother would often put an end to a litany of our desires for things that weren’t going to happen– I wish I was an only child; I wish I didn’t have to do the dishes; I wish I had my own room–with the proverb “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” And my siblings and I still say it, with a smile and a silent nod to Mom.

Recently my daughter mentioned that she’d wrapped up an explanation on how to complete a task with the words, “And Bob’s your uncle.” She was met with a puzzled stare. The phrase is old-fashioned British slang, meaning “you’re all set.” It caught my fancy years ago. The first time I said it to my young children, the words sent them into fits of giggles because of our dog, Bob. The thought of dog as uncle was quite hilarious to them (did I say they were quite young?). They  picked up the term and used it, until it became part of our store of particular, and perhaps peculiar, family expressions.

Other adages we use that others probably do not developed out of specific family situations. On an afternoon that had been filled with petty arguments and tears, I sternly told my children that I didn’t want to hear another fight that day. About half an hour later, my youngest daughter, Brenna, wailed in frustration, “Sara is silent fighting with me!”

She then proceeded to demonstrate the loophole her older sister had found in my edict. By mouthing words without sound, accompanied by fierce expressions and menacing hand gestures, Sara proved it was possible to tease and annoy without breaking silence. The phrase “silent fighting” thus came into general family use.

Another go-to family aphorism is the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” It comes from the Herman Melville story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” wherein the title character refuses all requests with that simple, but implacable, response. I had always liked the subtle insubordination of it, and used the decree both in jest and for real, depending on the circumstance. I didn’t realize Brenna had adopted it until at age 5, she answered a request from her teacher with the words, “I would prefer not to.” Which I correctly read as a harbinger of the quiet but steely force of will lurking beneath her blue-eyed, curly-haired angelic demeanor.

In the eighth grade, her older sister Sara made another contribution to the family lexicon, when she chose an ambitious topic for her first research paper, the Watergate scandal, which was akin to ancient history to her. The concluding line of her paper revealed both her boredom with the topic and her hope that an abrupt ending would be attributed to forces beyond her control. “Nobody knows what happened to the Watergate Seven.”

To which I had to answer, “Yes, Sara, yes they do. Quite a few people know exactly what happened to them, and I think you need to find out, too.” She completed her assignment, received a respectable grade, and added another axiom to our family. It’s still our go-to phrase for any half-formed effort or ill-conceived project that dies aborning, as in “Nobody knows what happened to … Susan’s 6 weeks to fitness challenge.”

The language of families is a strange and wonderful thing. Rejoice in yours.

bob2a

Bob, gone but not forgotten.

This post first appeared two years ago and is back because it popped up in my Facebook memories feed at just the moment when I’m battling an epic cold that turned into a respiratory infection. The drugs to combat it have left me a little fuzzy-headed and low on creative writing juice. 🤧A new one next time.

 

 

It’s not you, it’s me.

dog at computerIn my last post, I repeated what I’ve said many times before—I love hearing from readers—and I do. Most of the correspondence is fairly similar: questions about publication of the next book, or a plot twist, or whether they like or dislike certain characters. However, this past week, I had an email exchange with a twist that left me both surprised and amused. So much so, that I’m sharing it with you. The only thing I’ve changed in what follows is the name of my correspondent.

Hi
I started book 5 and Leah is not going to get with Gabe is she?
Is she ever going to get with Coop?
Thank you. Harvey

Clearly, Harvey liked to get right to the point. I answered promptly.

Hi Harvey,

I don’t know how far into Dangerous Flaws you are, but you’ll see that Leah and Gabe do get closer in the story … I think it’s quite possible that Coop and Leah will eventually find their way to each other, but it may be a pretty tangled journey. Of course, I could be wrong. Leah will have something to say about this, and she can be very unpredictable.–Susan

Harvey responded just as quickly.

Hi. I appreciate your reply and i understand where you are coming from. While I have enjoyed the books I usually pick one guy at the beginning and I do get emotionally involved with the characters ( which is on me ) and I don’t like it when it takes so long and they might not get together. Books are entertainment to me and when I might not get the ending that I am looking for I tend to move on and find something that will. I am not trying to be critical but this is the way I like things and at my age I want what I want. I have stopped [reading your book] for now but I will keep checking to see what happens. I apologize for this but I am what I am. I have learned this the hard way because I usually pick the wrong guy and I don’t like it when it is dragged out. Again I apologize. Thank you 

There it was. My first literary break-up. I’ve been dumped. Kicked to the curb. Cast adrift. Tossed aside. Left behind. Harvey even broke up with me using the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” line. I tried to maintain my dignity in the face of the inevitable.

Hey, Harvey–

No need to apologize. It’s one of the nicest things you can say to a writer—that you emotionally engage enough with her characters to want things to go right for them. I hate to lose you as a reader, but I’ll keep your email, and if things move definitively in one direction or the other in the next book, I’ll let you know. Provided, of course, that you swear yourself to secrecy, no spoilers allowed.–Susan

Actually, I do understand where he’s coming from. I still haven’t forgiven Louisa May Alcott for pairing my first favorite heroine, Jo March, with the middle-aged Professor Bhaer, instead of the much more appealing Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Louisa didn’t lose me as a reader, but she did teach me to be a bit more wary about where I give my literary heart.  Harvey has learned the hard lesson, too, and I respect the firm stance he’s taken against being the pawn of cavalier authors. Although I lost him as a reader, I have to thank him for an email exchange I truly treasure. 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Readers Want to Know

cat in glasses lying on sofa with bookOne of the things I like most about writing is hearing from readers. Quite often they say nice things, which is very pleasant. Sometimes they point out errors–a missing word or a typo–which is less pleasant, but still welcome, because I want the books to be as smooth to read as possible. Occasionally they ask questions about the characters and settings in the stories.

Recently a reader asked how I came up with the name of the town where the characters in my Leah Nash Mysteries live: Himmel, Wisconsin. The inspiration actually came from my immigrant grandmother, Susannah Andrews. She spoke English to my six siblings and me most of the time. But when we had driven her to distraction with our antics, she would shout in German “Mein Gott im Himmel!” [My God in Heaven]. It was the signal that we’d pushed just a little too far and repercussions were about to happen. So, the name of my fictional town, in one way, is a bit of an homage to my grandmother. But the choice of name was also intended to be a little more layered.

Himmel, with its shrinking population, abandoned stores and declining economic base, seems pretty far from heaven to Leah Nash, the main character in the series when she returns home. But the more she learns about herself and what matters most to her, the closer the name becomes to describing how she feels about her imperfect, struggling hometown and its inhabitants.

Another frequent question is whether or not Himmel is meant to be my own small town. It isn’t. For one thing, it’s a bit larger, for another, there’s a lot more homicide happening. I will admit though that I sometimes transplant landmarks or variations on them from my hometown to Leah’s.

Readers also ask if the characters in my books are drawn from people in my life. The answer is no, in the strictest sense of the disclaimer you sometimes see in the front pages of books: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

But that’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from people I’ve met or observed—or avoided. I try not to use the name of anyone that I know, to prevent having people in my own life try to match fictional characters with real life counterparts—an exercise I feel has the potential to end badly.

However, it’s inevitable that I’ll sometimes unintentionally create characters whose names belong to actual people. Not long ago, I received a very nice email about just that. The woman who wrote said she’d enjoyed one of my books, but jokingly added that she was a little dismayed because she and the murderer shared a first name.

My email conversation with her gave me the idea of offering readers a chance to be a minor character in the next book in the series. I’m finding it quite fun to weave the winners into the story, and from the response so far, it’s also fun for them to meet “themselves” in a fictional setting.

The contest is only open to members of the Leah Nash Mysteries mailing list. I’ll be inviting entries in March. Shortly thereafter, two names will be randomly selected to become part of Leah’s story.  If you’d like a chance to be a part of the next Leah Nash mystery, but if you’re not a member of the mailing list, you can sign up for the list here.

Note: This is an updated version of a post that first ran in 2016.  

My Day at the Office

donotdisturbWhen I worked in a traditional job in a traditional office, it was common practice during a push to meet a deadline to retreat to cubicles or offices, close doors, send calls to voicemail, and focus entirely on getting the project done.

I find that harder to do in my home office because the other person who lives in the house cannot easily be ignored by the mere closing of a door. Gary is a very active person for whom to think, is to do. He is in and out of the house at least half a dozen times a day: to have coffee, to attend a meeting, to go to the hardware store, to visit a friend, to talk to a neighbor, to organize a meeting, to go to the post office, to stop at the library. If an idea pops into his head, he acts on it. And he gets an amazing amount of things done in a day.

I, on the other hand, spend quite a lot of time thinking before doing. But once started I like to work straight through for long periods, focused and undisturbed. Gary likes to share regular updates on his progress, and he usually meets this need as he interacts with people on his rounds. Except on the occasional day when he decides to spend time working on projects at home.

This is what my day at the office is like then:

9 a.m. Gary looks at a two-year-old tax return that he has come across “organizing” his files. He calls to me to come downstairs to his desk and look at the item that is disturbing him. I look. It does not disturb me. I go back to my desk.

9:30 a.m. Gary sees something odd on the surface of the river. He goes out to explore. I do not see it because my blinds are closed. He asks me to video what he’s seeing. I go outside to shoot the video. I go back to my desk.

10 a.m. Gary calls me downstairs to hold the tape measurer for him. I do. I do not ask why, or what he is doing. That might land me in a project I want nothing to do with.

10:30 a.m. Gary comes to my office to tell me we’re out of toner for the printer. I suggest he might like to run to the store to buy some. He does.

11 a.m. Gary returns from the store. He comes to my office to tell me about a person I don’t know, who is doing something I don’t care about. Then he gives me some flowers. Now I find it harder to order him out of my office, but I do anyway.

11:15 a.m. Gary calls up to me from his desk downstairs. He asks me if it’s going to rain tomorrow. I tell him I don’t know.

11:25 a.m. Gary comes to my office to tell me that yes, it is going to rain tomorrow.

11:26 a.m. I close my door. Loudly.

11:40 a.m. Gary taps softly on my door and whispers—as though the act of speaking softly cancels out the disturbance—asking if I know where his meeting file is. I do not.

11:45 a.m. I have hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob. I can hear Gary walk down the hall toward my office, then footsteps retreating after he sees the sign. Then it is quiet. Then I hear him in the kitchen faux whistling an unrecognizable tune—making half humming, half flutey-sounding noises. Then he stops. Then he starts. Then he stops. A few minutes pass. Then he starts again.

I start laughing. Because, well, Gary. I take the sign off the door and catch up on my email instead of writing the next chapter. Tomorrow is another day.

Note: This post first appeared in March 2016. It’s here again both because I’m hard at work on the fifth Leah Nash Mystery and I’m behind schedule, and because the content is still true. 😉

 

Lost in Facebook

Where’s Fim?

Growing up in a family with seven children and two adults, the phone was always ringing for someone. My sisters and I fought over phone time, often interrupting each other’s really important phone calls with demands that the phone be relinquished for our really, really important phone calls. We sparred verbally, and on occasion physically, as we struggled to claim what we perceived as our fair share of phone time.

Not so my brothers. Neither of them were on the phone often, and never for the long, intense conversations that my sisters and I engaged in with our friends. My youngest brother had an almost pathological dislike of talking on the phone, and would go to great lengths to avoid answering it. If forced to pick up an incoming call, he would just hang up the phone if the caller failed to make her need clear within the first five seconds. As he got older, he became more at ease with communication technology, but for a long time he refused to make the switch from flip phone to smart phone, and he resolutely refused to engage in the next communication wave, social media.

So, when one of my sisters mentioned that a friend had said our youngest brother—let’s call him Fim—was on Facebook, we were all astonished. My sister Barb—her real name, Barb has no privacy concerns—and I immediately went online to verify, but were unable to find his profile. We checked to make sure we’d gotten the story straight, and were assured that his profile had definitely been spotted on Facebook.

We searched again and again came up empty. This time, Barb messaged a good friend of Fim’s, thinking that he, if anyone, would know if Fim really was part of the Facebook Nation, but had contrived somehow to stay invisible to his older sisters.

Her message was worded thus: “Hey, we can’t find Fim on Facebook. Do you know where he is?” It seemed innocuous enough. But remember that old game “Telephone,” wherein one person whispers a message to the person next to her, and that person passes it on to the next and on and on until the circle is complete? The last person to receive the message then repeats it out loud for the group. Usually, it’s become such a mishmash of original content and misunderstanding, that it seems like an entirely different message.

Well, with lighting speed Barb’s original query traveled throughout the universe of Fim’s friends, both on and off Facebook. The final version of the message was that Fim was missing, and his family didn’t know where he was. As a result, both Barb and Fim received responses from concerned friends inquiring and theorizing about Fim’s fate. In addition, Fim, who had no idea any of this was happening, was flummoxed to find his phone blowing up with voicemail and text messages from friends asking if he was all right.

On one hand, the level of engagement and concern from friends could be seen as gratifying. On the other, to a person like Fim, who uses the phone for talking and texting as sparingly as if he were being charged $5 per word,  the result was extremely unsettling.

When we finally got hold of Fim ourselves, we learned that he had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to set up a Facebook Page for a business he was launching. However, instead of a flood of interest in his products, he received a number of messages from former girlfriends, some of whom were single and interested in reconnecting. Which was rather awkward, given that Fim’s significant other, with whom he was and is very happily partnered, was handling his Facebook business page. Thus, he had some ‘splainin’ to do.

His deep-seated wariness about modern communication having been validated, he took the Facebook page down immediately, which, in keeping with the law of unintended consequences, ultimately resulted in him playing the leading role in his own version of Where’s Waldo.

I don’t think we’ll see Fim on Twitter any time soon. It wouldn’t even surprise me if he reverted to his flip phone. But his Facebook misadventure is a permanent and welcome addition to the collection of family stories that never grow old–except, perhaps, to the person they’re about. 😉

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