Earth Day in my Gardens

It’s Earth Day!  What better way to celebrate than to show you my gardens?  This post was written last year when Amanda Soule of Soulemama asked her readers to submit a piece about their garden.  Each month she selected one to share with her readers.  Well, my gardens never made her blog, but they can sure make mine!  Shall we go for a stroll?


Gardener: Johanna Levene

Garden Location and Zone: Denver, Colorado – Zone 5

Vegetable Garden Size: Home (300 sq feet) School (500 sq feet)

Image 1 - windows into the gardenSpring in the Garden 

How long have you been gardening?

I don’t ever remember not gardening.  My spring and summer childhood memories revolve around Mother’s Day flower shopping, mixing bright blue Miracle Grow water for tomato planting, and sitting very quietly with my mom listening for tomato hornworms as they chewed their way through our plants. When we found one we’d fling it into the street, except the one time we put it in a terrarium and watched it grow into a spectacularly terrifying moth.

Image 2 - Johanna in the gardenMe and Raggedy Ann in my grandma’s garden 40 years ago

I taught my husband to garden when we bought our house and he has taken over most of the maintenance while I still focus on the new plantings and the vegetable garden.  We’ve moved away from the chemical fertilizer of my childhood to organic gardening, but he brings a new kind of technology to our efforts.  As a mechanical engineer he can be found weekend mornings walking around our yard with his AutoCAD drawings of our garden recording the growth, blooms and colors of the plants.  He maintains both an electronic and hard copy of these maps:  he is a modern garden dork.

 Why do you garden?

Gardening is one pastime that brings our family of diverse interests together.  In our life we have two working parents and an only child and it’s easy to get swept away in all the things we “should” be doing.  Gardening makes us slow down and spend time together because we all enjoy being outside together playing in the dirt.

Where do you go for gardening inspiration?

My garden inspiration is largely found in walks through the neighborhood, visits to my parent’s house, and trips to my local nursery.  I have been known to steal seeds from a neighbor’s unique flower or bring a trowel when visiting a friend who has a particularly pretty iris.  

What’s your biggest gardening challenge?

In Denver late freezes, summer hail, and early freezes are the destroyers of gardens.  Last year we planted two Sundays before Memorial Day and our garden was demolished by hail two days later.  The year before we had Japanese Beetles for the first time.  We tried to control their population by borrowing a friend’s chickens for a weekend.  We believed in that solution so much that we got our own chickens last year in order to avoid loading chickens into the back of my Subaru.  Also chickens turn bugs into eggs, which is awesome.

Image 3 - Hail DamageLate May hail damage and our white picket fence.  Poor plants.

 What’s your biggest garden accomplishment?

For the past couple of years we have included our daughter’s friends in the planting and harvesting of our garden, and we’ve loved introducing new kids to our garden.  Last year our family expanded our influence to include seventy-five third graders at our public elementary school.  The parent who had been in charge of our school garden was graduating her oldest child, so when the school asked for volunteers we jumped at the chance.  We plant with the kiddos in late May and harvest in September.  We love every minute of it.  My favorite moment last year was at the plant sale when this tough eighth grade boy came loping down the stairs and said, “Do I smell tomato plants?  I love that smell.” Even the big kids get excited about the garden.  The school garden gives kids a focal point that they look forward to in the younger grades, own in third and fourth grade, and then remember in the later grades.

What do you most love to grow?

We grow flowers and vegetables.  In the veggie garden tomatoes and Anaheim peppers are our standby favorites, but the past few years we’ve grown potatoes, and they are magical.  The plant grows, the plant dies and you don’t know what the harvest looks like until you dig around.  We never fail to miss a spud or two so the potatoes just keep perpetuating.  Oh, and don’t get me started on pumpkins.  One day you have no pumpkins and the next day one has grown so big you can’t get it out of the tomato cage.

Image 6 - pumpkin in a cagePumpkin in a cage

In the flower beds we have tons of spring bulbs: tulips, miniature iris, hyacinths, crocus, and daffodils.  My heart thaws every February when the first crocus appears.  We’ve got color all year, but the flower gardens reach their peak in spring and early summer.  In Colorado, July and August are a bit hot and dry for many blooms.

If you have children, what role do they play in your gardening?

We include our daughter as much as she wants to be included.  From year to year her interest and commitment change, but we try not to force her into gardening because we think nothing ruins a kid’s love of “yard work” like being told they must participate.  Last year my husband and I did most of the planting – both times, stupid hail – by ourselves.  The spring vegetables are her favorite and she’ll head out to the garden before school to snack on lettuce and snap peas.  In the fall she’ll help us harvest the veggies and process them for storage.  Our daughter is also enjoying our new role as garden parents at school and is looking forward to her turn planting the school garden this year.

Image 7 - baby in the gardenGardening before she could walk eight years ago

 Can you share one or two of your favorite gardening tips?

We’ve lucked into a couple of natural pest solutions that make gardening easier:  plant cilantro right next to your tomatoes to keep the hornworms away, and a huge lemon verbena plant in the middle of everything keeps a variety of pests away and smells great when you *accidentally* crush it when weeding.

 Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your garden?

We have an urban garden at our house, and it supplements our meals, but does not come close to providing all the food our family eats.  Our school garden provides an opportunity for kids to learn where food comes from and harvest a feast for the fourth graders in the fall.  Our gardens are as much about growing our family and community as they are about growing food.

 Can you tell us about yourself?

By day, Johanna Levene is a manager of a team of ten web developers, database administrators, analysts and projects managers that build web tools about renewable energy and alternative fuels.  In the evenings she transitions to a mom of a third grader which can include the roles of a soccer coach, gardener, meal maker, and pet caretaker of two cats, one hamster, three chickens, and a few snails.  Once the kiddo goes to bed, Johanna’s evening persona morphs into a crafter with a primary focus on knitting, and an aspiring novelist.  When she’s not busy with the rest of that stuff she manages to be a wife too.

Writing away the soul raisin


Have you read the book Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel?  It is one of my absolute favorites.  I’ve read it, listened to the audio-book, and am now experiencing the joy of studying it in my apocalyptic fiction class.  If you read it, be warned it won’t wow you out of the gate.  It’s a long slow dance of a book, and you won’t even recognize there is music until you are a hundred pages in and the true melody isn’t apparent until over 200 pages in.  But I think the symphony she creates is worth listening to on repeat.

I’m talking about those people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed.  Do you know what I mean?  They’ve done what’s expected of them.  They want to do something different, but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they are trapped….

I love the story because it’s an apocalyptic mystery punctuated by eye opening life lessons.  One chapter, in particular, speaks to me in such a way it is literally life changing.  Literally, literally, not like Gwen Stefani in The Voice literally.  (Gwen, your head has never exploded.  Just stop.)

…because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mean distraction.  You know what I mean?

Section 4. The Starship.  Chapter 26.  Page 160.  No spoiler alert here, other than the life changing kind of spoiling.  Clark is heading in to do his job.  He conducts assessments of executives who need to improve and then makes a plan for their improvement. In this chapter he’s interviewing someone who works for the unnamed executive.  Her words cut through my soul.

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I have moments when I love my real job.  Moments when I feel important and valued and when I honestly believe I am making the world change for the better.  I love my team and the people I work with completely.  But… but… we work in renewable energy.  We are largely federally funded.  The bottom is falling out of everything.  Our leadership team changed and no longer values managers, like me, but values self-managing PhD’s and I have nothing but a bachelors of science.  I have indirectly been told that I am not qualified and not worthy.  The bureaucracy becomes oppressive and there are days, weeks, months when I can feel my soul shriveling to a tiny soul raisin in my gut.  There is enough good at work to keep the soul raisin from drying up completely, but I don’t want to live with a soul raisin.  I dream of a soul grape or, can you imagine, a big plump soul watermelon that fills my entire body cavity.

…they are like sleepwalkers…and nothing every jolts them awake.

So last week I made a change.  A scary brave change.  I dropped to 32 hours a week.  I gave myself a gift of Thursday, so that I can write.  So I can try to publish that short story that is almost perfect.  So I can write the second draft of that book that calls to me on my 45 minute commute to and from work.  So I can finish that second novel that just recently developed a muse who will not shut up.  She’s throwing books in my way that inspire me.  She’s providing workshop comments from my class that make me want to sob with the joy that somehow my story is pouring out my fingers, onto a page, and translated through reader’s eyes to something even better than I imagined.  Stephen King wasn’t kidding.  It’s magic.

So here I am.  I’m doing it.  I told my boss.  I told my boss’s boss.  I told my team.  I told them I am taking time off to pursue a masters degree – which I will get to – and to write.  (The masters degree makes the whole thing more legitimate to the engineers, and will be relevant to book three.)  I told them there was a novel that needed to be edited and another to finish writing.   And like most big announcements it had grown so much bigger inside me than it actually was outside of me.  People were kind.  They were interested.  They said they were jealous of my passion.

…he had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for awhile now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work?  What was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything?  When had he last felt awe or inspiration?

So here we go.  I’m promising myself a year.  A year to finish what I have started.  A year to write, edit, submit, get rejected, network, and see where this journey takes me.  And even if at the end I don’t end up with a book anyone else will publish then I will do it myself, and I will do it having grown a grapefruit of a soul.  Because I want to live all of my life and I want it to be filled with awe, joy, and inspiration with a tiny contrast of drudgery.  The drudgery is still important, because if all you know is joy and a watermelon soul you can’t possibly appreciate it, right?

Now, time to write.


Credit for all quotes go to Emily St. John Mandel and her glorious Station Eleven.  Thank you for the amazing book, and for providing words to convey my unhappiness,  which motivated my change.

A Fishy Passover Tolerance Lesson

As a child I could get a little rambunctious at the grocery store.  I clearly remember that when my brother and I got exceptionally crazy mom would threaten us.  She’d point to jars filled with gelatinous covered white orbs and say, “If you guys don’t cut it out I will buy this and make you eat it.”  We’d squeal and make faces and wonder what poor kids had to eat those creepy floating things.  Into adulthood I’d walk through the Ethnic Food aisle and shudder a bit on my way to the pasta and salsa looking into those clear jars.  Still I wondered who ate that stuff.

My senior year of college it happened. I met a boy, and one day he took me home to celebrate Passover with his family.  The Seder began and we ate parsley dipped in salt water, raw horseradish root in an apple dish called haroset.  All ceremonial foods, all different, but all edible.  I enjoyed the readings and the novelty of the celebration and learning about a new culture.

Feeling moderately comfortable at the table the first course of the actual meal was served: gefilte fish.  Someone set in front of me an albino patty with gelatinous quivering globules glistening on its surface cradled on a bed of lettuce.  All around me strangers I wanted to impress covered their helpings with fluorescent pink horseradish and dug in with apparent glee. Here in front of me was the nightmare of my childhood and I had two choices: be “that disrespectful new girl” and shun this foreign food or face my fear and try a bite.  There was not an option to run screaming from the room.  This was before the days of smartphones so I couldn’t snap a picture and send it to my mom with an eww, like I did for this blog post.  I had to put on my big girl shoes and face my fears if I wanted to be respectful.  I don’t think I made it through half of the fish and I know I drank an entire tumbler of water but I ate enough to not make a scene.  The rest of the meal followed without incident.

Twenty two Passovers now, give or take.  I’ve watched guests come and go and seen the judgement passed down upon those who do not try.  I’ve learned that no one thinks it wrong that I enjoy my fish with a piece of Matzo, which at least hides the horrible texture with a bit of a crunch.  I bought the New York Times Passover Cookbook and with fear read the gefilte fish recipes only to learn that it really isn’t that scary.  Just whitefish cooked in broth until the broth congeals.  I could make it myself, but I don’t.  I don’t buy it either.  Instead I make the haroset, hard boil the eggs, make the dessert and bring the wine.  I feel at home with the ceremony.

I also learned that my husband will always eat the second half of my patty.  I push it onto his plate and yum yum he finishes it off and asks for another.  No judgement, we are so cute sharing food.  I always help clear away the fish plates and bring out the matzo ball soup, which I love.  Before I sit down I refill the water glasses.  It still takes me an entire glass of water to finish off my fish half.

This life we live, it’s filled with scary slimy fish isn’t it?  Things we reject without a thought or a consideration for being different and gross, and really they might be different and gross to us even once fully understood and experienced.  Things we threaten our children with because you’ve got to make them behave in the supermarket somehow.  Every year at Passover I think my lesson is one of overcoming the fear of the unknown, different, and strange and while not embracing it – and certainly not enjoying it – at least learning to tolerate.  For my husband’s Jewish family and their ancestors more tolerance would have changed history.  And really, isn’t that an acceptable lesson?  Maybe we can’t embrace each other and all join hands in unity, but a little tolerance – even if it requires a big glass of water – goes a long way in this world.

Happy Passover, happy Easter and happy spring to you readers.  May you find tolerance for yourself, your beliefs, others, and other’s beliefs in your own little corner of the world.

Octothorp NewFavoriteWord

Prepare yourself readers, for your new favorite word.  It will change your modern day existence.  The word is octothorp.  Now, before you go rushing to Google or your dictionary, be honest.  Do you know this word?  I did not.  In fact, it’s even missing from my Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: nothing between octosyllable and ocul-.  Now that I know this word, I love it.


What is an octothorp?  It’s a pound sign.  A #.  A symbol that has taken on such an important role.  Imagine with me, if you will, calling into any automated phone system.  Maybe you are refilling a prescription, joining a conference call, or calling your bank.  Inevitably you are requested to:

enter in your something followed by the pound sign

I bet reading that you can hear the computer’s voice in your head, and feel the anxiousness.  Was that the right number?  Should I have pressed the 2 menu instead of the 4 menu?  Now just replace that computerized request for a pound sign with the word octothorp.  It’s still accurate, but what would people do if such a request was made?  Imagine the chaos.

Octothorp confused.  Octothorp hatemybank.

Right?  People would race to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and write about their bad customer experience using the newest, most succinct way to convey emotion, sarcasm and cynicism.  The hashtag, which are denoted by the preceding octothorp.

Do it now, go to your favorite social media site and just enjoy reading all those octothorps.  My Twitter feed has Octothorp persist.  Octothorp champs.  Octothorp amwriting.

Oh yeah.   I’m writing.  About Octothorps.

Octothorp awesome.

#NewFavoriteWord #Octothorp

 

The Whiteboard Litmus Test


If you are a Washington news junkie, like I am, you’ve noticed the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch are in process.  The nominee has been peppered with questions trying to ascertain how he will interpret the Constitution, what his views are, and how he might rule on a variety of hypothetical cases.  Always there is a discussion of litmus test issues: the big ones being gun control for one side and abortion for the other.  Never do judges actually say how they would rule on such cases – Oh well, golly gee, I sure do hate guns and their propensity to kill innocent people or well shucks, I think if a girl gets herself knocked up she’s gotta face the consequences – but always the wily congressmen try to get a nominee to admit that he/she will take their guns away or eliminate a woman’s right to choice.

Recently I realized I have my own litmus test.  During my writing class the teacher uncapped a whiteboard marker and began taking notes for the class.  The marker squeaked, but no words appeared on the board.  That’s when the defining moment happened.  My instructor put the cap back on the pen and…. THREW IT AWAY.

I couldn’t help myself.  I leaned forward and said, “I love that you did that.  Thank you for throwing the marker away.”

“Right!?!?” He replied.

“It’s not like it’s magically going to regenerate ink if you keep it.” I said.

So that’s it.  My new test.  If you get up to a whiteboard, find a marker that doesn’t work, then just leave it in the marker tray for the next real grown up to deal with, well, you are dead to me.  That’s it.  I’ve drawn my own personal line in the sand.

Don’t be a dried up marker keeper.  Don’t be that guy.


Created in response to the WordPress Daily Prompt – Denial

A Story for MJ

Some people we meet invoke an instant connection.  We experience a sense of having known them forever and being jealous of their current or future relationships because of their potential as amazing life-long companions.  Of course, we don’t tell these people about the connection we feel, because that would make us creepy.

For me, moments in the presence of such a person hold greater detail and richness than other memories.  One person in particular is foremost in my mind today.  I remember watching him dance at his sister’s wedding with a carefree exuberance that single female eyes – and some married eyes – followed.  He interacted with everyone and embraced friends and new acquaintances with a complete lack of self-consciousness.  Love seemed to exude from him.

MJ and I had a relationship hard to diagram – my husband’s brother’s wife’s brother – but easy to execute.  He was someone who occasionally showed up at family gatherings, and when he was there I made a point to engage.  He was fun to talk to and had fascinating things to share: his work with the UN and Mennonite Church in the Congo meant his life stories went far beyond my limited range of experiences.

With almost perfect clarity I recall one private moment between us.  A conversation between MJ, my daughter, and me.  My then first grader was explaining to MJ, in great detail, the amazing wonders of her class guinea pig Bert.  The pig sat in a cage on the floor right next to her desk. It was her first year at a new school and she struggled with reading and friends, so Bert was a bright spot in her days.  MJ patiently asked her questions, listened to her answers, and then shared that he had a whole pen of guinea pigs behind his house in Africa.  Oh the wonder of a whole pen of pigs.  They compared and contrasted her pet pig and his pen of pigs.  He told her about the babies and she listened in rapture at the thought of little piggies.  When she wandered away, having exhausted her six year old capacity for conversation, he leaned over to me and explained in quiet tones that his guinea pigs were for eating.  They were a sure source of protein in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and were better than rabbits, because they both didn’t over populate and tasted pretty good.

What made this conversation memorable?  First that he, as an adult, was willing to spend time talking with a kid.  Not talking at a kid, but he got down on her level and had an engaging conversation with her.  He brought my horribly shy child out of her shell and fascinated her with this African world he lived in by sharing a common bond.  He didn’t break their bond by telling her why he had his pigs, but waited until she’d left before telling me.  Until that moment I’d been secondary in the conversation, but in his own way MJ had been drawing me in by building trust with my daughter, who I adore.  Then he explained the realities of his world to me in an engaging and thought-provoking manner.  Throughout our conversation I wasn’t shocked or offended, but impressed with his ability to tailor a story to his audience and maximize understanding by finding common ground.

From this encounter I understood how he did his job in Africa.  I could envision him building ties between warring factions, and encouraging diplomacy.  I could see him gaining trust by sharing stories.

I share my own story today because MJ is no longer with us.  Two weeks ago his family heard he had been kidnapped with a UN colleague and their interpreter.  Monday they learned that Caucasian bodies had been found, and we now know that MJ died.  Personally I mourn the family events where he won’t be present and the conversations we won’t have.  But my loss is so small when compared to his family and friends.  MJ wasn’t my brother, but I love his sister.  MJ wasn’t my son, but I adore his parents.  MJ was someone I really liked and was looking forward to seeing at inevitable family events over the years.

So often I gloss over news stories with a reaction of, “can you imagine?”  Now I can imagine. This time I know a glimmer of what was lost.  I compose this today because his family deserves prayers, and I don’t pray, but I do write.

I honor MJ by remembering the light he brought into my life.

I mourn for the nieces and nephews who won’t know or remember the hugs of their uncle.

I hope that he did not suffer at the end.

I grieve for his parents, his sisters, his family and his friends for their unimaginable loss.

If you are interested in knowing more about MJ (his full name is Michael Sharp) I’ve included some links below.  I hope his too-short life shines a light on the issues he was dedicated to.  Personally I wish I would have told him what a great guy he was, how much I liked him, and how inspirational his calling was.  My heart goes out to those who were close to him.


Further reading:

A prayer for MJ from his parents:  http://www.kake.com/story/35028097/kansas-parents-of-slain-un-worker-talk-to-kake

NPR has been covering MJ’s work since 2016 as part of their Goats and Soda feature: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/03/29/521962848/remembering-michael-sharp-he-risked-his-life-to-make-peace

The Washington Post explains the longstanding challenges in the Congo:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/03/29/courageous-but-not-reckless-the-tragedy-of-an-american-u-n-worker-slain-in-congo/

NY Times article on MJ’s role in the Congo and his last trip:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/28/world/africa/missing-un-experts-congo.html?_r=0

TSA Ate my Laptop – the Analysis

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So now, let’s see which version of my character study was better.  For those just joining, I left my laptop at TSA and on it was a writing assignment due the same day.  Being an exemplary student, I quickly rewrote my homework before going to class, thus giving me an opportunity to compare my careful writing process and my quick rewrite process: something I would never do if the circumstances didn’t require it.  Check out my posts about the slapdash version 2 and the original version 1 if you want to make your own judgement.

I think both versions have merit, but the hastily written version 2 is better.  Why?  Well at a high level, I have realized that I lose my voice when I edit.  It’s something that I’ve been peripherally aware of for awhile, but this proves my process of making sure I vary sentence structure, use correct verb tense, and nitpick punctuation sucks the soul out of my writing.  Now I wish that meant that I could just stop doing all that, but unfortunately that would leave behind basic issues making me look like a hack.  So instead, I think I’m going to have to add a final round of editing to my work to reinsert the soul.  Mayday, mayday!  Soul reinsertion, stat!  No idea how I’m going to pull that off, but this experiment gives me hope that such a process will work, because remember, I wrote the better draft second.

I’m going to start with what I like more about version 2, and then highlight what I liked better from version 1.  If I was going to use this for something I’d make a mashup of the two and create perfection, but since it’s just an exercise I’ll probably skip that step.  I mean, I got assigned new homework this week that I’ve got to get started on!

Why is version 2 better?

The guy has a voice.  He is “missunderstood and undervalued.”  His mom says he lacks “get up and go.”  He got fired for “lack of initiative.”  He asked the heart attack victim, “What do you want me to do?”  He was told, “You saved this guys’s life, you are a hero.”  (Shockingly that last quote is exactly the same in both versions.)  The simple addition of real words convey the essence of him: showing not telling, right?  I tried to do that in the first version by giving the guy a name, but he didn’t really need a name.  He needed a soul.

The first three paragraphs are all better in the second version because of the good mix of showing and telling.  Also, the character displays better internal conflict.

They wanted me to take some vague idea and magically turn it into something they wanted.  If they weren’t so lazy I would be more effective, but I learned that people don’t want that kind of feedback.

is way better than

What they wanted was some person who was willing to go off and waste time solving vague problems because my bosses were too lazy to define what they really wanted, but I probably shouldn’t have told them that.

Let me tell you, that bottom one is totally me the writer deciding, “Oh, it is time for a long complex sentence now.”  Ugh.  It’s terrible.  I also love the “magically” reference in the top version.  It convey’s this guy’s frustration.  He does not know how to take squishy ideas and turn them into reality, so it must be magic.

The hackathon paragraphs are where version 1 is better, until you get the the old guy’s collapse, then comes the sentence that makes version 2 the total winner.  It’s the point that out-loud laughs occurred, which is better than gold for any writer.

Crouching next to him I asked, “What do you want me to do?” but he didn’t answer.

I mean, the guy clutched his chest and collapsed and this dingbat is so incapable of self motivation that he asks an unconscious body what to do.  So much better than,

Crouching down next to the guy I asked what he needed, but he wasn’t able to answer.

Showing versus telling again.  I bet version 1 wouldn’t have made people laugh.  It doesn’t have the same impact.

For the character study, I think the version 2 ending is better, because it’s an actual ending.  However, if I was going to use this for something else, version 1 leaves the story with somewhere to go.

Why is version 1 better?

In the first version I liked a few things better.  I liked my consistent use of “clarity” and think that “total clarity” is more representative of what the character is looking for than “perfect clarity.”  Also, I was inconsistent in my use of “clarity” in version 2.  This is the most important value to my character so I like the cleaner presentation.

A few lines stood out as better in version 1 than version 2.

Life is made up of vague requests and other people spend their energy chasing after the right problem.

Is better than

People waste a great deal of time chasing after elusive requests.  It’s more efficient to spend time really understanding what someone wants before you go into action.

Another line I really liked from the first version was:

But the best part of being a hacker was that it made me a hero.

This same idea in the second version is a disaster.

I won the first prize once – $5000 – but the best thing happened as a result of hacking was that they made me a hero.

Ugh.  My eyes are bleeding reading that.  Obviously a quickly composed sentence-like thing that didn’t get proofread.  So. Much. Badness.

The last thing I liked better in version 1 was the character’s personal recognition of what he accomplished:

I saved a guy’s life doing exactly what I was told.

There was no creativity in his heroics.  No thinking outside the box.  He followed directions and the old guy didn’t die.  That’s a win for his strengths.  He should personally acknowledge it.

What was the point?

The whole point behind this exercise from 3 AM Ephipany is that “Writers who identify completely with their central character’s POV lack all sense of irony or detachment…A good story allows us to both like and dislike a character even if we are deep inside that character’s POV.”  (POV is point of view.)

So my goal was to take a character trait I do not have – I despise being told what to do – and see if I could turn it into a believable study.  I spent last weekend at a hackathon in the big thinker role – yes it’s a real thing – and there is definitely a “type” of participant that wants to figure out the right answer more then they want to jump in and start coding.  For that particular situation it isn’t a bad strategy, although I found it frustrating since I was supposed to be helping everyone and the question askers monopolized my time.  After my first day at the event, I contemplated why the question-askers were the way they were.  I hoped to make my character annoying, but then convey that his lack of “get up and go” had it’s purposes.  I hope I succeeded.

I thought version 2 was best because I was able to both like and dislike my character more.  He seemed more real to me.

Now I’m off to go read all the comments everyone provided to see if you all agree with me.  Thanks for going on this writing journey with me, and the big take away here is “do not leave your laptop at the TSA checkpoint, because it will cost you $50.”  Also, “it takes more than double 600 words to critique a 600 word character study.”  If you’ve made it this far, dear reader, I thank you.

TSA Ate my laptop – version 1

Quick recap of what’s going on here.  I left my laptop at TSA in Austin last Tuesday and on it was my homework for my writing class.  Disaster!  So, in order to maintain my good-student standing I quickly recreated my 600 word character study from memory and presented it in class, also on Tuesday.  (The details of the assignment and the AACCKKK! version of my story were detailed earlier.)  Today at 10:00 the FedEx man delivered my lost laptop to me, and I did not hug him, but I wanted to.  I ripped off the bubble wrap and hugged my laptop.  It didn’t mind.  It missed me too.

Now, after doing all the work things that were waiting for me on the recovered laptop, I can present to you the first version of my assignment.  The one I was thoughtful about, edited, and worked hard on.  Then the fun part.  Let’s compare which story was better!

As a reminder the assignment was to “imagine a person with an idiosyncratic way of seeing the world…Have this character witness a traumatic event” using first person point of view and 600 words.  (Check out the 3 AM Epiphany for this writing assignment and a host of others.)

I’m not one of those go getters.  My comfort zone isn’t being the lead, or making the strategy, or finding a new path.  Really, I like being told what to do, and I think that’s an overlooked and important role.  As much as my mother complains about my lack of initiative even she sees the benefit.  When she asks me to do the laundry or make dinner, I do it right, every time – provided she gives me the right level of detail in her instructions.

Life is made up of vague requests and other people spend their energy chasing after the right problem.  Not me.  In college, I’d utilize office hours to make sure I really understood assignments.  Exactly what did my professor want the program to do and how should I code it?  The bonus was that sometimes he would even start the assignment for me, because it was the best way for him to provide me with total clarity.  That’s what I’m always striving for.  Total clarity.

My desire to do what I’m told doesn’t mean I’m a follower, far from it.  As soon as it was legal I changed my given name from Charlie to Charlemagne, because it better represented the persona I want to present to the world.  There is a misconception that people who want to please can’t be unique individuals.

Unfortunately, it’s been hard to find my way after college.  I’ve been let go from three jobs because they said I lacked initiative.  What they wanted was some person who was willing to go off and waste time solving vague problems because my bosses were too lazy to define what they really wanted, but I probably shouldn’t have told them that.

I’ve found a niche for myself, though.  Hackathons: events where a bunch of coders, entrepreneurs and big thinkers get together to solve a problem over a weekend.  The big thinkers get up and pitch ideas and the coders, like me, have to create a prototype.  In no time I learned how to pinpoint the big thinkers who needed me: the ones who knew exactly what they wanted done and needed someone to do it.

I won a couple of hackathons with my strategy:  even a big one worth $5,000.  But the best part of being a hacker was that it made me a hero.  One night I was getting some last details from this executive guy.  Everyone else had left, and he was going on about how market share, or something.  Suddenly, he stopped talking and grabbed his chest.  He dropped to the floor.

What was I supposed to do?  Crouching down next to the guy I asked what he needed, but he wasn’t able to answer.  When I called out for help no one came.  I sat next to him for a bit, but after he didn’t wake up I decided to leave.  I made it as far as the hallway, then clarity.  There was one of those AED things on the wall.  I ripped it open, and it started talking to me.  The machine told me exactly what to do, and I did it.  When the machine told me to call 911 I did that too.  Then the dispatcher told me exactly what to do.  When the paramedics arrived they checked the guy out and said, “You saved this guy’s life.  You are a hero.”  I saved a guy’s life doing exactly what I was told.  I’m really hoping he makes a full recovery and then gives me a job.  My clarity saved his life.

Oh.  Some things are better, but some things are worse.  What do you think readers?  I’ll provide my own self-evaluation next!

TSA Ate my Laptop – version 2

I’m taking a class at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop on Writing Apocalyptic Fiction.  With everything going on in my world I felt like the best way to counteract my fears of climate change, economic disaster, and governmental collapse was to immerse myself in the apocalypse for 8 weeks.  Layer a writing class on top of anxiety on top of a crazy work schedule -including weekend travel- and one of my carefully balanced life pieces was bound to come crashing down.   Cue leaving my laptop at TSA security in Austin and not realizing my mistake until I was midair and halfway home.

At the moment I realized what had happened the first thought to hit me was, “but my homework was on my laptop!”  I intentionally timed my trip to ensure I’d be home right before my writing class.  I’d done the homework and now I was faced with going to class with the lamest excuse.  So, being a total goody-two-shoes I got home and rewrote my 600 word assignment from memory.  Arriving in class I told everyone my story only to discover I was the only person who did the homework, and I did it twice.  (See earlier goody-two-shoes comment.)  Thus I got the honor and privileged of reading aloud my hastily thrown together homework to everyone.  It wasn’t bad.  I got a few snickers at the funny parts, and no snickers at the not funny parts.

However, now find myself faced with a fun personal writing experiment.  My laptop is due to be delivered by FedEx any moment, and I can compare my homework I spent time on – checking grammar and editing – with my 30 minute word dump.  Often I’ve wanted to just trash something I wrote and start over, but I always wonder if the new version will really be any better.  Now I’m going to see, and I’m going to let you see too!  Here is my hastily slapped together homework.  The assignment?  To “imagine a person with an idiosyncratic way of seeing the world…Have this character witness a traumatic event.”  The assignment was to be in first person point of view and 600 words.  (Check out the 3 AM Epiphany for this writing assignment and a host of others.)

Here is the slapdash version for your entertainment:

I am not one of those go getters. In fact, I’ve always liked being told what to do, which is a misunderstood and undervalued skill. People waste a great deal of effort chasing after elusive requests. It’s more efficient to spend time really understanding what someone wants before you go into action. Even my mother – who has always complained about my lack of “get up and go” – admits there are times she appreciates my approach. If she asks me to do the laundry or make dinner she gets exactly what she wants: provided she gives clear direction.
My technique really shined in college. I utilized professors’ office hours to ensure that I really understood their assignments. What programming language did they want me to use? How should the end product look? An unexpected advantage was that often they’d start my project for me to ensure I had perfect clarity. Always my goal is perfect clarity.
Since graduation I’ve been in and out of jobs. Every interview I’ve very up front about my approach, and the three companies that hired me seemed excited by my process. But something always changed; each time I got let go for “lack of initiative”. Lack initiative? The problem was that my managers and mentors never deeply explained what they wanted me to do. They wanted me to take some vague idea and magically turn it into something they wanted. If they weren’t so lazy I would be more effective, but I learned that people don’t want that kind of feedback.
To make ends meet I spend weekends at hackathons. Hackathons are events where programmers, entrepreneurs and big thinkers come together and prototype innovative ideas. My strategy is to listen for the guys who have a really detailed idea. Those are the ones who need my help. I seek them out and we spend all weekend creating their vision. I won first place once – $5000 – but the best thing that happened as a result of hacking was that they made me a hero.
At my last event there was this really old guy who knew exactly what he wanted. He went way over time talking about his idea and encouraged questions while he was being shut down by the event organizers. He and I were a great team. Late at night we were nailing down some final details when he grabbed his chest and collapsed. I didn’t know what to do. Crouching next to him I asked, “What do you want me to do?” but he didn’t answer. I yelled for help, but everyone else had left. After a bit I decided to leave. What else could I do? Then I found total clarity when I walked past one of those AED things on the wall.
I ripped it down and the thing started talking to me. It gave me very specific instructions, and I followed them perfectly. When it told me to call 911, I did, and the dispatcher gave me very specific instructions, which I followed perfectly. Then the paramedics showed up. After I did what they told me, one of them turned to me and said, “You saved this guy’s life. You are a hero.”
They rushed him to the hospital and he made a full recovery. His company had this big event when he went back to work and they presented me with a medal. My mom even got to come. It was great, but I was really hoping for a job. I mean, my clarity saved that guy’s life. We made a great team.

Oh, ding dong!  My laptop is here!  The original version of my assignment coming next!

Goodbye Bart

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Ah Bart.  Remember him?  He was my attempt to prove to myself that I am not the cat grim reaper (or cat hospice provider as so many of you sweetly suggested.)  I think it is time for me to write his final chapter.

For those of you who missed the early story Bart was a foster cat our family took in back in November when our local shelter became overcrowded with rescue animals from other states.  Our mission was to get him healthy, so he could go to the pet cardiologist to have his level 2 heart murmur evaluated.  (Heart murmurs for cats are graded from 1-6 with the 1-2 range usually not being a big deal.)  Bart was kind of a mess when he came to us, but oh, he was a lover and had a purr that vibrated his whole body.  Over the month we cared for Bart he recovered from a wound on his leg, a multiweek long respiratory infection, a perpetual bloody nose from the aforementioned respiratory infection, and being neutered.  Just when everything was all better and he was healthy enough to go to the cardiologist a surprise gross abscess burst under his chin leaving bloody puss all over his fur and the floor.

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The shelter people told me to bring him in, that they would evaluate this new wound then check with the specialist.  Even with his new ailment, he was cleared to see the cardiologist, so Mr. Bart went for a field trip to the animal hospital, and I agreed to take him back and get his abscess cleared up before he went up for adoption.  Five more days of antibiotics for Bart at the Afthead house, but he’d get to spend Christmas with us!

December 23rd the shelter called with the results of Bart’s cardiology scan.  He had two defective ventricles.  The shelter vets and specialists conferred and had decided that Bart was going to be euthanized.  His condition gave him only 3 -18 months to live, so he wasn’t eligible for adoption.  Two days before Christmas I got this news, and the extra present was that the shelter said that they would allow me, and only me, to adopt him, but I would have to take him back to the cardiologist and be responsible for his heart medication and quarterly/monthly cardiac checkups.  The single thing that could save Bart was my willingness to take on the time and expense to care for a cat who probably wouldn’t live two years.  I pondered all this while sitting in my study stroking what appeared to be a healthy Bart.

The only person I told was my husband, who doesn’t really care about animals the same way I do, and we agreed that no one else needed this news right before Christmas.  We also agreed that I needed time to decide what we were going to do.  (Mr. Afthead leaves such decisions to me, since I am the one with a breakable heart.)  So I put on my happy face and celebrated the holidays with my family, my own pets, and Bart.

In the back of my head thoughts were churning.  How could this happen again?  Why would life be so unfair to give this sweet cat a defective heart?  Could he continue to live with us?  My cats hated having Bart in the house.  They had stopped entering the basement, which is where their litterboxes are, and had resorted to pooping and peeing on my bed until I put a litterbox in my bedroom.  Could I live with that situation?  Bart was sweet, but a destructive cat and had shredded the chair in my study, his domain, and clawed other furniture when given the chance to explore.  Unquestionably I could have trained him, but maybe not before he died or had a stroke: either likely situations given his condition.  And while we really liked Bart no one in the family felt that he was our cat.  We were doing this so that some other family could adopt this beautiful, big purring cat, not so he would be ours.

There were so many ethical considerations.  Should we tell our daughter about what the shelter had decided?  Should she get to help make the decision about what our family was going to do?  Was it wrong for me to keep the news from my extended family over the holidays?  Was it my responsibility to care for Bart until the end of his life regardless of the cost or quality of his life?  Because I believe in science and medicine I didn’t think the diagnosis was wrong.  If I adopted him he would die.  What should I do?

I searched my heart and my brain but in the end I came to the same place I’d come before.  This was too much.  Without telling my daughter anything except that Bart was going back I took him to the shelter and said goodbye.

For two days I held my sadness in and pretended that Bart might be going up for adoption, or Bart might come and live with us to be fostered again.  Eventually I started to tell my friends and family what had happened.  Because secrets and lies have a way of worming their way to the surface eventually one of my friends told her daughter – a friend of my daughter’s – what happened.  When I found out I knew I had to tell my daughter because kid friends talk.  I didn’t want my child’s trust and faith in her mother to be dependent on the ability of a 9 year old to keep her mouth shut.  I got home from work and said, “I’ve got some sad news.”

“Don’t tell me Bart is dead.”

All I could do was nod.  We cried together about the 8 dead cats she’s known in her 8 years.  She listed each one and the way they died.  Three pets and five fosters all gone.  When we were done with the immediate mourning she told me what I had known all along, “Mommy, we are never, ever doing that again.”  We won’t.  We won’t foster.  We won’t keep big secrets from each other.  We won’t do that ever again.

I love the community at the shelter, and the foster parents.  My foster mentor was so caring when I told her what happened with Bart, and she promised me that my situation “just never happens.”  No one loses 5 out of six foster cats in their first two attempts.  She shared her own sad stories, and even offered to give me a her healthiest foster litter this spring to ensure I have a success.  Behind the scenes I’m sure she raised heck – contrary to the evidence she really thinks I have the potential to be a great foster parent – and a few weeks after Bart died a sympathy card came from the shelter.  It made me cry, but it did not make me change my mind.  This is not my way of helping make the world a better place.  I can’t take any more dead cats.

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Last time this happened I was able to come up with some silver linings, but not this time.  I’m sad for me, sad for my family, sad for Bart, and sad for the shelter and the folks who work there.  Nothing about this was fair or good or worthwhile.  Everyone poured their heart into this experience and the only glint of silver is that Bart was able to live in a warm house with a family for a month, but that seems so pitiful.

In the end, as always, children are the wisest.  This weekend my kiddo told me, “Mom, I think that all our cats that died are part of Adventure now.”  (Adventure is our only foster that lived, and she’s our pet now.)  She started listing out traits of each dead cat and how she saw them reflected in our pet.  At the end of her speech she looked to me for approval and I told her, “Yep kiddo, I think you are right,” because really I don’t have any better resolution.

Goodbye Bart.  We were all pulling for a happy ending, but it wasn’t meant to be.