Of Geniuses and 800-year-old Hips.

geniusOn Sunday at 2:15, I have an appointment with an Apple Genius at Sherway Gardens. I bury my late-rising self in the Saturday papers for too long, and when I raise my head civil war breaks out.

Hips demand exercise. Sorry, Hips, I say, I’ve done Feet. No time for you. I need to spend that half hour on Mind and its buddy Computer. I’ll get back to you later this afternoon. Then I stand up.

“See,” yell Hips. “We’re all seized up. You should stretch one minute for every year of your life.”

“Like I’ve got an hour and a half every expletive day!”

“Look, we’re structural, we’re the foundation. Mind is just electrical.”

Mind, tyrant that it is, does what it wants, and uses up the half hour.

So I arrive at the Genius line more or less knowing what my computer problem is.

In front of me is a beautiful boy. He has apparently tagged along with his parents, probably bored out of his mind. But no, the adults go off with their Genius, and the boy remains. Is he 12? Maybe a young-looking 13? The next Genius leads him away, asking,”What do you want to work on this time?” The boy begins a lengthy answer, not a word of which I understand.

My Genius shows up. I ask him to repeat his name. It is Chinese and sounds like the French word for yes.

I haul out my Mac Air Book-3 years and 6 months old, no longer covered by that expensive extended warranty. “I have been leaving it on because it takes so long to reboot, but it shuts off while it’s sleeping. When I go back to it, it won’t turn on until I plug it in. The battery still has a charge, so that’s not the problem. Then it takes forever to boot up again.”

He starts tapping keys. “First of all, you need to turn it off as often as possible. We’ll get rid Rapport. I know your bank told you to run it, but you don’t really need it. The bank site is secure enough. I find people who have it complain their computers run slow. Then we’ll take out this. I’ll leave this window open and when you get home, plug the computer in and click “Turn off file vault.” I check it out. Who knew I was encrypting my files.

“We’ve only got 15 minutes, so we need to use out time wisely,” he says.

Okay. We must have used 3 already.

He reboots the thing. It’s already faster and no longer black and white when it asks for my password.

“So, I tried to save my photos on iCloud, but..”

“ICloud isn’t really for photos.” He grabs my iPad, plugs it in and in a trice loads my photos there as backup. “I’m like a car mechanic. I fix things. I’m not really a teacher. Come to classes where the teacher is good at that. Here’s the screen for quitting File vault again.” Then he adds, “I suppose you don’t turn the iPad off either.”

“Isn’t it off now?”

“No, it’s sleeping.”

Okay, I wonder, does he want me to turn off my iPhone as well? I don’t ask. I give him my humble thanks. I figure he just came out ahead by at least 5 minutes, kind of a slam, bam, thank you situation.

As he departs backstage, I rise from my high stool. My bags are on the floor. How did they get so far away? “See,” yell Hips. “You need to do a full set of Tai chi, not just the exercises and not just those stupid Yoga stretches.” Stooping is not going to work.I creak forward in a deep bend from the waist. Central Back screams. I stagger down the aisles of people, some of them four-years-old, playing with chained-down devices.

Across the way is a Pottery Barn outlet. Maybe I could just saunter around it. Who knew Christmas shopping started before Remembrance Day? I sidle through the crush. I never shop in stores now. See Hips above. But I spot red lunch plates, only $9. I really really want lunch plates to go with the Fiesta Ware I received when I turned 70, but have you see the prices?. $40 later, I have a huge box of plates. I get to the outside door, but before I press the button to open it, I go back to the store to ask for a bag. Carrying the heavy box has threatened to tip me forward.

Starbucks is jammed, but a welcome rest stop.

I am parked on the deck, way out beyond civilization, past construction. I see there is a yellow hatching on other side of the road for pedestrians, complete with barriers. Cars without parking spots are cruising nose to tail slowly around blind corners. Pedestrians on the other side are flattening themselves against hoardings as I did on the way in. The walkway I’m on is more roundabout, but finally, it leads me across the road between cars to a seven inch curb painted yellow. Okay. There’s a low wall on the left. I put one hand on it to balance and step up, ignoring Hips who are crying out in agony. I glance right. A good-looking young man is looking at me. He smiles his congratulations. I’ve made it.

Good-looking young men used to check me out for a different reason.

Hips and Feet, with a little help from Legs, approximate walking all the way back to the little red Yaris.

 

Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing con.

red tailed hawkThis post is one of a series of posts about my experience writing and editing my mystery, Hour of the Hawk, which may interest and help other writers and mystery readers. The previous two are linked below.

https://115journals.com/2015/11/03/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-writing-a-mystery/

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

When you go on-line for advice on how to edit your novel, you are advised that you need a professional editor – by professional editors, of course. They say this is essential if you are going to self-publish. Been there. Done that. Paid for formatting in both Kindle and Smashwords by 52 Novels and for a cover design by Stewart A. Williams. Still haven’t made back the costs, so I’m glad I didn’t add another $500 for an editor.

It’s my fault Never Tell didn’t sell. It was a memoir about an abusive childhood , and, although it has a bouncy, resilient narrative voice, I lost heart trying to market it. Of course, I went the self-publishing route after a valiant effort to find an agent. Here I am again.

The Book Butchers also advise  that you do your own edit before you hire an editor, and let you download free advice: 25 Self-Editing Tips for Indie Writers. As we know, you have to give away your work to build a market these days. They say you can save money by getting your book into better shape before you submit it to them – if you have the nerve, given their name. Plus you save them the bane of my teaching life, correcting grammar errors.I found their ideas useful.

I downloaded Stein on Writing ($9.99) onto my iPad,and found his editing advice more helpful. By now I was taking multiple trips through my manuscript as I followed instructions. I also signed up for thecreativepenn.com. Joanna Penn advised a three step edit: a structural edit, a line edit for word choice, grammar and sentence structure and a proof reading edit handled by someone else. There were a number of other e-books I considered, but I figured the basics had been covered.

I have a friend who is a great proof reader, but she can’t do my book because a bear cub was harmed in its making. Off-stage,I hasten to add. We don’t witness the cub’s death by game warden, nor do we witness its mother’s revenge, which, while somewhat misguided, is fatal. I told her it is fiction, but she remembered that such a thing actually happened in the mountains where I was staying and that made it real enough for her. As I said last time, I taught English. Critic A learned from me. Critic B also taught English. Critic C can cover a page with red ink. I trust the real proof reader at the end of the line will find only typos. Or not.

In my next post, later today, I will go back to the topic of editing for narrative voice.

NeverTellCover-3

 

 

 

Getting the Hawk Off the Ground: writing a mystery

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

In the post above, I reported how I finally got started writing Hour of the Hawk, an eco-terrorist mystery, set in the remote mountain paradise of Bear Mountain Place, California. At the time I had written about  3/4s of a first draft- 70,000 wds. Finished, it came in around 105,000 words, which I think is about 280 pages.

“Finished” proved to be a tricky word.

The first revision dealt with logic and structure. P.D. James spent months planning her mysteries, and began writing only when she knew where she was going. John Irving  writes his endings first. When I began with the bear, I knew where the bear would end up, but that was all.  I thought I knew who the villains were. So did my narrator. We were both wrong. One by one, the suspects were eliminated while ever more heinous crimes were perpetrated. At a certain point, I had no idea who could possibly be to blame. Then, one by one, they crept out of the woodwork, a whole conspiracy of them, and each with a different motive for a common cause. I couldn’t keep the whole convoluted plot in my head.

I took a roll of brown paper and drew the plot line, the way I used to ask students to graph short story plots. I eliminated repetition, particularly where the “investigators” – two detectives; the narrator, an older woman; her even older friend and the rock band that is being framed – discuss the evidence they have gathered. I checked for clarity and whether I was giving readers some foreshadowing. It was hard to do that first time around because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I made sure that the characters held up. Were their actions believable, given their personality? One of them, for example, has some degree of psychic ability. Or has been told she has. That was a given. Certain events followed from that. The reader is welcome to call it coincidence.

The edit for syntax and grammar seemed to be completed next, but of course, I discovered it was an on-going process. Every time I reread a  chapter, I find a way to make sentences more concise and punchier- more punchy(?). I was lucky that I had spent 35 years editing students’ writing, although I didn’t feel that way at the time. I would just say that Microsoft Word 2011 has some very peculiar ideas about what constitutes a major clause. I nearly wore out the IGNORE button.

I gave this version to others to read. As reading progressed, two readers got irritated. They would get a third of the way through and I would say, “Stop. Don’t read anymore. It’s awful!” Two others thought I was right. One of them had told me as gently as possible that it was so.

So I went through tightening things up and taking out the archness, the ironic distance, the preciousness. I sent the new version back to my readers. By now they had got 4 versions and 3 “Stop”s. Critic A, as I will call her, gave me the new bad news.: the narrator’s voice was not authentic. Yes, I had eliminated the stand-off-ishness. The narration was more direct. But— the narrator was perceptive and far-seeing, someone who sees into other people’s souls, and that wasn’t coming across. Critic A also had a solution. It involved going to a portrait photographer and having pictures taken, which would suggest the narrator’s character. I did that, wearing clothes she wears in the book.

With one of these photos in front of me, I started again.

Stay tuned…….

 

Halloween Hex

cart for blogIt was raining. Actually, it was pouring. The tail end of Hurricane Patricia. A cold wind was blowing. I had on my water resistant winter coat with the hood up. I parked my car in the Sobey’s lot. The spot next to me had a grocery cart in it. I dashed for the market’s door, head down. It took only a few minutes to grab what I needed from the pharmacy shelves. I paid at the self check-out, refused to pay five cents for a bag, and carried my three articles in my hands. Out into the cold rain again, this time full in my face.

What is this? The grocery cart is now snugged up against the rear of my little red Yaris, and a woman is getting out of the car that is now parked next to me. It is nose out. The space behind is empty. She has moved the cart, and put it in behind my car, so she doesn’t have to back out of the space behind.

I’m really old, but I’m not the silent type. I start cussing her out as I throw my purchases onto the front seat. “Thank you very much,” I conclude, as I seize the cart and begin the long trek to the cart depot. She has paused in her open door. I refuse to dignify her by looking at her, but I’ve got her number. I’ve hexed her day before I can stop myself.

As I wait at the light, I back-pedal hex-wise. I pull back from a really bad day hex to a moderately bad day hex. By the time, I pull into my driveway, I really want to stop the hex altogether. Too late. She’s already ashamed. But still self justifying. How was she to know I was almost eighty, and wouldn’t come out with a cart of my own? She just thought I could return the errant cart when I returned my own. Okay, back to plan B – a moderate hex on a miserable day.

 

Writer Unblocked

wildanimalfightclub.com

wildanimalfightclub.com

https://115journals.com/2014/09/17/square-one-writers-block/

I wrote the blog above last summer after several people suggested I write a mystery. In it I lament my inability to get started. The post is about writer’s block. When I complained to those urging me that I couldn’t come up with an idea, they started brainstorming. Between us, we came up with a series of crimes, involving eco-terrorism, acts of protest or revenge against those who mistreat the environment. I brought the notes home with me when I returned home to Toronto in November. First, I had to catch up on a whole bunch of things after being away for six months – see the doctor and the dentist, that sort of thing. Then my brother visited from Brussels for several weeks and I was immersed in family. All the while I was thinking. By the beginning of January, I was ready to begin.

One morning, I sat down at the computer and bought Microsoft Office. I had found that Pages wasn’t what I wanted, but I had had an older version of Microsoft Word on an earlier computer and knew I would like it. Having done so, I thought, “You can’t waste that money,” and just started writing. The upshot has been that I have neglected this blog. Fortunately, readers have not and the stats have remained what they were when I was posting at least once a week. I thank Eleanor Catton and her book The Luminaries for that in large measure. Readers have helpfully corrected and added to the time line I posted so long ago that they now are closer to the material than I am.

https://115journals.com/2014/04/05/deconstructing-the-luminaries-a-timeline/

I have over 70,000 words of the mystery written and probably 30,000 more to write. I set it in same sort of the mountain village I spent the summer in in Kern County, California as well as in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. So the setting is in part high desert in a time of drought, which gives scope for ecological angst. It is also home to a newly flourishing flock of giant birds, the reintroduced Californian condor. At the same time, the area is threatened by development, particularly on one of the biggest ranches in North America and ground zero for the endangered condor. Although much of the area is set aside as Los Padres National Forest, the Angeles National Forest and a privately owned wild wolf conservation area, where bears, cougars, deer and mountain lions roam, there is also hunting. A recent regulation prohibits the use of lead shot because the condors, scavengers, die after eating unclaimed creatures killed with lead shot. Since there has been almost no precipitation for over three years, the forest is tinder dry and yet bright sparks (pardon the pun) are still lighting campfires and starting wildfire.

We had come up with six possible crimes and, drawing on my personal history, I created a group of ecological activists, who seem to be responsible as one event succeeds another.

In the beginning, the narration is third person, but soon switches to first person, the narrator, Joanna, a woman of my age -78 – who is more or less stuck in the mountain village with not much to do, except speculate about the ‘crime wave’. She has a companion, who is even older and who has a gift for befriending everyone she meets and the curiosity to gather information.

(Excerpt:

Chapter One: Too Many Bears

The bear came down from the mountain in late afternoon. She wasn’t hungry. She had eaten well, but she was missing the cub.

 She turned at the bottom along the well-worn path, picking up the scent of honey in the distance, and closer up, traces of many other bears, including the cub. The cub was old enough to manage on her own now and there would be a new cub in late winter. She was almost there when another darker smell stopped her in her tracks. Blood. Bear blood. She took it in. Not just any bear blood, the cub’s blood.)

The first ‘crime’ is committed by a vengeful bear, a bear that shouldn’t be there and may have had a human accomplice.

I haven’t settled on a title. At first I saved it under the heading Bear Mountain Mystery. Now it’s Murder at the Center of the World, which is what the Chumash Indians called the place. Bear Mountain -not its real name- the center of the center and the highest point was where everything was in balance. The bear comes from there and seems intent on restoring balance on the lower slopes.

A good deal of the action, however, occurs in Bakersfield, or Bako, as it is fondly known. The Kern County Sheriff’s Dept is headquartered there and the nearest hospitals. The Bakersfield farmland is part of the Central Valley and produces an astonishing amount of food consumed by North Americans. It also produces Valley Fever spores, that live in desert soil and are released by development. In addition, farmers are draining the aquifers, as irrigation is being cutback by drought regulations. The land is actually sinking in places.

The most surprising thing about writing this is the interesting characters that emerge effortlessly. The main detective, Al Guevara, is not at all the good old boy I expected. His belly doesn’t hang over his belt, he has a sense of humor, he is unusually forthcoming, he is married to a defense lawyer, has five children and has trouble making ends meet. Another surprise was a romance novelist, Arta Dietzen, a best seller in your local drugstore, who is writing her way through the alphabet, beginning with Love at the Aswan Dam. Joanna can’t read these books, but finds herself admiring the writer.

This is not the first book I have written. My memoir Never Tell, an e-book, has a link on my blog’s home page or http://nevertell.ca/.

Here is another except. This part depicts Arta Dietzen at a public meeting which is about the proposed new Condor Ranch Village, which she supports, but which ecologists oppose.

Good evening,” said Arta and she was speaking directly to me, warmly, just short of taking me in her arms. Of course, everyone else was having the same intimate experience. “I’m soo glad you could take some time out of your busy lives to support me here. Thank God for PVR’s.” And we all laughed a little too long.

“Now first thing, I know I’m going to disappoint you. I promised y’all that Oliver my good friend Oliver Warren, the CEO of Condor Ranch, would be here. He isn’t. Just wait till I get my hands on that no-good, low-life critter.” She screwed up her face and hunched over so that she looked like the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Whoops of laughter. Howls of laughter. Tears of laughter. The audience had been well and truly salted with supporters.

She straightened up, did a resigned face and said, “He has sent Roger, dear Roger in his stead, like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. I only hope God and this audience will appreciate his willingness and not demand his head. I give you Roger Smith, Public Relations Officer for Condor Mountain Village. I’m just a shill, a poster girl if you will.” She withdrew to the seat in front of the podium that had been reserved for her.

 

 

 

Why You Should Read All 8 Outlander Novels: pt 2

outlander series pictureThis post is supposed to convince you to read The Outlander, the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s 8-book Outlander series. (A 9th book is in the offing.)

I say “supposed to” because looking back over the plot outline (see The Outlandish Companion by Gabaldon) and reading comment strings, I realize I have a difficult task before me.

The difficulty is not the vivid sex scenes. Those are quite lovely, as you will remember if you saw “The Wedding” episode of Starz series last summer. The difficulty is corporal punishment and what some call spousal abuse.

Now Gabaldon is quite clear that flogging is a BAD thing. Jamie Fraser’s scarred back is evidence of just how bad, although it takes a few books to document how it got that way. Spanking is another matter. Jamie says that his father punished him by application of a switch and look how well he turned out. Of course young Jamie was never punished unjustly and, although he found it hard to sit down for a few days, he didn’t resent his father. In fact, the “beating” was a great relief to his guilty conscience. So – when Claire Beauchamp puts herself and Jamie’s men in danger – and indeed her actions are very ill-advised- he spanks her.

Ever since the book was published in 1991, readers have been arguing about that. Personally, I found the argument interesting, but creepy. I decided that Gabaldon was just taking her inner sadomasochist out for a walk, and then I got on with reading. Yes, from time to time, she seems to skirt into the true romance territory of rape fantasy.

The obvious answer to the offended crowd is “Stop reading. Put the book down. Walk away. Give it to Goodwill with your next box of used clothes. Someone out there wants it.”

The Outlander has a great idea. Claire Randall, neé Beauchamp, is having a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in the Scottish Highlands in 1946. They have been separated during  the war because she was a nurse treating front-line wounded, and he was an intelligence officer in London. They hope to get pregnant now. Frank has come to research the Randall family’s genealogy. Claire is taking the opportunity to study local flora. Not only is she trained in western medicine, she has an interest in herbal treatment. She also has an unusual background. Orphaned as a child, she grew up with her uncle on archeology digs in Egypt. Important preparation for life in the HIghlands two and a half centuries ago.

Returning to their Inverness Bed and Breakfast, one rainy night in April 1946, Frank sees a figure in a kilt watching Claire at their window. Is this Claire’s wartime lover or a perhaps, a ghost?

On the Feast of Beltane, May 1st, she and Frank go to the nearby circle of standing stones to secretly witness, a dance by an equally secret group of local women, welcoming the sunrise. Claire returns the next day to get a sample of a certain blue flower, inadvertently touches one of the stones and gets sucked through time to 1743.

Of course it takes her a while to figure out that she has not simply fallen into the middle of a movie shoot, complete with kilted Highlanders and Frank’s red-coated look-alike. One of her first clues is that the look-alike tries to rape her. She is rescued by a kilted savage. In no time at all, she is treating a wounded Scot, despite the fact that the Scots can’t understand why an English woman is wandering around the highland moor in her shift.

Surely she must be an English spy.

Soon she finds herself revisiting -previsiting- historic ruins which she and Frank visited -will visit- only now the Castle Leoch is standing whole and invulnerable. Her only hope is to somehow escape and get back to the Stones and to Frank. Meanwhile, she finds herself practicing 18th century medicine. The time comes, during her attempt to get back, that the only way to avoid falling into Black Jack Randall’s clutches – he really is Frank’s remote forefather – is to marry Jamie Fraser, red-headed, six feet tall, commanding but reduced to menial labor because of an English warrant. It’s not really bigamy after all. Frank isn’t born yet, and if Claire isn’t careful, he may never be.

If that isn’t intriguing enough, Claire gets to stand on the edge of Loch Ness and see the legendary Water Horse. This is the beginning of her reputation as the White Lady, which comes in handy in the next book, Dragonfly in Amber.

Trivia question: who gave Claire a dragonfly in amber as a wedding gift?

If I could travel back in time, I would choose the 18th century to go to. It was not as old-fashioned as the 19th. Modern thinkers would feel at home there as rationalism and the scientific age began and early democracy was born. Claire finds it a challenge to be an independent minded woman then, cf wife spanking. She finds herself in a warrior society in a violent time, and does not take orders easily, cf marrying Jamie. Like most strong women in male dominated societies, however, she finds ways to take charge.

Okay, so you have to be a certain kind of reader, a bit rough and ready – for a good story, a good long story with a terrific idea and characters that grow. So does Gabaldon’s skill.

 

 

Why You Should Read the 8 Outlander novels – pt 1

GabaldonDiana Gabaldon published her 8th Outlander novel –Written in My Own Heart’s Blood -in the summer of 2014 and the first 8 episodes of the first novel The Outlander appeared on Starz. I had never heard of Gabaldon and disliked historical romances, but watching the series hooked me. Between August and November, I downloaded all 8 novels on my iPad, one after the other and spent weeks immersed in the 18th century. My response was not always positive. https://115journals.com/2014/10/10/diana-gabaldon-outlandish-outlander/

So why do I recommend that you read them all?

I had the impression as I read the last one that it was the best of the lot and it would be hard to understand it if you hadn’t read the others. You could buy Gabaldon’s The Outlandish Companion, the most expensive of her books on iTunes and get plot summaries of the first four, really detailed summaries. They come in handy if you have read them, but have forgotten why Jamie feels responsible when Stephen Bonnet turns out to be a cad, but I don’t recommend reading them instead of the books because you’d miss all the fun.

Above all else, Gabaldon is an exuberant writer. She is exuberant about sex as you have already discovered if you watched the series. The episode called “The Wedding” was not one you would have wanted to watch with your parents or your children. There was more naked flesh per hour than has ever been seen outside of porn. Her main characters Claire, from the 20th century, and Jamie, from the 18th, not only have great sex in every possible location and position, across 35 years, they genuinely adore each other in sickness and in health and deathly injury and post traumatic stress, in grief, in long separation, in loss and in wealth. All this, despite the fact that each presumes the other dead at times and Claire is in her early 60’s in the 8th book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood.

Gabaldon does all her own research, which is extensive particularly with regard to military history, medicine in both relevant centuries, sailing ships and whore houses, among others. She says that she doesn’t do drafts and that her editor doesn’t interfere, but lets her write a book as long as she wants. (I’m curious what he does do.) Reviewers do not always agree that these are positives. Bethany of Postcards from Purgatory, for example, sees the last book as one of the worst along with The Fiery Cross, the 5th book. http://postcardsfrompurgatory.com/2014/07/04/final-thoughts-on-diana-gabaldons-written-in-my-own-hearts-blood-by-bethany/  Others describe it as Gabaldon’s best. That makes me feel better, but I’m a notorious softie. When I’m hooked by a book, I have no critical judgement.

Those who don’t like Written in My Own Heart’s Blood complain about the tedious battle scenes. Like the 7th book, An Echo in the Bone, the 8th is set mostly during the American Revolution, including obscure battles that give the author leeway to invent. Jamie was expected to fight on the British side because he had been given a large land grant by the British authorities, but, of course, he is a Scot through and through and not much given to supporting King George. Both Claire and the reviewers complain that they didn’t pay close enough attention in history class. I was caught up in the sheer improvisation of the battles. No one seemed to know what they were doing, they just ad libbed. In the end, they often couldn’t even tell who had won.

While I couldn’t always tell what was going on either as the battle lines changed, I was intrigued by descriptions of swordplay, the use of guns and mortar, the fate of the horses and one particular donkey.

The lines seemed to be very permeable. Jamie was welcomed into the British camp when his relative was dying and, at one point Lord John, a high ranking officer in the British army masquerades as a rebel soldier -with one eye.

The Brianna/Roger story line is particularly suspenseful, involving the search for Jem across two centuries. Suppose you tried to travel through time and ended up in the wrong era.

I enjoyed the book on a more general level because it is full of joi de vivre, of life affirming energy even in its darkest moments when Claire and the unobservant reader think that Jamie is lost. I like the idea of the large family and their loyalty to each other as they muddle through life. And war. Then, of course, there is Gabaldon’s usual quota of comic scenes, one in which William discovers who his real father is by laying eyes on him, and another when Claire’s two 18th century husbands face off against each other. Mostly, I love the books because they are full of love.

Initially, the 8th book was supposed to be the last, but no longer. That’s a good thing because there are still a number of loose ends. Call this sloppy, as some reviewers do, or just another advantage of reading an exuberant, prolific writer.

I intend to write several more posts on why you should read all eight novels, giving highlights of each book in turn.

Have Yourself a Serotonin Christmas

huge pile of giftsI know, I know, Christmas is over, but it led me to thinking.

The Christmas trees in my sister Georgia’s family look like the picture above. My immediate family, on the other hand, gives one gift each or, by agreement, none at all. I give my daughter and her husband calendars. She gives me her best wishes. I gave my older grandson a new-born check up for an African baby and the younger one a money order.

True, I give Georgia and my niece more because they shower me with seven or eight gifts. This year, I managed to hit a home-run by giving an indigo-blue Turkish robe to Georgia. This was a milestone. The first gift I ever bought at age six was a China teacup and saucer with a lovely rose pattern. My mother wished aloud I had bought her stockings.

My sister and I had the same early conditioning about gift-giving at Christmas. We got a stocking with an orange and hard candy, one main gift, such as new ski pants or sweater and something small if it had been a prosperous year. Most were not and most years, my mother suffered torment, trying to stretch the money. She would wander the department store in despair.

Georgia was a single mother and yet, it was an article of faith with her that her girls had a big spread at Christmas. Our children, in a family with two employed,had to make do with a stocking, a main gift, an article of clothes and a book.

What is it, I wondered, that makes us so different now in spite of similar incomes. Were brain chemicals responsible?

It had been my good fortune to meet Dr. Brown, a UCLA psychiatric professor, who casually threw out the information that prescribing psychoactive medication was simple. You had to write a script for whichever brain chemical was missing.

Gamblers, for example, need dopamine. It is associated with anticipation or striving to achieve a goal and acts as a helping hand in such success. It triggers the reward centre and is associated with exuberance and desire, producing an excitable and talkative state. It enables a stressed out body to feel good. Chemically, it is a precursor to adrenaline as well as epinephrine and noreprinephrine. This last enables vigilant concentration and the fight or flight response, with a corresponding effect on the sympathetic nervous system. A serious deficit of dopamine can cause Parkinson’s Disease

Alcoholics, shopaholics, chocaholics need serotonin, the happiness drug, 80% of which is found in the gut. It enables nuerotransmission. It is triggered by feeling important and confident in the self. It falls off in the presence of loss and increases when we win.Too much serotonin can lead to “A powerful mix of intestinal and mental symptoms”, including hallucinations. (io9) I experienced this myself before the carcinoid in my ascending colon was diagnosed. The slow growing tumour produced high levels of the hormone. Whenever I lay down to sleep, I was racked by anxiety and nightmares, both of which cleared up after surgery. For the past 13 years, I have done a yearly test of my serotonin levels, with no evidence they are elevated.

Gaba is a chemical messenger, an inhibitory aid that reduces activity in the neurons the way brakes slow down a car. It acts the same as benzodiazepines, like librium, valium, lorazepam klonapin or atavin. It seems like just the thing for those who suffer anxiety. (I may be wrong. ) Oolong tea, meditating and yoga can achieve similar effects, we are told. Having tried, I say, “Tell it to the Marines.”

Finally, endorphins, another happiness chemical, is opiate-like and produced in the pituitary gland. It is triggered by physical actions, including exercise, and produces a feeling of euphoria or pleasure. Even seriously depressed people feel better for a long hike in nature. Obsessive compulsive behaviour may result from too few endorphins. One site muses that OCD people may never have been praised for achievement.

Happiness involves the presence of dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxycotin. The last is that wonderful drug that kicks in for most new mothers, establishing a bond with the baby. Some new mothers, doubting their own abilities, are astonished to feel this kick in.

At Christmas, Georgia and her family give themselves a license to shop. Unselfishly. Therefore serotonin. When they choose the right gift, often as a result of carefully listening to the recipient all year, they feel the dopamine of achievement. Thinking about those they are shopping for increases their oxytocin. If they actually walked the malls, I suppose, they might get a shot of endorphins, but probably someone will figure out that eBay serves a similar function. Then, of course, there is the oxytocin high of watching loved ones open the gifts.

Psychology Today says that happiness is a neurochemical spurt. Merry Christmases and Happy New Years ease us into winter here north of the equator. Now that I understand a little more, I hope can accept the generous bounty showered on me and let it carry me through to spring.

 

 

Winter Solstice 2014

snowy woodsThe winter solstice occurs on Sun. Dec. 21, 2013 at 18:03 EST (6:03 p.m.) Daylight in North America will last about 9 1/2 hours, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. After that the light will grow day by day until the longest day around June 21st.

The poem that follows was written in Venice Beach, California in 1993, a long way from Hereford Hill in Quebec’s Eastern Townships where the woods has grown ever deeper.

Winter Solstice

Such deep dark
so long sustained
should smell of balsam,
cedar, pine,
should have a canopy of icy stars,
of Northern lights,
shifting panes of white or green.

-A child under a buffalo robe
watching a sleigh runner
cut through blue
moon-shadowed snow
sees a rabbit track running off
into deep woods.-

Waking in the depth
of this longest night,
thirsty for sleep,I hear
the pounding surf,
an angry wordless shout
one floor below
and the reverberating slam
of a dumpster lid.
The sky at least is quiet:
a star hangs
above the flight path.

In my long sleep,
I have been following
that track back
into the woods
breathing spruce pitch
and resined pine,
lashed by boughs of evergreen,
until I have arrived at this
secret place
which only wild things know,
a place to shelter
while things end,
time unwinds,
the circle turns.

When we awaken,
shouting, homeless,
single and bereft,
we will go forth
into the growing light,
a light
we creatures of the dark
must yet endure.

This is the place,
now is the time
for the birth of the Child
in the cave of the heart.