Saturday, March 28, 2020

Plague Break

This is how my daughter has been referring to this unexpected and peculiar time off: Plague Break. It's like Spring Break (which according to our calendar is still approaching) combined with a pandemic. Strange times.

Our family is beyond lucky. As of this moment, the corona virus has not seemed to have touched us, or anyone we know personally. I expect that to change as the year drags forward, but today? Today we are healthy. Today we are fine.

Our state went on official lock down on Wednesday morning, March 25th. There was a flurry of activity in my store right before then, since many people don't view violins and instrument repairs as non-essential. One person even drove up from Chicago to have me set up her soundpost, since Illinois was on lock down already and no shop down there could help her.

Before this week, we'd been by appointment only at the violin store as soon as the public school closures were issued. The protocols we instituted involved lots of hand washing (for both us and our customers), social distancing, and anything people handled and didn't take with them got put into quarantine for several days. It was an odd way to work.

Since the lock down, no one is allowed inside my store. They can leave things on the doorstep that I can bring in after they've backed away. I have been able to deliver certain items. I recently left a violin bow on a porch and found the payment for it in the mailbox. I appreciate more than I can say that I have customers that think to call me first, rather than spend their money online.

Interestingly, we had more rental instruments go out in the past week than come back. People have time to play. I've been carefully asking each person who does return an instrument why they are doing it, because I don't want anyone to feel they can't play violin simply because we're in a peculiar time of financial strain. I would find a way for them to hang onto it for a while, rather than take a violin away from a child at this moment. But so far everyone has assured me their child lost interest, nothing more.

I've been at my store each day, primarily to wait for packages that were already in transit before the lock down order. I've been sharpening tools for work that isn't there. It's very odd to be caught up on repairs.

Very soon I will shift to being completely at home, the way my husband and children have been. I'll join the full-time quarantine, where at least we have each other and there are hugs and a well-enough stocked pantry. (On my last visit to the grocery store at the beginning of the week, I discovered the losing pasta type is Mafalda. Apparently people will take everything else before they will take Mafalda. Who knew?)

What I find really striking so far about this momentous shift we've all been asked to make in our lives, is how quickly so much of it has sunk in. It's only been about two weeks since school was canceled and social distancing rules were explained to all of us. Now when I see images in movies or online of crowds of people smashed shoulder to shoulder anywhere I feel something akin to panic. I'm conscious about how I wash my hands in a way I didn't used to be. Every time someone touches their own face I feel a small alarm go off in my brain.

I'm surprised by how exhausting all of this has turned out to be. And how hard it is to be motivated to do the kinds of projects I usually want to do. Seems like a perfect opportunity to write, or organize things, or get some real work done in my home shop. But I haven't really done any of that yet.

Part of it is that in some way, too much time can be a burden. I've often found that when trying to get somewhere on time, that too much time makes me as late as too little. And in terms of projects, I'm reminded of the saying, "If you want something done, give it to a busy person." People often ask how I have time for all the things I do, and the truth is you grab moments when you can get them and use them to the fullest. But if tomorrow is just as empty as today, there's no hurry. So I keep putting things off because I can.

Another part of it is stress and grief. Those things make you tired. I tried to explain that to my oldest the other night when she was getting depressed and wasn't sure why. I told her it's because this looks like a vacation of sorts, but it isn't. It's a crisis. And even though in our own home things are about the same, having choices taken away never feels right. And she has legitimate things to grieve over. She left school believing she'd go back the following Monday. Instead, without any goodbyes, she's simply done. Not exactly the way we imagine finishing our senior year. She's trying to make decisions about college under unusual circumstances. She misses her friends.

The stories about people this pandemic has impacted directly are scary. There's no getting around that no matter how many cookies we bake. The fact that there is no end date is stressful. All of it makes us want to sleep in and tune it out a little longer.

As much as we've had to give up at this time, I am impressed by how many good things we had, if that makes sense. Most of us tend to focus on the negative side of being too busy. When all of it grinds to a halt, we can appreciate anew what we liked about all of those activities.

Because talk about cancel culture! Watching one thing after another go down like dominoes was rather shocking. Two concerts I was supposed to play were called off. My book signing is indefinitely postponed. I doubt my daughter will have a public graduation. My husband, after 21 years of service, was supposed to have his Army retirement ceremony next weekend, but instead, he just stops going to drill with no real recognition. Almost without exception, everything getting canceled was something we were looking forward to. It's sort of astonishing to be forced to step away from it all and realize how good we had it.

Currently the only thing keeping us tethered to the day of the week is the fact that my son has remote piano lessons on Mondays. That's it. Bedtimes don't matter, mealtimes don't matter.... All my kids are teenagers so the schedule has gotten very loose. The funniest part of Quinn's piano lessons is that he broke his wrist in two places on a ski trip right before the school closures. His left arm is in a cast, which means to play his assignments, I am now his left hand. I'm a viola player, so I don't read bass clef, and looking at chords is confusing. I gave his teacher a good laugh at least, last lesson. I will do better next time! And since I'm not taking Quinn anywhere near a hospital until the pandemic is under control, who knows how long he'll be stuck in that cast? I could become better at bass clef than I ever planned to.

I am enjoying reading more. I normally don't have a schedule that allows me to finish a book in a single day, and now I do. I'm reading to the kids as they gather to do projects some evenings at the dining room table. Mona has been sewing some beautiful things. Aden is drawing more. I've made a new friend on social media whom I think of as my "plague buddy," and we can tell each other stories that people in our own homes have already heard too many times. It will be nice to meet him in real life when the world goes back to normal.

I do wonder what normal will look like, though. I imagine a year from now it will look more like what we remember from just a few weeks ago. But the rest of this year I think will be strange and complicated. This is not something that will simply end in a couple of weeks and everything springs back to life as if we flipped a switch. There will be ripple effects, and I expect to feel them for a while.

Yesterday would have been my dad's 91st birthday. I took a walk by the lake for an hour and called one of my brothers, and then my mom. We agreed that Dad would have weathered quarantine just fine. He would have happily clipped articles at his desk and looked forward to whatever Mom made for dinner. We wonder if he would have noticed the plague break much at all, aside from the newspaper articles suddenly being entirely about covid-19. I feel bad my mom doesn't have his company right now as she's stuck by herself at home.

I loved my walk by the lake. I'm going to take advantage of so much time laid suddenly at my feet and try to do that every day that I can. This afternoon my family came out to walk a little with me. Even the dog who (because he is the world's weirdest dog and doesn't want to go for walks) enjoyed it for a little bit. The lake provides perspective you don't get anywhere else. It's always beautiful, always different. It makes our own concerns seem smaller and fleeting.

If we do this together we can be proud of how we looked out for one another at an uncertain time. Take care of each other and try to see the good. There's always good if you look.

I hope you all stay healthy.

Monday, March 2, 2020

What is it about?

The most natural question to ask an author about their new book is: "What is it about?"

That question makes total sense. Of course someone wants to know what something's about in order to decide if it would interest them. It's a great question.

And I am hopelessly bad at answering it.

The pain starts with having to write a synopsis when you try to submit your book anywhere. My knee jerk reaction is always, "If I could tell this story in a page, I wouldn't have bothered to write a whole novel!" And reducing a story down to its simple plot line doesn't capture anything relevant. If you handed the same synopsis to Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and Ann Patchett, and asked each of them to expand it into a book, you'd get three completely different novels. So what does summing it up even tell us?

And yet, there are genres that don't hold my attention, or subjects I don't really want to spend time with, so I get why it's necessary. I need to be able to talk to people about my writing in a way that lets them know if my book is something they would enjoy.

Here is my attempt to do that with Just Friends, Just War. And instead of pitching the story particularly, I want to share some thoughts about what was knocking around my head when I wrote and revised it, and explain the kinds of questions I was hoping it could address.

My second novel is called Seducing Cat, which many people were reluctant to pick up because when they asked, "What is it about?" I usually answered, "A woman who has an affair."

It's about much more than that. It's about temptation and how we define ourselves and where the line is between living your life to the fullest and behaving selfishly. But I can never think to say that when someone asks me in person what that book is about, usually because I'm like a deer caught in headlights where the whole book and all of its nuances flash before my eyes and it's too much for me to reduce to a single sentence. (It's a little like when someone asks, "How are you?" and your choices are to lay out all of the joys and traumas and your existential crisis of the moment, or just say, "Fine." Most of us only have time for "Fine.")

In any case, Seducing Cat was about two people who were together who probably shouldn't have been. I decided as a launching point for my next book, I wanted to spend time with two people who were not a couple, but that others would think should be. That's where Just Friends, Just War began.

When I write, I start with the characters, and make sure I understand them well before I begin putting them into different situations. I came up with Alex and Claire.

I wanted them to be different, but compatible. I thought about political discussions I'd had with various people back in college--people I liked, but disagreed with. I thought about the kinds of lines we draw when we disagree with people, particularly about politics. Some opinions you can let slide because they are simply different. Others make you question someone's morals or character. I find those lines interesting.

I wanted Claire to be strong, and Alex to be stubborn. I wanted their attachment to each other to be obvious, but not something that needed to be said in words to one another. If I wrote them right, I wanted readers to go back and forth between liking Alex a lot, and not liking him much, and to sometimes be uncomfortable about what to do with that. I wanted people to go back and forth between admiring Claire, and not always understanding her.

Once I had the personalities of my main characters fleshed out, I needed a setting. I decided to draw on my experiences in a dojo where I'd spent a few years.

My husband and I got our black belts together at the Futen Dojo in Milwaukee, and our sensei there literally turned my notes on doing techniques into a book for students to use. I was not particularly good at jujutsu, but I loved it, and was sad when I started having children that there was no more time for it. I stopped going when I was about four months pregnant with my first baby and couldn't tie my gi closed anymore. By having a dojo be central to the characters and their story, it was a way of reflecting on all the hours I'd spent in that space, and getting to relive some of it again. My characters meet in a dojo and it becomes an important element of their relationship.

Back when I wrote the draft for this book, I was also bracing for my husband to be deployed at any minute. He was in the Army Reserve, and that's a perspective on war that doesn't get portrayed often. By having Alex involved in the same kind of units my husband worked with, I was able to learn a little more about his military experiences while adding details to my character's story. Just Friends, Just War was also a way for me to grapple with my own fears about what deployment would mean to my family when it happened to us.

The power and nature of different friendships interest me. It wasn't until I started writing this book that I realized I was unusual at the time for having so many friends of the opposite sex. I talked to several women in particular who had never had a male friend, aside from someone they interacted with as part of a couple. It would never occur to them to get together with just the guy, and for me it's not an issue at all. I think that dynamic has changed somewhat in recent years, and my children don't think it's strange for people of the opposite sex (or different gender identity, or sexual orientation--not visible options when I was growing up) to be friends.

Likewise, I'm also interested in how your sex matters in different situations. People's expectations of themselves and others can be deeply rooted in their sex, and that topic never bores me. Alex and Claire were good vehicles for comparing and contrasting in what ways being male or female mattered to who they were, how they were treated in the world, and who they could be to each other.

This book spans over a decade of Claire and Alex's relationship, so it begins back in 1995. I had fun researching any time markers in the book in terms of technology, what songs were playing in a particular year, when certain episodes of TV shows were on, and what commercials would have been common. My favorite inclusion was an ad for 1-800-COLLECT, not just because I remember that commercial playing incessantly, but it really dates the time period back when "long distance" was a concern when making a phone call. (I tried to explain to my kids about how when I was young, we had to wait until after "business hours" for the long distance rates to drop low enough we could call someone out of state. They didn't seem to understand how that was a thing.)

And finally, I wanted by the end of this book for the reader to feel the weight of time and experience in terms of how relationships are built. When you've simply known someone long enough, mundane things become meaningful, and shared memories become like legend and lore. By the last few pages, every line should have meaning that it couldn't in the beginning. Because you've walked through so much with them, the weight of each object and gesture should be almost palpable. Alex and Claire should feel like your friends, too.

My new novel is Just Friends, Just War.

What is it about? Friendship, relationships, love, war, sacrifice, and martial arts.

I worked hard on it. It's good. You'll like it, and I believe the characters will stay with you for some time. Find your copy here, or better yet, come get one at Boswell Book Company on April 1st at 7:00pm when I do my reading and book signing--support a great independent bookstore and snack on homemade cream puffs. (Hope to see you there!)