Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Dreams, Nightmares and Characters

Photo: lcarissimi via Pixabay
On Monday, I wrote about my weird dreams, so today, it seems only logical to share my characters' dreams. 

So, without further ado, here are my characters' wildest dreams, fondest wishes and/or fearsome nightmares.

Marita wishes for a happy, healthy future for Charli. "I want her to be well-adjusted and not damaged by all of the craziness around her." And for herself? "A life like Angel's -- husband, home and family -- only with someone a lot better than Jim."

Angel feels as though she's living her dream, but "wishes that Jim and my father would find away to enjoy each other's company."

Charli dreams of growing up and traveling to other countries. "It's not that I don't love my family. I just wonder what life is like in other places."

Bets dreams of being discovered and winning an Oscar. "My gown would be fabulous and I'd thank Trevor and Ri-Ri -- who'd be sitting in the front row because I'm that important -- and at the after parties, directors would slip their business cards into my hand." Her nightmare? "Ri-Ri married to Jim and transformed into a church lady like her mother."

Anna dreams of starring in her own music video by the time she's twenty-five. "Then I'll still have time to get married and have a family."

And Jim? He wants Spencer and Angel to have all they've ever wanted, and for Spencer's life "just to be normal. No fighting parents, no running from house to house. Just a God-fearing, comfortable upbringing, like the one my father created for my mother, my sisters and me."

What do you think? Should they be careful what they wish for?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Sweet Dreams?

ejaugsburg via Pixabay
Lately, I've been having the most bizarre dreams. Friends and family appear in strange locations, strange situations and even stranger permutations. As is true with most dreams, there's often an element of danger or the unknown.

Most of the time, I wake up puzzling over where we were, how we got there and how it was even possible that such a disparate group of people ended up together in the first place. Sometimes, I wake up with a feeling of foreboding as well.

Sometimes, the dreams linger, despite my best efforts to brush them aside. I'm not a dream researcher or analyst, and much prefer dream-come-true dreams where we come into millions of dollars and sail around the world, our house and all our bills paid off. If dreams have meaning beyond entertainment value, or a nudge into action in the real world, I'm not really interested. In fact, the inexactness of that sort of speculation makes me more than a little nervous.

And so I search for logical explanations. Worries I've buried, stresses more stressful than I give them credit for. Fears.

But mostly, I just want to go back to sleep.

Sometimes I can. Other times, the dreams pick up right where they left off, like the bear dream from when I was five. He just kept chasing me and every time I woke up in relief, then fell back to sleep, he'd chase me all over again. To this day, I forget the dream itself, but remember that there were caves, which might have been just as scary as the bear.

I don't know what to make of these grown-up versions of the bear dream. I like seeing all the people who show up (there's that entertainment value I was talking about) and wondering how we all got together in some bizarre place I'd never been. Last night's dream featured a town with a huge church, a rustic inn and a diner whose menu was set up like a newspaper. The food items needed to be puzzled out of news stories and I felt completely inept because I couldn't figure them out.

Okay, maybe that last part makes sense.

I'm not sure what to make of all of this. I do know that a good night's sleep is hard enough to come by when you're over fifty, and I don't appreciate all these commercial interruptions.

Maybe I'm getting more sleep, and finally getting enough REM sleep to have dreams. Maybe my fondest wish is a huge party somewhere where all of my friends and family are in one place, even though I've never been to this place and half of the guests don't know the other half.

I don't know. Maybe the answer will come to me in a dream.

Or maybe I'll just roll over and go back to sleep.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday Feature: What's Your Default Stress Response?

Last week, I reposted a meme on Facebook that rang true for many of my friends:

via Purple Clover on Facebook

I don't think I do this -- at least not most of the time -- but I do sometimes worry about the way I manage my stress. Am I acknowledging it? Obsessing over it? Letting it take over my body in ways I don't think I am?

I think I do a reasonable job of handling life's little curve balls, so I was really interested to read Michelle Gielan's article, "You Can Improve Your Default Response to Stress." Gielan and her husband, Shawn Achor, are happiness researchers and part of the team behind the GoodThink Inc. website. I've been a big fan of Achor's since I saw his TED Talk ("The Happy Secret to Better Work") and I love the upbeat and practical tone of the site's (short) articles.

As it turns out, I do manage stress reasonably well, but I also have a tendency to catastrophize, usually about things that aren't likely to be catastrophic.

Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay
This wasn't exactly news to me, but it served as a reminder to dial back the drama and, instead, use the de-stressing tools that are in my arsenal. In addition, being aware of my own mild tendency (relatively speaking) to make mountains out of molehills can remind me that I'm more vulnerable to other people's rabbit holes than I think I am, and should, perhaps, learn to find paths that go around them instead of through them.

Stress is, after all, an unavoidable part of life. And, while we can't make it go away, knowing we can do something about the way we respond to it can, perhaps, make it a little less stressful.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Colluding with my Characters

Unsplash via Pixabay
When it comes to writing, I'm a pantser (as in "flying by the seat of my pants"), making things up as I go along. I've tried to write from a synopsis because it seemed like the responsible, professional thing to do, but I always end up frustrated. My characters are far too opinionated to amble with me down a predetermined path and so we end up at a fork in the road. One way leads to the ending I've planned out, while the other leads to adventure and collusion with my characters.

Clearly, I have a preference.

It's this collusion with my characters that takes the place of a synopsis for me. I'm terrible at planning the plot of a story, but I'm methodical about creating my characters. Before I write a word, I know exactly who will be populating my story, and a great deal about what they will and won't do. I used to flatter myself, believing that I knew everything about them before I started, but, over time, I've discovered that they're as dynamic as real people. If I don't allow them to grow and change, my story goes nowhere.

Sometimes, it seems as though my best ideas come from out of nowhere. One night last week, for example, a scene presented itself as I was trying to fall asleep. It was nothing I'd ever considered, yet it was exactly where I needed to go.

This was no accident, and it wasn't as "out of nowhere" as it seemed. Over the last several months, I've been conscientiously honing my writing habit, working to create a schedule that, although less than ideal, gives me regular access to the characters I've created. The scene that presented itself was a result of regular collusion with my characters, through dialogue, description and the details of their lives.

Into every writer's life, at least a little structure must fall. For me, a little structure is indeed best. because it leaves room for my characters to grow.

So, ask me anything about one of my characters. If I don't know the answer, I know enough to collude with them to find it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Is Everybody Happy?
Are you happy?

In the first year seminar I teach, we spend a lot of time talking about happiness. We read Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project, analyzing the strategies she employs to inject a bit more happiness into what she readily admits at the outset is a pretty happy life. 

Rubin has done her homework and, as a result, her strategies are wrapped in a research-based package. Using Rubin's book as a jumping off point, we investigate happiness from a social science perspective, looking at happiness through the lens of positive psychology. As we discuss the author's month-by-month goals, we develop our own, and the students conclude the unit--and the semester-- with happiness projects of their own. 

These are, as you can imagine, a joy to read. They arrive in PowerPoints and Prezis, posters and scrapbooks. Last semester, I even got a jar filled with daily observations. 

From The How of Happiness
by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Happiness is a funny thing. Very much within our control, it nevertheless eludes many of us. Some folks are mired in circumstances that seem to push happiness out of reach. Others consider such pursuits frivolous. And, in many cases, as we bend our heads and put our noses to the grindstone, we fail to see the happiness that would encompass us if we'd only lift our heads. 

Despite the fact that happiness has health and longevity benefits, many are afraid to pursue it, believing, perhaps, that it's a childish thing that belongs back in the recess yard with jump ropes, swing sets and tetherball poles.

And that, to me, is sad.

A wonderful thing happens when my students and I dissect happiness. We--all of us, including the instructor--find myriad things to be happy about. Admittedly, these are young people, not many years removed from that recess yard, but they, too are mired. They have jobs and loans and full course loads, some of which require them to put in longer hours than they ever will once they're gainfully employed at just one job. They work, they worry, they study, they stress. 

Finding happiness in the midst of this can be challenging, but discovering what makes them happy as individuals, whether it's gratitudes or platitudes or figuring out how to balance their crazy schedules-- becomes a tool that counterbalances the worry and the stress. More important, it becomes a life lesson. Happiness matters, and taking charge of their own happiness is just as important as managing time and money and creating a balance between work and play. And when all of these things are wrapped up together and tied with a bow, some might call that success.

Are you happy? And, if you aren't, what would change that?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Feature: Climate Change and Health

When I think of climate change, I think of dramatic weather events. Really hot summers and really cold winters. Snow storms in March that follow weeks of spring-like weather.

I never really stopped to consider the impact of all of this on health.

Not surprisingly, doctors have. A group of doctors has come together, in fact, to form a consortium that helps educate people about the potential effects of climate change on health -- physical and mental, immediate and long term, local and global.

As with anything else, some populations are more at-risk than others. The young. The old. The vulnerable.

In general, I'm a good news kind of person. I much prefer the happy stuff to the scary stuff, but, when it comes to risk, I want to know what the factors are, because that's the best way to avoid them and stay healthy.

I can't change climate change by myself, but I can stay informed. And, as a parent and educator, not to mention a citizen, I think it's my job to do just that.

And I'm really glad there are medical professionals out there who care enough to make it easier for me to do my job.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On Jersey Girls, Writers and Social Media

As a writer, I spend a lot of time cultivating a professional online presence. This blog, which doubles as my website. Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. LinkedIn. In general, I try to follow the standard rule of thumb: don't put anything on your page you'd be embarrassed for your grandmother to see.

As I'm old enough to be a grandmother myself, that's not usually too difficult. I have no desire to post things that are vulgar or graphic, and I try not to post things that I suspect will hurt other people's feelings. 

Lately, though, I've been feeling passionate about a lot that's going on in the world. Perhaps it's the stage of life I'm in. As the parent of a young adult, I look at a lot of things through the lens of how it will affect her and her future. As an instructor at a college, I urge my students to view things through this lens as well. And I feel the need to speak out about things that bother me, whether it's to spread the word, express an opinion or spark conversation and inspire critical thinking.

Toward that end, I keep separate personal and professional Facebook pages and I try to keep politics off my professional page. But Facebook is something of an open book, making it easy to be found, and there is tremendous crossover between my friends (real world and Facebook) and my readers.

The other day, as I scrolled through my personal page to find a post I'd put up more than a month ago, I got to take in the big picture. As I moved past posts about education, equality and health care intermingled with silly Facebook quizzes, family stuff and humorous videos, it hit me.

This page is me. It clearly represents what matters to me in terms of people and issues and life. As such, it accomplishes exactly what the Dag Hammarskjold quote above describes.

Which is what I aspire to.

Toward that end, I'll continue to keep separate personal and professional Facebook pages, with my writer page being an island of books, writing and things relevant to those two topics. My Twitter feed is a mix of the personal and the professional, with what I hope is an undercurrent of respect. Pinterest is just for fun -- all pictures, no politics -- and LinkedIn is purely professional. Somehow, I seem to have achieved a social media presence akin to a conservative financial portfolio -- one where I don't shy away from risks, but rather, make sure my risky investments are counterbalanced by safe ones.

I hope you'll join me online in whatever location interests you most. More important, I hope you know that I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read my work, and that I will do my best to make sure maintain a tone of respect wherever you may find me, regardless of any difference of opinion or point of view.

But, as a 50-something Jersey girl, I just can't stay silent.