On Rules and Breaking Them

In writing and in life, there are rules. The words “creative” and “writing” don’t always coexist, even for fiction writers. Yes, it’s creative to come up with a great plot full of surprises and twists and insights, but in setting that plot down on the page, there are constant rules. Sentences! Spelling! Grammar! And so on.

Genre writers have even more rules. Happy Ever After for romance writers. The criminal will be captured and made to pay in mystery. Those are the biggest rules and there are so many more that, should you be lucky enough to find an editor or agent to read your manuscript, you’ll hear them all. There are also books and workshops and classes and blog posts that will give you the rules as they understand them. Many writers will attempt to abide by these rules because they want to be published.

Yet something strange happens if you adhere too closely to these rules as a writer. You lose the creative impulse that spurred you on to write in the first place. You paint by number. You give your publisher and your readers more of the same, book after book. Readers expect it. Publishers demand it.

The art of creating something new is the thrill and now it’s gone. But if you persist in your specific vision, if your work is both original and compelling, it might win you acclaim, prizes and money. Or not. So following the rules as a creative writer brings risk, just as, recently, gathering in public is a risk. Certainly if you are not wearing a mask, you pose a risk to others.

I hate the mask, but I wear it because I try to live by the rule of “First, do no harm.” If you are out in public in a crowd without a mask, you may be doing many people harm. I used to suffer with my mask and become annoyed, even angered, by those who went without. Why were they being so selfish? Didn’t they understand that the mask is not only to protect themselves, but to protect others?

There are several answers to this question of why people do not obey the health guidelines to wear a mask in pubic. There’s not a thing I can do to change a single one of these folks’ minds. I wouldn’t even try. So I simmer in anger and bitterness, which I dislike almost as much as the mask.

The Buddhists have a solution, of sorts, to my anger at people who refuse to wear masks in public. It’s not easy, but it works. Anger and other negative emotions are the perfect opportunity to practice compassion. The practice goes like this: you find yourself angry because the person is not following a rule, you recognize you are angry, you turn your anger into prayer for this person, and for all persons like them.

It’s akin to the Christian rule to love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” said Jesus on the cross. “May all humans be free from suffering,” loosely translates the practice of turning your own anger into compassion. For a person not wearing a mask in a crowded public space, the prayer might be “May this person (or these people) awaken to the need to protect their brothers and sisters from this virus.”

On this Memorial Day, I give thanks to all the women and men who have lost their lives fighting wars for our country. And I honor all of those who have lost the fight against this virus. Namaste.

Sunday Drive

Don CeSar Hotel opened in 1928

After Saturday night, I knew I needed to get out of the house. I needed to see the water, and people, and downtown. Isolation has been fine, except when I’m not reading a book. My recently retired husband is very good about my writing and reading habits. He has the same habits, in fact. I love how the two of us, each with our own writing and reading material, sit scribbling the mornings away. Yesterday he explained his writing and research to me. He’s forecasting financial trends which involves many numbers and those pesky stock market abbreviations. Henceforth, I will admire him with pen in hand from afar.

But we still have to eat. And cook. And wash the dishes, as we have no dishwasher here in St Pete. This is really where things started: me washing, Al drying. He dropped a large pan on the ceramic tile floor Floridians favor, and the clang it set up caused me to startle. When I startle, sometimes I scream. It depends on my anxiety level and with Covid, and Staying Home, and grocery shopping with a mask, I’m never really completely free from anxiety. So I screamed. Then I felt ashamed and ridiculous. I said sorry to Al, which he doesn’t require as he knows this part of me, he knows I don’t mean to do it. It’s my fight or flight response.

This time, for the first time, I could not calm myself down with deep breaths and my anxiety built into panic before I could swallow any medication. Then I sat breathing, apologizing, worrying a neighbor would call 911, until the pill did its magic. Al, wanting to help, asked “What were you thinking happened when you heard the sound of the pan falling?”

I explained again that the response comes before thought, involuntarily. In that moment I was a cave woman alerting her man of danger. Some of us have a bit more cave woman left in our reptile brain than others. But I did say “I need to get out. Let’s go for a drive tomorrow.” And then I went to bed with my book.

On Sunday I felt much better and we set out for Gulf Blvd to see what, if anything, was afoot. Our beaches and restaurants were still closed yesterday (they opened today) but except for the yellow tape blocking off parking and the large signs reading BEACHES CLOSED, you wouldn’t know it. It was a lovely day (as is most every day here) and people flocked to the beaches. The patio seating at the few restaurants that braved opening early were packed with people shoulder to shoulder hoisting beers.

We tut-tutted from the safety of our car. Further down the Gulf, we passed the elegant Don CeSar. The parking lot was almost full, so I suspect they were serving brunch out back where the water views are splendid. Don CeSar is a hotel, very old Florida, so hotel guests would be exempt from the beach closures. We were going to dine there on my birthday, but that didn’t happen. I’m sure Al is secretly pleased because they are the kind of place that don’t have prices on the menu.

By the time we got downtown, cruising Central Avenue, which is on Tampa Bay, not the Gulf, we saw people walking, enjoying the day, eyeing the yachts in the Bay. These people were social distancing in groups of two or three. But the one restaurant open downtown, off Central on the pier, was jammed. Yachts and other luxury boats bobbed on the Bay. And why not? No ordinance against that. Still, we were dismayed that every single shop on Central, and every restaurant, too, was closed. We knew it was for the best, we knew it was the rule, but we couldn’t help speculating how many of our beloved local businesses would never be able to open again and would be snapped up and turned into condos.

As we headed home, we decided to stop at Target for a few essentials. We slapped on our masks and filled a cart with lettuce, avocado, and chocolate. The chocolate was for me, as I deserved a treat after my odious evening before. Also, we purchased ice cream. Same reason. At home, Al helped me enjoy these treats and then he had a healthy salad. On a final note, about half the people in Target did not wear masks. And there was no hand sanitizer to be found. But there is a happy ending!

Old St Pete Distillery, on 31st Avenue, has turned many vats once used for liquor mixing into hand sanitizer cauldrons. They have distributed free sanitizer for weeks to medical and other needy institutions. And they sell it to consumers. With every bottle of booze, you get a free travel sized vial of hand sanitizer. This is all done through their website. I ordered a few bottles of my favorites and a large (1.75 liter) bottle of hand sanitizer. For when Covid returns because people are not abiding by the safety rules!

Luckily our order, we were informed by email, is ready for pick up. Coconut rum does wonders for my worries.

Where I'm Writing From

This is a new writing spot in the same tiny winter condo I share with my newly retired husband, Al. Well, he retired January 1, 2020. Since then, it’s been a journey. We came almost immediately south to our winter home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Since we bought this place, this is the longest Al has been here. Since we’ve been married, this is the longest time the two of us have been together all day every day.

At first, Al had lots of activities and so I was able to comfortably keep most of my beloved habits and routines. I could write in my notebook every morning, spend a good part of Monday writing a blog post, go to dance class, yoga class and writer’s group. Al golfed, went to the gym, and took up shuffleboard. He was thinking of joining a poker group that meets at the clubhouse. Those were good times.

You know what happened next. COVID-19. Al and I have been mostly at home without much interaction with others for one week. My mother back in Michigan has been isolated for two weeks. It took us a little longer to get the memo that staying home is what we should do. Al stopped golfing. The gym closed. All my activities here on the Bayou closed, as did Al’s shuffleboard. We’ve heard people are still using the pool, but I’ve never been one for pools. I prefer beaches.

All our 35 miles of lovely white sand beaches have closed. Our Michigan family has canceled a trip down. That was wise, the right thing to do. You want to be in your home state where your doctors are when a pandemic hits. Our doctors are in Michigan and we are just moving in the Medicare so we really hope we don’t have to visit any doctor here. Most people who get this evil disease won’t have to see a doctor. We are older, but we’re healthy, so we’re optimistic. Speaking of healthy, I taught Al yoga. I miss my yoga teacher, though. She was really, really good. I just do the basics, like the series of poses called Sun Salutation to “Here Comes the Sun.”

We had a dance party, just the two of us, one night, with the help of Alexa, our non-human helper. Mostly she plays songs for us and tells us the weather in Michigan. We used to feel smug about that…now we just ask so we won’t pack up the car and head north too soon. For one thing, my dad is here. I hope to talk him into coming home with us (not working so far). The other part is our house there is much bigger, although really I finally have Al where I’ve always secretly wanted him, close by my side all day every day. Except when I want to read or write.

We watched the new ZZ Top rock doc on Netflix (I’m not a fan of their music but I love a good story about creative people making their dreams come true and this one was excellent). Also on Netflix, we’re watching The Stranger. It’s good, too. I see that the new Emma is coming to video straight from the mostly-closed movie theaters. I’m torn. $14.95 seems way too much to pay. Maybe for my birthday. Until then, we’ll just go on as we have and hope the sky doesn’t fall.

Things are quiet. We see walkers and people playing tennis, but we prefer to keep our social distance. At first I didn’t even want to take walks, but since Al did yoga, I have to now. Other than walking along the bayou nature trail, we have been to the grocery store, and my dad visited last Tuesday. That’s the extent of our activities outside staying in this little condo together. Which is why I moved my desk into the bedroom. The bedroom has become my refuge for reading and writing as Al pretty much watches CNBC (or as I call it “the money channel”) from opening bell until close of market. It keeps him (mostly) calm and busy, so I’m not complaining.

We live in Pinellas County, where there are currently 38 known cases of coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease of COVID-19. That’s low and we’re lucky. Most people in Florida (70%) are retired and don’t work anymore. We’ve saved all our lives for a little slice of year-round sunshine. Our lives have been upended, sure, but we don’t have many of the problems the rest of the country struggle with. Not yet.

It’s those people here and elsewhere on the globe, who have been on my mind. I’m worried for small businesses, for the service industry, for the paycheck-to-paycheck folks. There’s a great tradition in St Pete for small businesses. Downtown is mostly run by entrepreneurs. We love that. I see I am speaking for Al now. It was bound to happen. I’m surprised at how good we get along in this small space. I’m surprised how little I watch the second television that everyone said was essential when a spouse retires. But then, I am a reader and a writer.

I am also about to turn 65, the magic number for people who want to get into grocery stores early, when everything is freshly sanitized and shelves are fully stocked. You can see how that really won’t matter to us here where almost everyone is 65 and older. It will be a mob scene, but at least a clean one.

I had big plans for my birthday. A new business in St Pete, Book + Bottle was supposed to open last week. They sell books and wine. I love the whole concept. So I was going there, dragging Dad and Al because it’s my birthday and I get to say where we go and what we do. I also planned on visiting Frida’s bakery and cafe, another wonderful local business, for my dinner out, because I never cook on my birthday. Also, they have flourless chocolate cake and great food. I went there with writer friends before the enemy virus hit, and thought Al and Dad would like it there, too.

Just like almost everywhere in America, those two places have mostly closed for business. I hope our local small businesses can keep it together until the crisis is over and we get back to normal. It feels sometimes like things will never be normal again. Or there will be a new normal. Both Book + Bottle and Frida’s have curbside service, so we may just hop in the car and go out to support those businesses from afar. I’ve never ordered a book or a bottle of wine as a carry-out before. Since it’s my birthday, I can insist!

It’s a whole new world out there. I hope you are doing well. Until next week…

Finance For Retired People

Al starts his morning by looking at the market. The stock market. You might have heard: today the news is not good. It has not been good for awhile. Al has been managing our financial portfolio, and since he retired, when there’s a bump and stocks go high for a day or an hour, he sells. We’re lucky. He’s sewn a cushion to blunt this blow for however long it lasts.

The television is on and we are watching the free fall. The market has closed! It’s going to open again in thirty seconds. I almost can’t write. I could go into the bedroom and write this post but I have a feeling I will keep watching the havoc on the television.

This is not a great time for retirees who have been keeping up with inflation by holding some of their funds in the stock market. The thing that caused it, COVID-19, is not good for us old people, either. At first I was sad, okay, we can’t take that Alaskan cruise. Then yesterday, we figured we probably shouldn’t stop in Dollywood on our way back to Michigan. In our car.

The television is talking about the government “saving the airlines” and I don’t understand it. Is this like the Wall Street bail out? And this morning, I wonder if COVID-19 will stop the kids from flying in for their scheduled visit in April. Mom was coming, too. Will my mother want to get on the plane at 81 years old? She’s not fond of planes in good times.

These are not good times.