Thursday, July 1, 2010

Two Years

Two years ago today I went to the Henry Rohlsen International Airport here on St. Croix and met the plane Tori, Max and Janet were on. I'd arrived the day before with Kate, Alex, Millie and a very pissed off cat. So today marks the two year anniversary of the start of our adventure.

No regrets. None.

jb

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's Plumb Crazy

No details here. I don’t want you to lose your lunch.

Suffice it to say I had a major plumbing job to do last week. And it was probably - no, definitely - the ugliest thing I’ve ever done, and the words “up to my elbows” could be used in a completely literal way. Everyone got it?

But there is one part I want to tell you because it tells so much about life on St. Croix.

We’ve actually had this problem three times in the past four months. There’s something wrong with the drain pipe. We’re not on a septic system, we’re on sewer. The landlady’s brother - who manages the property, came out to show me. But when he walked out on the street, he got this puzzled look on his face.

“Where’s the manhole?” he asked. “It was right here.”

The road was remarkably smooth for one of the roads out here, and nowhere was there any sign of a manhole cover up or down the street.

The guy who’d snaked the drain out the last time said before anything else, I really should contact Waste Management (VIWMA – The Virgin islands Waste Management Authority) and have them check the sewer line. So they came out with a truck. And they couldn’t find it either. In fact, they had no recollection of there ever having been a sewer line down the street. So they went back out to the WMA office to check, then came back. Sure enough, the charts at the office confirmed that there was indeed a sewer line here.

The Waste Management guy got a disgusted look on his face. “It’s Public Works,” he said. “They do this all the time.”

Roads are under the control of the Department of Public Works. Sewers are handled by VIWMA. And they pay absolutely no attention to each other.

So when Public Works, some time in the past, came down to resurface the street, they didn’t go to the trouble of framing the manholes and working around them. They just paved right over ‘em!

The Waste Management guy shook his head and explained that when they do sewer work, they almost always have to start with a metal detector. That lets them find the cast iron manhole covers, which they then have to dig up, punching holes in the pavement.

That’s a hell of a way to run a railroad, as the saying used to go.

One thing I would caution any newcomer to the island against is making any kind of suggestions about better ways to do something. People here do NOT want to hear, “Boy, back in New York we do it this way.” (It’s particularly New Yorkers, I’m told. The locals are not fond of New Yorkers.) “Ya know what you ought to do is …” "The way we do it back in the states is ..." The locals don’t like it so much, even if they’ve just finished telling you how stupid the situation is. It’s their Public Works Department, and they can berate it, but a continental should just keep his mouth shut.

So I do. I commiserated with the guy, but didn’t suggest that back in Oregon the street pavers don’t typically cover the manholes. I didn’t need to anyway. The sewer worker had that covered, as was his right by virtue of having lived here all his life.

And it worked to my advantage. I was obviously a nice, respectful guy, and they’d brought their truck with the pump on it anyway. So after I’d explained the situation they ran out the hose with the water jet and ran it through my drain pipe in both directions. (And the drain system of this house, by the way, is just the stupidest set up you’ve ever seen, but I won’t go into that.) And in hardly any time at all, it was all clear. It hadn’t been their job, it was actually probably wrong of them to do it since it was on private property. But I have no complaints. They were nice guys and took care of the problem for me.

I’m sure the problem will recur, and I’ll know what to do about it. It’ll be ugly again, but I can handle it. I just hope they never need to get into the actual sewer line. That could get ugly.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Good Hope Graduation 2010



Millie, right, and classmates sing "Unwritten" at graduation.


Millie graduated from Good Hope Schoo about an hour ago. I'll write something later. Right now here are a couple of pix.




Millie leads the class in.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tis the Season!

June 1 is the official first day of the hurricane season. For the next six months we'll be watching the Weather Channel at least daily, and regularly checking in on our favorite weather sites. It's like being a bowling pin, staring up the alley watching which way the balls are coming, hoping they miss is.

All the forecasters are predicting an active season, unlike last year when there was nothing. So we're starting to build up supplies - food, water (a gallon a person a day,) gas for the generator, flashlights, batteries, candles. All that good stuff you've gotta have on hand.

There's no activity in the Atlantic right now and we don't anticipate it for a while. The season peaks in August and September, but you've gotta be prepared for anything. There's a bit of doggerel in these parts that talks about how to prepare:

June, too soon.
July, stand by.
August, a must
September, remember.
October, not over.
November -
there's something for November, about how it's almost over but you can't let your guard down. But for the life of me I can't think of what it is. I told you it was doggerel. Shakespeare it ain't, but I don't recall what the Bard had to say about hurricane preparedness. It was probably in "The Tempest."

All I know is they're saying the ocean surface temps will be higher this year, they don't expect as much wind shear off South America, Saharan dust isn't as likely to be as heavy as last year. All those add up to 15 or so active systems, 5 to 7 named storms at least three of which will be Cat 3 or higher. All we can do is hope they pass to the north or south and leave our little island alone.

Is that too much to ask?

And to be prepared in casre they don't.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Wet and Worried

Spent the last 24 hours worrying about Tori and Max and I'll continue to do so until mid-afternoon.

At Good Hope School the two fifth grade classes have an annual field trip to St. John, the third island in the U.S.V.I. St. John is mostly the national park. So they left Tuesday, flew to St. Thomas and took a ferry to St. John. The program was ambitious, hikes and swimming and snorkeling (St. John reputedly has the best snorkeling around) and ecology lessons. Thank God they have cabins, not tents.

Because yesterday it started raining and for the most part it hasn't stopped. There's a flash flood alert on for the territory - through Saturday evening. And, to help fray my nerves even more, the place they're staying has no cell phone reception, so the earliest I'll hear how they're doing is in a few hours when they ferry back to St. Thomas.

About 25 or so kids, give or take, the two teachers, and a handful of parents.

I'm just glad I convinced her to bring the rain hoodie - the only bit of wet weather gear we brought from Oregon. But I'll feel a LOT better when they're home.

And I do not sleep well anyway when she's not here. I've had three to four hours of sleep a night since they left.

I just hope they had a great time, and the rain becomes part of the legend, one of those things that grows in the telling, that you wear like a badge of honor.

Update: Tori called in at 10:50. All is well. They were about to board the ferry from St. John to St. Thomas, then fly home. She's tired and sore and wet, but they had a lot of fun, she said. It rained all day yesterday on their hike. Can't wait to see her.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Secret Weapon

As I said yesterday, I’ve just completed a young adult novel which my agent will soon be peddling to publishers.

Hasn’t sold it yet. Of course, he couldn’t have. He won’t even be reading it until after the first of June. If he has nothing better to do than sit around his office waiting for me to send him manuscripts, he couldn’t be very good, right? And he is good. So I’m happy he’s busy and hope some of that busy-ness will rub off on me. After all, he doesn’t get paid until I get paid.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about my secret weapon that makes me feel really good about my chances to sell the book.

Tori teaches fifth grade at the Good Hope School, a wonderful private school right on the beach, about two miles from our home. Last fall she had me come to her class to talk about writing, plot and lots of stuff like that. She really pushed writing with the kids all year.

Anyway, one thing led to another and she suggested I read the novel to the kids as it progressed. So I did.

What a revelation! The kids were great. Every Tuesday and Thursday they’d ask Tori at the start of the day if I’d be coming with more chapters. I always tried to have two at a time for them, which kept me focused and productive. I hated to disappoint them.

When I was finished reading for the day and said, “And that’s all for today,” they’d always let out a group moan, “Aawwww!” Which suggested to me that they liked the story, or at least liked it better than they do, say, math tests. I’ll take that.

They were also really helpful, and not at all shy about letting me know when the day’s offering hadn’t measured up. “Kinda boring,” they said once. You’d better believe I worked my ass off to keep from disappointing them.

And as the story progressed, I was able to gauge how it was going and what I needed to do to clean up those problems. I actually was able to reorganize so that the second half of the story already was written as if I’d made the changes already. I’d explain to them what was going to happen in the rewritten version. When I finished (they applauded at the end, and loved the last line) and started on the second draft, I already had thought out what needed to happen. I tossed the first six chapters and condensed them into three, reworking it so that the same exposition was told in action instead of me talking. Thanks to those kids, the book is WAY better than it was.

And I like to think besides entertaining it was also educational for them. They saw the process of writing a novel, saw the truth that all writing is rewriting, and maybe got an idea of the difference between plot and story.

They will, of course, all be named and thanked in the acknowledgements. They also had plenty of ideas of what should happen next and while I don’t think I used any of them, they helped me see how the reader would perceive the story and how I could use those expectations in building the tale.

The only idea I rejected out of hand was the suggestion that I somehow include a vampire love story in my pirate novel. Sorry, Shania. That just wasn’t in the cards. And Mason and Ryan wanted every chapter to include explosions. That was their answer to everything – blow it up!

All in all, it was one of the best things I've ever done as a writer. I don't see how anyone could ever write a novel without a classroom of smart fifth graders to bounce it off of.

It worked so well for both me and the class that Tori has already given me homework. There will of course be a new class of kids in the fifth grade next fall. And they’ll need a story.

I’m mulling ideas. Not pirates this time. It’s going be about the “curse” on my family.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ebullient, then Nervous

Yesterday I sent the final draft of a new novel to my agent. It's a young adult novel with a pirate theme. Because we live in the Caribbean, I made sure it had plenty of Caribbean flavor. And some of it takes place on St. Croix. Because what the hell? We're a Caribbean island. Why shouldn't some of it take place here?

Anyway, I spent all of Tuesday feeling "ebullient." That quickly faded. I now wait in nervous anticipation for him to sell it. I am not na├»ve, I know this will take months - if I’m lucky. But you always think, “He’ll open the file, just to see what he’s got, and be so taken with the opening scene that he’ll sit down and read the whole thing, right then and there. And he’ll see the potential and be so fired up that by the next day he’ll have it in the hands of some high-powered editor at some big publishing house who will immediately offer me a huge, life-changing advance. This will all take about 24 hours, maybe 48.”

It’s not true, of course. But you always let yourself think that. Just for a day or two.

This is not my first attempt. My first novel went to a dozen houses. One of them held it for nine months, it made it all the way through the approval process until the very last meeting, the one where they decide these are the books we’re publishing next season. And for some reason I was never told, they passed on it. Last summer, after two years, my agent informed me that the book was “dead in the water, for now.” Not that it was bad, not that anyone had anything negative to say about it. Just that no one was willing to publish it.

I licked my wounds for two days. As it happened, when we had that conversation I happened to be reviewing a book for The Poopdeck. It was a good book, but nothing special. I said to myself, “You can do better than that. Hell, you DID do better than that. And you can do it again.” So I sat down and wrote the new one.

I took the feedback I’d gotten and started the new story. And yesterday I sent it off.

I had one rule and one secret weapon. The rule was articulated by Tori, who had just read the Percy Jackson series. She’s a fifth grade teacher and has to keep up with what the kids are into. The rule is: Your character has to fight a dragon in every chapter. Doesn’t have to win, but there has to be a dragon in every chapter.

Well, there are no dragons, of course, this is a pirate novel. But there’s plenty of “stuff.”

The secret weapon I will discuss tomorrow. It requires a little more space and time than I have right now.

One thing I have learned through the years is that no book would ever be published if it weren't for "lunch." The two books I co-wrote with Cap'n Slappy were both sold after lunch meetings between my agent and an editor. Everytime there was a glimmer of hope for the first novel it was after a lunch he'd had with someone. If agents and editors ever decided en masse to go on diets and cut out that middle of the day meal, the country's literary output would fall to nothing.

Just checked my e-mail again. Still nothing from my agent. That’s the other thing, when you don’t hear anything back right away, your mind starts telling you “That’s it. He hates it. In fact, he hates me personally, wonders why he ever signed me, and will probably quit the book business just to get away from me.” If – God forbid! – he were to die, I would blame myself, assuming reading my manuscript had sapped his will to live.

As I think I mentioned in the post about “Bird by Bird,” writers are crazy. I certainly am.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

That was a mistake

I just accidentally re-posted something I'd posted two months ago. Sorry. Pulled it

I found it on my desktop and didn't realize I'd posted back then. Thought, "Well, went to all the trouble to write it."

My bad. And my apologies.

I will, however, be posting something else on writing, but not this week. Next Monday, I'm pretty sure. Because that's when I'll be done.

(And Alex finished her creative writing class, which she really enjoyed. The teacher was terrific, really inspired her.)

In the meantime, here's an update. Lots of mosquitoes right now. Seems to me we had a lot this time last year too, so that'd make it seasonal which means eventually this onslaught will end. I hope so. Killed eight within 15 minutes of waking up this morning. If I lose much more blood I'm likely to pass out.

Maybe that's why I made the mistake. I must be light-headed from loss of blood.

jb

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Writer on Writing

I have been reading this terrific book on writing. It’s called “Bird by Bird,” and it’s by Ann Lamott. It’s not the best or the most useful writing book I’ve ever read, although it’s awfully good. The reason I like it is, first, it’s very funny. The funniest book on writing I’ve ever read. And it’s so true. She writes about writing as if it’s a mental illness, which it sort of is.

Lamott doesn’t come out and say, “By the way, all writers are crazy.” But she makes it pretty clear she and all the writers she knows are at least mildly crazy, paranoid, obsessive, with no sense of perspective. All the students in her writing classes are also crazy, she implies. They also mostly seem to want their money back. But that’s between Lamott and the students, I guess.

Anyway, buried in among all the very funny stuff about the ways in which writers’ minds works to keep them unhappy and worried that everyone including their immediate family is talking about them behind their backs – are some really excellent nuggets of advise, including allowing yourself to fail, not sitting down to "write a novel" but giving yourself small, manageable assignments each day that add up to a novel in the end, and my favorite – write a shitty first draft. It may be shitty, but you can’t fix it if you don’t write it down. Perfectionism, she observes, is the voice of the oppressor.

I came across the book, by the way, through our daughter Alex. She’s taking classes at UVI and one of them is a creative writing class and this is one of the texts. Unlike her other textbooks, this is one she won’t be selling back at the end of the semester. If she doesn’t want it, I’m taking it. So there's the island connection for this blog.

Seriously, if you’re at all interested in writers or writing or you just like a good read and enjoy a laugh, pick up “Bird by Bird.” Good book.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Another long lapse between posts - three months. Sheesh. Sorry. We'll try to do better.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

St. Croix celebrated, as it does every year, with a parade through Christiansted last Saturday. It’s kind of amazing, a combination of Irish and Island that has to be seen to be believed. Sort of "Erin go Bra-less.

I covered it for The Source; here is the story and here’s the video video I shot that went up on the site. For some reason my videos lately aren’t uploading well. This looked crystal clear and sharp when I made it on the computer, but it looks murky and fuzzy on the site. Gotta figure that out.

An old friend whose parents were both from the Auld Sod used to say with scorn that he never celebrated St. Patrick’s Day because, “I’m Irish 365 days a year. St. Patrick’s is amateur night.” And it was he who first pointed out to me the biggest Irish myth in America -- the song “Danny Boy.” It’s purportedly an old, traditional Irish tune sung from a father to his son going off to war and expressing patriotism and love of Ireland. In truth, my friend pointed out, the song was written by an English lawyer, and it’s a love song between a woman and a man. The lawyer actually supplied alternate lyrics for a man to sing, “Oh Ellie girl.”

As it happens, the song was written in 1910, so it’s exactly 100 years old now, not some timeless Irish ballad but one more example of British cultural imperialism. With which the Irish are of course intimately familiar. If you want to sing a real, traditional Irish ballad, try “Eileen Aroon.” Dates back at least 400 years.

Still, I think Dave took things a bit too seriously. St. Patrick’s Day is just fun, and if people whose family came from Poland or China or Nigeria or Brazil want to talk in corny Irish accents or drink green beer and eat cabbage, well, what’s wrong with that? I’m part Irish myself – from the Piper family, I’ve been told although I have no way of knowing if it’s accurate that that part of the family tree once hailed from Limerick – and it seems if the world wants to celebrate Irish heritage, even if they get a lot of it wrong, where’s the harm?

Seems to me it’s a good excuse for a party in a month where typically there’s not a lot to celebrate. And on St. Croix, they know how to celebrate in style.