Friday, May 30, 2014

October Years -- In Spite of Suzie

Perhaps by this time of life, in my late October years, I should have learned everything I needed to know. Safe to say that hasn’t happened. Not even close. A while back I was reminded of that once more. 

Let me say up front that I was glad to have her input. After all, she knows what she’s talking about. She works for an agency---representing writers, selling their stories to publishers. She (I’ll call her Suzie) knows what her publishing clients want. And what they want---whether the story is a whodunit, a saving-the-world-from-Godzilla drama, or a steamy vampire romance---is fast-moving action, the kind that grabs the reader on page one and never lets up.

It’s pretty hard to argue with then, eh? And I didn’t---until Suzie, who was commenting on the first chapter of my Second Chances, explained that it was a painfully slow way to start the story. Should I have let that upset me, even a little bit? Probably not. Did it? Yeah, it did---at least a “little bit,” maybe more. 

Though my conversation with Suzie was over almost before it began, I came away asking myself where I’d gone wrong. I was doing my best to create the story I wanted to tell. Obviously in her eyes that was not enough. It would be later that day, when I paused to replay her blunt critique, that I finally had a clue as to why she and I were not seeing eye to eye about something that I take so personally.

You see, in Suzie’s literary universe the goal is non-stop action---the kind that hopefully pulls the reader from page to page. The characters in her kind of story are there to act and react in ways that keep the story moving according to the carefully-crafted plot. That is their purpose in the scheme of things---to provide the suspense, piece together the clues, stand up to the bad guys, and take chances---all the in the name of continuing action. At every turn the players are there to serve the story.

Small wonder that Suzie struggled with my unorthodox, not-so-action-filled tale. The characters in my books are October folks. Second Chances, which begins at a fiftieth high-school reunion, follows seeking seniors as they struggle to overcome the loneliness of life lived alone. 
As is true in all my books those people are the reason for the story. Their missteps and adventurers---in the form of conflicts, wrong turns, and disappointments---are not meant to pull the reader along. Rather those trials provide us, you and me, with the means to know them better. The purpose of the story is to meet those folks up close and personal---to understand their reasons for doing what they do, and perhaps learn the lessons their coping has taught them.
By the time I had worked my way through that line of reasoning I realized that I had answered my own question, and perhaps Suzie’s too. You see, if the characters in a story exist to keep the plot moving toward whatever course of action is intended, then my October efforts are bound to come up short. 
If, on the other hand, my story exists for the characters’ sake, to explore and illustrate how they deal with the trials and traumas of a particular time of life---what I call the October Years---then I’m satisfied that I’ve tried my best. These are by no means escapist stories, but instead hopefully realistic insights about real people living out their late-life trials and triumphs.
Back in May, 2013, in a post titled Why would he write that kind of stuff? I summed up my answer by admitting that I was “staking my claim in the tiniest slice of the market.” There I was, telling relational stories about October players living out what I called their “geriatric adolescence.” They often come to the game with two strikes against them, and a life-view that is scarcely imaginable to younger readers. All in all, that’s not exactly mainstream fiction.
As near as I can tell that assessment is still true. Yet the more I think about it the more I realize that there is something else at work here. Returning to Second Chances, Suzie was right---the story does start slowly, though I might debate her “painfully” description. It starts that way because instead of offering tantalizing hints of a crime, a conflict, or a romantic drama I am introducing people, the ones I’ll be following for the next six hundred pages and two books. So in those first pages I was in no hurry to move to where their adventures would take them---not until I (and the reader) knew something about them.
So here I am, an admitted “amateur,” telling “people” stories about old people. I suppose that means the “tiniest slice of the market” keeps getting smaller. In that case, I’m glad that I’m having so much fun doing what I do the way I do.

Friday, May 23, 2014


 I call it A Writer’s Blog---a place where I can have my say. So why have I been sitting on this piece for weeks, wondering if it belongs here? Why the reluctance? Whether we admit it or not, October people have spent a lifetime creating their answers to these questions. Heck, I’ve written a whole story about them. There is no reason to be so timid. So here goes nothing.
As you might imagine, writing about the October years is different than writing about the April and May years we like to remember. For one thing our October expectations are probably more realistic than those youthful visions of how we hoped our life would play out. Most of us have moved beyond those adolescent dreams. Though we like to revisit our memory-laden Aprils and Mays from time to time, by October we have hopefully developed the inner resources (some will call them “spiritual” resources) to deal with what life has sent our way. 

Still, it is the most conventional bit of wisdom for a writer---whether you’re blogging or writing a novel. When it comes to matters of religion and the spiritual tread softly. The odds of offending are just too high. Yet, though I certainly don’t want to offend, I do want to my October stories to reflect the real world---and for me the real world includes matters of the soul.

You see, along the way my peers and I have learned there are times when the October psyche needs reinforcement. For me to ignore that inconvenient fact for the sake of literary correctness overlooks a basic truth about the people who populate my stories.

Having reached their sixties and seventies, those October friends of mine have experienced the “spiritual” first hand. More than that, they have hopefully created their own ways of integrating those impulses into an acceptable life-view. That integration can take many forms. It is after all a very personal thing. Yet, whatever answers we construct for ourselves, everyone faces those “matters of the soul.” In that case, why would I shy away from something so central to whom we have become?

As we’ve moved across life's calendar we have learned to rely on our own personal ways of dealing with those spiritual questions. How else could we have made it this far? In the nine Tanner Chronicles stories I have written I have touched on a wide range of October trials---hurtful times of overwhelming loneliness and isolation, the emptiness of a life-partner lost or a retirement gone wrong, a promising future turned sour by a failing economy, and the nearly indescribable pain of dementia forcing its way into a long and loving relationship. Every one of those incidents is more than simply a life-experience dilemma---it is a deeply spiritual challenge.

As a staunch advocate of October Bold and October Becoming I view our October spirituality as the place where “Belief”  and “Becoming” come together. By now we can see how our spiritual "beliefs," in whatever form they take, impact our unique and very-personal “becoming.”

And how can Belief and Becoming be blended together in an October story? How about a brief example? It’s from a story I call Becoming. Maria Ruiz is a middle-aged caretaker, a life-long captive of the God she was taught as a child to fear---the one who promises harsh judgement for every failing, and dire consequences for long-ago transgressions. 
Carl Postell, on the other hand, is left to counter Maria’s unyielding faith with little more than his own stumbling intuition of a God who sends us off to “become” who we are meant to be. Not surprisingly, the common ground Maria and Carl seek often seems out of reach.
“The other day you asked me if I believed in God,” I said. “Well, just so you know, I do. But the God that I can imagine is nothing like the God you talk about.” With that I started toward the porch, ready to check in on Dad before I left.
Before I reached the back door Maria’s question was loud and demanding behind me. “How is it different, Carl?” she asked. “What makes your God different than mine?”
“Look, I’m not sure I can explain. I’m not exactly a church-kind-of-guy, you know. Let’s just say we have very different ideas and let it go at that. Okay?”
For a moment I was remembering a time when I had been “a church-kind-of-guy.” When our children were young Sandra had insisted that we be in church every Sunday---certain that the kids would benefit from Sunday School and seeing their parents in church. It was not the kids’ favorite thing, or mine---but for several years we were there most every Sunday. Strangely, Sandra’s religious logic had grown more flexible over time, allowing us to “outgrow” church as the kids got older. By the time Trish was twelve or thirteen Sunday morning had reverted to its original status as a well-earned sleep-in-day.
Now, looking back at Maria leaning against the backyard fence I was laughing to myself, aware of the startling irony. That nice lady was struggling with the deepest of faith questions---concerns that had apparently haunted her for decades. Yet, in the very depths of her seeking, she was asking me of all people to elaborate on my notion of God. She deserved so much more than I had to offer.
Right then I should have turned away and kept moving. Instead I paused long enough to say, “Maria, there’s nothing about what I believe that would help you. It’s just too different.”
“That’s what I’m asking. How is it different?”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, knowing that I was not at all sure, She nodded her affirmative, so I took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind.
“Okay, here’s the deal. You talk about a God who has rules for every step you take---and who comes down hard on you when you break those rules. Your God is a tyrant. The God that makes sense to me is one who gives everyone the freedom to be themselves. 
By then my unfamiliar role as a spiritual advisor was growing more uncomfortable by the second. “The God I understand gives every single thing that It creates all that it needs to become whatever it’s supposed to be. And then It sends that creation off to become that ‘something.' That’s true for a tree, a flower, or an animal. They use what they’ve been given to become what they’re meant to be. And I believe that it’s the same way for people. 
“That’s what I think we’re doing here,” I continued---hoping Maria was still listening. “We’re ‘becoming.’ A part of our job is to learn what it is we’re supposed to be---that might be a caregiver like you, a storyteller like me, or anything else. There's no end to the possibilities. But I'm certain that once we've figured out what we're meant to be, we’ll have everything we need to become that person." I paused to read her reaction. She was giving me few clues so I added, “And I guess that’s about it.”
“That’s all? That's what God is like to you?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” I shrugged, knowing there was at least one more piece I ought to be including. How would she accept that? “Except for one last thing,” I said. “Something that seems to be very different than the God you know.”
“What’s that?”
“Like I said before, we have choices in the matter. We get to do the choosing. We can even decide not to be the person we’re intended to become. We all do that sometimes. But when that happens---when we mess up---I don’t believe that God gives up on us. The God I can imagine doesn’t forget about us, or get mad at us, or punish us because we took a wrong turn. He, or She, knows that everyone does that from time to time. Most of all, God is ready to help us when we try again. 
“It seems to me that’s important.” I was ready to end this. “Because even when we get off track, and we all do, what I call God is always ready to help us. We’re surrounded by Him, or Her, or It. The people who care about us, who lend a hand even when they don’t have to---they're God’s way of helping us.
“Anyway, that’s how God looks to me. But I don’t see how any of that can help you. Not if you can’t imagine a God who forgives the times you’ve gone wrong. I wish you could do that, because Dad and I would really like to see you smiling again.”

Thursday, May 15, 2014


If you’re the kind who likes to poke around the internet you soon learn how many October folks are out there telling their stories. Without the noisy fanfare that accompanies Gen-X trends, Gen-Oct is quietly exercising its new-found ability to speak up and let its voice be heard.
Spend a few minutes on the web and you’ll realize there is no limit to the ways we can have our say. Our October peers are telling their stories in the form of blogs, videos, Facebook postings, and chat rooms. They are writing family histories, self-help manuals, and a multitude of fictional offerings. (Are you into Geriatric Vampire literature?) However they choose to be heard, they are speaking up.

Moreover, in this internet era of ebooks, Print-on-Demand publishing, and online distribution our stories can be shared more easily and widely than ever before. I can’t explain why this blog attracts a modest, but stable Russian readership. But it does.

As a veteran of these story-telling times I continue to urge my October friends to tell their own stories---in whatever form works for them. After all, at our stage of life we probably have the time to do that, and given our history (whatever that may be) we certainly have stories to tell. 
Did you know that for $4.00 or $5.00 each you can print (with POD) a dozen paperback copies of your family history or your personal life story. True, you have to write and edit the material and learn the publishing routine. But beyond that the cost is zero. Most of us can afford that. (Truth to tell, I pay $25 per book to have each of them listed on Amazon-Europe. That's the extent of my investment, beyond several hundred hours per story.)
Of course, no matter what you have to say or how you say it, telling a story is a very personal and individual activity. In spite of what the so-called “experts” say, there is no right way, no wrong way. The only test that matters is what works for you.
That’s what makes storytelling such a liberating way to spend your October hours. As one who writes for myself, without worrying about what sells, I tell my stories my way. The Geriatric Adolescence tales I tell are meant to please me, not some publisher.
Early on I had one professional judge praise (albeit faintly) my “dialogued based” style, while another found the same piece “lacking in detail and description.” Fact is, I try to let my characters tell their own story, in their own words and thoughts, with as little narrative interference as possible. I realize that most “experts” do it differently. That’s okay. Actually, I have a theory about why my stories are “dialogue driven,” with a minimum of scene-setting description.
Perhaps like you, I am a child of the radio generation. For reasons I find hard to explain to my grandchildren, I grew up spending long hours in the living room, staring intently at the big Philco upright, while the dramas I followed (from the Lone Ranger to Boston Blackie) were played out in nothing more than spoken dialogue, and mood-setting sounds and music. With only those minimal prompts to pull me along, it was left to my imagination to fill in the visual details of the characters and their settings, to paint my own pictures of the action they depicted.

That may be why I lean toward a dialogue driven (both spoken and internal) format to tell my stories. As long as I provide a minimally furnished stage on which my characters can play out their roles, I am comfortable asking the reader to fill in the colors and fabrics. As a youngster that worked for me. After all, how else would I have known that Sam Spade looked just like my dad?

Bottom Line---Your stories won’t be like mine or anyone else’s. They are your stories. And however you chose to tell them, if having your October say appeals to you they, they ought to be told. So why not do it?


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Be aware, IT is lurking in the shadows, waiting to impose its will on you

I’ve made the point before---our October Years are a time of change. Just think how crazy it gets sometimes. Is this what you imagined when you looked ahead to your calm, quiet, and hopefully predictable Golden Years? 

Having spent decades looking forward to this time, I hope your October matches the dreams you dreamed. We know, of course, that it’s not that way for everyone. And even if you are among the fortunate ones who have traveled a smooth road so far, there is always a chance of being blindsided by some innocent appearing event we did not see coming. 

I count the wife and myself among the lucky ones. We are as healthy as seventy-seven year olds have a right to expect. Our offspring are doing well and our modest retirement seems secure. By all accounts life was good. Until that is, we faced the shock and stress of an intimidating new speed bump---a menacing threat that poked its ugly head from the shadows.

Like you perhaps, we had spent a lifetime accumulating “stuff”---all kinds of “stuff,” mountains of it. Along the way we saved and stored things we just couldn’t let go of. There were reminders of growing children and well-remembered family events---mementos of special times and places. We had wrapped ourselves in bits and pieces of our own history, filling our closets and corners with evidence of whom we had been and what we had done. Our home groaned under the weight of “stuff.” Sometimes it spilled out into rented storage spaces. 

And then, ready or not, IT happened---the disorienting moment that sneaks up on so many October folks. The big house may have become more than they can, or want to deal with. There may be health considerations that require a change of pace. Or perhaps the realities of October economics dictates a new fiscal profile. For some the possibility of a Sun Belt retirement has become more appealing. Whatever the reason, for many of us there comes a time for DOWNSIZING

Some of us probably look forward to that process. For many the appeal is undeniable---the promise of a new beginning---liberation from that “stuff.” we drag behind us. The reality, however, is something different. It begins by committing yourself to parting with some portion of your carefully assembled treasures. You vow to make do with less. But what part of that whole will you do without? 

Which of those things---all of which once had their own special meanings---are you willing to part with? Which of your memories are disposable? And who will make those decisions?
Rather than bore you with our own mundane experience I offer a couple excerpts from my stories that illustrate two very different downsizing experiences. Perhaps you can imagine yourself in one or both of these situations.
First, in an untitled piece that has yet to become a finished story, an October couple is facing the need to move to a smaller, more affordable home---which will mean getting by with less space.
At that moment Jim and Anita Camden were perched on folding chairs in the middle of their garage. The car had been moved outside to make room for their morning’s work. Around them, on three sides of the open room, long shelves held an eclectic assortment of cardboard boxes, each one a repository of some piece of their personal history. In sum those fragile containers held the remnants of forty-nine years together---the two of them as newly-weds, the satisfying family years, raising Larry and Ann in their comfortable Tanner home, and finally the empty-nest decades that had brought them to their present quandary. 

Sitting there, they were effectively surrounded by remnants of earlier choices---reminders of what they had once thought important enough to transport into their future. It had alway been about choices, Jim told himself, suddenly captured by that insight. The persons they had become and the family they had created were shaped by a lifetime of choices. Now they were about to come face to face with their own past.

The task itself would be straight forward, though by no means easy. They were about to revisit decisions made years before, for reasons they perhaps no longer remembered. At the heart of that process would be a new round of choices---deciding what to keep, what to give away, and what to consign to the trash barrel. It would take a while, but it was time to start---at least until Jim watched his wife’s head sink into her cradled hands.

“How can we do this?” Anita whimpered. “We ought to keep it all. Every bit of it is important.”

It was not the time to be insisting on his logic, sound at it was. Jim knew better than that. Instead, it was time for kid gloves and going slow, allowing her to proceed at her own naturally reserved pace, a time to hope for the best.

In Best Friends and Promises, on the other hand, I deal with a very different type of downsizing. Aaron Peck’s wife has been moved to an Alzheimer’s ward and the big house that had been their home for so long must be sold to pay for her care.
In early March the house on Elm Street, their home for forty-eight years, was sold. For Aaron the troublesome process of selling---meetings with the realtor, leaving the house when it was being shown, the final round of paperwork---triggered a renewed sense of loss. For days he sorted and packed, urging the girls to select the mementos they wanted to keep for themselves. In the end he avoided the weekend garage sale they held to dispose of the remaining treasures. It was more than he was willing to bear, watching the reminders of a lifetime with Leona being sold off as casual collectibles to unknowing strangers.
Finally the dreaded day came. The home where their life together had been lived belonged to strangers. The girls went back to Portland and Aaron sat alone in the cramped living room of his Samson Street apartment, mourning the loss of what had always been their home, and the reasons that made it necessary.
Downsizing---some will avoid that trial by letting the family deal it with after they leave. For the rest of us it will likely include a bitter-sweet visit to earlier times---good memories sprinkled with hard choices and occasional regret.