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Off-Grid Newsletter

JENNI'S OFF-GRID NEWSLETTER, NO. 33 (MARCH, 2018)

March 31, 2018

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and me.
The End of Summer, apparently

Good grief it is 31st March, Easter Saturday, and tonight daylight saving ends to force us into believing autumn is upon us in spite of the sea still being 24 degrees C and the days balmy, and I have a newsletter to write. Too much has happened since the last newsletter and as a result I don’t know what to say… Bullet points perhaps?
1. Numerous splendid dinners with friends and family, in spectacular settings around the island. Often while cyclones or the ends of them raged outside.
2. A visit from long-time crazy Australian friends and a invitation to their 150th birthday party in Canberra next June to which we are of course going. (For those of you who are mumerically challenged 70 + 80 = 150).
3. Week-long stay by our younger daughter and family including our unbelievably perfect three grandchildren. And it was 100% fun; not even a hint of boredom, fights or general domestics. We had taken a leaf out of daughter’s book and made a schedule of activities/meals/who was cooking them etc (she runs the YMCA and this is how they run camps…). It worked like a charm, except for the 6-year-old who used it as a whip when the game of Spy Alley promised for Tuesday night didn’t happen (because we didn’t get home from the fishing trip where he caught a fish bigger than him much to the delight of the other 15 people on the boat (all our close friends and half from the US!), and to Louie’s mild bemusement. As we shoved them off to bed, exhausted —us, not the kids— at 11.30pm Louie was shaking the schedule in our faces: “But it says right here on the schedule. SPY ALLEY on Tuesday night!” Next day I asked him if that was the biggest fish he’d ever caught. He thought for a few seconds then “Yes, I think it probably was.” Another few seconds of silence then “In fact it was the first fish I’ve ever caught!” Which brings me to the best of his wise sayings of late. Recently on a car trip his parents were talking about some friend ‘s small child who wasn’t very communicative. Then Louie’s Dad asked him, “Louie, why didn’t you start talking until you were nearly three?” Louie considered this question for a moment and then “Well, I didn’t know who you were.” And that’s just Louie. His elder bro and sis could take up pages but that, you will be relieved to know, is kept for the strictly-family-and-long-standing-friends-who-still-send Xmas cards-or-their own- grandchildren-rich-Xmas-e-letters.
4. The big shift. No turning back now. The new garage on the new section has commenced! Our section has suddenly changed from a peaceful oasis to a mess of diggers and men in boots, gumboots or bare feet (builders here tend to wear bare feet, which I can’t imagine is legal). The garage is being built first so that we have somewhere to store stuff should we be thrown out of our house before the new one is finished, and for the builders to keep their surfboards in and shelter in when it is raining and they are playing cards. Then there is the generator shed. Another early essential. Our actual house won’t start being built until September… we hope. In the meantime the lovely people who have bought our current home have generously allowed us to stay until December.
5. Speaking of generators… ours stopped efficiently firing up the batteries a while ago (necessary when it rains and the solar power isn’t sufficient for the stuff we have on, like computers and modems), and the other night the house went black. As our friendly electrician was uncharitably away having fun in the South Island, and all other likely candidates for generator care were too busy fishing, John fixed it himself. This caused a rollercoaster of emotions; grumpiness to ecstaticness (a new word, I like it) as the generator went from coughing out black smoke to purring like a pregnant cheetah. John fluctuated between a man covered from head to boot with black grease to one who was quite clean other than his fingernails. Luckily he wore boots and not bare feet as grease-engrained toenails are not fun. So he is now expert in yet another area of Off-Grid living… the old saying “It goes on the smell of an oily rag” that he applies to many of the machines he is fond of—the long-suffering motor mower, our ancient and only 4WD car—now also apply to both the generator and to John himself.
6. WOMAD. Spent a week in the ‘Naki: for those of you who are not Kiwis, this is the affectionate term for the bump halfway down the west coast of the North Island that has the perfect cone of a volcano, Mt Taranaki, centre-stage, and hosts the World of Music, Art and Dance every year. We usually go because it is fabulous, New Pymouth, the main town in the ‘Naki where it is held is a lovely spot, and best of all our youngest son lives there. So we get to stay with him and spend time with all his lovely friends, and listen to and dance to incredible music from Friday at 5pm until Sunday at midnight. Then there’s the food. The most wonderful thing about WOMAD is the atmosphere. It is friendly, joyous, everyone has returned to the happy seventies, dragged out their hippy gear, flowers and lights in their hair, kids galore all dancing on their parents’ shoulders, white hair, black hair and lots of green and blue hair. . Old buggers, families, teens and babies all lovin’ it. There is no age group that is not equally represented. Each of the three days was packed with about 17,000 people in the park, which is considered the best of all the world venues that WOMAD is staged in. Natural amphitheatres with a great grass bowl for people to sit on, multiple stages well spaced, thousands of cheerful volunteers who make the queues to get in short and quick as they check bags to make sure there is no alcohol (alcohol can be purchased inside but this means that we saw no-one drunk or indeed stoned, and no aggression, even of a minor kind such as between grumpy parents, or from people sitting on the grass who were accidently stood on by people trying to get closer to the action. ) Contrast this to the Mighty Mississippi Blues Festival in Greenville, Mississippi that John and I went to in 2016 where the atmosphere was just as lovely, and the music as good, but in spite of this there were smiling police everywhere with guns. Why?? Why???

Writing
Two of my three manuscripts sent to editors in the UK have come back, and both recommend not to throw them in the fire. The editiorial assessment of the very first novel I wrote which has been revised so many times it is almost unrecognisable was masterful (the editorial critique, not the novel!) and proved yet again what indispensible people great editors are for novelists. I am newly fired up to change this yet again, which is exciting. The psychological suspense also could work with revision but in truth my heart is not into that. I wrote it originally to see if I could, not because I really wanted to. It will come last I suspect in the queue for revision but at least I won’t burn it just yet. I await the assessment of my most recently completed novel which I still love. Scary. What if the editor says “Use it as a learning experience and move on…”

But a strange thing has happened. Funny really. Funny and cheering. As British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was rumoured to have said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
‘A Drop in the Ocean’ has, without any marketing whatsoever, begun to climb the US Kindle charts and stay up there. Today it is ranked #255 of all Amazon US Kindle books (millions), #13 in Women’s Lit Fiction, and in the top 20 in its other categories. Amazon also ranks authors (rather than their books) on their popularity by the sales of all their books in particular categories, and I have got to #50 in Kindle Literary Fiction, and to #56 in Literary Fiction in the category that includes all books—print as well as e-books—just behind…dah dah! F Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck with their long lineups of classics! Is this crazy or what! Of course the authors of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ may have been up there for a while… all those students buying them for their English Lit classes.
Amazon clearly exists to give us pleasure (and make them lots of money in spite of their massive discounting of books, including mine, at their expense), so may as well enjoy a brief spot in the sun.

Book Review
Every Note Played by Lisa Genova.

In some ways this is Lisa Genova’s most powerful book since “Still Alice.” Its power is in her ability to say it like it is, and when the topic is ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis,
a form of Locked-in Syndrome or Motor Neuron Disease) this makes for grim reading. ALS is known mainly by the general public because it is the disorder suffered by Stephen Hawking. However, Hawking, who died last week, had a very rare form of the disease that allowed him to live a long and productive life. Lisa’s central protagonist, Richard, had a rapidly progressive form.

At one level, this could be (and should be) a handbook for health professionals who are involved with Motor Neuron Disease patients. Whether family carers in the early stages of caring should read it is not so clear. I’m not sure if this might not be too much information too early in the process. In the early stages of finding themselves in this situation family members and the sufferers themselves need some hope in order to keep going, and in Richard’s story there is almost none. However, it definitely points to the need for family and carers of ALS sufferers to have extensive help and relief from the outset.

However, this is a novel, not a clinical handbook, and in that it did not come close to “Still Alice”. The central character is Richard, a celebrated pianist, an inspired choice of career to allow the horrors of this creeping paralysis to destroy first the musical genius and then the man. The early chapters of the book when he begins to face the reality of losing his ability to play, finger by finger, showcase Lisa Genova at her best, giving us insights from the point of view of the sufferer himself. Unfortunately Richard is not a thing of beauty like the music he once made, but one of the most unlikeable characters imaginable: arrogant, self-centred, a womanizer, and previously a cheating husband of Karina, the other central character, and an uninvolved father of their only child Grace, now a young woman. There was an attempt to make Richard feel sorry about the way he had treated his wife and daughter by the end of the book and his life, but it didn’t ring true.

His ex-wife, Karina, had also been a fine pianist and believed her career had been curtailed by Richard’s ambition. She cannot stand him yet finds herself offering to take him back into the house they used to live in so she can help care for him. This was a stretch for me to believe. She is a rather weak and not a particularly likeable character herself, and we discover she was not blameless in the breakup of their marriage. She at least continued to find the ‘nursing’ situation repulsive (as most of us would) and Richard basically a creep, which was consistent if uninspiring, although on a couple of occasions we see her sympathy breaking through. Their daughter is almost a non-character, and not convincing. The family dynamics were minimally portrayed and seemed almost a sort of afterthought to the main story, the horrors of the disease itself.

Not everyone in real life is loving and kind and forgiving of course, but a story as grim as this could have benefited from considerably more of these characteristics! The only main character who was indeed all of these things was the professional home carer, Bill. As Karina often thought, “God bless Bill”. For the reader as well!

Genova does intensive and hands-on research for all of her books, and this was definitely the case for this book. Her notes and acknowledgements at the back are very worth reading. The ALS victims and their families she spent so much time with (many of whom died before the book was published) were the extreme opposite of Richard, Karina and Grace. Courageous, giving people facing this terrible situation seem more the ‘norm’ than the unpleasant Richard and Karina. If the story had reflected these real peoples’ experiences more, then I think it would have been more powerful, more emotionally moving (as it is, it comes across as very clinical), and would have had a more positive influence on bringing public attention to this devastating disease. The graphic clinical details could all have remained intact, as it is these that show us just how terrible this disease is, but a story of people going through this that doesn’t bring readers to tears (not me, anyway) has lost something precious. I was also rather surprised that there was almost nothing about eunthanasia woven into the subtext. The life/death decisions that had to made seemed more about whether the nursing care and equipment required to keep people like Richard alive could be afforded when the point was reached where only artificial breathing would do the trick (this being the US where private health care goes to ridiculous extremes to keep peopple alive, but public health care is minimal.)

The book’s reviews demonstrate that lots of readers found it a page turner (and it was in a strange sort of way) and many even found it emotionally moving. But there you are, reading is a subjective ole thing, so give it a go. You will definitely learn something and at the end of it likely feel grateful for the blessings you have.

My latest Psychology Today blog post
Zilch and I have had an e-mail from Psychology Today to warn me that I have not blogged for 90 days and my name will not shine on their current experts list again until I blog once more! April, I promise.

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