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  1. What Keeps a Reader Up at Night?

    July 16, 2017 by Diane

    In high school, there was a guy (wasn’t there always?) named John McLean. He strode across campus in a long pea coat with epaulets, hands jammed in the pockets. He had pale, lightly freckled skin, brown hair that flopped across his forehead, and a small red scar across the bridge of his nose.

    I was mad about him.

    He hung out with me. Once. I sat on the front lawn at school with my best friend. John sauntered by, then flung himself down next to me. He plucked at the grass, and a bee stung his index finger. It was Karen who took his hand and removed the stinger.

    Oh how I envied her, holding John McLean’s hand.

    John’s feelings for me were probably non-existent. I saw him at a party once through a haze of marijuana smoke. Later, I typed a poem about it—which was less a poem and more a wishful journal entry in stanzas—with a line about him looking up and “reaching out without reaching out,” and how I suddenly felt “tired, so tired,” (but in a good way, as in: “I can sleep for a long, long, blissful sleep” way, because John McLean had looked up and reached out, sorta).

    No, John had feelings for a girl named Cathy, who lived on the same mountain where I lived, and rode the same school bus as me.

    Oh, how I envied Cathy, waiting for the bus with John McLean’s arm around her.

    Why am I telling you this?

    Story.

    So far, you might be intrigued, but you’re not really invested in John McLean like I am. I haven’t fleshed him out on the page, like I have in memory. As a reader, you’re not ready to stay up late flipping pages to find out what happens next. Sure, there’s a hint of conflict, a want that I, as the protagonist in this real-life drama, have, and something in the way of me achieving it.

    But what if I add this:

    Forty-odd years later, on a July night, I decide to look up John McLean on the internet. I want to see if he’s overweight and bald, or slim and rich, or married with kids, or divorced and wandering Nepal in his long pea coat.

    Why am I so curious at 11 pm on a weeknight, knowing I need to rise and shine for work the next day? What compels me to go down this rabbit hole on the internet at this point in time? And why am I fascinated by a guy I haven’t thought of, except fleetingly, since high school?

    Story.

    I want to know: whatever happened to John McLean?

    First, I try to find him on social media. Nothing. Then, I Google his name and the city of my high school. I find a woman whose last name was McLean. Her obituary says she was preceded in death by her nephew, John McLean.

    Wait, my John McLean?

    Okay, technically, not mine. But still. I need to know: is John McLean dead?

    I sign onto my high school alumni site, something I’ve never done, browse the yearbooks, and narrow down a year when he appears. I scroll through the grainy photos one by one, wondering if I’ll even recognize him, until…bingo! There he is, with the eyes and nose of a lion, grinning like someone who’s just been reprimanded and doesn’t give a shit. I must have drooled over that photo all summer long when I was fifteen. Of course I’d recognize it!

    Where did he go after high school? I spend another hour searching through archives of old newspapers, and then…this:

    John McLean was found dead near his truck in Half Moon Bay. He was 29 years old.

    It can’t be!

    I count back from the year of publication, and that puts this John smack-dab in the middle of my high school, at the exact moment of time that I attended.

    I’ve found him.

    Dead. At 29.

    So young!

    No wonder he never appeared on Facebook or Twitter or any social media site. He died before they were invented!

    According to the obit, John was an avid pilot. A pilot?—I had no idea he loved to fly. He raised bunnies and cattle. John McLean? A rancher?

    Now, I’m consumed by his story. I need to know what happened. But it’s 2 a.m., time to turn off the light, which I do, feeling spooked and saddened and wistful, spinning “what-ifs” in my brain.

    What if I track down his sisters? According to the newspaper, they lived in San Jose at the time of his death. Do they still live there? Would it be weird to ask them what happened? (Yes! Not to mention creepy.)

    What if I dig into the archives of the Half Moon Bay Review to find out about the accident that killed him?

    What if I search his college alumni website?

    What if I phone Karen, who I haven’t seen in thirty? forty? years, and say, “Remember John McLean?”

    “Who?”

    “John McLean. From high school.”

    “Nuh-uh.”

    “Oh, come on.The guy with the long pea coat.”

    “I don’t know. Maybe. Why?”

    “He died when he was twenty-nine.”

    “Ohhhh-kay.”

    What if I talk Karen into flying to California to join me as an amateur sleuth?

    What if, by finding out what happened to John McLean, I am somehow changed in the process? (Having less to do with the boy I remember, and more to do with the youth I’ve lost.)

    Then, I’ve got the makings of a memoir.

    Unless…

    What if I fictionalize this story? I’m agoraphobic, haven’t stepped outside my cottage in ten years, and this obsession over John McLean is the one thing that gets me to face my fear. It’s no cake-walk, going out into the world, tracking down the sisters, retracing his steps from high school to his final day on Earth. There are obstacles I need to work around (with the help of a side-kick, of course), not to mention the fear I need to overcome. But something drives me to answer the riddle, which says volumes about me. And what if all my detective work digs up something about John McLean that rocks my world in ways I never could have imagined?

    Then, I’ve got a novel.

    Story is answering the question: what happened? Supply an interesting premise with a universal theme (who hasn’t wanted to track down an old crush?), appealing characters, a mystery, and a quest that forces the protagonist to change, and you’re well on your way to keeping your readers burning the midnight oil.

    Whatever happened to John McLean?

    I’m hooked.

    Is it just me?


  2. Book Review: The Productivity Project

    July 9, 2017 by Diane

    The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and EnergyThe Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    A guy takes a year off from work to experiment with ways to be more productive, but experimenting to the extreme. Like meditating for 35 hours a week. Or taking in no nourishment (because it’s too time-consuming!) other than a powdered drink called Soylent, which sounds like something made from humans, but isn’t. And isolating himself in a basement for 10 days. Is this guy a monk yearning for a cave? No. He’s Chris Bailey, and he’s come up with a whole new way of looking at time management, procrastination, and being more productive which, to my mind, is refreshing.

    For starters: evidently, it’s human nature to procrastinate. Chris looks at this bad habit as, basically, putting something off for your future self to deal with. Personally, I never thought of it that way. And he offers suggestions for connecting to that future self. Like a nifty website called FutureMe.org, where you can send yourself an email that arrives days, weeks, months, or years from today. How cool is that!?

    Time management gets a new spin with Chris, too. He talks about scheduling three things a day, releasing the unimportant, plowing through chores on a “Maintenance Day,” rather than getting sidetracked with them throughout the week, and working on projects in less time to force yourself to focus.

    To be productive, we need to manage more than our time. We need to harness our energy, too. We need to track our most energetic times of the day and schedule important tasks during those times, and unimportant tasks when we’re brain-dead (like at 3:00 in the afternoon). We need to eat, exercise, and sleep well, and Chris covers tips on how to do all three (which doesn’t involve Soylent).

    The third ingredient of productivity, along with managing time and energy, is managing attention. Here, Chris brings up the benefits of a meditation practice, and reassures the reader that meditation doesn’t require sitting in a lotus position for hours. He talks about working slowly and mindfully to work more deliberately, and introduces the twenty-second rule for avoiding distractions. He busts the myth that multi-tasking makes us more efficient, and hails the art of doing one thing at a time.

    This is the best book on productivity I’ve read, and I’ve read many. Not only does the author shine new light on the subject, but through his year-long experiment and the knowledge gained through interviewing productivity experts, he’s put together a program that’s imminently doable. As a bonus? He starts each chapter with an estimated reading time, down to the second. And it was spot-on, for me.


  3. The Mini Refrigerator that Turned into a Giant Headache: Part 2

    July 2, 2017 by Diane

    If you’re following this blog—and isn’t it required reading somewhere?—you’re familiar with The Refrigerator Incident. Specifically, the mini refrigerator, the one that conked out on me that I had to replace, resulting in a few hours of back-breaking effort getting a new one in and out of my car, and out of its box, only to discover that the inside shelves would only accommodate enough food for three days if you’re two inches tall.

    So it was back to the store with the new fridge to trade in for something human-size. The only glitch? Getting it back into my car.

    But first, I had to get it back into the box.

    I scooted the refrigerator onto the bottom cube of cardboard, no problem. The rest of the box fitted over the top with ease. The problem was connecting the two sections.

    If I had been thinking clearly, I would have duct-taped the top and bottom together around the side. Instead, I decided to proceed as if they were attached, by sliding the whole shebang down my hallway, over the lip of the door, and across the uneven pavement into the garage. In the process, the refrigerator slid off the bottom. I pushed it back on, squashing the box. It slid off. I pushed it back on, and so on until the moment of truth arrived:

    How the heck was I going to get this monstrosity into the back sear of my car in one piece?

    It was then I noticed a warning on the top of the box:

    Do not attempt to move this by yourself. Get help. You could damage your back, or worse.

    I wondered about that. What’s worse than damaging my spine? A hernia? Could I lose some fingers? Take out a knee? I decided to ignore the warning and push the refrigerator top first into the back seat of my Corolla. And there it remained until I figured out how to get help.

    My landlady rents out a room in her house to a young man who works at Google and spends all his free time behind closed blinds, playing video games in his man-cave. For all I knew, he could have been an imaginary tenant, except that every weekday morning his BMW is gone from the driveway when, supposedly, he goes to his job, which involves sitting behind the wheel of a driverless car for eight hours.

    I decided to ask him for help when he returned home. Although I had doubts about his muscular abilities.

    Still, he was my best shot. So I waited. And waited. Occasionally, I went out to my car and tried pushing the refrigerator in by myself.

    Finally, I heard his car door. I dashed outside. I spied him in his J Crew outfit, trying to disappear through the front door.

    “Hey you! Can you give me some help?” (Okay, I didn’t shout “hey you,” I used his real name, which I won’t reveal because he probably doesn’t want anyone to know who he is.)

    To make a long story less long, we got that sucker into my car. I drove back to Target from whence the refrigerator came, found an employee to offload it, and got my money back. I had maybe 18 hours to get my food out of my landlady’s refrigerator before she returned home from Reno with shopping bags full of groceries.

    I drove to Home Depot at a brisk pace.

    I had never been to Home Depot. I parked in the second row of cars near the front of the store, found the refrigerator display, looked inside the various models, decided on a Magic Chef—the only model they had—paid for it, and asked for help loading it into my car. The clerk sent me an elderly man.

    Off I went to pull my car up to the entrance.

    I walked down the second row of cars.

    I walked down the first row of cars.

    I walked down the third and fourth and back again, and up and down and back and forth, pointing my key fob in every direction while pushing the alarm button and all I heard was the elderly man yelling “Come on!” I retraced my steps from where I had pulled into the parking lot and still, no silver Toyota Corolla. Correction. Several silver Toyota Corollas, but none of them mine.

    I pulled out my cell phone, called Dave, and told him someone had stolen my car. And I couldn’t remember the license plate number.

    Then I spotted it.

    In the second row, right where I’d parked it.

    Sheepishly, I drove up to the elderly man who was now sitting on my refrigerator.

    “Thought you lost your car?” he said. “I’ll bet you know where your husband is.” He and his elderly buddy shoved the fridge into the back seat and went off chuckling.

    It took two men to get the thing into the car. Granted, they were old men, but still. Two.

    At home, I scouted around for help. The BMW sat in the driveway. I went in the house and hollered down the hallway, “Hey you! Can you help me again?”

    I heard some rustling. “Give me thirty minutes,” he said.

    An hour later, I called Dave. “If you happen to be out riding your bike today, can you swing by and help me?” Over six miles out of his way, but the guy likes his exercise, so I figured I was doing him a favor.

    “Yeah, sure,” he said.

    And then my landlady returned home.

    Wait! What? Oh, jeez.

    I ran out to warn her. Something in my face, in my repetitive, “I’m so sorry my food is hogging your refrigerator” must have triggered sympathy in her. She brushed my apologies aside.

    “Don’t worry about it,” she said.

    I pointed to the humungous box in my car. She offered to help get it out. We shoved that refrigerator upright onto a make-shift dolly, and rolled it into my cottage. I waited for Dave to arrive to unpack it.

    The sun was setting when he finally rolled up, sweaty from the ride. He took off his helmet and muscled his way through the door. He pulled the strapping tapes off without snipping them—a wise move, in hindsight—took off the box and maneuvered the fridge into its cozy space. We stood back in admiration.

    “I like it,” he said.

    We checked the inside.

    “Me too.”

    And then I noticed: the upper corner was smashed. The hinge didn’t sit properly. The seal wasn’t plumb. The stupid thing was damaged!

    I groaned. I may have cried a little. Dave put it back in the box, pulled the strapping tapes over the top, and carried the refrigerator out to my car. He shoved it in the back seat and peddled away on his bicycle, muttering loudly about people who don’t help.

    Google guy stepped outside. “Do you still need help?” he asked.

    I gave him a beady look.

    The next morning, my landlady offered to follow me to Home Depot in her SUV. I exchanged the damaged fridge for a new fridge. But first, I had the Home Depot guy take it out of its box so I could examine it.

    It passed muster.

    He loaded it into my landlady’s SUV. At home, we dollied it into my cottage. I set it up, and four hours later, turned it on.

    A nice quiet hum.

    By evening, I loaded my food into it.

    The next morning, when I opened the door to get my oat milk, I noticed the seal in the upper right corner of the refrigerator was peeling away. The containers inside had condensation. The new loaf of bread had a big moldy spot. WHAT THE HELL! I drove to True Value, bought a refrigerator thermometer, and hung it on the bottom shelf. Thirty minutes later, the thermometer registered the temperature in the “danger zone.”

    I threw away my food.

    Called the refrigerator manufacturer.

    I’m now waiting for a service technician to pay a visit.

    I wonder if he’ll be as incompetent as the guy who came to demolish the pool with a shovel.

    …to be continued.