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Friday, April 28, 2017

Writing About Empathy

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

All the political intrigue and infighting going on about healthcare in America reminded me of the last time I had health insurance* (when I was in the hospital in ’14).

I volunteered to go to the emergency room when I realized something was terribly wrong. Doctors came to my side for hours trying to figure out what the problem was. It was well past midnight when they transferred me to a bed, and it took over a week to figure out what the problem was.

Since it was a teaching hospital, doctors came by with interns doing rounds. They do ask for your cooperation. You are not required to participate. I am student-friendly and allowed interns to examine me, ask questions, and make homework of me.

I was very popular. There were consults with a number of department heads, each one trying to determine the nature of my pain. Everybody got to prod, prick or send me into cold rooms with loud machines. I was treated well, but not everybody showed empathy. Empathy requires understanding and action; it is more than words, there must be intent to soothe the soul of its pains as well.

The head of oncology was a lovely man, tall and imposing, but also very polite and transparent. After our first visit and a round of tests, he did a personal consult to inform me that the problem was not cancerous in nature, and asked if I’d allow him to return with his students on rounds. I agreed.
Mom happened to be visiting when he rolled around with his interns. She was sitting back, catching her breath after a hot and humid commute on a slow bus. I was laying back in the Wonder Woman socks Barbara sent me, playing WWF with La Belle Dame de Baton Rouge, while he lectured the interns on what they could expect on a worst-case scenario (with varying degrees of horrific details).

Somehow, Mom missed a word or two of the intro; and, when I looked up, she’d blanched to the point I think she was ready to drop (whether faint or to a stroke was unclear). It quickly dawned on me what was happening.
“No! No, Mom!!! That’s just for them, not about me,” I tried to explain but words got twisted in the delivery.
The doctor stopped, and both he and a dozen students turned to watch my mother’s eyes watering, her skin pallid, her breath clearly gone. 
{Houston, we have a problem: complete meltdown in three, two, one…}
“Mom?” She couldn’t hear me. Her eyes were fixed inward in the horror of the words she had just heard—
She just heard a man tell a bunch of strangers her baby girl was dying!
A good number of the interns were still taking notes or trying to digest the gist of their mini-lecture on differential diagnoses. The doctor, on the other hand, immediately realized the problem, stepped forward toward Mom, and shielded her from the students’ view.
“I apologize,” he said. “The worst case scenario I just mentioned is for academic purposes only, not at all the case with your daughter. The problem with her pain is not an oncology problem.”
He dismissed the students and asked that they wait outside. He hugged Mom and reassured her. His voice was soft, the delivery self-assured and authoritative…

“We have a few very capable teams on the case,” he told her. “She is a strong young woman and I’ve no doubt you’ll have a diagnosis soon.” He spoke to her for a few minutes, and offered to answer any of her questions. Despite not having concrete answers, he gave her enough of a foundation for hope by simply addressing her personally.
He stopped short of promising her they’d fix me, but his moral support implied it. That was all she needed. Slowly her color returned to her lovely face—though she was tired and worried still.

Empathy and excellent bedside manner can be an elixir in itself. Even if applied to someone other than the patient herself.

In writing that scene, with no other details, I wonder if the empathy is palpable on its own. Perhaps it was a combination of the doctor’s no bull approach coupled with an Old World genteel civility. Maybe that was all that it took to perceive empathy. Or perhaps we desperately wanted to see one of these authority figures to possess empathy.

Showing empathy can be tricky in writing—you always run the danger of making it all exposition. And while I don’t necessarily condone profiling, I bet those who literally felt the empathy knew how unusual the main character here is from the archetype of an institutional doctor who is also an administrator (I wrote the anti “House”). 

*For the record, I have health insurance, although I did spend about two years without, and am likely to lose it again soon enough, but that's another story and there is no empathy involved.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Overextend Yourself to Build Something Durable

It has been a long time since I’ve been so busy.

Sadly, busy these days does not always translate in the same return on time invested. No longer a corporate drone, as it were, I am not exactly entitled to time and a half or even overtime pay…

On the other hand, I get to help authors put their work out into the world, and it is fun!

I love the part where I get to build these professional relationships, and my work ethic and work product gets me good word-of-mouth and new clients. That feels fan-freaking-tastic! Truthfully.

I tried to pursue an opportunity and it turns out that it probably wasn’t for me for a variety of reasons. That’s okay. Some of it was interesting and it helped to remind me that I don’t need to water-down my standards (in terms of what I want or don’t want to do for a living), and that my greatest asset is creative problem-solving. 

There isn’t a hurdle I won’t try to jump over. I will not be beaten by details! If I cannot perform a task, I am always honest about it. But that rarely means that I will accept it and leave it at that. I conquer it. I must.

Freelancing has the power to push you intellectually and you learn new skills, you adapt and move on or fall flat. But it also can exacerbate doubt especially during lean times. And this is why you must not shy away from opportunity, even if it means overextending yourself a little bit.

You will sleep little and you will be tired, but in a good way.

I haven’t been doing a lot of writing, but I just did my taxes and was so darned proud to be able to fill in royalties again on my forms. It’s not enough to buy a house in Malibu, but that was never the point!

A couple of stories remain very active in my head, as I try to make some details work. And I know I need to get back to my writing soon.

Sometimes you have to overextend yourself to build something durable. 

Sometimes focus needs to shift to other areas of operations—focus from yourself as author to authors as clients (or possibly part of your own catalogue).

Learning new tricks, that opens new pathways in the brain, and knowing you can still do that is worth the effort – not just for the financial benefits but for future reference. The one piece of rewriting that will happen soon is on the CV.

And until I can get back to my stories – writing and editing – I will have no regrets that I used my waking time to elevate my game, maintain the freelance practice running, and contribute to the world of publishing from the backend of the business. I will proofread others' stories, I will build linked table of contents, convert manuscripts to electronic formats, tweak book jackets into ebook covers, submit the books to vendors and e-commerce apps, and design the interior pages for print on demand books. It helps pay the rent and put food on the table. And anything I learn I can always use in my own writing life. 

And make no mistake, this writing life is a long-haul thing. I'm in it now. There's no way out.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Smell of Freshly Baked Bread as Muse

A friend gave us a bread machine as a gift and, yesterday, I made my first loaf of bread. I was both excited and a little nervous because, like Oprah, I love bread; but also, I’d never made it, so I wasn’t sure how well it might turn out.

It seemed like a pretty straight deal, but a more precise scientific process that requires adherence to measurements. That last part was the cause for my concerns. I am a rebel, after all.

I have an innate need to tweak recipes… In fact, the simplest recipe I know is the chocolate vinegar cake and last week when I made it, I changed it up and combined white distilled vinegar with Balsamic vinegar – which intensifies the chocolate taste, changes the cake to a reddish hue, and seems to yield a moister cake.

I will admit to doing some research and acquainting myself with substitutions so that I could tweak a little bit. The first loaf was a success: it tasted great, it had a great crust, and the texture was perfect! The greatest gift, though, was its aroma.

It took me a series of dreams and memories to come to the realization that this gift keeps on giving.

The sense of smell is probably the strongest sensory stimulation. There is no scientific data to prove that aromatherapy does half of what alternative medicine practitioners may claim, but you know full well the effect the smell of pizza has on you.

People have waxed poetic over the scent of a woman, the smell of the sea, the intoxicating perfume of petrichor, or the sweet smell of cognac… The aroma of brewing coffee almost has the same effect as the first sip!

Smell can stimulate memories and a host of other emotional responses from nostalgia to lust and everything in between. Writing about smell, of course, gives your reader another way to immerse herself in your story. But what I was left thinking, after feverish dreams made lovelier by the scent of freshly baked bread permeating the whole house, was the path the muse laid bare because of it.

In my dreams, I was transported to my childhood and one of my weekly trips to the bakery with my grandmother. The bakers were either Cubans or Spaniards—that was never clear. My job was to sit quietly and let Mom conduct her business.

The short and stout baker would flirt with her and, his partner would make a show about conspiring behind her back and bring me a chocolate and some pastry.  As we approached, my grandmother always warned me not to ask, not to beg, not to even try. Every time the men curtsied at my feet and treated me like a Menina.

Mami liked that particular bakery because she could be her own person there (not wife, or cousin to this one, neighbor to that one). She could just be Doña Aurelia with her little girl, have a cup of coffee and be neighborly for 20 minutes once a week, and she and the owner’s wife would chit chat like old friends for a little bit and make Mami’s week.

I began my appreciation of chocolate and pastries and fresh bread, but also my love of people watching began here, during these weekly visits.  I had not thought of that bakery in some time, though when I am sick and have fevered dreams, I tend to stop there for a small cup of muddy Puerto Rican coffee and a fresh donut or a piece of bread right out of the oven with a dab of butter.

That this transformed to Cappuccinos and sketching at any number of tiny Village or Chelsea cafés, or a writing session at a Park-side coffeehouse simply did not occur to me to have its roots set in my toddler years.

I visited and sat at that childhood bakery on and off for years, though once I hit pubescence and realized I could say no, I refused to go grocery shopping with my grandmother. It meant I lost out on the weekly sugary treats, on bonding, and maybe even on witnessing stories unfolding before me. Still, the aroma of flour and sugar, milk, salt and yeast baking into golden loaves stayed deep within.

Given the inspiration that sprung from the heavenly aroma from that little loaf of bread I baked yesterday, I am fairly sure if I hold my breath a little deeper stories will spill out when I exhale. I certainly will try it the next time I bake another loaf. Now if only writing the stories would help maintain the weight down as we consume all the freshly baked delicious bread!

Of course, we can buy bread, but there is a special magic in creating and now I crave the smell of freshly baked bread as muse to transform and transport me.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thanks, Obama! Writing with Daddy Issues.

Last night, we sat together to watch President Obama’s farewell speech. I was tickled that he quoted Atticus Finch. But then, there is always such a rush of joy when someone uses a reference that brings you together. One quote ties so much emotion and meaning in a few words.

Whether this happens by quoting the great literary minds of our times or an obscure little movie, it hardly matters. What is important is that with one quote we assert our points of correlation. Sure we can be different in a billion different ways, but we all have more in common than not.

But the moment that choked me up was a simpler one. He turned to his eldest and said of her and her sister,You are smart and you are beautiful but more importantly, you are kind and you are thoughtful -- and you are full of passion…”

Always a proud father, I hung my head because it hurts to watch fathers and daughters have a moment I never will. And then, he sucker-punched me with the perfect unconditional declaration of paternal love: Of all that I have done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad.


Understand that I have not been starved of love in my life. I had a literal village looking out for me and loving me, willing me to overcome and blossom. I had three generations of women pulling for me and reminding me that I had within me what I needed to succeed.

My Mom is the best role model any person could pick to emulate, she is my conscience, and she loves me and nurtures me (without ever losing objectivity that she is dealing with a flawed person).

Just as well, there were family and friends who did not seek to be paternal figures but whose presence in my fatherless life constituted at least the ideal of what a good father might be (and quite a few fit the bill in their own families).

My grandfather, who was my bona fide father figure, never would have bestowed such praise upon me because the things I did right, in his mind, I should be doing because it was my duty—not because I may be loved for it. I did love him at some point in my early childhood, but I soon discovered that his love was conditional. He gave nothing freely. And while I may have been his pride and joy, addressing it would have made him look weak and he’d never have that. Multiple failures in parenting apparently taught him nothing in that area.

My father, when he remembers that we are related, generally congratulates himself on the accomplishment of being my father. I’m not sure why. He has barely acted in that capacity—if you need accountability, he was there, more or less, for what could account for about 3% of my entire life (including conception and gestation). His greatest accomplishment was scoring with Mom and I can’t for the life of me figure how he managed that, because she was way hotter than he ever was! Smarter too (except for the one time). So even if he said the words, it wouldn’t mean anything because at the very least half the statement would be untrue.

What’s left is a cynic with a double barrel of daddy issues. Or a realist that recognizes that families come in many configurations, and in some the paternal figure is a shadow rather than anything useful or even real.

Or, as scores of other (fatherless) unloved girls, a woman spending half her waking hours looking for approval in all the wrong faces… These are the more interesting stories and the basis to the infidelity stories I’ve been writing.

(See? I had no choice: I had to become either a writer or a stripper!)

But then, I don’t write the kind of story that starts with, “I’m proud of you, pumpkin!” I’ve learned to live with that gaping hole—and plugged the emptiness mostly with chocolate and more-Mom-for-me. Still, I am glad that this father figure exists and, as much as it hurts to watch, I am honored to have witnessed just a little bit of the joy I’ll never know.