Dec 21

My $624 Necklace!!!

 

I love Mexico for a lot of reasons—its people, the music, the food and its beautiful silver jewelry. This November my husband and I took a seven day Princess Cruise from Los Angeles down to Mexico. There were two days at sea and then we turned around stopping in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, Cabo San Lucas, another day at sea and back to L.A.

It was a lot of fun and one of the best things was my $624 silver necklace from Mazatlán. After the ship docked there, we had breakfast and took a tour to see the place. The first stop was a jewelry store. The guide told us on the way that we could buy whatever we wanted with confidence that it was the real thing because all their silver jewelry was 95% pure. Princess Cruises had vetted the store because they didn’t want any passengers coming back to the ship and complaining that they’d been cheated.

So while I felt confident we wouldn’t be cheated, I also realized we probably wouldn’t be buying anything. Why? Because, in a situation like this, the jewelry is real and very beautiful, frequently gorgeous, but also very, very expensive.

The guide then passed out round yellow stickers with “Juan Carlos” written on them in black letters. He said all the sales people spoke English and if we showed the stickers, they would lower the price by 30%.

When Michael and I heard that, our faces lit up. That meant we could bargain. We always had a good time bargaining in Mexico even if, in the end, we couldn’t get the price down enough to actually buy anything.

The way we do it is, I wander around until I find something I’m interested in. Then Michael plays the straight man and I negotiate.

“Michael, why don’t we just go in and look around but not plan to buy anything?” I said.

“Well, I would like to get you something.” He responded.

“If Princess Cruises stands behind their jewelry, it’s probably going to be really beautiful and very expensive. How about we agree now on how much to spend? If we get our price, fine. But if not, let’s just walk away?”

“O.k.”

We walked into the store and to the very back where they were serving complimentary Margaritas at 10:00 in the morning. The Margaritas were good, probably the best ones we had on the whole trip!

We both started walking around the store, drinks in hand. The walls were floor to ceiling mirrors with clear glass shelves and waist high glass counters running along the sides and down the center. Every inch of glass was covered with silver: silver necklaces, earrings, watches, pendants, etc. I don’t think I’ve seen so much silver in one place since the last time I came to Mexico. And it was beautiful, artistic, gorgeous! I felt swept away as I knew I would.

I immediately found a necklace I did want so I tried it on as well as two or three others so that I didn’t appear too interested in the first one. Within a few seconds, a sales woman approached. I sensed that I wouldn’t do too well negotiating with her so I told her the jewelry was lovely but I was just looking.

I went looking for Michael and told him I had found something but was pretty sure it was going to be too expensive. None of the jewelry had prices which was a big sign that you could bargain and it was expensive.

I tried on several necklaces but told him it was the first one that I really wanted. A salesman approached. He seemed friendly and wanted to talk.

“Your jewelry is lovely,” I said.

“Yes,” he responded. “It’s 95% pure. You don’t have to polish it.”

“Really? Even if you put it in a drawer,” I said.

“No, never. Which one are you interested in?” he asked.

I showed him and asked how much it was. He looked at it, raised it to the light, looked at it again, “624”.

Now the exchange rate is 18 pesos to $1.00 U.S. That would make it around $35.00 dollars U.S., very affordable.

“Oh, 624 pesos?” I said.

“No, no! U.S. dollars. $624.”

“Oh. By the way, Juan Carlos, the Tour Guide, said to show you this.” I opened my hand so he could see the yellow sticker in my palm. “He said that would bring the price down by 30%.”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Juan Carlos approaching us. He quietly joined our group.

“Yes! Yes.” He took his calculator out. “436.80.”

“Pesos?” I smiled.

“No! no. U.S. dollars.”

“Demasiado! Demasiado (too much).” I responded and tried to look sad. “Can you give us a better price?”

“I am giving you a better price. I just took 30% off the top.”

“I know. And the necklace is very beautiful. But it’s too expensive. Demasiado. Thank you,” and we started wandering around the store followed by the salesman and Juan Carlos.

“How much do you want to pay?” the salesman asked.

“Hmmmm,” I said, trying to gain time to think of what to say. Michael and I looked at each other. “Well, mmmmmm, what if we paid you 100 U.S. dollars cash, no credit card?”

“Hmmmmm,” he said. “100 U.S. dollars from you.” He pointed to Michael. “And, 100 U.S. dollars from you.” He pointed to me.

“No, no. Too much! Demasiado! 100 U.S. dollars solamente (only).” I said.

He paused to take a breath.

Juan Carlos spoke up, “Tomorrow we go to Cabo San Lucas. The jewelry there will be much more expensive. He’s really giving you a good price.”

The salesman smiled.

“Yes, you’re right, “I responded. “The jewelry is more expensive in Cabo. But, I have beautiful jewelry at home. I don’t need any more. We just stopped in here to look and the necklace caught my eye. But I don’t really need it. Actually, if we don’t buy this, we won’t be buying any jewelry on this trip.”

Juan Carlos said nothing but I noticed a few seconds later that he had wandered off.

That’s when the straight man came in. Michael said, “You know if you sell the necklace for 100 U.S. dollars, it’s sold. And, you have the money. But, if you don’t sell it, it stays on the counter, just sitting there, and who knows how long before you find another buyer?”

“Wait here.” The salesman said. He walked over to another counter, stopped and appeared deep in thought. He punched some numbers into his calculator. He paused. Finally he returned.

“O.k.” he said, 100 U.S. dollars cash.”

Dec 16

Fanfare and Pageantry

Because the dad was smiling, I was pretty sure I hadn’t offended him too much. He asked, “Did you just say, ‘Every parent should force their child to be in the Christmas pageant’?”

Absolutely I did.

His high-school sophomore son had told me a week earlier that he was willing to participate, and ever since, I had been counting on the boy’s help. Now he was saying that he didn’t want a role in our church’s most special worship service. As pageant director, I needed the young man. His change of heart was one more disappointment to add to a rapidly growing list of challenges I faced in rounding out the cast.

I had scanned the church directory for every family with minor children. Then I left messages at each home. A day later, not one person had called me back. And a week later, no one had added any children’s names to the sign-up sheet I had left on the bulletin board at church.

Of the kids whom I was able to rely upon, my Joseph was going to miss most of the practices because of his wrestling schedule. My Mary preferred to be a narrator. And my Lead Angel would be rushing in from a soccer tournament on the day of the pageant, so she wanted to play . . . what I’ll call . . .  a more dispensable role.

I had little choice but to cast her as a nonspecific angel from the realm of glory who wouldn’t have her own lines to speak and might not be missed if she didn’t really get to church on time.

I guess she could have been a sheep. Who would miss one little lamb from an entire flock?

I would.

But more importantly, God would.

Last Sunday, I tried to convince the high-school boy that the Christmas pageant is an amazing way of expressing our love for Christ. I told him that I understood his hesitancy. He hadn’t ever participated before. He didn’t know what to expect. I assured him that he wouldn’t be the oldest and that he wouldn’t uncomfortably stick out amongst a bunch of little kids. At that point in time, I was in short supply of youth and had already been recruiting adults for some of the roles. The pageant would include  people of all ages.

Still hoping to tap into what might inspire this boy, I offered to place him in a role of his choosing. Somehow, I knew he wasn’t going to change his mind. It was easy for him to say no to me.

There are always other things we can be doing with our time. When we’re asked to be a part of the Christmas pageant, saying no instantly erases any anxiety that we may feel about singing and dancing in public; wearing a costume; standing before people tightly packed into every pew of a sanctuary; bowing to a baby.

Why should any of us force ourselves or our kids to suffer needlessly?

The Christmas pageant isn’t an obligation. It’s a privilege to reenact the birth of Jesus. It’s an honor to be a senior and get to fill a coveted role as Mary or Joseph. It’s a joy to push past our comfort zones, memorize our lines, smile while all eyes look to us as we welcome Christ into the world through our imperfect but personal story-telling. Some things—this thing—is worth great effort.

Yes, every parent should force their child to participate in the Christmas pageant . . . but not because directors like me need willing participants. This isn’t about us and it isn’t really about your kids, either. If we do things right, the attention won’t be on any of us at all.

Free up busy schedules. Set aside discomfort and fear, insecurity and anxiety.

Welcome Baby Jesus. Worship the Messiah.

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” A Charlie Brown Christmas, directed by Bill Mendelson, written by Charles M. Schulz, featuring Ann Altieri, Chris Doran, Sally Dryer, et al, aired December 9, 1965, on CBS.

Click on the image below to watch a YouTube video of the Christmas pageant I directed in 2015. It’s truly a labor of love. Merry Christmas!

 

 

Dec 13

CSI: A Gentleman in Moscow

(Context – Subtext – Intertextuality)

The author, Amor Towles, name drops in A Gentleman in Moscow. He weaves the names of literary greats, facts from the writers’ lives and passages from classics. A special surprise is the frequent mentioning of Chekhov and Tolstoy. I search for a term to describe this writing technique. No, it’s not plagiarism because the quotes are attributed to each author. By accident, between context for Bulgakov and subtext for Chekhov, I stumble on this little word – intertextuality.

Of course, it is not a little word, and the concept is huge in application. Intertextuality includes lifting and incorporating lines and thoughts from previously published works. It also expands to building upon previously published themes, characters and plots. Here is a reason for writers to be avid readers. To reference a previous work, the writer must have knowledgeable of the text within the writers’ work. Without a sufficient  literary background, the modern writer misses the opportunity for deeper meaning. I struggle with merely achieving sufficient knowledge to find the hidden treasures of intertextuality in my reading.

 Intertextuality

To find examples of intertextuality in A Gentleman in Moscow, I utilize technology to locate the passages. A simple “search” or “find” in the digital copy delivers numerous references for Chekhov, Tolstoy and even Bulgakov. Famous titles, such as War and Peace, enter the dialogue when one character is challenged to transcribe a favorite passage. And Anna Karenina is wedged under a furniture leg to steady  a wobbly bureau.

One of my favorite references is in a footnote. Towles writes about what I encountered in reading Tolstoy and Chekhov. He writes that “among readers of European fiction the character names in Russian novels are notorious for their difficulty. Not content to rely on given and family names, we Russians like to make use of honorifics, patronymics, and an array of diminutives – such that a single character in one of our novels may be referred to in four different ways in as many pages. To make matters worse, it seems that our greatest authors, due to some deep-rooted sense of tradition or a complete lack of imagination constrained themselves to the use of thirty given names. You cannot pick up a work of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Turgenev without bumping into an Anna, an Andrey, or an Alexander.”

Count the Many Ways 

Speaking of Alexanders and multiple names, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov– called Count, Alexander and  Sasha — is the protagonist in A Gentleman in Moscow . In this fictional book, the Count is under house arrest and confined to the Metropol Hotel in 1922 for publishing a poem unacceptable to the newly empowered Communist party. The abdication of Nicholas II, the Bolshevik Revolution, civil war in Russia and War World I were only a few years in the past. The Count, a descendent of Russian aristocracy with ties to the former Tsar, has lost seemingly everything. The following passage by Towles describes the downfall of aristocrats, writers and politicians.

” . . . the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.”

Literally Literary

The character, Mikhail Mindich, a boyhood friend of the Count, mentions Chekhov  and is in the process of editing a compilation of Chekhov’s letters. In one scene, Mishka (nickname) shares his frustration at being forced to delete part of a letter by Anton Chekhov to his sister. Although Chekhov’s letter was written in 1904, the 1930s in Russia and the Great Purges (1936-1938) eliminated anything counter-revolutionary or negative about Russia. Towles includes the letter sent from Chekhov in Berlin on June 6, 1904 to his sister, Masha.  Only a month before his death, Chekhov comments on the good German bread, his improving health and the quality of his hotel.

As you might guess, Mishka is eventually imprisoned as an Enemy of the People. Following his imprisonment, Mishka writes a book titled Bread and Salt. Towles includes passages about bread from Genesis, Matthew and Luke and by authors Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. The passages inspire me to find these stories and novels to read next and better understand the effect of intertextuality in this example. Curious about the reference to bread and salt, I discover this is a welcoming custom in Russian for guests or on special occasions. Perhaps the Count’s reading Mishka’s book is the special occasion or a reference to a shared greeting in their more pleasant past as young men.

This novel accomplishes the job of putting history in context with literature. Towles, a reader of Russian literature, confirms the importance of Tolstoy and Chekhov in the history of world literature. I also learn through the events portrayed in the novel the cultural and political sentiment for Mikhail Bulgakov during the time when he wrote The Master and Margarita.

Now, I know enough about Russian literature to be dangerous.

Dec 05

Video Games – Vintage vs. Modern

On October 29, 2017, I went to a special theatrical showing of a movie — 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors — I hadn’t seen on the big screen since I was a child.  I thought seeing the film in this format would be a nice trip down memory lane.  I wasn’t disappointed, even though it was a version of Little Shop of Horrors with an alternate ending in which the plant lives.  There was something magical about seeing the actors’ performances and stellar musical numbers, such as “Skid Row” and “Suddenly Seymour,” in the theater again after thirty years.

What I wasn’t expecting was to find inspiration for a video game blog.  But seeing a preview documentary prior to the movie about the film-making process of Little Shop of Horrors got my creative juices flowing.  The film-maker’s talk about all the practical effects, as opposed to the digital effects of today, that went into the film raised an interesting question for me.

Have films — or video games for that matter — lost some of their magic because it takes less work to generate the effects for them?

I know it takes time to put together computer-generated imagery for today’s films or video games.  But I feel there is less room for imagination on the movie\game designer’s part.  Technology — specifically digital technology — has gotten so advanced that there seems to be no limit to what can be created for movie-going audiences or gaming enthusiasts.  There have been times as of late where I’ve felt like some video games — not to mention films — have gotten too overblown and flashy because of the “sky’s the limit” mentality adopted by the production crews or studio execs.

In my opinion, what made the video games of the 1990s and early 2000s so much better was that there was a greater emphasis on story-telling and practical effects.  I know of many game production companies from that time period that hired and filmed live actors for inclusion in a particular title, such as Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun.  I feel there was more creativity when it came to designing environments, creatures, and vehicles until digital technology became more prevalent.  I’ve seen too many game designers nowadays re-use or modernize concepts of what came before rather than take time to come up with something new and innovative.  The Dead Space trilogy would be a good example — all three of the main games in the series might as well be the same since there’s not much variation in the story, gameplay, or creature design.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy playing modern games.  But it would be nice to see a resurgence of the production practices of yesteryear.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this particular topic.  Please leave your feedback in the comments below.

Dec 04

Begin Anew

“I don’t think anything is unrealistic if you believe you can do it.” – Richard L. Evans

“If at first you don’t succeed, call it version 1.0.” – Author Unknown

Check your 2017 to-do list. Were you able to clean out your over crowded closet? Did you drop the weight you wanted to lose? Did you complete the first draft of the story you promised to complete this year? Have you accomplished any or all of your goals?

Congratulations to those of you who have. For the rest, don’t despair. You still have a few weeks left if you’re in the “trying-to-finish” stage. Of course, there’s always next year to make a new list of goals or re-address the ones you couldn’t finish in 2017. But why wait until January first? Will the New Year’s Resolutions gods swoop down with an unspeakable punishment because you don’t reveal your list on the first day of 2018?

A new beginning can start at any time you choose. Why not do it now? Make a new list of goals. This time make them realistic for your personality, interests, and lifestyle. Make sure your goals are specific, measurable, and relevant to your long-term goals.

My goals for now are:

  1. Read one book per month in 2018. Two non-fiction books will be about writing, the rest will be fiction.
  2. Enter the Writers Weekly short story contest in January 2018.
  3. Write a minimum of 5,000 words per week for three months for a total of 60,000 words. This will bring my manuscript to a total of 75,000 words.

Check your 2017 to-do list. What are your new goals? Are they specific? Are they measurable? Are they realistic? Please share your new goals.