SparkNotes as a Writer’s Tool

Writing Resources2-BlogI just discovered SparkNotes.com as a tool for learning about the craft of storytelling. I always thought of SparkNotes—and CliffNotes—as simply being something you turned to in high school if you hadn’t read the assigned book and there was an upcoming test. SparkNotes would give you enough of a summarized story overview to, hopefully, help you pass.

But guess what! SparkNotes delivers much more than just a book summary.

I popped in to see what they had on Victor Hugo’s book, Les Misérables, a t.v. series recently presented by PBS. The plot of the story captivated me; the character arcs and character development were observable.

I wanted to unravel the story; break it down; see if I could learn some writing structure and character development from it. I knew I wouldn’t read the whole book. But jotting down notes from having watched the series felt do-able.

I went to SparkNotes thinking a big-picture summary of the book might help me identify fundamental story concepts: the hero, an inciting incident, in pursuit of something, meeting conflicts that get increasingly complex, conquering them until the hero overcomes all and reaches a final resolution. And in the process, the hero’s character changes; you see their character arc.

When I pulled up the SparkNotes web site for Les Misérables, I felt as if I’d landed on a story structure training page. It’s a way of getting a taste of key aspects of a book. It provided:

SparkNotes

  • Summary
    • A summary of the book’s overall plot
    • Chapter summaries and analysis
  • Characters: A list of characters, with background summaries about relevant characters, plus more in-depth analysis of major ones
  • Main Ideas: themes, motifs, symbols and key facts
  • Quotes: Important quotations with brief analysis regarding their meaning
  • Further study: author background, quizzes, study suggestions and suggested reading
  • Writing Help: Tools to help students write essays on the book

Here are the topics addressed in the Main Ideas section for Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird:

SparkNotes: To Kill a Mockingbird Main Ideas web pageCliffNotes is worth checking out as well; the sites are similar but with differences that make them both working looking at. My first leaning was toward SparkNotes, but each has value, and it likely comes down to personal preference.

This is a totally current discovery, but I’m excited about the possibilities, and stoked to share it. Let me know what you think!

 

Photo source: Walk the Goats


 

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Relationship Tip: Don’t Be an Ass

f_ZenCommand-Marriage-edit

The Golden Rule is short and to the point: Treat others as you want them to treat you.  It’s pretty simple, yet we often complicate it.

In his book The Zen Commandments, Dean Sluyter says “our personal relationships can be simpler than we usually make them.” He summarizes the principles he thinks make relationships work.

“Whether in a romance or a marriage or a family, the principles are the same: you take care of one another, you be as kind as you can, you do your share of finding new sources of fun, you quietly pass up opportunities to score points or be a wise guy, you give the benefit of the doubt, and you try to make things less insane rather than more.  If you think the other person is off the program you address the situation gently and with respect. But since the problem is often your own perception, you can save everyone a lot of grief by waiting a little while first to see if your perception changes.”

The Zen Commandments: Ten Suggestions for a Life of Inner Freedom, Dean Sluyter, from Lesson #5: Keep it Simple

Here’s my summary of his Principles

  1. Take care of each other
  2. Be kind
  3. Do your share
  4. Avoid being an ass
  5. Assume the best (not the worst)
  6. Make things better (rather than worse)
  7. Before jumping to a conclusion, wait
  8. If, after waiting, there’s still an issue, address it

Sluyter’s advice resonates for me, both the words and the simplicity of it. If both people in a relationship apply it, a lot of perceived relationship problems disappear.  Did the thing go away or did our thoughts about it change?

I know thoughts in my mind impact my perception of things, and that can affect how I experience stuff. I’ve received new information in situations and been shocked at how quickly my perception has pivoted.

I want to keep #7 in mind. Life promises change; guarantees it. I’ve been amazed at how something that had a hold of me can lose its power simply with the passage of time.

What relationship principles guide you in life?

 

Photo source: RJA1988 on Pixabay


 

Mom in Heels

Dad
Mom circa around 1953

Mom loved wearing heels. I recently wrote about it. I think about mom regularly, but today, on Mother’s Day, I thought about her more. Partially because there were so many societal sign-posts reminding me to think about her. But mostly because it’s my first Mother’s Day without her. I feel a missing about that. And a gratefulness for the many years she had. She nearly made it to 89. That was a dang good run.

Big Mother’s Day wishes to you mommy. I love you.

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A pair of mom’s heels now in my closet.

Photo source: Dad


 

9-Volt Nirvana [RadioLab]

Pixabay: geralt. Free for commercial use; No attribution required

The glory of sudden, instant, effortless personal development.  That was the enticement of RadioLab’s, 9-Volt Nirvana podcast episode.

Juice the brain; no more than a 9-volt battery. And suddenly, bam! You become an invincible sharp-shooter.  Firing away at virtual killers, bringing them down with perfect accuracy. Where minutes before the juice, you’re lying in a pool of virtual blood.

Or maybe your brain suddenly, quickly, picks out a 3D shark from an autostereogram. Where minutes before the juice, your eyes and mind only saw a jumble of colored images, smeared together.

Or maybe, studying vocabulary, you add some juice and the words are suddenly easy.

The episode is about transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a process that promises to help us accelerate our learning, by zapping our scalp—and whatever brain cells lay beneath—with electricity.  According to the podcast, “Researchers claim that juicing the brain with just 2 milliamps…can help with everything from learning languages, to quitting smoking, to overcoming depression.”

RadioLab’s story enticed. Aren’t there places in our lives we’d like to do something better? Quicker? Easier?

Sniper-Training

It was Sally Adee, sniper-in-training, that drew me in.  Sally convinced her editors at New Scientist to fly her from London to Carlsbad, CA to test out tDCS. She went to Advanced Brain Monitoring, a group using tDCS to train snipers.

There, in a room using 360-degree training simulation tools, real sandbags and other props, holding an M4 assault rifle armed with a laser site and CO-2 cartridges to deliver a realistic kick-back, Sally ran through a simulation. First, without tDCS.

The simulation starts off slowly. She has time to react, to take her shots. And then, it gets chaotic. The Humvee in front of her explodes and killers come at her from every direction. It’s all too fast, she can’t decide. And at the end of the simulation, she’s taken down about 3 out of 20 suicide bombers.

Then they wire her up: attach one electrode to her right temple and another electrode to her left arm. They turn on the electric current. She’s put into the simulation again, only starting from the point where the Humvee was being blown up. And with the wires juicing her brain.

Her assessment of this second round is they’ve slowed things down; it’s not difficult, she can clearly see where the dangers are coming from and she picks off her targets. It ends, they unplug her, and she’s confused; she’s only been in the simulation a few minutes. She’s sure they didn’t give her a difficult simulation.

Then she looks at the clock: 20-minutes have passed. And, no, they hadn’t slowed it down or made it easy.

This time, with the juice, she’s scored a perfect 20 out of 20.

Bringing down “bad guys” makes this technology sound good. But what if someone was learning this skill to wreak destruction on an innocent community? Do we want that ability to be easily acquired?

Cheap Cost and Unknown Risks

But there may be no choice. The technology is there. It’s easy and cheap to build your own tDCS device, around $20 for parts at your local electronics store.  It’s hard to regulate. People are out there, self-applying it, experimenting by placing it on different parts of their brain, trying to figure out what helps, what doesn’t.  In reference to one fellow on YouTube talking about doing tDCS, the podcaster comments, “It’s like he’s playing Russian roulette with that thing.”

People have reported “loss of consciousness after using it…feeling burns…there was one report of someone going temporarily blind.”  In the comments posted below a tDCS TEDx talk by Maarten Frens in December 2013, one person warned, “I burned a dime size hole through my scalp today with only 8 aa batteries and eeg pads. This is dangerous!”

The device is a blunt tool, not a scalpel.  And there’s a theory, called “The Zero-Sum Theory of the Brain,” which says our brains and body are a system. If “juice” is sent to one area, it has to come from another area; enhancing one area is “by definition diminishing another.”

Is it Good? Or Bad.

For Sally, who acquired impressive shooting skills using tDCS, she admitted she valued some of the after-affects. She felt more confident driving and some of the critical voices in her head were quiet for several days. Those feelings were powerful and positive. But she was also worried. She was surprised how much she “craved doing it again.  It felt,” she said, “like a drug with no side effects. I don’t know if I’m going to get addicted to electricity…”

A deeper, philosophical question is raised by Soren Wheeler, Jad Abumrad, and Robert Krulwich, the show’s hosts. They ponder those moments when we’re “awake and present,” that feel like a gift from the universe.  What happens, they ask, when we can “order up” a state of mind; when “it’s an expectation” we “can create… on demand?”

“I think that the ‘gift’ versus ‘ordering it up’ is pretty deep to me,” says Soren. “I feel like, in a world where you order things up then you’re in a world where you think you deserve things or you think you’ve earned them or think other people haven’t. That’s a world that’s empty of true gratitude.”

  • Podcast: RadioLab
  • Episode9-Volt Nirvana, June 26, 2014, 27 minutes
  • Hosts: Soren Wheeler, Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich

Moving Slowly in a Fast World

Pixabay: nandhukumar. Free for commercial use; no attribution required

The world feels fast: fast food, high-speed trains, supersonic planes. Tech companies move fast and break things. People want things now, resulting in instant Jell-O, instant messaging and Instant Pot.

I’m slow. I read slowly, write slowly, learn slowly. I’m thorough; detail-oriented.

This fault-line between my slow-motion style and the world’s fast-motion expectations sometimes leaves me feeling deficient, concerned I lack a societally-valued trait.

My discomfort intensifies when I try to learn something new. I plod through my learning while images of Neo from The Matrix appear, skills and knowledge insta-loaded into his memory.

I’ve wrestled with this aspect of my personality, being self-critical when I take too long to learn something, aching to speed things up.  Expecting something other than what is.

Continue reading “Moving Slowly in a Fast World”

Prostate Cancer and Gratitude for a Facebook Group

Pixabay: marijana 1 Free for commercial use; no attribution required

Bubba had been monitoring his PSA tests for prostate cancer for a while when things shifted from Active Surveillance (yes, that’s a term) to time-to-act. Bubba is a voracious reader and researcher. He read: books, articles, medical studies. He talked with a friend who’d gone through a prostate cancer diagnosis 10-years earlier. But other than one friend, it was a solitary exploration.

Years ago, I joined a Facebook Group for women going grey. No, it’s nothing like cancer, and yet, it was comforting and helpful to spend time with people going through a shared experience. I appreciated the support and the vulnerability people shared as they dealt with insensitive comments, insecurities, doubts and successes.  I suggested to Bubba there might be a similar group for prostate cancer.

The Prostate Cancer Support Group he joined has over 10,000 people—men and women—from around the world. After joining, reading, asking questions, and commenting, Bubba told me he was glad I’d suggested it; said I might want to join. I’m glad I did.  The group has been a blessing. In appreciation of the group and the people there—all going through an incredibly difficult time—I posted this to the group page.


I’ve told many people how grateful I am for this group. Not for why it exists, but that it does. It helped my partner decide what treatment to select after the doctor told him he could no longer watch and wait. It’s given me a place to gain perspective and wisdom. Not just about prostate cancer, but about life.

The energy here is an energy of “presence” to what’s important. People talk about fears, hopes, sadness and joys with a visceral openness. People share in ways that are raw and funny, sad and heartfelt.  I’m touched by it.

I read posts and know there’s an amazing variety of people here from around the world, people I’d never meet in my day-to-day life. When someone joins this group, no one cares what type of car they drive; what they do for a living; the size of their house.  Members want to know how they can help this new arrival, this person who is trying to navigate a cancer diagnosis that devastates and scares them.

Cancer knows no boundaries.  People with cancer instantly share a connection with every other person with cancer. People of all affiliations and ages and colors and races and income and all other groups are here. Interacting; being kind; compassionate; supportive; loving.

That’s what connects us. That ability to be present to the experience and emotions of others, oblivious to labels.

For all who post and all who simply witness and learn, this group reminds me we’re all connected. For that, I’m immensely grateful. There is hope in that feeling. Thank you.


Bubba chose to have a robotic radical prostatectomy in March. He was pleased with the procedure and is doing well with his recovery. And, it’s cancer. It was surgery. There are side-effects associated with the procedure and further monitoring to be done. He’s in good shape, and he’s still on the recovery path.

And as a Public Service Announcement, don’t tell anyone with prostate cancer they have the easy cancer; per the FB Group, yes, people say that. Some with prostate cancer suffer side-effects that permanently, drastically change their lives and, for others, it’s a death sentence. If you’re a guy or know a guy, tell them to learn about the PSA test (and get theirs tested). There are guys in the FB Group in their 30’s and 40’s with prostate cancer.

 

Photo source: marijana 1 on Pixabay


 

Rapid Rabbit: May Will be Lucky

Pixabay: Alexas_Fotos. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

I forgot to say it on April 1st. But I successfully remembered to say Rapid Rabbit this morning; along with Rabbit Rabbit. Covered the bases. May will be lucky.

If you forgot this morning, this, it says, will help you set things right. And give you a cute baby bunny video, too.

Happy May Day!!

 

Photo source: Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay


 

How a Decision I’d Felt Fine About Suddenly Felt Wrong

WaLk the Goats

A lot of my childhood stuff was discarded over the years, but neither I nor mom ever discarded Sad Baby.  Plush in all parts except the face, she had a zippered-pouch in back cradling a music box.  The soft body, with lilting musical tones, was a comforting snuggle.

The plushie eventually made her way from the east coast to California, her cloth frayed and worn, the music box long dead and disposed of. I washed her face, aired her out and alternately displayed her on my bed or stuck her in the garage.

Years passed. Sad Baby had been in the garage a while when a desire to declutter arose. My decluttering urges loop around regularly. Each time, something that survived the last cycle, does not make the current cut.

One de-clutter tip I’d read was to take a picture of an object cared about but no longer wanted. It would keep the memory without having to store the thing.

I looked at Sad Baby. “It’s time,” I thought. “Time to let go of you.” Sad Baby had been mine for 55-years.

I took a picture, tucked her into my trick trash, and she was gone.

Sad Baby comfortably lived in my memory. I didn’t miss her. I was content with my decision.

Until…I wasn’t.

Continue reading “How a Decision I’d Felt Fine About Suddenly Felt Wrong”

Saying No to Re-living Old Pain

Pixabay: Hans. Free for commercial use; no attribution required.I recently wrote about a friend’s suicide, an act that took place 21-years ago.  As I read a poem I’d written after his death, I sensed a character shuffling about the edges of my consciousness.  The character was carrying a cloak; a cloak of sadness, anger, guilt and despair, brought forward from those tumultuous days.

I realized this character wanted me to wear those emotions again.

It was as if this character believed there were proper responses to a suicide—no matter how long ago it had occurred—and knew the cloak carried within it acceptable ones.  Here, wear this, she said. In case of suicide, feelings of sadness, anger, guilt and despair are allowed. I was tempted.

The thing is, I didn’t want to feel those things. I looked outside my window and the sun was shining; flowers were blooming.

Donning the cloak-of-past-emotions would not change the past.

It would, however, overshadow a beautiful present with emotions completely unrelated to the now.

I didn’t want to relive those old emotions.

I had a choice. I said no to the character and her cloak.

 

Photo source: Hans on Pixabay

 


 

A Friend’s Suicide Remembered

126_SuicidePainPoemOn Memorial Day weekend in 1998, an ex-boyfriend committed suicide. We had lived together for three years and had broken up less than a year earlier. Three weeks after his death, churned by emotions, I struggled to find ways to express the turmoil I felt.  I came across a poem I wrote back then; an attempt to describe the indescribable.

Reading it, I have memories of those days, of multiple characters in my head navigating their conflicting feelings triggered by his suicide: sadness, anger, guilt, despair. They were all part of the chaos.  At the time, I fully submerged myself in those feelings; their presence defined me. I didn’t see my emotions as the response of characters, but as me. I was the pain. I was the anger. I was the guilt.  There felt like no me beyond the emotions.

And yet, there was.  There always is, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

Continue reading “A Friend’s Suicide Remembered”

I Was Raised in a House of Heels

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I was raised in a house of heels. And now I’m done with them.

High heels were a family thing. Dad bought them. Mom wore them. And I adored them. Many came from Frederick’s of Hollywood, a catalog company carrying sizes large enough to fit mom’s feet, with a selection not available at our local shops.

They were usually stiletto’s, tall and sparkly, with a heel strong enough to be used as a weapon. For me, they were real versions of Barbie’s peep-toe mule sandals. When mom and dad were going out for a night of dinner and dancing, these are the shoes mom would wear to finish her outfit.

I loved watching her get dressed up. I loved watching her glow as she slipped on the magical shoes to complete her outfit.

She’d come down the stairs and swirl before dad. Her full skirt would rise, revealing a bit more of her long legs, their curve enhanced by the heels. Dad, watching appreciatively, would emit a low whistle.  Mom beamed.

Continue reading “I Was Raised in a House of Heels”

A Toilet Paper Scarcity Story

Pixabay: stevepb. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.Two squares of toilet paper. That was it; two squares. There are some things you don’t realize you take for granted until you can’t.

I was visiting my daughter in Ecuador and went to use a public bathroom. A woman at the entrance took my coin and handed me two squares of T.P. That was my allotment, regardless of what nature delivered.

I suddenly couldn’t take T.P. for granted; not on this vacation. After that first experience—and confirmation by my daughter that T.P. was scarce here—I took to glomming onto any extra toilet-paper-type products whenever I came by them. A restaurant that offered paper napkins? Grab some. A grocery store that sold rolls of T.P.? Buy some.

It became standard operating procedure to try and keep extra paper in my pocket, to supplement that offered by the public facility. Still, even trying to plan, I’d hit periods where my pockets were empty as I went in search of a public bathroom, leaving me nervous as I approached. I’m traveling in a foreign country; my plumbing isn’t working so great. Am I about to enter a stall with a hearty supply of T.P. or only have two squares with which to work?

Sure, I’ve experienced that moment of panic when, mid-movement in a public bathroom, I suddenly realized there was no T.P. It’s a sucky feeling, but infrequent back home, and there’s often someone in the next stall who will willingly pass you some, because, well, there’s plenty of it.

Not in Ecuador. This was not something there was plenty of. Up until that moment I didn’t really think too much about T.P. If I did, it was a throw-away necessity, a plentiful household commodity.

Now? Now, I’m deeply grateful that I have plenty of T.P. in my life. As much as my little butt desires.

 

Photo source: stevepb on Pixabay


 

Rabbit Update

Pixabay: Alexas_Fotos. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.After writing about the Rabbit Prophecy on March 31st, and putting a note by my clock-radio (a permitted reminder), I forgot to say Rabbit Rabbit on April 1st.

“Are you awake?” Bubba asked that morning at 2 a.m.  “Yeah,” I answered.

With that exchange, April’s good-luck rabbit-fortunes were derailed.

For these situations, should anyone ask, I have a trump card. I said Rapid Rabbit on January 1st, which covers the year. It’s my insurance policy.

“No, you have to say it each month for it to count,” my dad argues.

It turns out my dad also disagrees with my conclusion that Rabbit Rabbit was correct.

“No, no, no,” he said, after reading my blog and the Wikipedia post. “I don’t care what the internet says. It’s Rapid Rabbit. That’s how your mother and I always did it. That’s how we taught you.”

Rapid Rabbit was the way I always said it, and according to dad, was correct.

My sister had learned Rabbit Rabbit, and when she did her on-line sleuthing, that was correct.

We were both right, by different sources.

I’m glad to get this resolved. Again.

I still have to remember to do this the first of the month. But my options have expanded. Now, I’m confident the rabbit wand can be waved many ways.

One Rabbit, Two Rabbits, Three Rabbits, four.

Rapid Rabbit, Lapin Rabbit, It’s all rabbit lore.

 

Photo source: Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay


 

Rapid, Rabbit Rabbit

Pixabay: Alexas_Fotos. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.I don’t consider myself superstitious. Until I am. Then I do various things to avoid jinxing myself: knock on wood; keep umbrellas closed indoors; sidestep walking beneath a ladder.

I also, on the first of a month, start the day off with the words “Rapid Rabbit.”

Talking with my sister today, she reminded me that tomorrow is “Rabbit Rabbit” day.

“Wait, did you say Rabid Rabbit?” I asked her.

Continue reading “Rapid, Rabbit Rabbit”

It Wasn’t Just an Avocado

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It wasn’t just an avocado. It was an instant of attentiveness, of being awake to a moment in life I usually sleep through. Were I not blogging, I likely would’ve slept through that moment. Instead, I experienced avocado-man with an awareness that saw his small act as something bigger.

As if in slo-mo, I fully took it in.

That’s been a wonderfully, unexpected benefit of blogging.

 

Photo source: coyot on Pixabay


 

Yes, We Have No Avocados

Pixabay: ponce_photography. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

A fellow ran down the sidewalk from Whole Foods, an avocado in his hand. I was in line at a sidewalk sandwich spot off our town square. Avocado-man popped behind the sandwich counter, cut the fruit open, sliced it, and laid it perfectly onto a partially-made sandwich, which he handed to the man in front of me.

Wow, I thought. What a great customer experience.

Can you imagine! I picture him telling his friends. The guy ran over to Whole Foods to get an avocado. For my sandwich!

And his friends would shake their heads in disbelief.

As my friends shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them how things went awry during my birthday outing.  The birthday without clean coffee cups, bananas or bread. And with no one going out of their way to deliver any of them for me.

That customer and I; we each had stories to tell.

 

Photo source: ponce_photography on Pixabay

I wasn’t sure if avocados were fruits or veggies; they’re a fruit. Here’s the scoop from the California Avocado Commission.


 

A Different Puzzle

Walk the goats

I had 1,000 pieces to choose from.

I would put my puzzle together. I would include straight border edges.

If I couldn’t do it following instructions, I could do it my way. It didn’t matter if all 1,000 pieces were there. I was only going to use thirty-one of them. I’d make them fit.

Sometimes you have to bend rules; think outside the box; stretch boundaries; break clichés.

Sometimes you have to own the puzzle.

I owned it.

 

Photo source: Walk the Goats


 

Lessons in a Puzzle

Walk the Goats

1,000 pieces. That’s what the puzzle box said. I bought it. I’d try this puzzle thing.

Last time I was around a puzzle was 2-years ago. I was at a birthday party and the puzzle was 2/3rd complete. The remaining pieces were nicely laid out, face up. Several folks were standing over the puzzle, chatting, while scanning and trying to fit pieces in. I hit 3-clean picks in a row: snap, snap, snap. It was satisfying. “I’m a natural at this,” I thought.

I figured I’d buy a puzzle and try it at home. Lots of folks like puzzles. Maybe I’m one of them.

A thousand-piece puzzle is not a good place to start, if you aren’t sure you love puzzles.

Continue reading “Lessons in a Puzzle”