2020 In Life: My “Year like no other”

This past year has left and will leave its stain on us for the rest of our lives, and will be one mentioned in history books. I am, and I do not say this lightly, thankful that I survived, and always mindful of all those lost to the pandemic and to the other issues that have rocked us throughout. In the midst of our national and world strife, each of us have had a personal story in 2020, and so I’ve decided for the archives to capture a bit of mine.

January opens the same way it had for the previous 2 years of our marriage, with my wife and I preparing for and getting excited about our anniversary (January 27) trip. We have this crazy theory that the enjoyment or lack of in our trip sets the tone for the whole year going forward. Miami in 2019 is one we still talk about, having lived up to our hopes for a honeymoon destination. Tampa of 2020, about which I only wrote that one entry because I figured you didn’t really care,… did not. For several reasons but probably the biggest was that it was so cold! We were shocked that the temperature never really got out of the 50s from the Monday we arrived until it finally climbed on that Thursday as we readied to depart.

The second reason, at least in our opinion, is that there just wasn’t a whole lot to do. We got caught in a gale really at St. Pete Beach on Tuesday and were fortunate not to have been swept into the water at the edge of a long pier. On Wednesday, we opted to go to Orlando’s Universal Studios, which was pricey but a unique experience as most of the rides were inside and based on movies. A very visual experience, I still managed to have fun filling some of it in with my imagination.

We had already known that February would be quiet, as she needed to get a personal surgery that would put her down for most of that month. But we were all fired up to get back going by the end of March, with plans to attend River Dance at DPAC. I think I would have enjoyed that, but…

There came COVID. Well after I had already been officially diagnosed as diabetic at the end of February, a condition I’d no doubt had for at least a year prior and probably longer.

Even as I dealt with the complications of starting to manage that, I remember the shock and fear I felt as the pandemic kicked into full gear. I first took it seriously when the NBA and other sports in rapid succession shut down on March 11, and only a week later I’d left work and entered a 2-month quarantine. Remember that just prior to then, we were being told to worry more about the flu than this new thing called Coronavirus that was not likely to spread widely. Oh how wrong they were.

April and early May proceeded relatively quietly, until a jaw infection that had probably been festering for a year decided to rear up and cause big problems, leading to three teeth being pulled. Ouch. I was glad to have gotten through that challenge as well, and more that it hadn’t turned out to be something a lot scarier.

In June, I lost my father to cancer. I think I’m still dealing with the grief of that loss, as I was hoping to have time after COVID (whenever that is) to hang out with him. I was also tasked that month with returning to work under the mask mandate and no longer using public transportation because of all the safety changes that had been made. But fortunately for me, things have mostly gone smoothly with regard to that transition.

The rest of the year, July to December, was relatively uneventful. Unusually so really, thanks to this virus. It’s why I managed to set a new books-read record and get something like 10 book reviews out in total. We, like everyone I think, had that brief period from July till October where we almost thought we had COVID coming under control, then boom! It’s been up, up, up, since then sadly. No more trips, and then basically locked inside once the October temps dropped.

On balance though, I am thankful to still be here dealing with these minor inconveniences. Hopefully things are truly starting to look up, as we wonkily roll out the vaccine and some degree of immunity develops. I seem poised to have a fantastic, if incredibly busy 2021, but there’ll be more on that in the subsequent entry. Hang in there folks, I think it’ll get better soon.

A Christmas Gift To Myself: My Upgrade from iPhone 8 to 12 Pro

After listening to visionaries like Shelly Brisbin of the Parallel Podcast, and Blind Abilities, both of which have done extensive demos, I finally opted to acquire an iPhone 12 Pro. Ever since Apple began what is essentially its new presentation of iPhone form factors with the 10, I have both contemplated and rebelled against upgrading into this line. The mai reason is because I knew that, like the headphone jack before it with the 7 upgrade, I had to swallow the fact that Apple would take away another item that I loved: the home button. I’ve had my new piece of hardware for almost a week, and I have a few thoughts about what it does, and doesn’t, do the way I want it.

First, there is the loss of that blasted home button, and perhaps more importantly the loss of Touch ID. I used to love being able to just place my fingers on the phone and launching the unlock screen from my pocket, and thus being able to hop onto my Braille display without even having to remove the phone. Even more though, as a blind person who has little idea of how to have a camera “see” me, it took a few tries and some suggestions from my wife To figure out how to get the thing to work. And what I’ve learned is that the best way for me to open it is to place the phone on level with my nose and move it about a foot away before squeezing the side button to activate. If the Face ID works, I get less haptic feedback than if it doesn’t work. I assume there is also a sound that accompanies that, but I have that feature turned off because sound effects with my Braille display would not be convenient, to say the least.

That aggravation, the use and somewhat unreliable results of Face ID, is real but not a deal breaker. What I do like, love! about this phone is the much-improved battery life. By the time I ditched my 8, I was charging it nearly 3 times a day. Now of course that has a lot to do with how old the phone had become, but even at its newest, I only could get a good half a day with it if I wished to use it extensively. Now, I get home from work and still have nearly 75% left, meaning I can just plug it in prior to bed time, get it off right before going to sleep, and it’s ready for the next day.

Power is important, but processing capacity matters to me even more. I could read the tea leaves, and tell that pretty soon I would not be able to use the newest accessibility features on a phone that lacks “juice,” one might say. Already, some of the stuff available in the 12 line, such as photo and text recognition, are not fully available in anything lower than the 10. And the photo recognition is fantastic, as it can explain pictures on sites like Facebook with context that I have hardly ever seen anywhere else. I can truly understand for the first time what is actually intended by a person’s photo.

I know that many say that some of what the 12 Pro brings in particular with the Lidar, are largely not useful yet, but with apps like Microsoft’s Seeing AI And others are already lining up to take advantage of this technology in ways we cannot fully fathom. So from my point of view, I feel that the purchase was worth it.

Some General Observations

  • I can’t seem to get Face ID to work in-app, to enter passwords and such, so usually have to enter the passcode. Annoying, but again not the end of the world
  • This phone’s sound, especially when connected to my Bose speaker, is different. I’m no audiophile and am mostly deaf, so can’t say if it’s better or worse, but I did have to tinker to get it set so I could hear speech clearly
  • The added accessibility features won’t really work unless you turn VoiceOver Recognition on in the accessibility settings. So it could be a little confusing when using, say the Magnifier app, to identify what’s in one’s surroundings

So I guess my main hope is to get at least three years out of this thing, and that by such time I still feel like the decision was worth it. I do hope that they don’t leave those who with to maintain the use of Touch ID and perhaps even a home button out of further advancements, but I fear we may be headed in that direction. If I’m wrong and something comes out next year that still wraps all of this into one package, I won’t be mad! Till then though, I’ll enjoy and have fun exploring the world in new ways.

2020 In Books

This past year saw a record-breaking 62 books read by me. While much of this was due to my normal reading material, a fair portion had to do with my joining Reedsy Discovery to write book reviews back in July. Just to give you a sense of which books were my favorites, I will name one per month and label that. I will also label all of the Reedsy titles I have reviewed with the letter R. As always, if you’d like to know more about a book, just let me know.

F The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo (1/1-1/19)
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett (1/14-2/15)
Sleeping With Strangers, Eric Jerome Dickey (1/18-3/3)
Here We Are, Aarti Shahani (1/19-2/1)
F Gretchen, Shannon Kirk (2/1-2/9)
Into the Raging Sea, Rachel Slade (2/9-2/20)
Scorched Grounds, Debbie Herbert (2/15-3/12)
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (2/20-2/29)
Red At The Bone, Jacqueline Woodson (2/21-2/28)
One Way, S. J. Morgan (2/29-3/11)
F Children of Virtue and Vengeance, Tomi Adeyemi (3/11-3/25)
Skyjack, K.J. Howe (3/13-4/4)
The Perfect Wife, JP Delaney (3/25-4/1)
Labyrinth of Ice, Buddy Levy (4/1-4/21)
F The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel (4/2-4/14)
Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman (4/4-4/22)
The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter (4/15-4/27)
Playboy Pilot, Penelope Ward & Vi Keeland (4/22-4/30)
Three Ways to Disappear, Katy Yocum (4/28-5/7)
Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett Krosoczka (4/30-5/2)
Big Lies in a Small Town, Diane Chamberlain (5/3-5/14)
F Ghosts of Harvard, Francesca Serritella (5/5-5/22)
This Is Chance, Jon Mooallem (5/9-5/20)
Hell Divers, Nicholas Sansbury Smith (5/20-5/26)
Time Is The Longest Distance, Janet Clare (5/23-6/3)
A Song For You, Robyn Crawford (5/26-6/7)
Mudbound, Hillary Jordan (6/3-6/16)
F More Myself, Alicia Keys (6/6-6/16)
Open Book, Jessica Simpson (6/16-6/28)
A Burning, Megha Majumdar (6/28-7/4)
Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (7/3-7/22)
F The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, Candace Fleming (7/7-7/16)
R The Redeemer’s Vow, Marcus Miller (7/13-7/18)
Sunset Beach, Mary Kay Andrews (7/18-7/31)
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins (7/22-8/25)
R Lost One Standing, Hector Hill (7/27-8/14)
The Sandman, Neil Gaiman (7/31-8/31)
I’m Telling The Truth But I’m Lying, Bassey Ikpi (8/1-8/13)
F The Last Day, Andrew Hunter Murray (8/15-8/30)
R Killing Ground, Phil Bowie (8/20-8/27)
Salvaged, Madeleine Roux (8/26-9/15)
Dead Last, Amanda Lamb (8/30-9/7)
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi (9/7-10/2)
R Surviving Crazy, Frank Crimi (9/8-9/26)
The Jetsetters, Amanda Eyre Ward (9/12-10/9)
The Confession Club, Elizabeth Berg (9/15-9/26)
Koraalen, Heather Murata (9/23-10/7)
F A Tender Thing, Emily Neuberger (9/26-10/9)
Compartment No. 6, Rosa Liksom (10/9-10/24)
F A Long Petal of The Sea, Isabela Allende (10/10-10/31)
Stuck, Chris Grabenstein (10/12-10/20)
R Apex, Tyler Michael (10/20-10/29)
When Stars Are Scattered, Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed (10/22-11/1)
The Answer Is, Alex Trebek (10/26-11/3)
R Beyond The Goodnight Trail, Roy V Gaston 10/31-11/17)
Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo (11/3-11/17)
The Book of Two Ways, Jodi Picoult (11/18-12/11)
F Tightwads On The Loose, Wendy Hinman (11/18-11/30)
Light from Other Stars, Erika Swyler (11/30-12/13)
R Something Found, Troy Aaron Ratliff (12/1-12/21)
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern (12/13-12/31)
F Thick As Thieves, Sandra Brown (12/13-12/31)

WRAL Nights of Lights: Light Show from a Blind Man’s Perspective

And FINALLY! We find ourselves in the last, cold, bleak month of 2020. I hope it’s the toughest year any of us experience for a long time, as nothing has come close to matching it that I have ever known.

With this month comes your typical holiday celebrations, most of which are scaled down if they exist at all. For instance, my employer, from which I am to take off for the next two weeks due to lack of product via COVID-related shipping delays, has decided they won’t even bother trying to stage a holiday party. Instead, they’ve upped our usual $50 Walmart gift cards to $65 ones. We will appreciate that, once it arrives by mail sometime this coming week. I knew that I’d likely need to save the cushion gained during enhanced unemployment payments, so I should be ok for these weeks off. I know there are so many who are not though, and I feel bad for that.

Anyhow, even as individuals try to come up with some way to make the season at least a little festive, cities and their news outlets are doing the same. Here in the Raleigh-Durham metro area, WRAL created what they called the WRAL Nights of Lights. This is an intricate, 1.3-mile stretch within Dorothea Dix Park, located in Raleigh not too far from downtown. Each car is charged $15 to enter the field, and the theory was that people should arrive ten minutes prior to their time slot and roll through in 30 minutes. Only this didn’t quite work out as planned, as the 500 cars per time slot that were allowed led to traffic jams that, especially in the first days, resulted in 3-hour long waits and cancellations.

My wife and our family had decided that we would Attempt to go on Saturday, which is fortunate as they had ironed out some of the kinks by then. We stopped at Snoopy’s, a (I think) relatively small chain of restaurants specializing in good hot dogs and even better crinkle-cut fries, to pick up a portable dinner. My wife and I were in the lead vehicle, with her mother and two of her sisters trailing. We were due to go through at 6:30, and actually entered the long line around 6:20. As we inched forward over the next hour and 20 minutes or so, we enjoyed a playlist of top songs from 2020, music we would normally have consumed while traveling but were not able to partake of this year. I called this our travels to nowhere. With snappy conversation and the food, the wait was actually enjoyable. Heck, we were just glad to be out of the house for a change.

We finally reached the point of entry, where she had both tickets scanned at once. This was why we needed the vehicles to remain in proximity, otherwise we could have cut in from another street as other motorists had done, shortening wait times to only about 5 minutes. But, it was all good.

Naturally, one might ask what a blind man gets from a light show. I wondered if there would be any tactile elements for me to take in, and surprisingly there was one: fake snow. I stuck my hand out of the window and felt what was more like water than anything spraying me as it blew by. Of course, given that we were not at freezing temperature the stuff would not stick around for any amount of time. It was cool, I suppose. (There had been the possibility of a White Christmas in the forecasts few days ago, but looking at it now that possibility seems to have dried up. In this year? Why not!)

Other than that bit of fun, there were of course lots of lights. She saw a giant frosty the snowman and reindeer, as well as elves, penguins, and other cold weather pieces. We listened to a little Christmas music while rolling through, but both of us can only really handle that in small doses. While there was little for me to take in, I still enjoy other people’s happiness. Therefore the experience was worthwhile for me.

I don’t know what kinds of fun you have planned for the month of December, but I hope you are able to find some safe way to celebrate. And more than anything, I hope that we will soon start to see the end of this raging pandemic and keep its lessons close. Even as we rolled out of the event, there was signage reminding us to stay at least six feet apart, mask up, and wash hands. So sadly everything has been touched by this. I hope that you and yours are not, or are only slightly, affected.

A COVID-Era Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is, in my opinion, the beginning of the end of the year. And because of the bumpy, ultimately horrific nature of 2020, I think most of us would agree that there are no more sweeter words. Not that I really expect a simple calendar change to solve all of our problems, but I still can’t wait for it.

So we all had to figure out ways to celebrate one of the biggest family holidays in a safe manner and still find a way to feel together. Our choice was to have two households, my wife and I and her sisters, mom, and niece and nephew, eat in a good-sized living room. We were socially distanced, wearing masks before and immediately after meal consumption, and with air purifiers on and windows open. With all that alteration, I kind of worried that the celebration wouldn’t feel the same. And honestly, I just hoped that we all would leave in the same condition we had arrived.

And I and we managed to have a pretty good time. As always there is the food. I had fried chicken, the always-required macaroni and cheese, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and lemonade. The drinks were served in faux fancy wine-stemmed glasses, and the plates were encased in the decorative plates that folks use at high-end dinners. Each household ate at its own table, and we laughed a lot at the absurdity of it.

Once we finished, the kids engaged in a rousing game of charades, where everyone tried to guess what roles they were acting out. They’re 6 and 8, I think, so only just getting to a point where they can actually figure out which kinds of gestures might indicate what. I just sat there and smiled, until the older nephew asked: “Uncle John, what are you doing?” He was observing me utilizing my Braille Display. “Reading a book,” I replied. “He says he’s reading a book!” The kid said, skepticism in his voice. My wife and I laughed about the idea that his schema was too small to take in the notion of a “book” being caged in such a device. Such thoughts are curtesy of my having been a Psych major, my apologies.

So my weekend is already winding down, and I’m just glad I managed to enjoy it. Other than that Thanksgiving outing, I’ve been tucked in here “reading a book!” Soaking up the last of the November warmth and sunshine, and still writing my NaNoWriMo novel which is now over 13,000 words. (I even opted to lean into my bookish nature on Twitter, changing my handle there to @jay_biblio if you wanna follow me there. I’ll make that change here probably, but it’s gonna be more involved.)

No idea what’s up for Christmas, but lets pray that somehow the numbers start winding down shortly. I hope all of you are staying safe, but also taking care of your mental and physical health. More soon.

On Becoming a Writer, and Alex Trebek

In a recent Writer’s Bone podcast, I heard Bethanne Patrick, whom I consider my mentor whether she knows it or not, speak about how she discovered she was a writer. It interested me for a few reasons. First, she noted that much of her writing desire came from listening to her mother’s reading to her as a kid. But she didn’t really make a true attempt at writing till late 30s/early 40s, dabbling first in book reviewing and slowly expanding her reach.

Obviously this had a great impact on me. I consider myself having walked a similar path, in many ways. Rather than my mom reading to me to get me started, I grew up listening to my sisters as they practiced reading aloud. I was so moved by the power of words to carry one to other places and paint pictures of things not previously imagined. From that, I’ve always had a little of a writer’s bone, if you will, as I wrote the letter that took some of my classmates and me to Washington DC in the sixth grade. And the year before, I’d tied with one of the teachers’ daughters for first place on an essay I wrote about Martin Luther King.

So while I’ve pondered for years really trying to get into the writing field, if you remember from an earlier post this year, this pandemic has caused me to go all in in a way I had not done before. I was watching Sister Act 2 the other day, and Whoopi Goldberg’s character quoted a Reina Maria Wilke (don’t know if that’s how her name is spelled, but…) quote to the then-angelic voiced Lauryn Hill’s character. She said Wilke had said something to the effect of If you wake up in the morning and the first thing you think of is writing, then you’re a writer. This was to me a revelation. Writing is not something for which I have to be hired to establish legitimacy, though I’d very much love if someone hired me to do it. It’s something I can make up my mind to “be.” Certainly looking up to people like Ms. Patrick helps a lot to spur me on.

My writing, and all of its initials factors, was also brought to life by watching the quiz show Jeopardy! over the years. It’s funny, but I can’t really say when I started watching. I do remember it seemed the categories were a lot harder then. It caused me to pick up National Geographic and other magazines, along with the 1961 World Book Encyclopedia our school had in Braille at the time, badly out of date but still fascinating, to learn an out the world around me. I kept watching with my dad as I got older, and in college when homesickness hit. So it is with a heavy heart that I thank Alex Trebek for all that he brought to my life and so many of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that I might not have the command of words and the understanding of geography I do if I had not consumed that show so regularly.

So whatever or whomever is your inspiration, I hope you can join me in dreaming big. Especially in this year where, and I’ve probably said this in other entries but it bears repeating, we have nothing but time on our hands. Be well and stay safe.

NaNoWriMo 2: On The Very Real Challenges of Writing a Book

So, my NaNoWriMo novel is well underway. But… I decided pretty quickly that there was no real way I’d get to 50000 words by the end of the month. I’ve got too many other things going on: still reviewing books on Reedsy Discovery (just got my first requested review which is exciting) and of course I still have the day job (not much going on there but I’m showing up every day at least). On the requested review, it’s on a book that is set in 1860s Texas, a type of Western but not like you think. While that’s not my usual fare, I am actually enjoying it. I will post a link to the review on my Review page once it goes live in the beginning of December.

Anyhow back to my NaNo book, I’m now aiming to average 500 words per day, which would put me at that magic 50,000 by February 8. I’m maintaining it with 4,000 committed to digital paper so far. As the story grinds on though, I’m starting to feel that imposter syndrome creeping in. It’s just hard to keep one’s confidence, especially as I’ve not written a book before. I really want this to happen though, so hopefully that determination alone will fuel me.

Here’s what I think the story will be about so far. First, it’s told from three perspectives: Antonio (Tony) Carter, an 18-year-old student at an as-et-unnamed university in an unnamed city. I’m not sure if I will name it, as I’m aware that could present some issues in itself. I know though that naming also gives things more personality, greater character. Perhaps that’ll be a thing to decide with my editors before I drop the bestselling, great American novel that will propel me to fame and fortune. Well ok I’m dreaming, but dreams drive us right?

The second main character, I suppose one might argues the antagonist, is Daniel (Danny) James Carter. He’s two years older than Tony and still living at home, working at the kind of facility that I do. Oh, and both of these characters have Norrie Disease, my disorder. I might be the first to feature such characters. He’s a budding rap star, and has a little issue with Tony’s going onto college and what he might do with that. I want two opposite characters to demonstrate not only the variability in life itself, but also that which exists in our disorder. It’s kind of fun writing very different individuals, but hard too.

The third main character, whom I’m going to start today, is Shayna. I think she will be the one around whom the conflict centered. Tony’s girlfriend, older by 2 years so Danny’s age, and still living in their hometown where Danny stays. And not surprisingly perhaps, she and Danny end up having some sort of fling which upsets Tony. I haven’t worked out exactly how we’re going to get there, but maybe I’ll let the characters tell me. Each of them tells their bit from a first-person point of view, because well that’s easier to write. It also lets the reader get all the way into their head. We shall see if I can pull this thing off!

My 2020 Vote: The Joys of Voting Online

If there has been any silver lining to this pandemic, it would be that technology, which has existed for a good while now, is being used to its fullest potential. We all know this, with unending, some would say tiring Zoom meetings, schools that have been forced to shift online and alter their educational plan, and the like. The outcome for people with disabilities has been mixed, as while there are many instances of it helping us to gain access to events we would otherwise have had to miss, there are also times, and especially in education, when such tech can create significant barriers.

But I’m not really going into all that here. I wanted to note and hopefully have everyone consider the merits of an experiment here in NC that allowed those of us who are blind or low vision to conduct what is often said to be a basic civic task: that of voting. As this virus stretched on and on toward Election Day, I became increasingly concerned with just how I would conduct this activity. I didn’t want to deal with the myriad issues with absentee mail-in ballots, not to mention that I would not be able to complete one accessibly. I certainly trust my wife to fill out my form as I request, but isn’t that beside the point? Aren’t I entitled to an independent, private vote wherein I can select whichever candidates I wish no matter how others might feel about them?

Well of course there’s always in-person early or Election Day voting at your local polling place. I’ve done it six times with the auto mark machines, talking devices into which you feed your ballot and can then navigate with the arrows to make your selections. (Only once on the actual Election Day, and I vow never to do that again as the lines are too long and the people a bit out there!) But I just wasn’t sure if I would be comfortable going in there even for the, hopefully short, time it would take. So my most likely choice was going to be to have my wife fill it out at curbside.

Until I heard via our local news leader WRAL that a different option was available specifically to those who are blind: accessible online ballots. These ballots could be requested (unfortunately the deadline to do so passed yesterday) and completed entirely without the need for paper. So this past weekend, I put my request in, got the email back, and kept getting “Voter Not Found”. And into the bureaucracy we go! I fired an e-ail to the Wake County Board of Elections explaining my difficulty, and an I identified person wrote back that their attempt to enter my information netted a successful find and that I should try a different browser. Turns out though that the culprit was my ID number, which I had not needed to enter on the ballot itself but was for some reason required when I submitted the request. I only needed the last 4 digits of my social security number. I hadn’t thought I would have provided my ID when registering, but keeping all that government stuff straight is complicated.

So last night, I managed to log in and asked my wife to be the witness, as required. Only I had another would-be witness, in the body of a pesky 4-legged friend who always demands pets when I seat myself on the couch. I tried to tell her that daddy needed to work, but she didn’t understand, finally parking herself at my foot in the vain hopes that I might remember her and interact eventually.

That craziness aside, the process went mostly smoothly after that. I did wonder why they used checkboxes instead of radio buttons when we were to vote for only one option? There were 35 selections in total, and once I completed my choices I type-signed it and my wife filled out the witness form. And that was it! I voted in my pajamas from the couch. That’s a winning strategy in my opinion.

Seriously though, it could actually help those who are deafblind, as many who cannot perceive audio are also unable to vote independently. I think the auto mark does have some kind of Braille display, but I’ve never seen it work other than to say “Ready,” or something to that effect. Having the ability to set up one’s equipment how one truly needs it would be a huge benefit not only to us but to those with other things going on as well. I know of course that voting online introduces possible security issues, but really there are security issues no matter how you slice it. As with everything, we just have to put in what safeguards we can and allow the system to truly work for the people it is intended to serve and empower.

Musings on NaNoWriMo and Creativity During COVID

So how are we doing, folks. I think it’s already been over a month since I did the last check-in regarding COVID. And, *sigh* Just when we thought we saw that light at the end of the tunnel, the numbers have skyrocketed to points higher than they were at the so-called peak. Here in North Carolina, for instance, we set two consecutive new case records last week and have just set a record for the most deaths in one day from this virus. Believe me, I know that behind every one of those numbers is a person, family, friend, co-worker or other connected individual who is hurting. I just keep praying that it stops soon enough.

As I continue to look out for my mental health during this time, I strive to at least thrive in the world of creativity. And as was the case when this started, my wife keeps driving me forward in that area. She’s doing her own impressive stuff (shameless plug) with a recently launched Etsy store she calls Carrol Creations. Therein, she makes decorative or inspirational wooden signs that can be hung on doors or walls, customized earrings, t-shirts, and most recently Christmas ornaments and “quarantine reindeer,” each with its accompanying facemask. Of course family and friends have been supportive in stimulating sales, but in this month alone she’s also received three outside orders. Cool stuff. If you’re into that sort of thing, hop on over there and check it out.

Seeing her put in the “elbow grease,” as I often tease, has motivated me to get back off the proverbial snide and attempt to re-launch an idea I initially conceived in 2018, to write a book about two brothers with Norrie Disease who face different variations and thus experience different outcomes. I’m thinking this time that it will be the basis for my NaNoWriMo novel. I’m not exactly sure for how long National Novel Writing Month has been going on, but my first real shot at producing a 50,000-word piece of fiction was back in 2006. I think I got up to approximately 25k words before the whole thing just dissolved into a puddle of goo, and I posted excerpt 1 and 2 in my old blog. I particularly liked the second one.

I made a nod in the direction of trying again in 2017, but that never got off the ground given that I was about to get married and also wrapping up grad school. Now that nearly all travel except that to work and home has stopped, maybe I can make myself sit here with some music on as I am right now and pound these Mantis Braille display keys. I’ll update as November progresses.

And, not a whole lot else. Just working on some cosmetic changes around this my blogging spot, mostly to make it easier for folks to find my book reviews and how they can contact me. I’m not done yet, but all that movement takes so long that it will be mostly reserved for the weekend. As far as I can tell, this viral wave is surging throughout much of the northern hemisphere at the same time, rather than the spikes we saw popping up in varying locations earlier. So wherever you are, I hope you are staying safe and keeping yourself up as best you can. And maybe do some creating of your own. If you have, how so? Has anything worked out?

In Koraalen, Heather Murata Explores Human-Environment Links

(NOTE: The author provided me with a copy of this book to review, but all opinions expressed herein are mine).

Some people commune with nature, and others communicate with it. In her novel “Koraalen: Planetary Symbiosis, Heather Murata constructs a character who revels in doing both.

Nerissa, an up-and-coming star in environmental activism especially as it pertains to saving coral reefs, is asked on her first assignment for the Koraalen Marine Biology Guild to assess what may be causing an illness among this fragile animal. She happens to have a unique ability to “talk to” the coral telepathically, thereby gaining a fuller understanding of their experiences and sensations. Even so, she and her partner Shan find it difficult to get to the root of the problem, as they tackle obstacles that lead them off-planet to consort with others in search of solutions.

Murata has constructed a futuristic “universe” called the United Interstellar Economic Cooperative that most closely mirrors something like the European Union or United Nations. Only this grouping is made up of planets that have been colonized thousands of years after humanity has basically rendered “old Earth” unlivable. A primary goal of the UIEC and its member guilds is to ensure that the same does not happen in these new worlds.

This might sound like heavy science fiction, but in general it is not. The author aims instead to show readers how small changes in our behavior and a willingness to at least attempt to find a way to live in balance with the environment can lead to desirable outcomes. On Koraalen, for example, many residents live in sustainable platform cities just off of the continents and islands, leading to less urban development on land. Nearly all transportation is by air, whether through flitters, which I assume are a sort of flying car; air taxis, or air buses, which resemble long haul commercial airplanes. But everything is powered by means other than fossil fuels.

While there is considerable emphasis on environmental infrastructure and how best to handle it, with some jargon that only true insiders would fully understand, Murata spices things up with the sweet and powerful love that develops between Nerissa and Shan as they power through testing and experimentation. They first encounter each other as he, Shan, monitors Nerissa during a traditional Luau, and the sparks keep flying from there, growing stronger as adversity mounts. In fact, much of the story occurs against a backdrop of primarily Hawaiian-type culture, with lush descriptions of waterfalls, ocean scenery, pineapple fields, and other tantalizing tropical tidbits.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the work people do in trying to diagnose and save coral reefs here on this planet, work that I know is vital and not very easy. The characters though present the overall optimistic view that if we make the effort, the coral can do the rest and that healing and regeneration are still possible. And if, after reading this, you want a good nonfiction perspective on the plight of coral, check out Ocean Country, by Liz Cunningham. I read that one last year and found it informative. The bottom line, and I would venture to say that both authors would agree with this assertion, is that we must continue to work to save the Earth, even in the face of natural and man-made disaster.