On “Castle Rock.”

Published December 11, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I have never ever been shy about my love for Stephen King. Today, on Hulu, the finale of the second season of the Stephen King-inspired show “Castle Rock” aired. I had two thoughts as the credits rolled:

  1. Damn, that was better than season one.
  2. I want to re-read Misery.

I really enjoyed the performances by Lizzy Caplan and Tim Robbins as two well-known Stephen King characters: Annie Wilkes and Pop Merrill, respectively. I listed Caplan first because she honestly steals the show. She’s riveting as Annie Wilkes and masterfully pays tribute to Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning portrayal in the nearly perfect film while somehow making the character her own. It is truly a masterful performance. As a viewer, I hated Annie, pitied Annie, feared Annie, laughed at Annie, and just went along for the ride. From her awkward gait to her unsettling gaze, Caplan created an Annie Wilkes that is as heartbreaking as she is horrifying. One of the standout episodes in the season, although Caplan and Robbins do not feature, is the fifth episode, titled “The Laughing Place.” The episode is beautifully shot and delves fearlessly into the troubled past of Annie Wilkes. While some aspects of Annie’s character were expected, like her sociopathic and psychotic tendencies, others were new and interesting. I was particularly fascinated by Annie’s struggle with dyslexia and was enthralled with the depth it added not only to character but to the complexity and intensity of the events as they unfold in “Misery” (I’m specifically referring to the film as it has been quite some time since I read the novel, which was a knockout by the way. I might not remember specific plot points, but I remember loving the book). Annie’s “Castle Rock” arc ends where we first met her, worshipping Paul Sheldon and I have a strong desire to revisit the book.

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Tim Robbins played Pop Merrill who was a complicated character to say the least. Robbins played it beautifully, expertly navigating the fine lines that kept Pop from being an all-out villain or an all-out redeemable, tragic hero. Robbins absolutely radiates in the second-to-last episode titled “Caveat Emptor” as Pop tries desperately to right the many wrongs he’s guilty of at staggering prices. Robbins is the perfect cranky, old bastard that deserves whatever he gets but that you hope gets better. I won’t spoil anything for anyone interested in watching, but will say that Pop Merrill’s storyline is one familiar to King’s Constant Readers and it does not disappoint.

Tim Robbins in season 2 of 'Castle Rock'

The first season of “Castle Rock” was close to being great, but for me, the finale kept it short of the mark. It was all so ambiguous which would be fine if there was at least a little something for the viewer to stand on or hold onto. I understood the nod to “Thinnys” and immediately thought of The Dark Tower series, but something was missing. I was dissatisfied and ambivalent about even watching the second season.

But man, am I glad I did.

 

On the end of a decade (dramatic though it may sound).

Published December 4, 2019 by mandileighbean

Not only is it the last month of the year, but everyone seems to be harping on the fact that it is the last month of the decade. I don’t remember people being this pumped when 2009 was drawing to a close, but truth be told, I don’t remember much about that time in general. I know I was in college, I know I was student teaching, and I know I had a lot of plans. Looking back, I realize I had a pretty fantastic decade.

  • I graduated college magna cum laude.
  • I lost nearly sixty pounds … and then gained it back. But then I started losing again, so let’s call this one a draw, shall we?
  • I bought a convertible, my dream car! And when the water pump somewhere in Pennsylvania and left me stranded on the shoulder of a steaming highway, I bought a Jeep! And when the Jeep was too expensive, I bought a brand new car, the first one I’ve ever owned.
  • I met Andrew McCarthy and Gary Sinise. And I yelled to James Franco that I liked his collection of short stories, and he mouthed “thank you.” I don’t think he was allowed to talk to anyone outside the theater after the performance of “Of Mice and Men.”
  • I published a novel (the first of many, let’s hope)!
  • I traveled to places I’d never been before, specifically Colorado and France.
  • I attended seven weddings and eight funerals.
  • Three of my loved ones deployed and returned home safely, but two made the ultimate sacrifice.
  • The New York Giants won a Super Bowl with Eli Manning as quarterback.
  • I worked my ass off and earned my dream job.
  • I finished the manuscript for a second novel and started the manuscript for a third.
  • I attended three absolutely wonderful writer’s conferences.
  • I bought a home.
  • I fell hopelessly, irrevocably, and dangerously in love.
  • I had my heart absolutely decimated. But hey; that builds character (Jane Austen wrote something like that, I think).

I’ve seen a lot of lists like this while scrolling through social media and “decade challenges” and similar sentiments. Recently, I was on LitHub and read an article titled “26 Books From the Last Decade that More People Should Read” (which can be found here and is definitely worth more than just a scroll-through) and it got me thinking: what would my reading list from the last ten years look like? I went over to my Goodreads page (and you should visit it too so we can be friends!) and scrolled through to revisit some of the titles that came along for my journey into the woman that sits in her kitchen, typing furiously on a cheap laptop that needs to be wiped down.

So here’s my list of ten books (with accompanying reviews I previously posted on Goodreads (except for my comments on The Spinning Heart)) that I read in the last ten years that molded me into the woman, writer, friend, lover, daughter, sister, aunt, teacher, human being I am today:

  1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguroneverletmego
    “I absolutely adored The Remains of the Day. Thus, I had very high hopes for Never Let Me Go, and I was not disappointed. The story was completely original and the novel’s structure served it well. I appreciated the real human elements of the characters and it was those elements that made the story as engaging as it was. I am a huge fan of human drama, and this book offered me all of that in a new and interesting way. Pondering what to do with one’s short and limited time on earth is not a new concept. However the way the author investigates what that means to the particular set of people with extreme circumstances is breathtaking.”

  2. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
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    “I loved this novel I am going to begin by imploring anyone reading this review to take my comments with a grain of salt, as I now realize I have a rather bizarre emotional connection to this novel. I believe I read this novel at the exact time I was supposed to; its plot, which focuses on the varying tragedies of the ‘everyman,’ relates to one and all. The prose was engaging and layered, so that every phrase contained a superficial significance and a deeper message that reveals itself in time. I loved this novel and highly recommend it.”
  3. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
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    “Romance is usually never my genre of choice. It’s my literary snobbery, but I’ve always assumed romances left nothing for the serious reader to sink her teeth into. I’d just always assumed romance novels were nothing more than pages torn from some woman’s diary, some woman desperately trying to recreate a forgotten relationship from her past and doing her utmost to make sure she gets it right this time. All of those assumptions and assertions are insulting and unfair, I know. This novel, ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes, helped me to see the error of my ways.

    The characterization is outstanding. No aspect is obviously conveyed or conveniently created for the reader; there’s some work involved, but man oh man, is it worth it. These characters are developed and authentic so there is a genuine emotional investment in how this particular story unfolds. It’s not just the romantic relationship that has longevity with the readers, but all the friendships and familial entanglements. The characters were lovingly crafted and it helps the reader to stomach an unbearable plot.

    What I mean by that seemingly harsh phrase is that Moyes is not in the business of granting wishes; she’s being real. This novel is not what you think it is in the best of ways. I was very pleasantly surprised and intend on picking up the sequel soon. Definitely recommended.”

  4. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
    galveston
    “I purchased this book for three reasons: 1) I love ‘True Detective (particularly the first season which is absolutely flawless),’ which Pizzolatto created and wrote; 2) While binge watching the first season of ‘True Detective’ for the thousandth time, I finally watched an interview with Pizzolatto where he discussed his writing process and talked about illuminating the characters through nuances, and I thought that was just brilliant; 3) I spent a lot of time in a bookstore and would feel like a total asshole if I didn’t buy something.

    This crime novel is entertaining. I kept having to turn the pages to see what was going to happen next. The pacing was maddeningly appropriate, but this novel is so much more than a hard boiled crime story. Similar to ‘True Detective,’ Pizzolatto uses a fluid narration to not only blend the present and past to keep readers on their toes, but to develop characters in that subtle, illuminating way. Sure, the troubled hero and grizzled damsel who still needs saving are somewhat stock characters, but Pizzolatto’s talent and attention to detail creates living, breathing identities for those characters. They can’t just be compartmentalized or written off; they’re complex and layered, and engineer a real attachment. I wasn’t reading just to find out what happened to satisfy curiosity; I wanted – needed – to know if they made it, to know how they made out in the end.

    Highly recommended if you enjoy crime thrillers and/or good writing.”

  5. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
    bazaar
    “Stephen King at his best … Some stories were downright delightful and ultimately satisfying, but most were disturbing and unsettling and masterful. There were rare moments when the voice seemed stale and archaic, but King’s power comes from his knowledge of human nature. He gets it, man; and whatever that is, it’s terrifying and funny and entertaining and beautiful. Some stories in this collection are undoubtedly better than others, but King is a master storyteller, so each and every yarn is undoubtedly worth the read.

    I’ve been a longtime fan of Mr. King, and have suffered through some of his recent work (which feels awful and unkind to admit), but this collection felt like a return to what made me fall in love with his prose in the first place.”

  6. I’d Die For You and Other Lost Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    dieforyou
    “Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer; I did not need to read this collection of short stories to learn that fact. The greatest thing about this collection, then, is that it shows Fitzgerald as an artist and a man. He truly believed in artistic integrity, and was brutally honest with himself about many things, including his talent and his drinking and his relationship with Zelda. The stories in the collection are evidence of Fitzgerald growing and evolving with the times, with his own life, and with his own interests. This is a must read for any and every Fitzgerald fan.”

  7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
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    “As I start taking my aspirations to be a successful published author more seriously, I find myself attending conferences that assign required readings. Some are pretentious, some are obvious, but few are as practical, helpful, honest, and entertaining as BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott.

    I felt validated and challenged and, most importantly, inspired to really write and give it all I have all the time. Lamott’s advice and insight are not meant to placate or manipulate aspiring writers into following her footsteps or buying more of her books or anything so capitalistic or self-serving. She talks about the reality of being a successful published author and how the realization of that dream still leaves something to be desired because it is human nature to never be satisfied. That truth, crushing though it may at first appear to be, makes the whole endeavor more manageable.

    I am forever indebted to this book, to this absolutely wonderful author. I also plan on reading more and more of her work.”

  8. The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall
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    “I can’t remember the last time I read a book in two days.

    The honesty of the author’s account of her life with Ted Bundy is remarkable. Kendall freely admits her own shortcomings which may have attracted Ted to her in the first place. She does not deny any facet of her relationship with Ted and while some readers have found her to be irritating in her inconsistencies, I felt it made her human and actually gave her credibility.

    Unfortunately, now having read the source material for the wildly popular Netflix film starring Zac Efron, I dislike the film as they weren’t true to the material.”

    *A new expanded and updated version of this book will be released in January 2020.*

  9. Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell
    lonesurvivor
    “This book was profoundly moving. I will not entertain anyone’s opinion about war or the military unless they’ve read this book.”
  10. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
    spinningheart
    “This is one of the most gorgeous novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring. Achingly beautiful and haunting, there was not a single wasted sentence. Remarkable. Powerful.”

On 3,000 words.

Published November 20, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Leave it to me to finally complete a “Writer Wednesday” post on an actual Wednesday  the week before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest times of the year! This is likely only happening because I’m not hosting (but I am cooking … a little) and because what I want to share with you lovely, lovely readers is something I already wrote.

I’m B E Y O N D excited about studying abroad at the University of Limerick in Ireland, starting in September of 2020. In my last post, I shared some reservations about my next steps, but I’d be a big, fat liar if I didn’t admit that the first step was nerve wracking. I had to apply – no big deal, I’ve done that before – but I also had to submit 3,000 words of original writing as it’s a creative writing program. I haven’t published anything since 2010 despite my best efforts, and I worried my writing wouldn’t be good enough. I was terrified I’d face another rejection.

But my 3,000 words worked; I got in! And so, I’d like to share them with you. Please read them and please let me know what you think! How’s the characterization? Does Duke actually sound like a guy, or does Duke sound like me trying to sound like a guy? Is it too melodramatic? Please, please, please let me know!

Suffice it to say that Duke was a troubled man. Without getting into everything right away, without immediately investigating all of the tragic elements that composed his character, let it be known that simply put, Duke had a shit ton of emotional baggage. Quiet rage constantly bubbled just beneath his surface and whenever it boiled over, the damage was swift and devastating. Duke was cognizant of all that, and so he did his very best to stay calm. He practiced yoga in the early morning hours, before coffee and cigarettes. He quoted Buddha’s teachings when he needed to remind himself to be peaceful. Duke would do anything and everything to maintain an even keel, and that is why he found himself on the beach in February.
It was too cold to be on the beach, but Duke didn’t care. The sky was gray and miserable. The clouds were so thick in their misery that the sun had no real chance of poking through. Still, Duke sat in the frozen sand, his ass becoming numb. His heels were firmly sunk in with his toes pointing upward and slightly outward in opposite directions. His knees were bent, and his long arms curled around his knees with his chest resting against them. He was compact, trying to take up as little space as possible to keep warm. Duke wasn’t an idiot, though he certainly couldn’t be called a scholar, so he dressed appropriately for the weather. His wool beanie cap and long, corduroy jacket with the fleece lining did the best they could, but the wind whipping onto the shore from the bay was fierce and freezing. It unapologetically stung at the exposed bits of Duke’s skin and his jeans suddenly felt thin and worn.
But truth be told, he didn’t even mind the wind coming off the water in rowdy gusts. He breathed it all in deeply and with squinted eyes, Duke surveyed the flat landscape before him. He was reminded of that one poem from high school, the one with the famous line about water being everywhere but there not being a single drop to quench thirst. Duke was not a scholar, not by any stretch of even the kindest imagination, but he knew that poem was talking about saltwater; the stuff Duke’s chalice of salvation would be filled with. He had journeyed to the bay in the middle of February, trampled across frozen sand, just to be near his beloved mineral. Duke was cold, and knew he wouldn’t last out there much longer. But Duke also knew that he needed the sea; it calmed him.
The dark hair that escaped his beanie whipped around his face (he always kept his hair longer than what was considered fashionable) but Duke did his best to keep his eyes that were like drops of milk chocolate open, and his gaze steady. He watched the rolling waves with slightly parted lips, hoping to taste the salt in the air on his tongue. He firmly believed in the beneficial uses of sea salt and he knew that it calmed him when nothing else could. Aurora, his best friend, had once explained the romanticism of his beliefs, of the irony of it all, but that seemed like forever ago. It was lost on him then, and it was lost on him now; nothing changed. There was something futile and defeating in that train of thought, so Duke steered clear of it. He took a deep breath, breathed in all the salty air he could to completely fill his lungs, and closed his eyes.
He wanted so desperately to clear his mind.
He wanted so desperately to be at peace.
A single tear rolled down Duke’s cheek, reddened and raw from the incessant, frigid wind. He knew this wasn’t working and popped his eyes open. His muscles had tightened from the cold and the frigid weather seemed to stiffen his joints. Plus, he had been all curled up on the sand for the past half-hour, so it took him longer than he liked to get up and get moving. He needed to be Zen, to be calm, and if the sea proved disappointing, if sea salt let him down, Duke only knew of only one other place he could go.

Duke’s heavy boots caused the wooden floorboards of the deserted outdoor patio to creak loudly in the wintry silence. The Anchor Inn was open all year round, but did its best business in the summer when thirsty tourists were a dime a dozen. As the season progressed, the neon lights downtown became familiar and lost their appeal so that even the least adventurous made their way to the Anchor Inn in search of authentic local flavor. However, during the middle of the day (a day in the middle of the offseason), the local dive was empty except for town drunks needing a certain level of alcohol in the bloodstream to function normally, and those battling or embracing the kind of existential crisis that always seems to blindside the blissfully unaware on a random weekday afternoon. And it was in this very establishment, this very environment, where Duke could find his one other source of solace – as long as she was working.
The lighting was terrible and dim, as it usually is in such dive bars, and it took Duke’s eyes a moment to adjust and see the surroundings clearly. No one looked over when he walked in; despite being clean for three years, Duke was still considered a regular. So no one noticed Duke stroll over to the main bar and take his usual seat on a rickety, uncomfortable stool made of wood. The whole place was that way; rickety and uncomfortable and made of wood. The bar shrank and expanded with the seasons so that now it seemed small and cramped and cold, despite it being empty of clientele and in spite of the fireplaces roaring in opposite corners at the far end of the building. Duke was unaware of the less than appealing aspect of the place, felt comfortable enough for a prolonged stay, because he found what he was looking for. With a small smile, Duke enviously watched Aurora lose herself in some paperback novel. She had folded the cover back and was chewing her bottom lip as she read. She was leaning on her forearms that were resting on the bar top, and her one leg was just a few inches in front of the other and slightly bent at the knee so that her whole posture could be described as bent. Duke wondered not only how Aurora could possibly be at ease in that position but how long she could endure such a position. Duke observed his friend for just a minute more, still smiling in a muted way, tracing his mouth and chin by moving his thumb and pointer finger along his thin mustache in opposite directions, down along the laugh lines that formed parentheses around his mouth, and reuniting his fingers below his pointed chin in the short hair of his trimmed beard. Musing complete, he let his hands come together and folded them on top of the bar. “Hey Aurora,” he greeted in his low, sturdy growl.
Startled, she looked up quickly but once she realized who spoke, she relaxed. Aurora, whom everyone else affectionately called Rory, straightened her posture after closing the book and slipping it onto a shelf beneath the bar. Smiling wide, she said, “Well hey there, Duke. What are you doin’ classin’ this place up?”
“It’s my day off – thought I’d stop by and see you.”
Aurora was pouring Duke a tumbler full of ginger ale, already knowing to hold the whiskey. She was eyeing him cautiously but her playful smile hung around her lips. “Oh yeah? You need money or something?” She shot Duke a wink and slid the glass over to him.
Duke was relaxing. “Can’t your best friend say ‘hi’ for no other reason than to be friendly?”
“Best friend,” Aurora repeated in mock skepticism. She was leaning her weight on the bar top with her palms splayed wide. “Laying it on kind of thick, aren’t you? Must be after a small fortune from me; use and abuse, that’s you all over.”
“Fuck off,” Duke said with a soft laugh. He brought the glass to his lips and sipped.
Aurora’s smiled faltered nearly imperceptibly and she leaned closer to Duke. “You okay though? Seriously?”
Duke shrugged and dropped his gaze. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just –” he was about to use the word “needed,” but didn’t like how it would likely ring in Aurora’s ears later, so he decided against it – “just wanted to see you.”
Aurora paused to think for a moment, but her expression remained the same. She squeezed Duke’s hand that was free of the glass and said, “I’ll be right back with some pretzels for you.” She moved somewhere to the right, off into some room Duke couldn’t see and in her absence, Duke released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding in. He shook his head from side to side once, telling himself “no” in response to a question no one asked.
To announce her return, Aurora chucked the bag of pretzels at Duke. “Day off, huh? Must be nice.”
“First one in a long time; you know I never take time off.”
“Maybe you should,” Aurora advised.
“Are you working all day?”
“Kid cancelled tutoring, so I picked up another shift here.” Aurora busied herself with wiping glasses she’d already wiped clean. “Why? Did you want to do something?”
“No, but,” Duke paused to breathe, “do you care if I hang out here today?”
“Of course not,” Aurora laughed, “even though I can’t figure out why. Nothing’s going on here, man. I’ve cleaned these same glasses six times and,” she turned to look at the handful of customers scattered along the bar and raised her voice, “no one’s tipped me yet!” The patrons all knew Aurora, all liked Aurora – everyone liked Aurora – and so they only smiled, raised their glasses to her, and promptly returned to ignoring her. She rolled her eyes to Duke in exaggerated disdain for her beloved locals.
Duke wasn’t as comfortable as Aurora was around people in the town so small it was actually claustrophobic. He knew exactly what people thought of him. Duke did his best to avoid undue attention, whispers so loud they were intended to be overheard, and knowing, disapproving glances. So he lowered his voice and changed the conversation, asking, “What were you reading?”
Aurora snorted dismissively. “Some book I found in my basement. There’s lots of gun play and forced characterization and no real depth, but it’s entertaining as hell.” She shrugged. “You can borrow it when I’m done if you want.”
“Thanks anyway. I don’t really read.”
Aurora nodded. “Yeah, I remember doing your English homework for four years.”
“Don’t get mad at me because you were a nerd desperate for attention from a really cool, really hot guy.”
“You called me your best friend when you walked in here, dick,” Aurora laughed as she swatted Duke’s arm. She moved down the bar to check on her other customers, still looking for tips. Duke watched her go and felt himself fill with appreciation. She never asked for anything and saved the lectures but was always willing to kick his ass if he ever needed it. She loved him, was unfortunately in love with him, and Duke loved her but was not in love with her. He wondered how long such a relationship could last. It had been over ten years. Duke worried he might be pushing his luck.
Aurora sauntered back to Duke. “It’s dead here, and George is in the back. I’m going out for a smoke. Wanna come?”
Duke nodded. He slid off the stool and followed Aurora out the rear exit. She pushed the heavy door open with her hip, slipping her coat on as she moved outside. “Fuck, it’s cold,” she complained through gritted teeth.
“The wind’s picked up some since I came in,” Duke said.
“Shit,” was all Aurora replied. She didn’t have gloves so to save her fingers, she pulled her sleeves past her fingers and used her hands as claws to hold and open the pack of cigarettes she retrieved from the back pocket of her jeans. To continue to avoid using her fingers, Aurora bit down on a cigarette and pulled it from the pack using her teeth. Duke watched with real amusement and Aurora winked. “Give me a light, fucker.”
Duke stepped forward and flicked the lighter. Aurora puffed and pulled until a thin tendril of smoke circled to the sky. “You could have said ‘please,’” Duke admonished.
Aurora removed the cigarette from between her lips. “Yeah, and I could have said ‘thank you,’ but you know that’s not how this friendship works.”
“Yeah, right,” Duke laughed.
Aurora took a few steps closer to Duke and pursed her lips to exhale the smoke away from Duke. She looked up into his face very seriously. “So now that we’re alone and you’re more comfortable and more likely to tell me things, tell me what’s going on with you.”
Duke looked back at Aurora just as seriously. “What makes you think something’s up with me? Why can’t I just spend time with my best friend?”
“I’m touched, Duke, but you know that I know that you’re full of shit. So talk to me, okay?”
He lowered his face closer to Aurora’s. They were just inches apart. “Leave it alone, Aurora, please. I’ll come to you when I’m ready. I always do, so don’t push the issue.”
Duke was confident Aurora would oblige him, and she changed the topic of conversation. She tried to play it off like she didn’t just do whatever he asked and pretended to be suddenly distracted. She acted like she hadn’t even heard what Duke said, but Duke knew better than to believe her sudden change in interest when she asked, “What’s that around your neck?” Aurora reached out and touched the vial that hung closely around Duke’s neck.
Duke looked down. “What do you mean?”
“What’s in there?” Aurora asked as she gingerly handled the vial with one of her sleeve-covered claws. “It’s beautiful, really awesome, so I feel like it’s too pretty to be cocaine or something like that. What’s it filled with?”
Duke rolled his eyes. “It’s sea salt.”
Aurora was so surprised she didn’t know what to do, so she laughed. “Why sea salt?”
“It calms me,” Duke said. “Maybe all your hippie bullshit swayed me. I was inspired by that lamp you bought me when I came home from the hospital.” He laughed softly through his nose. “Just trying to keep the inner peace.”
Aurora nodded, taking a drag of her cigarette. Smoke curled above her head as she answered. “Matt and Eric told me you’ve started to really get into yoga lately.”
Duke momentarily clenched his jaw. “Yeah, so?”
Aurora smiled, shaking her head. “Don’t let them give you shit for it. If you’re happy, I’m happy.” She quickly kissed his cheek.
“You know, I guess it started way before that, though.” Duke was becoming nostalgic, so his tone wasn’t exactly filled with humor and his shoulders shifted awkwardly, like the conversation had become uncomfortable and he wanted nothing more than to get away from Aurora. “Do you remember when I went to the beach with Uncle Rick when I was in elementary school? And I was out for a couple of weeks?”
Aurora nodded. “You guys had a bad car accident or something.”
“Well,” Duke began hesitantly, “Uncle Rick and I loved looking for fulgurites. Rick liked it more than I did, but I was happy to tag along, so- “
“Wait,” Aurora interrupted, smirking. “What’s a fulcrum thing?”
“Fulgurite,” Duke corrected. “It’s petrified lightning.” Aurora’s face was still blank. “It’s what happens when lightning strikes sand. Uncle Rick said it was like a permanent record of the path of lightning on earth, and the fulgurites are hollow, glass-lined tubes with sand stuck to the outside. We went to the beach for that specific reason all the time, but this time, we misjudged when the storm was going to hit and we were on the sand when the lightning struck.” He looked away from Aurora. “There was no car accident. I was struck by lightning.”
Laughter erupted from Aurora. “No way,” she argued. “There is  no way you got fucking struck by lightning.” She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “We would have known about it.”
“I made Uncle Rick promise to keep it quiet. I was embarrassed and so was he, and we were afraid my deadbeat dad would hear about it and try to get custody or money or both. I went for all these tests on my brain after and I was afraid you’d think I was crazy or weird.”
Aurora was sad. “I would never think anything like that about you.”
“You might have when you were seven.”
Aurora tossed her cigarette and stepped closer to Duke. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, it was like twenty years ago.”
“No lasting side effects?”
Duke shrugged. “They were monitoring my moods and sleep pattern for a while, but then they stopped. All I have to prove it even happened are some really light but crazy scars on my back that sort of loop to my chest.”
“How come I’ve never seen them?”
“They’re really light, like I said. You have to get pretty close to see them.” He cleared his throat and didn’t particularly care for the way Aurora was looking at him, like she’d never really ever seen him before. He wondered if she was changing her mind about him. Duke decided he didn’t want to know, so he decided to change the topic of conversation. “What are you doing Friday night?” Duke asked.
Aurora blinked twice and refocused.

3000duke

On the beginning of an adventure (possibly).

Published November 14, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I’m the worst. Not only did I miss another Wednesday deadline, but I didn’t do any of the things I said I would in my last blog post. If I want to be fair, I was on vacation in Florida with my older sister and her family, so I prioritized my time with my nephews and niece. Instead of running and blogging, I played games and helped with homework and watched movies on the couch with the greatest little humans on the planet. Another consolation is that I didn’t do too bad with my diet and to be honest, I’m getting back on track this week. The only reason why I didn’t run this morning was that I slept
H O R R I B L Y last night and it was FUCKING FREEZING this morning. Tomorrow is another day, and if I can stay within my calorie limit and exercise 90% of the time for 21 days, voila! New, healthier habits!

And I had reason to celebrate while I was on vacation. The Friday I left (November 1st), I received an email from Professor Joseph O’Connor letting me know he was informally recommending I be placed in the Creative Writing Master’s Program at the University of Limerick! He told me he reviewed my application, which means he read my original writing and thought it was good enough for me to continue working on the manuscript. The author of one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read saw potential in my writing … holy shit.  The official offer came the Friday I was heading home (November 8th) with a scholarship offer! This time next year, I could be in Limerick, Ireland, working on my writing and living a different life. There are just a few things I need to figure out:

  1. Finances: student loans? Grants? Scholarships? Home equity loan? Pension loans? I need to figure out how to finance this trip, since I’ll be taking a sabbatical from work and will be without a paycheck for an entire year.
  2. Sabbatical: speaking of, before I get too excited and before I start making all sorts of plans, I need to make sure my leave of absence is approved. I have to make a formal request and write a letter to the superintendent.
  3. House: if I get the money and the permission from work, what will happen to my home? The mortgage will still need to be paid. Do I rent it out? Will that affect my insurance? What if I can’t find anyone interested? Do I sell it?

So there’s still some figuring to do, but I feel like I’m on my way. In the meantime, I should get some writing done. And I want to make a note of how absolutely wonderful and supportive everyone has been, especially my coworkers.

Stay tuned, friends.

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On all kinds of muscles.

Published October 31, 2019 by mandileighbean

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“i keep fixing every habit//that i break.”

I made a promise to myself at the start of the summer of 2019 to stay physically and mentally fit. I developed schedules and regiments to read more and eat better and move more and write better. As I update this blog, I unfortunately have to admit that most of those plans fell through or were modified to basically continue my current, unhealthy lifestyle. I lack willpower; that’s obvious. I give up too easily. It was gross and misty this morning, so I didn’t go for my morning walk. I rolled over and went back to sleep, defeated. I gorged myself on pasta at dinner, making a million and one rationalizations for such piggish behavior. I’m tired and I’m always battling my depression and it’s rainy and work was hard: all those complaints become justifications for my bad behaviors, but I don’t want to live like that anymore. I have the desire, but sadly, that’s not enough. I
N E E D willpower.

What is willpower? The American Psychology Association defines willpower as: “…the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” That is precisely what I struggle with, so I did some more internet research and luckily, I stumbled upon an awesome article titled “The Science of Willpower: How to Train Your Productivity Muscle” by Oksana Tunikova. In that, she writes, “Simply put, willpower is our ability to delay gratification. It is our self-control that helps us resist distracting impulses and persevere.”

Without getting too science-y, I wanted to understand how scientists know what they know about willpower. The concept has been studied numerous times, but those in the know seem to agree that there are three key studies that tell us everything we should know when it comes to willpower:

  1. Stanford Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel: “Children were asked to choose between getting a sweet reward right away or having a double-portion after waiting for around 15 minutes. Kids who managed to delay gratification were believed to have stronger willpower (an obvious conclusion). The study, however, did not stop there. The young participants of the Marshmallow Test were actually subject to long-term evaluation. Over the course of years, it turned out that those who were able to delay gratification as kids had better life outcomes as adults. Life success was measured in terms of education, performance at work, health, and other metrics” (source).
    But what does this mean? To put the findings of the study in practical terms, to apply them to my own life, I realize that willpower is essential in meeting absolutely all of the goals I’ve set out for myself. If I’m able to make a schedule and stick with it, then I will be able to do anything technically.
  2. “Roy Baumeister is another important figure on the willpower-science scene. In collaboration with other scientists, Dr. Baumeister discovered that our will, just like a muscle, can be fatigued if we spend too much time on activities that require self-control. According to Baumeister, the strength of our willpower depends on the level of energy available in our brain at a given moment. To support his point of view, Baumeister ran an experiment that involved hard-to-resist foods. Participants had to withstand the temptation of eating chocolate and complete a series of mental tasks afterward. Those who managed to resist food temptation appeared to be more fatigued and performed worse in mental tasks” (source).
    But what does this mean? This helps me relax about relaxing. I really have to accept the fact that “all or nothing at all” is not a concept that can apply to my life. When I fall, or when I fail, it cannot be enough to defeat me. I have to remember that it is natural and normal to fall short and in bouncing back is how I will strengthen my own willpower. It seems contradictory, and maybe even ironic, but still, it makes sense because we cannot know darkness without light and we cannot know success without failure. So instead of rolling over and being defeated, I need to begin again.
  3. “Back in 2010, a study conducted by Stanford University researcher Veronika Job and her colleagues suggested that our own beliefs about willpower might play a key role. A series of experiments proved that when we believe that our willpower is limited, it becomes limited. Meanwhile, those who believe that willpower is not fixed and cannot be depleted, demonstrate greater self-control and are not likely to lose will under depleted circumstances” (source).
    But what does this mean? When I was going to therapy regularly, my therapist stressed the importance of loving myself (and so did my priest). I’m beginning to understand that loving myself includes believing in myself. I need to be nice to myself and tell myself that I am lovely, that I am strong, that I am capable of great things, that I will be published again, that I will lose the weight, and that I will be loved,.

So throughout my research, it became obvious to me that willpower is important, if not crucial, in determining success in any endeavor. Based on the three studies discussed above, it is apparent to me that willpower is as important as I believe it to be, and that it can be developed. To develop willpower, it is best to think of it as a muscle. “To strengthen a muscle, you have to exercise” and “When you overwork, muscles get tired and will need time to recover” (source). So, again, having one cheat meal a week is okay, but it is key to not let that cheat meal turn into a cheat day, which turns into a cheat week because I am not disciplined enough. But when I feel tired, I can rest, because indulging in being lazy twice a month is actually an effective way to give my willpower and self-control time to recover and “…restore its energy levels” (source).

But what does this look like in practice, in real life?

  • Exercise daily. “The trick, however, is to start small and build up” (source). Walking every day is fine to start with and I plan on continuing to do so even while I’m on vacation next week in Florida. But I’ve been walking for two months and my weight loss has slowed and while I fear it might be mostly because I’ve been slacking in counting calories, I might also need a physical boost. I remember reading somewhere that a person should change up her exercise routine after a few weeks. Upon returning from Florida, I am going to start running but I’ll walk if I need to.
  • Feed your brain the right food. “Willpower and decision-making are closely related. .. Studies suggest that poor diet makes you inclined to make more emotional choices than if you were well fed. To this end, the same advice to start small goes a long way” (source). This was another validation for me; I’ve been investigating The Mediterranean Diet for some time now and it’s time I got started. I have an entire cookbook and even more recipes printed from the internet. I could just start with breakfast, or a dinner once a week, because the article advises to “Keep changes small so that your brain doesn’t realize a change has been made. In no time, you can build up your willpower skills” (source).
  • Develop your own reward system. “If you break your big goal into a few smaller goals and assign a valuable reward for each small goal achieved, your willpower will be activated” (source). My original weight loss plan did have goals for incremental weight loss. For example, if I lost five pounds, I would treat myself to a movie. And if I lost twenty pounds, I’d get a hair cut. It’s time to find my original list and hang it up on my fridge so losing all the weight I’ve gained will seem more possible and I’ll have something to look forward to along the way.
  • Train your willpower, but don’t overdo it. Hence why cheat meals and lazy days are so important, and that helps me breath easier.
  • Work on your stress levels. “According to studies on the connection between stress and willpower, goal-oriented behavior suffers when our fight-or-flight signaling is on” (source). My stress has always been difficult for me to manage. Before I developed better coping skills and healthier habits, I used to suffer from severe, complex migraines. They seemed like small strokes; I wouldn’t be able to talk or remember things, and one side of my body would be numb. The vision in my right eye would resemble a television screen with static. There’d also be blinding, horrible pain. Exercising helped, but I want to implement a yoga regiment and spend much more time reading and writing. I also need to continue turning my home into a cozy sanctuary, even if it is little by little due to financial constraints. I should put fresh flowers in different rooms. I also need to start seriously planning my garden.
  • Set realistic goals. “Set goals that are big enough to be motivating but still doable. Alternatively, break your goals down into sub-tasks and work on one smaller goal at a time” (source).

When I get down on myself, I need to remind myself of the following things:

  • Willpower gets stronger with regular use. You can train your willpower with small things like making your bed every morning or choosing a fruit over a cookie at least twice a week. Start small and scale it up as your self-control skills grow.
  • Willpower is a muscle you can train. “Hear this: You are not forever bound to your bad habits. Of course, some poor habits might be hard to break, but as long as you keep your goal in mind and work on strengthening your willpower, nothing is impossible. You can become a better version of yourself; the power to make this happen is always within you” (source). I WILL READ THIS EVERY SINGLE DAY.

It is also helpful to remember that: “21 days is the minimum time needed to build a new habit” (source). That’s three weeks; that’s not so bad! I will give myself time. I will love myself. I will be patient with myself.

Next week, I’ll share my three-week plan for kick starting my plan to become a strong, more motivated woman. Will you join me? Do you want to become more motivated? Have you ever thought about how to be the best version of yourself?thesecrettostayingmotivated

On music, the muse.

Published October 24, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Welcome to another edition of “Typist Thursday”! I need a better title, I know, but for some reason, I’m having a hell of a time updating on Wednesdays. To be honest, I’m having a hell of a time staying on schedule for nearly everything in my life, whether it be working, writing, reading, or exercising. I’m not sure if it’s a bout of depression I have to work through, just being tired, or something else. Maybe it’s just this time of the year? Whatever the reason, one surefire method to help me out of any funk is listening to music.

I listen to music when I do anything and everything: drive, cook, sleep, exercise, and even read. I N E E D music – it is my outlet, my muse, my salvation. I only wish I were musically inclined. I can’t sing a note, I can’t play a note, and I have no real ear for it. But oh, how I love it. I know I’m not the only one who loves music, and I know I’m not the only one who uses it for inspiration.

I H A V E T O listen to music when I write. I just have to. When I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, my first novel, I used specific song lyrics for inspiration which were then featured at the start of every chapter (that list is featured below). And as I move onto other projects, I keep the same system – certain lyrics really inspire a scene or a character or even a type of mood. Here’s what I’m currently listening to as I work on a new manuscript:

  • “Iceman” by Bruce Springsteen

    “my baby was a lover and the world just blew her away//once they tried to steal my heart, beat it right outta my head//but baby they didn’t know that i was born dead.”

    The new manuscript I’m working on (or at least one of them) is greatly inspired by my love for the one, the only, the true hero of the great Garden State, Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been listening to The Boss for almost as long as I’ve been writing, and his voice has been irrevocably and inextricably linked with my own. To pay him homage, I’ve made my protagonist an aging rockstar endeavoring to return his career to its former glory by embarking on a tour comprised of intimate shows in small venues of the beaten path, a sort of grass roots movement to reconnect with his people.

  • “Get Hurt” by Gaslight Anthem

    “and I came to get hurt//might as well do your worst to me, hey hey//have you come here to get hurt?//have you come to take away from me, from me, from me?//might as well do your worst to me.”

    While trying to reconnect with his fans, he gets more than he bargained for when he meets a starry-eyed young woman who asks for his autograph. She’s the only one to do so at the venue, so they talk more than they should about more than they should. And that gets the protagonist into some trouble as he’s married and significantly older.

  • “High Dive” by Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness

    “you dance with your headphones on//and i could watch you all night long//dancing to someone else’s song.”

    The age difference between the aging rock star and his young fan becomes too much for the relationship, and the young fan decides to try a romantic relationship with a young man closer to her own age. This drives the protagonist insane with jealousy. And, just to make things even more interesting, the young man is hiding a dangerous secret that could endanger the lives of everyone involved in the sordid love affair.

  • “The Thing About Things” by Amanda Palmer

    “the thing about things is that they can start meaning things//nobody actually said//and if he couldn’t make something mean something for me//i had to make up what it meant.”

    I’m not entirely sure how this particular set of lyrics inspired me, but OHMAN they resonate with me. I had a failed relationship that I’m still sore from, and I have mementos stashed in the back of a tiny drawer in my writing desk (a deck of playing cards, a hotel room key, a pair of socks) that remind me of when I was happiest, of the possibility of love and romance. I imagine the young fan would hang on to mementos of her fling with the aging rockstar in a similar fashion, which is why despite her new relationship, she can’t quite let go, and that adds to the conflict and the complexity of the narrative.

  • “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” by The Black Keys

    “she’s got the kind of love i need//the kind that’s never good on me//it doesn’t mean a thing to me//it doesn’t mean a thing to me//and it’s about time you see//things ain’t like they used to be.”

    This song reinforces the same ideas as the previous song, but does so from my protagonist’s point of view. I want his relationship with his fan to be somewhat toxic, and even though those involved recognize the relationship as such, they cannot leave the other alone. Personally, I believe we all fall victim to a relationship like that at one point or another- we know the person’s bad for us, but we can’t stay away and even though we’re not necessarily good for the other person either, that person can’t let go.

  • “Unsteady” by X Ambassadors

    “if you love me, don’t let go//if you love me, don’t let go//hold//hold on//hold onto me//’cause i’m a little unsteady//a little unsteady.”

    SPOILER ALERT: There is a death of a major character at the resolution of the story. To get into a somber, pleading mood, I’ll listen to this song. There’s an optimism to the lyrics that is tinged by a desperation that comes from the melody, and that contradiction is powerful. After all, power lies in contradictions for all characters and storylines.

  • “Atlantic City (Cover)” by Ed Sheeran

    “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact//but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

    Another epic by Springsteen that expands upon the idea of love never really dying, just ebbing and flowing because of outsider influences and/or extenuating circumstances.

  • “Kansas City” by The New Basement Tapes

    “and i love you, dear//but just how long//can i keep singing the same old song?”

    Those caught up in the love affair that drives the plot of this story are going to try and fit themselves back into familiar roles, even though that’s no longer possible because of the discoveries made and the decisions made because of those discoveries.

  • “Monster” by Mumford and Sons

    “so fuck your dreams//and don’t you pick at our seams//i’ll turn into a monster for you//if you pay me enough.”

    The aging rockstar’s wife discovers the affair and the decisions she makes based on that information seal the fate of all those involved.

And as promised:
Her Beautiful Monster playlist:

So what do you listen to when you want to be creative? Or when you want to feel brilliant, beautiful, and brave? Share your playlists in the comments!

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On stars and herons.

Published October 16, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I saw a shooting star and a beautiful, proud, elegant egret egret when I was walking the boardwalk this morning. Naturally, I wanted to know what those two sightings meant – you know me, always looking for signs. The first website I found was a blog with questionable credentials, but it said: “Shooting Stars symbolize Good Luck, A change or big event is coming towards your life, it can also be a symbol of endings. … They can also be a symbol of reaching one’s ultimate destiny” (source). I immediately thought of all the personal and professional upheaval from last year, and for the plans I’ve been making recently (the trip to Ireland, starting a new manuscript, and getting mentally and physically healthier). I wanted this to be true and somehow verifiable, so I hunted the internet for a more reliable source.

According to HowStuffWorks.org, “Shooting stars, also known as fallen stars, send streaks of light across the night sky before burning out into a point of inky blackness. Superstition has it that simply spotting one of these stars as it falls can bring good luck, though the rationale behind this custom changes based on who’s telling the story. Some cultures claim that fallen stars represent souls that have been released from purgatory, allowing them to finally begin the ascent to heaven and peace. In Britain and other areas, a shooting star represents the soul of a new baby falling to Earth, ready to begin a new life [source: Murrell]. Either way, the shooting star is said to possess a bit of magic, which means positive vibes and good luck for anyone who happens to gaze upon one.” This makes me happy because I could definitely use some good luck. I’m trying to get my work published, I’m trying to study in Ireland, and if I’m being really honest, I’m trying to fall in love. Hoping the falling star is really a precursor to good luck and prosperity, I kept reading. “Some shooting star superstitions can affect your life without any action on your part, but the type of luck you end up with could depend on something as random as where the star is positioned in the sky. If you spot a fallen star on your right, it means good luck, while one on your left indicates misfortune will follow. If you’re quick, you may be able to shift position as the star travels in an attempt to change your luck [source: Dillon]. Shooting stars also bring luck on the road. Spot one while on a trip, and your voyage is guaranteed to be a success [source: Goldsmith].” Luckily, the shooting star I saw this morning was in front of me, although it did fall to the left. But optimism is the new cynicism, eh? Let’s make being happy cool again. I’ll start by ignoring half of this explanation.

I kept reading (I’m a nerd; it’s what I do) and found some tidbits that could make for really interesting short stories. For example, “Counting the stars may be a good way to pass the time on a clear night, but superstitious folks should skip counting in favor of other pastimes. Counting the stars has always been considered a surefire way to bring on bad luck, and some legends state that if you attempt to count the stars in the sky, you’ll die when you reach 100 [source: Dillon]. Some believe that this superstition stems from ancient people who worshipped the sun, moon and stars, while others argue it’s a more recent custom [source: Roud]. Of course, with at least 200 billion stars in the galaxy, it’s likely that you’d die of natural causes well before you could get very far into your count, lending this superstition an air of credibility [source: NASA].” I don’t think I’ll take that risk; I’m bad at math anyway, and I like just looking up at the brilliantly lit heavens and thinking about how weird and wonderful it is just to be alive at all. But imagine if that actually happened, like if there was a stretch of shoreline where countless people had died because they’d stretched out on a blanket and tried to relax, tried to count stars. Imagine other people heard about the phenomenon but didn’t believe, only chalked it up to urban legend, so people started trying and testing it out and BAM! People keep dying. That might be a good start of something….

Another section had to do with “Love in the Stars,” and it said: “It’s well established that attempting to count the stars can be unlucky or even fatal, but one superstition holds that it’s OK to count under very specific circumstances. According to folklore, only an unmarried person looking for love can keep a tally. Even in this case, the unmarried person can count a maximum of seven stars on seven consecutive nights. If you do this, the first person of your preferred sex that you shake hands with on the eighth day is the one you’ll marry. For those struggling to find the one, it seems like a harmless way to not only locate love, but also a chance to finally count the stars without fear of inviting bad luck into your life [source: Radford and Radford]” (source).

To add to the good omen of seeing a shooting star, I was P U M P E D to find out that egrets (more commonly known as white herons, apparently) are also signs of good things to come. According to a YouTube video (which I know is not the most reliable of sources), “This great bird, talked of throughout ancient history and many cultures, is also commonly known as the Great White Heron. … A double headed Heron in Egypt is symbolic of prosperity. As a Chinese symbol the Heron represents strength, purity, patience and long life.” I found this information to be reassuring. Even though I am not Egyptian or Chinese, I have been working at becoming stronger and relying less and less on validation from others. I have been working at becoming purer and removing people and activities from my life that make me or keep me toxic. I’ve always been patient even though it mostly drives me insane. It took me two years to find a full-time teaching job after graduating from college. It took me two years to publish my novel after completing the manuscript. It took me two years to close on my home. It seems like two years is my typical wait time for things, but I’m not keen on wasting any more time in finding love. Though the heron also symbolizes a long life, I don’t want to wait forever to be loved. I think being hyper-focused on fostering a romantic relationship has hurt my writing in the sense that I am constantly distracted and prioritize being with potential partners over writing alone in my room.

So the key, as always, is balance. How do I balance being a productive writer with being fully connected to other human beings? There is some isolation required in being a writer, and I’ve read countless interviews with authors of varying degrees of success and fame who acknowledge that the writing life is a lonely one (though just how lonely depends on extenuating circumstances, I guess). But as the year 2020 nears, I’m going to work on loving and trusting myself, and going just a little bit fucking Gatsby.

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