The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

A Brilliant Idea May 3, 2019

This time the prompt was a tried and true one: “5 x 5,” which uses a list exercise to generate five lists of five words. The words are then used to fill in the blanks in this phrase:  ________________is/are like _____________________. (To see a detailed explanation of this prompt, see an earlier post here.)

My phrase was “Puppies are like ice cream.” What I wrote is below.

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He got a business license, an LLC, because he was sure he had an idea that would make him rich: a puppy farm with scheduled visits. For $25, each person would get ten minutes to lie on the soft green grass and be overrun by a litter of puppies.

“That’s amazing!” his nephew said. “It’s a classic example of how to sell childlike joy.”

They were brunching at a new San Francisco eatery after waiting forty minutes in a line that wrapped around the block. His nephew’s fiancé, however, a bottle blonde from Hayward—whom he detested, if he could be totally honest—didn’t agree.

“Aren’t there going to be some serious liability issues?” she asked, sipping her decaf macha cashew milk latte. “I mean, the puppies could get hurt.” His nephew took a gigantic blood orange vegan biscuit out of the ceramic bowl in the center of the table and looked around for the ramekin of olallieberry coconut spread.

“You can get liability insurance to cover that kind of stuff, can’t you?” his nephew asked, mercifully.

“I would do that, of course,” he said, nodding toward his nephew. “And I’d have monitors to protect the puppies at all times.”

“Monitors?”

“Yes, Bri-ANNE. I would have human monitors specifically hired to protect the pups.”

“And what about vaccinations?” Brianne added. “Aren’t puppies supposed to limit their exposure to humans until they’ve had a series of vaccinations?”

He frowned.

“Dude,” his nephew said to Brianne, “you’re kinda raining on his parade.”

The uncomfortable silence was broken by the waiter, who was just a little too cheerful. He arrived with steaming plates of micro-servings and called out each item. “Okaaaay,” he said, swinging his head to one side so his long bangs flipped over and then fell promptly back into his eyes. “You have the red and yellow kale hash with wild duck yolks, and the chickpea and green marmalade pancakes for you, sir.”

He hated being called “sir.” Did he really look that old? “They’re just being respectful,” his colleagues counter-argued when he complained about students on campus doing this. He also complained about them holding the door for him and letting him pass in front of them. “You complain when they’re rude, you complain when they’re polite—”

“I can get the damn door myself!” he snapped. “Do I look like I’m ninety-years-old? Am I shuffling?” His colleagues usually just clucked in response.

Now the three of them sat in silence again, eating joylessly. Finally, Brianne said, “I didn’t mean to sound so discouraging. I actually think it sounds like a lot of fun, your puppy farm idea. It sounds joyful.”

“Thank you.”

“Once you work out all the kinks and everything—”

“Uncle Bob,” his nephew interrupted, “you could totally make a living doing this. It’s fucking brilliant.”

He wanted to believe them both, he really did, but he was full of self-doubt now. These kids could spoil all your dreams. That’s what you get when you have Generation Xers for parents: cynicism. But he didn’t say anything. He just smiled his tight-lipped smile, sipped his purple Rooibos lavender tea, and imagined being under a pile of squirming puppies.

 

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Happiness October 4, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:44 pm
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The prompt this time was to list things you love.

My list included the following:  

Fat babies

Puppy breath

A good diner

Ice Cream

Reading in bed

Orgasms

What I wrote is below.

______________________________________________________________

“This little piggy went to the market,” he said out loud, once he was back in the car.  He had just exchanged his new 32 inch waist pants for a pair of 34’s. He often spoke to himself in the car, laughing at his own jokes, unintended rhymes, or on-the-spot limericks. Occasionally, he’d catch a pedestrian staring at him and think, Ah, well. Maybe I am a little crazy. But he wasn’t concerned. Certainly he was more sane than 25% of the country who voted for you know who in the last presidential election. Happy? That was another story.

Did he have a middle class life, complete with a dependable Japanese car and a good health insurance policy? Yes. Plenty of food to eat (obviously). A safe, quiet place to live, vermin free, with hummingbird visitors and at least one kind neighbor. Yes. He was creeping toward chronic singledom, but he was still healthy and desirable enough to get hit on at a bar; he even had repeat gentlemen callers, albeit married or much younger. Life was mostly good. So why the sullen grey afternoons and the lonely Sunday mornings? Well, it was all bad news on the air: suicide bombers and air raids, all those horrible videos of racially motivated police violence, and the beautiful, golden city of Aleppo now a pile of rubble. Every day his heart was broken.

And yet, there were heroes too: young, bright scientists finding new ways to cure cancer; religious leaders shifting gears and discovering what tolerance and love really mean; people building homes for the homeless, or the victims of natural disasters. The Pacific Gyre was a swirling plastic dump the size of Texas, but in Southern Mexico, human volunteers were helping baby Sea Turtles make it down the beach and into the surf. In Kenya, grown men slept with orphan baby elephants to ease their nightmares, and a boy from Nepal, who lost both his parents at 16, created a non-profit to build schools in the isolated rural village where he grew up, because he said, going to school in Katmandu had changed his life, but he had been too far away from his parents.

Life, like happiness, is not a destination. He learned that from Ralph Waldo Emerson (or was it a Hallmark card?). Happiness doesn’t always feel like a choice either, but sometimes you have to let it in. It might be the sweet, wet-nosed greeting from the skinny old pit bull in apartment 10, even though the guy on the other end of the leash rarely says hello. Or the baby in line at the grocery store who sees right inside you and knows you are kind. Sometimes, it’s a good book late at night in bed, a hot bath, the perfect slice of chocolate cake, a thank you card in your mailbox, or a long, lazy, silent walk on a breezy day. In this world so filled with pain and longing, sometimes you’ll run into happiness. When you do, you have to remember to let it in.

 

 

Strange Company June 13, 2017

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:43 pm
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The prompts this time were: 

 

Hello darkness, my old friend

Bless her tiny body

A messenger for happiness

What I wrote is below.

_____________________

The dead come to visit him in his dreams. It’s always been this way. After his mother died, she came three nights in a row, barefoot, wearing jeans and a neat pixie cut; totally unlike she’d ever looked or he’d ever imagined her. He figured she must have wanted to look this way all along.

His father surprised him too, once rushing off with a model to a waiting town car, his hair a salt and pepper faux-hawk, his new body slim and tall: a new body and a new love in the afterlife. Later, his parents showed up together, reunited it seemed, and happier than ever, sipping champagne and leaning in to whisper to him about his siblings.

Sometimes he awoke between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., the true bewitching hour, and as he stumbled to the bathroom to relieve his bladder, he swore he saw his old best friend—dead ten years now—sitting on the living room couch. “Don’t haunt me,” he said out loud, and looked away.

Occasionally, a ghost might hover, usually on the three nights before, during, and after the Day of the Dead. They followed the path of marigold petals from the front door to the little altar illuminated with candles. There they would find chocolate and scotch, oranges and almonds, sometimes a cookie or a slice of cake, and always a tiny bowl of water for the dogs. He had loved and lost so many good dogs.

But the clacking of las calacas never woke him those nights, and there was no reason for them to come to him in those dreams either, for during that holiday he always had conversations with them during his waking hours. He asked for advice (usually), love (always), a new home (twice, and twice they delivered), a clean bill of health (still cancer free), and occasionally, company. Sometimes he sat with them at the table and they rose out of books and recipes, old letters and notes, and poems too. They seemed to love poems most of all.

When he was little, he never wondered where the dead went after they took their last breaths. They seemed to live there in the house of his childhood alongside everyone else. They told jokes around the dining table, or helped mix the cookie batter, dropped the candy thermometer into the liquid sugar and clipped it right onto the side of the pot. They stared at him from photos, unsmiling, but he understood that it was only the fashion of the time that kept them from smiling, or shame at the condition of their poor teeth.

It was the living he wondered about then, especially the hollowed out expressions of the bereaved, all those adults who, after hours of crying, like children, still seemed dazed by death, emptied out. He understood that feeling now, of course, the way loss cracks you open, the way it shakes you off the foundation, unbolted, loose. But he found solace in the dreams, those dependable nightly meetings. In those dreams he learned to sit quietly and not ask too many questions. He learned how to keep the dead company.

 

 

 

 

Regenerating Kindness January 13, 2017

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 7:48 am
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                                                                                                                                                                                    pentgonaster-duebeni-3 

The prompt this time was about sea stars (formerly called “starfish”). I read some information about them out loud, and was struck by the way they can regenerate lost limbs.

A few other facts I read out loud were:                                          

Sea stars have an eye spot at the end of each arm.

Sea stars can move more quickly than you might expect.

Sea stars are famous for their ability to regenerate limbs, and in some cases, entire bodies.

Sea stars can live up to 35 years and are usually about the size of a teacup.

What I wrote in response is below.

________________________________

Everywhere, kindness. That’s what he’s choosing to see, anyway. That’s what he’s open to. The news fills the airways with horror, loss, murder, disease. Our world is spun into chaos: the end of times. So it seems surreal to notice a sparrow’s carefully constructed nest in the pipes above the carport, the old man in the donut shop having a conversation with a curious toddler, or to read about the Labradoodle who works as a therapy dog at a funeral home, and a herd of elephants who travel 20 miles to mourn a dead man who worked with them for decades and loved them. They came to pay their respects.

Then there’s the woman who waited to pull out of her parking spot on a busy Friday night so he could have her space. There was a line of cars behind him, so he couldn’t back up. “Go around the block,” she said, “I’ll wait for you.” A total stranger. And the clerk at his accountant’s office who so appreciated his interest in her African Violets that she gave him two leaves in a Dixie cup of water. “In about two weeks, you’ll have roots,” she said. “Plant them in soil and then keep them somewhere warm.” On the street outside the office, he used his hand to shield the flimsy leaves from the windy day. Once he was safely inside the car, he placed the paper cup in the beverage holder, careful not to spill it.

There are greater acts too. SS soldiers who worked as double agents and saved thousands from the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Now, two ninety-year-old survivors—one a former guard, the other a former prisoner whom he saved—meet again in Germany after seventy years. They hold one another and they weep. A policeman in Dallas covers a woman and her sons with his own body: he literally lies on top of them to shield them from a sniper’s bullets. And the surgeon, who has just told his patient that he might have cancer, sits for a moment and asks that patient about his life, about his work and where he lives. Sees him as a whole person, not simply a lung or a white spot on a CT scan.

These are dangerous, confusing times, he thinks. Airports are now targets for people who strap bombs to their bodies because they feel their li (more…)

 

Going Higher July 16, 2016

Filed under: Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 9:37 am
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The prompt this time was a guided visualization. I ask everyone to get in a patrick-smith-a-view-from-briones-park-of-a-light-snow-on-mt-diablo-in-the-last-light-of-the-day-californiacomfortable, seated position, feet on the floor, and close their eyes. Then I guide them through a breathing exercise and ask them to relax their limbs, starting with their toes and ending with their neck, head, and fingertips. Once they are in a relaxed state, I place them (or a character they are working with) in a specific place: the top of a flight of stairs, in front of a gate, on the shore of a large body of water, or in this case, somewhere high. 

What I wrote is below.

______________________________________

Don’t write about the dying plant, or the essay assignment you have to revise, the exercise schedule you need to keep. The prompt asks you to go somewhere high, but you first have to get grounded.

Two feet on the ground and you’ll lower your blood pressure, the nurse said: two feet on the ground. The hospital, the blood lab, the new phlebotomist. “I’m in training,” he said, his hands shaking slightly. “I’m being observed. Are you comfortable with that?” Everybody’s gotta learn sometime, right? And I’m always looking for another chance to practice compassion, so sure, stab me here, where the big blue vein is. Take two vials of the purple dark blood. I’m always amazed that’s inside of me.

Don’t write about the wasted morning, the $100 grocery bill, the man/boy who says he just wants to cuddle, write about somewhere high. Can you go back there again? Mount Diablo, the green and yellow spring, the winding roads, the clear rushing creeks below. You and Mama, and Baron in the back seat, his big tongue, his pink panting excitement, the summit still thirty minutes away. Eleven a.m. and the mountaintop was yours, no one else around as you took her hands and guided her, walked backwards up the short flight of steps. “One more. Step up. That’s right.” Baron flying up and down the steps ahead of you, behind you, beside you.

At the top, the locked tower, a wraparound deck. The Sierras on the horizon, snow-capped. “Look how beautiful,” Mama said, even when words were hard for her to come by. The cumulous clouds casting shadows over the valley below, light traveling in great patches. The San Francisco skyline with the familiar white triangle of the Transamerica building. That spring before the awful drug that left her in a wheelchair, that spring before you began college, the tearing away that individualism requires, the adult day care, the guilt of becoming your own person.

Before all that or this little life of dying plants and overgrown yards, of new cars and new debt, of text-message flirtations and the battle of the bulge. Just a mountaintop, a loyal dog, a woman with dementia (too young, all of them, too young) and the view. Hawks sailing overhead. The whole world green.

 

 

 

Flowers/Growing September 18, 2015

Filed under: Grief,Poems,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:45 am
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For this prompt I ask everyone to write two short pieces, and give them about five minutes for each.

IMG_0704For the first piece, I ask them to write about something or someone they have strong feelings for. I remind them that they can use short phrases, full sentences, even single words, and be as specific or as abstract as they like: there’s no right or wrong way to do a free write.

For the second free write, I ask them to write about something found in the natural world: trees, clouds, mountains, a specific kind of flower, anything that comes to mind.

After the two five-minute free writes are over, we combine the two pieces, taking them line by line: the first line from free write #1, followed by the first line of free write #2, then the second line from free write #1, followed by the second line of free write #2, back and forth this way, taking one line from each piece and putting them together to create one new “braided” piece. 

The result is always surprising, and often ends up being something like a prose poem.

Mine is below.

__________________________________________

Sometimes he comes to me in my dreams. Yellow golden blossoms. He’s young and vibrant and a deep chestnut brown. Sweet scent. Golden red. I brought him home from the nursery. Tiny. My comfort during the worst of my adolescence. He grew tall. He’d lie with me on the cheap carpet while I’d cry. In the late spring the flowers came. Paw on my arm, sometimes he’d lick the tears from my face. On warm summer nights, that familiar smell. I had always admired others and wanted one of my own. Loyal. Impulsive. Gentle. Expensive. With a ferocious bark. Fragile. And a plume of a tail that could clear a whole coffee table of champagne flutes. Lanky. Just a sapling. I filled the wine barrel with dark soil. The roots were wound tight. I’d come home from school, the front door wide open, but he’d be right by Mama’s side. It was healthy. He wasn’t afraid of her madness. The other plants needed fertilizer, but the little tree grew. He never ran off, like I wanted to do. The front door wide open, and there he was. A few years in a row, I would smell it drifting up from the yard below. He was always with us, in one of our rooms, occasionally on one of our beds. I planted that, I’d sometimes tell myself, inhaling deeply. In the dreams, he’s still with me on our long hikes, like the ones we used to take in the hills behind our house. When I moved, it was too heavy to take with me: the roots had grown through the planter into the ground. He led the way, and always stopped and waited for me, looked back. It’s still there, growing, flowering. It’s still that way in my dreams, bringing someone joy. Like he’s watching over me. Still alive.

 

Mexican Inspiration July 3, 2015

Filed under: essays,Mexico,Recipes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 2:53 pm
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This piece eventually made it into my cookbook memoir manuscript, and I thought I’d share it with you here. Some prompts to go along with it are:

Ai! Papi!                                                            photo(27)

I never wanted to leave

Handsome men everywhere

____________________________

Mexican Inspiration

I met Erick when I checked into Casa Cupula, a boutique hotel set on a hill overlooking the Bay of Banderas. The house I rent for the writing retreats in Puerto Vallarta is next door to the hotel, so I always spend a few days on my own there before the retreat begins. Erick was working at the hotel as a concierge.

There you are, Señor DeLorenzo,” he said teasingly the afternoon I arrived. “I’ve been waiting for you a very long time.”

“And I’ve been waiting for a man like you all my life,” I replied, not missing a chance to flirt.

“Aha!” he said, genuinely amused. “Very good.”

I had a crush on Erick about fifteen minutes after we met. He’s very handsome, but it was more than his good looks that caught my attention: it was his love of language and his use of idiomatic expressions in English. When he said, “That really doesn’t cut the mustard,” or “The sweet smell of success,” in his light Spanish accent, I found him absolutely charming.

My workshop participants arrived a few days later, and we began our week-long retreat, but I still made time to visit with Erick every day. Sometimes I meet someone I feel I have known before, and Erick was one of those people. Later, I also fell in love with his chocolate Chihuahua named Dario and his boyfriend at the time, Juan Carlos, but Erick came first. Talking to him is pleasurable in every way. He loves to read, and we spent time talking about some of our favorite books. But I think our relationship really deepened the night we spoke about food.

On that night, Erick had ordered food from the kitchen at the hotel at about ten o’clock, but they somehow overlooked his order; then the kitchen closed. Because he worked until midnight, this meant that he was going to have to work for several hours with a growling stomach, and like me, when he’s hungry, he gets a little grouchy. By the time I dropped by to see him that night at 10:30, he was beyond hungry, so I offered to bring him a plate of leftovers.

We have a cook at the retreat house named Ana, and her meals are really good. I brought Erick some of Ana’s chicken tinga enchiladas, mashed beans, and for dessert, a slice of coco pie: a coconut custard pie set in a buttery crust of Maria’s Gamesa, which are thin, Mexican butter cookies.

“Oh thank God!” Erick said, peeling the plastic wrap from the plate I had just warmed in the microwave. “You are an angel. Do you want to marry me?” I smirked at his Latin movie star face: heart-shaped, caramel brown, those long lashes and large chocolate-brown eyes.

“Don’t tease me,” I said, sitting down on the other side of the lobby desk. “I’m already choosing the colors for the bridesmaid dresses.”

“Mauve,” he joked. “I insist on mauve.” Then he discovered the pie. “What’s this?”

“Coco pie.”

“Sí?”

“Sí, Señor.”

“Wow. You must really be in love.”

“I am, ” I said. “Eat.”

I had four days on my own in Puerto Vallarta after the retreat ended. It was a rare mini-vacation for me, and I had reserved a room at a less expensive hotel down the hill near the beach. Although I was saving about $75 a night, I realized that first afternoon I had made a mistake: I should have bookended my visit with another four nights at Casa Cupula. This larger hotel was filled with families, so taking a nap was impossible; children ran up and down the open hallways laughing and playing tag. The noise from the street was also difficult to block out, and the beds were hard as stone.

“You’re staying there?” Erick said, when I told him about my first restless night. “That place is awful.”

“It’s not that bad,” I lied, trying not to sound ungrateful.

“It’s bad, honey,” he said, seeing through my polite front. “There’s an extra room at the guest house Juan Carlos and I manage. Come stay with us. We have a huge kitchen. We can cook together.”

“Really?” I said. “You’re sure?”

“I insist,” he said.

At Casa Allegre, I had my own room—a big cushy bed with an embroidered bedspread—and my own bathroom with a huge shower. There was no one else staying there for a few days, so we had the pool to ourselves, as well as an open living room area, where we lounged around and got to know one another better.

The open kitchen had a large Viking stove against one wall, a double-sided stainless-steel sink on the other side; a long, rectangular prep counter sat squarely in the center. A large rustic hutch filled with hand-made Mexican earthenware stood at the edge of the kitchen, and beyond that was a courtyard. It was as close to a dream kitchen as I have ever gotten.

Erick and I spent a lot of time together in that kitchen. He’d cook one night and I’d cook another. That’s where he taught me how to make his red sauce, and later, his green sauce, which is actually Poblano Soup. Juan Carlos was quite a good cook too. It seemed for several days all we did was laugh, cook, and flirt.

The first afternoon we spent together, they took me to their favorite taco stand at the corner of Naranja and Carranza Streets, with Dario in tow. I felt lazy and loose in a way I never feel anywhere but Mexico. It may have been the company of these three sweet creatures, or the heat of the afternoon, but I couldn’t remember how to say “bacon” in Spanish (tocino), and asked Erick every time I took a bite of the shrimp and bacon tacos.

We were on our way to the mercado, the local market. It spanned just a few blocks, but consisted of several quiet squares framed by open-air produce markets. On one jagged, cobblestone, dead-end street, we visited the spice market, the cheese counter, and the tortilleria, where fresh tortillas traveled from a rickety conveyor belt to a great oven, then stacked in steaming piles. On another block, we passed through a wrought-iron gate and entered a courtyard with a fountain framed by butcher shops.

They took it for granted that I knew about the market already, but to this day I have never found it in any guide book or in any tourist publication. The produce was piled in loose pyramids, contained by wooden crates: mangos, many kinds of squash, and every kind of pepper you could imagine. Spices purchased by the kilo sat in big barrels. To some of you, this is perhaps a typical open market, but to me, a suburban kid used to large grocery stores, it was new and special. I fantasized what it would be like to live there, shopping at the market for dinner, holding Dario under my arm like Frida Kahlo.

Erick and Juan Carlos also took me to what has now become one of my favorite restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, El Arrayán. It was here that I became obsessed with their specialty cake called, Dionix, a cake made with carrots, nuts, and chocolate chips, topped with a Grand Marnier icing. They wouldn’t give me the secret family recipe, but I later found something similar, a Chilean specialty dessert called Que Que Zanahoria.

Erick, it turned out, was obsessed with carrot cake. I later shared a recipe for classic carrot cake I had found in a recent issue of Saveur. He insisted on a variation: his own nutmeg butter cream frosting. And since Ana had given me her coco pie recipe, I made them one, and left behind half a pie the day I left for home, teary and sentimental as ever.

My tenderness for Erick and Juan Carlos is just one of many possibilities that can arise between people from two different cultures who both love to eat. Our friendship began with a flirtation, the recognition of a similar sense of humor, and the love of little dogs and Latin-based languages, but like so many of my friendships, it blossomed at the kitchen counter, standing side by side, while we prepared a meal together. And I am so grateful for that.