What’s it all about? And why would anyone want to read it? Well, let me try to explain without losing your interest too quickly. Basically, it’s all about me. Shameless self-promotion: of my writing, of my novels:
Where Are the Cocoa Puffs? and Reis's Pieces, of my amazing ability to come up with clever captions on photos of my travels . . . And also, a blatant representation of my stupidity when it comes to spelling, editing, and computer-type stuff.

My debut novel:
Where are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family's Journey Through Bipolar Disorder was released in September of 2010. My second novel: Reis's Pieces: Love, Loss, and Schizophrenia, was released May, 2012!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Belizean Times

There is time, and then there is Belizean time. “Now,” can be an hour or a day. “Soon,” can be a week or a year. “Fast.” Well, let’s just say, fast has its own definition in Belize.

On this most recent trip to Belize, my husband and I brought our two daughters and a boyfriend (one of my daughter’s -- not mine or my husband’s). We were all on our way out of town, leaving the village of Hopkins on the way to the bustling city of Dangriga. The younger crowd was hungry (they’re always hungry or thirsty or both) so we decided to stop at Maggie’s Fast Food.

Maggie’s is nestled in the sand, surrounded by new plantings of bananas and palmettos and coconut palms and bright colored exotic leafy plants whose names I do not know. This tiny restaurant, painted in soft blue and yellow stripes, is their livelihood and their home, consisting of a small inside eating area, a deck as large as the building, a kitchen and in the back, I assume, a place to sleep.

We entered the building and were greeted by a pleasant Garifuna woman, Maggie, I presumed, and her four-year-old child. After ordering three burritos and an order of tostados, I asked the little girl, “What’s your name?” She slipped shyly behind the wall and would not answer. We stepped outside to the sandy yard to wait, and sat down at the widest, largest picnic table I have ever seen. We all sat on the same side except for Emily, who isn’t terrible large, almost flipping the thing on top of us. We smartly redistributed our weight and waited.

The little girl began to play with us through the screen of the door. First she was a dog. “Bark! Bark!” She jumped behind the screen. Then a cat. “Meow!” Then a terribly frightening roar. “A jaguar!” I guessed. “Dinosaur!” she cried. We laughed, she tore at the small hole in the screen with her dinosaur claws. We screamed in horror. This went on for quite awhile. The tear in the screen got considerably larger.

No Coke, so we drank red Fanta, which was syrupy sweet and turned our tongues an odd shade of pink. We swatted at the bugs. We took some pictures. I got bored and wandered around the estate, checking out the bananas and other vegetation. The little girl grew braver. Casey (the boyfriend) coaxed her outside with coins. We told him this was wrong, but she accepted the coins, and they played catch with a small coconut.

More time passed. “I guess Maggie had to kill a chicken,” Paul said. I nodded and wandered up the road. I decided to check out the hemp place I’d been meaning to check out for years. Sarah followed. We entered the brightly colored old school bus. “Sew Much Hemp,” was painted on both sides.

A white woman with long thick dread locks, sold us her hemp bug repellant. The bus was her business and her home. She claimed the bus still ran, but I hadn’t seen it move in years. She’d traveled all over Central and South America in her bus promoting hemp. The virtues of hemp, she extolled, ranged from necklaces to decreasing our dependence on foreign oil. She complained that the Belizean government, in cahoots with the U.S., forbid the growing of hemp. I’m not sure where she secured the ingredients for her creams, but I have never noticed a shortage of hemp-type products in Belize.

Suddenly, lo and behold, Paul was driving down the long dirt road to the hemp place! Over forty-five minutes later and our fast food was done! We scrambled into the truck with our hemp cream in our greasy little hands, the truck filled with the lovely odor of Maggie’s Fast Food, and made our way over the bumpy dirt roads towards the highway that would lead us to Dangriga.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Problem -- Revisited

In recognition of my upcoming trip out of the country (Belize), I thought I'd re-post The Problems with Maraschino Cherries. It is, after all, the title of this blog. Maybe it will inspire me to write another travel piece and remind me to get off my lazy butt and remove that cherry!

The four of us, Linda, the two Pauls, and I eat every night at the Italian restaurant even though we’re in Mexico. It’s the one restaurant in this all-inclusive resort that does not allow anyone under the age of twelve. Paul K. and Linda, the couple that we’re traveling with, are childless. They have little desire to watch children eat. This particular evening, I’m sitting across from Paul K. and I’m maturely eating a gross amount of food. As I shovel in the last bite of my risotto into my mouth, and anticipate a totally unnecessary dessert, I watch the waiter cleaning away the dishes from the booth that I’m facing. I notice that he’s failed to remove a small red object from on the seat of the booth. I study this small red glob. I consider of getting up and removing it myself; but I’m lazily glued to my seat.

The waiter comes and removes our plates. The four of us order decaf cappuccinos. I’m still not ready to make my way to the dessert bar, but my eyes linger, with mild concern, every once-in-awhile at this bright red object on the bench. Paul K. begins to tell us of his good deed of the day. Earlier, on the beach, he removed a broken cinder block from the surf, saving some poor soul a stubbed toe. My eyes, again return to the red object. I’ve pretty much decided that it’s one half of a maraschino cherry. I resolve to do my good deed of the day; but before I can get my lazy ass off my chair, the hostess suddenly appears, leading two women to the accursed booth. They are large American women. And wouldn’t you know, the larger of the two is dressed in a white terrycloth strapless pantsuit. She wiggles her way into the booth before I have a chance get up or utter a word.

I sigh in resignation. And I, not one to be shy regarding my own social shortcomings or lack of do-gooderness, tell my three tablemates about the demise of the maraschino cherry. They all glance at this woman who is ignorantly eating her bread and sipping her water, completely unawares. As we all wait, with patient morbid curiosity, for her to get up and make her way to the salad bar, I study this woman. As I said, she is large and the pantsuit is tight and it’s strapless and the restaurant is cold and there is nothing between her breasts and the thin white terrycloth. I ask my friend, Paul, if he might shift a little to his left, thus blocking my direct view of her anatomy. She eats her bread very slowly. We wait, while sipping our coffee.

“Here we go,” I announce as I see her shift to get up. We all watch surreptitiously. At first there is nothing to be seen but the vast whiteness of her derrière. Then we all see it, down low, almost to her thigh -- a perfectly red splash of color on all that white.

“There it is!” declares Linda. We all nod solemnly. “She won’t wear that a second time.”

“Well,” I say, refusing to totally accept my guilt, “she never should’ve worn it the first time!”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Good Side of Winter

Those of you who know me, know I hate winter. I always insist that people add the s to my name. No one may call me Karen Winter. But even as the cold icy grip of winter chills my very soul, there is, perhaps, a little beauty to be found in Central New York.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jungle Float

Here's a little essay I wrote after my last trip to Belize. As we will be escaping soon, from the this cold deary winter and into the warm embrace of Belize, I felt it time to post another story of this wonderful place.

What typically happens to me when I’m in Belize is that I meet someone. Someone who is a visitor, as I’m am; someone who is here to live the magic of Belize. And it’s strange, because my husband, Paul, and I are not the sort of people who go up to strangers and start a conversation. But there’s something about Belize. One year, we met James. We loved James. He palled around with us for days. We took him to all our favorite places. We had a great time. One of the things that makes this so easy is that we have always been privileged enough to rent a car, which is very expensive in Belize. It’s not an easy place to get around in without a car, so we like to share the transportation with others.

Well the trip I took to Belize with my eighteen-year-old daughter this summer proved to be no different. When my daughter, Sarah, and I left the upper falls of Antelope Falls, we met Valerie and Ryan, from Vancouver. Antelope Falls is a beautiful, strenuous hike near the Mayflower ruins off the Southern Highway between Dangriga and Hopkins. I just naturally asked them, as we pulled our hiking clothes over our wet bathing suits and prepared for the hike back down the mountain, if they wanted to go to Cockscomb Basin with us later in the week, as they had no car and it’s one long walk into the park.

Valerie and Ryan were on their honeymoon. They’ve been backpacking through Central America for two months. They were sweethearts in high school and were brought back together via a high school reunion. He’s going to be going to law school and she’s a horticulturist. By the next day they are showering in our unused bedroom suite of North Hopkins Bay where we are staying for the week. My husband and I built a house south of Hopkins two years ago. We have long term renters living in our home who work at Hopkins Bay, so we have a sweet little arrangement allowing us to stay at the resort on those visits where we don’t demand the use of our own home. Ryan and Valerie were camping, with sand flies and barking dogs. They were on their honeymoon. They deserved a king-sized bed!

So, the four of us went hiking in Cockscomb Basin, up the Tiger Fern Trail. The hike is a challenge, but not impossible, even for a woman of my advanced years. What makes this hike my favorite are the twin falls and the beautiful jungle pools into which the waters cascade. But what makes this hike a great big pain-in-the-rump, is that once you reach the top of the mountain, you must then hike down a very steep twenty to thirty minutes decline (depending on how closely you’re related to a mountain goat) to get to the falls. Once there, it’s pure heaven! The problem becomes, that you either have to decide to live the rest of your life by a jungle pool in Belize, or you must drag your tired body back up and out of there.

But, where I’m heading with this is that I need another reward for getting out of there. The first reward, being, of course, swimming in the jungle pools and the second reward is renting a tube for $2.50 US from the park office and spending an hour floating down a lazy river in middle of Cockscomb Basin.

This is what the four of us do -- Sarah, Valerie, Ryan and myself, after we’d made it up and down and back up and down the Tiger Fern trail; we go the park office to collect our tubes. There are two places you exit the river when you’re done tubing. We always float to the second exit. As we pay for the tubes, I told the park ranger that we’re going to the second exit, where the rope is tied across the river, clearly marking the exit; and he says, “I think the rope is still there . . . ” This bothers me a little, that the rope might not be there anymore, but I’ve done this tubing several times before -- I know what I’m doing. I joke with him. “So if we miss the exit, we end up in the sea?” He mumbles something about getting out somewhere else and walking several miles back up the road, but I didn’t quite catch it and besides, I know what I’m doing.

So I lead my daughter and our new friends down a path and into the jungle, toting our tubes, a bag of beers Sarah’s insisted on bringing, and my dry bag with: car keys, bug wipes, Ryan’s and Valerie’s passports, papers and money. They’ve already been robbed once on their journeys, so they’re not taking any chances. Sarah and I have on sandals, Ryan and Valerie are barefoot.

It is a longer hike than I remembered, but we finally reach the entrance point of the river and it’s divine! The sky is a clear blue. The river is a calm movement towards the sea. The butterflies are bright splashes of color. The birds are flittering movements of pleasure . . . We sit ourselves in our tubes, an open bottle of Belikin stuck between our legs, and float with lazy rapture through the jungle.

Well, the first minor glitch is when we reach the first exit point. I am ahead, as I am an extremely fast floater, and I wait for the others to catch up. At this point, my beer is gone, and I am only mildly concerned. When my companions reach my spot on the river, I tell them that I am ninety percent sure that is the first exit and that we should keep going. The words “I think the rope is still there,” are floating about in my head. Ryan and Valerie like the odds and Sarah is, “Whatever.” We float onward.

It is not too much longer before Ryan stops. My ‘dry bag’ is no longer dry. Everything is wet -- their passports, their money, their wedding vows, my bug wipes . . . But they’re cool. We reseal the dry bag.

We soldier on. A few lazy turns in the river later, Sarah announces, “I’ve lost my pants.” “Your pants? How could you lose your pants?” She’d removed her pants to float in her bathing suit and tied them to the tube -- now they are on their way to the sea. Oh, well . . . Onward, down the river. Then we reach a fork. I stop again and wait, as I am, of course, ahead. I recognize this fork -- I’m almost certain. And I swear that there used to be a sign -- an arrow telling you which way to go. But there is no sign -- no arrow . . . Do I know where the hell I am? Once my companions catch up, I am honest. “I’m pretty sure we take the right fork. Ninety percent sure,” I say, with authority. Ryan likes the odds. Sarah and Valerie are silent.

We soldier on. The fork becomes narrower and narrower, the jungle bends down around us, the water grows dangerously shallow. My ninety percent seems to be shrinking away. “Let me walk on ahead,” I say, as it is not too late to push back up the river and take the other fork. It is only a short wade down the river before the fork widens and joins the other fork. I am greatly relieved, but still wondering about that damn rope.

We float onward. I push ahead. Valerie is right behind me and the water begins to move faster. We are zipping along and I’m thinking of rapids and waterfalls and nights spent in the jungle unprepared, when suddenly, like an answered prayer, I see the rope! We are saved! I have not led three people astray in Belize!

Valerie and I get out at the exit. We are both happy. Her faith in me is restored. We wait. “I wonder where they are?” I say casually. “They were right behind us . . .” “I saw Ryan stop,” she says. We wait. Finally, Sarah is floating towards us. She grabs the rope to stop herself, and says, “Ryan’s lost his wedding ring.” “What!? You’re joking, right?” is Valerie’s response. But Sarah would never be that cruel.

So the three of us desert our tubes on the bank and swim back up the river to help Ryan look for his ring, which, by-the-way, is not an easy task as the current was strong, the water deep. When we finally reach him, poor Ryan is standing in the shallow water. He’s been looking for quite awhile. He’s peering down at a riverbed sprinkled with small colored stones and looking lost -- his hand naked. His wife stands near, her hands to her sides, peering at him. He looks at her. “My hand hit a branch. It just pulled right off . . .” They both look as if they might cry. I see their entire marriage raveling apart. First the wet passports, the ruined wedding vows -- now the lost ring . . . I have failed them . . .

But before we even get the chance to help scour the riverbed, Ryan suddenly looks down. He bends over and picks up the ring, which has wedged itself between two stones. We all look with relief and wonder at the ring he holds up, secure between his thumb and his forefinger; and that’s when I knew that these two would always be together; and not me, or Belize, or rivers could change that.

Friday, January 1, 2010

And on a Serious Note . . .

As this new year begins, I look to it with a mixture of giddy anticipation and mild anxiety. 2010. The year my dreams come to fruition: I will become a published novelist. And as wonderful as that is -- the cost of the inspiration to create a story worth telling was exorbitant.

Most of the stories on the pages of this blog are light and funny and deal with the comedy of being human, but now, as the new year stretches its arms and rubs its eyes "Good Morning", I’d like to turn to something a bit more serious.

My hope for this new year: to decrease the stigma associated with serious mental illness -- with my novel, with this blog and with my work through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). When over 22% of adults in the US suffer from some sort of mental illness, there remains an overwhelming lack of understanding from the general population. There has long been irrefutable scientific evidence that mental illnesses are neurological brain diseases -- diseases --just as surely as diabetes, atherosclerosis and glaucoma are diseases.

E. Fuller Torrey, M.D. author of, Surviving Schizophrenia, called schizophrenia, ‘the modern-day equivalent of leprosy.’ Just as those suffering from Hansen’s disease are no longer banished to a Leper colony, it is my hope, and the goal of NAMI, that those struggling with serious mental illness will also receive proper treatment, respect and understanding.

There is a cost of mental illness gone untreated -- to the individual and to the community. We live in a society that repeatedly fails to help those who are obviously suffering deeply. They’re on our streets; they’re in our shelters; they’re in our jails; they’re your neighbors, your co-workers, your friend’s child, your own child . . . They look at us with wounded souls and we look away. Stigma, ignorance, fear, social embarrassment, lack of proper channels to medical care, lack of research dollars, lack of good medical care -- all theses things cause immeasurable and unnecessary suffering.

The father of a young man suffering with mental illness who was shot down and killed by a state trooper, was quoted in our local newspaper article as saying, “I wish I knew a little more about my son’s mental health, to be honest with you.”

There is help. There are answers. There is hope for those suffering from such neuro-biological brain diseases as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, severe depression and schizoaffective disorder. If anyone reading this is suffering, or has a loved-one who’s suffering, or just wants to learn more, go to http://www.nami.org/ .

National Alliance on Mental Illness is a not-for-profit, self-help organization of active and concerned families and friends of people who suffer from serious mental illness. NAMI works hard to decrease stigma, educate the public, support and educate family members and consumers (patients). We work on the local, state and national level to ensure quality institutional and community services for people with mental illness. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization with affiliates in every state and in more than 1,100 local communities across the country.

It’s 2010. Not 1610. It’s time: to look it in the eye, to find the answers. It’s time for mental illness to step out of the closet and into a modern, compassionate world.