The Challenge of Describing Incredible Things

In one case technical — and I am NOT a techie — but the engine room tour on my first freighter voyage begged to be described.  It was sensory overload — far too many details — and without creating endless lists of things, the challenge was to make it interesting, speed it up and come to a crashing finish.  Tell me if you think it works:

The Grand Event yesterday was our engine room tour, guided by the voluble Chief Engineer, Karlo.  It was one of the most impressive sights any of us had ever seen (although hot and noisy, even with earmuffs).  From the keel to the topmost access hatch, it rises 10 stories high, and aft-to-forward takes up 30% of the entire hull – add in the fuel storage tanks along either bulkhead, and it uses up more space than the cargo hold.

Lila had the good sense to bring along a notebook, and her jottings added to my memory and a further interview with the Chief, produced some remarkable statistics.  The eight-cylinder twin-turbo-charged main engine produces 35,000 horsepower at 91 rpm, and Karlo assured us that newer ships (this one is only nine years old) can produce up to 105,000.  To convey the scale of this monster, we saw two new replacement pistons hanging aft of the engine, still wrapped in plastic, each measuring five meters high, and we were told that the 7.5 meter diameter propeller weighs 45 metric tons.

At full speed, the Louise burns 110 tons of fuel a day, on “economy speed” 70, at $350 to $400 U.S. per ton.  Depending on conditions – currents, depth, wind and weather – it takes an hour and a half to move this fully-loaded ship up to her maximum speed of 23.5 knots per hour.  That’s a lot of inertia.  I didn’t ask how long it takes to come to a full stop.

Because bunker fuel is as thick as asphalt, it needs to be purified by means of an on-board centrifuge and then heated at 145C. to the correct viscosity before it can be burned.  The sludge that remains after purification is pumped into tanker trucks in port.  No unprocessed fuel, oil, or bilge contents go into the ocean.  (Neither does sewage.)  Because of European and West Coast U.S. environmental regulations, in addition to the 3,500 tons of bunker the ship has to carry low-sulphur fuel for use in those ports, as well as gasoline to use dockside.  With her tanks topped up, the Louise has a range of 15,000 nautical miles.

In addition to the main engine, there are four diesel-run generators, producing 440 volts at 60 cycles for a total potential of six megawatts (newer ships can produce up to 6,600 volts) and a desalinization plant that produces 25 tons of water a day.  This multi-staged water-maker, which includes mineralizing and treatment with ultraviolet light, produces all the water used on board for cooling, hydraulics, plumbing and human consumption.  The Louise takes on no fresh water in port.

Impressive also was the workshop and spare parts storage, including every kind of machine tool, a huge lathe, untold numbers of hand-tools – each in its numbered slot on the walls – shelf after shelf of steel boxes filled with every kind of fitting the ship’s engineers could possibly need, paints, chemicals, and numberless drums of oil.  As Karlo pointed out, there’s no handy machine shop out here in the middle of the Pacific.  He described for us, too, all the backed-up back-up systems for running the show, all computerized and far too complicated to recount.

In that vast space amid the hellish din of so many thousands of mechanical parts moving simultaneously at high speeds, surrounded by a labyrinthine complexity of ladders and hatches, kilometers of insulated wires and pipes snaking in every direction, valves, blowers, boilers, turbines, turbo-chargers, condensers, a steering gear the size of two small farm tractors, air compressors, a seawater central cooling system, block-and-tackle for moving heavy equipment around, and a 3,300 volt bow-thruster – with that enormous, panting, thrumming monster-engine at its heart – the steel planks vibrating beneath our feet with the eternal beat of the ship, the three of us stood open-mouthed in awe.

 

Anyone who writes faces a particular challenge with sunrises and sunsets, because it is so easy to fall into the cliche trap.  How to be original?  How to make the reader share in the wonder?  Here’s an attempt:

I woke early and pulled the curtain back from the porthole in time to see the sky just pearling up before sunrise.  I quickly dressed and climbed to my usual perch on the top step to F Deck, facing aft, a little northeasterly.  It was slow in coming.  First a faint pink lined the clouds, then a golden light gradually deepened along the horizon, and puffs of cloud over the indigo water turned from mauve, to rose, to bright pink.  The horizon clouds opened to form a rose-tinged bowl, scalloped like a seashell, and suddenly the sunlight poured into this bowl like molten gold, too brilliant to look at.  I watched for half an hour, at the end of which I fully felt the blessing of this diurnal gift to the planet.

Both these pieces are excerpted from Letters from the Pacific, my first travel memoir.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017

Photo by SSH

From a Child’s Point of View

I was intrigued, during Allyson Latta’s last Costa Rican workshop, that a number of writers chose to respond to her writing prompts from a child’s point of view.  I had never done that before, so for one of her next “challenges” I decided to write the story “Grandma’s Cabin on the Lake,” which was just published in Junto Magazine.  See below for the link.

“As we drive away this morning, Grandma asks me if I understand that my baby brother is dead.  I say, “I don’t know,” and turn to look out the window at all the big buildings holding each other up.  I have been waiting for a baby brother for a long time, but now he’s not coming.  Instead, Daddy took me to Missus Wiley’s to stay because Mommy was sick.  That’s where Grandma came to pick me up.  I’m sad that my baby brother isn’t coming, so I decide to sing some songs as we ride along.  I sing every song I know, some of them twice. ”  Read more . . .

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017

 

Can You Taste It?

I feel I gave the sense of taste short shrift when I all I could think to do was feature the hyperbole of food writers.  So see how this one tastes.  Excerpted from the forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden.

One of my chores on the verandah has been to cut back the basil. I have seven pots of it out there, all gone leggy and struggling with aphids. Evelio’s organic insecticide is the most potent thing I’ve ever used on these aphids, but they need to be sprayed directly in order to be killed, and when there’s a lot of foliage some get missed. A drastic cutting-back was the only solution. The infected branches I simply tossed over the rail, but the healthy ones were starting to accumulate in my basket in a sufficient quantity to make Rosa pause, in her mopping of the deck, to ask me whether I made pesto with macadamia or pine nuts.

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me to make pesto. I hadn’t thought at all what to do with all this basil, but pesto sounded like a good idea. I had both macadamia and pine nuts in the house (the macadamias are local, the pine nuts a treasure brought by my friend Shirley from a small town 400 miles north of Toronto), plenty of garlic and extra virgin olive oil, even real, imported-from-Parma Parmesan cheese. I hadn’t made pesto in years, since jars of it often make their way into the Tilarán supermarkets, and washing and pulling off all those leaves from the stems is a chore.

Italian pesto isn’t a staple of the Costa Rican diet, but Rosa worked for many tourist seasons at an Italian restaurant near here. So when I had it all made up, I invited her to sample it.

“Better,” she said. “At the restaurant they don’t use any cheese. And why would theirs be runnier? Too much oil? Why wouldn’t they use cheese – because it’s cheaper?”

I confessed that, yes, no cheese certainly made their pesto cheaper. I pulled out a jar of the commercial stuff and read the list of ingredients; no cheese there either. I dipped my spoon into the lovely pale green paste I had just made, closed my eyes, and . . . ah, so densely green and nutty, with just enough cheesy sharpness to make all the difference.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016

Photo by Marten Jager

Photo by Marten Jager

The Sense of Listening

Long distance train travel offers plenty of opportunity to meet people, and, as a writer, I’m always tempted to make notes of our conversations, especially if they’re revealing of character.  As part of my series on the use of our senses in writing, I add the sense of listening — perhaps the seventh sense, the art of listening between the lines.

 

My first evening on the train, I was seated in the dining car across from a large man, who identified himself as a high school science teacher, and his slender wife. The inevitable question among strangers on a train is, “Where are you from?” When I answered Costa Rica, he looked a little glum and finally said, “I don’t know anything about Costa.” Then he turned to my seat mate and asked her what she did (the second inevitable question). She said she was a statistician.

“I’m no expert on calculus, but I just read a very challenging book about it . . .” and he proceeded to tell her all about it. “I imagine you work mostly with existing formulas,” he prodded her.

“No, I have to write quite a bit of code myself,” she answered. He was silently glum for another moment and then said his wife had had a gastric bypass. The statistician, shy and obese, said nothing.

How do we create characters? I like to do it with conversation; people reveal themselves so quickly in their speech – their attitudes, their approach to others, their humility or arrogance, their desire to please or to show off. Physical descriptions often escape me when I’m so busy listening to what people say. And it’s not only what they say but how they say it that I find myself making notes about afterwards.

In the snack bar this morning, I met a self-described “Christian Author”  who was very happy to tell me at length about her literary career. She was a middle-aged woman wearing an unkempt blonde wig that was tilted just a little too far forward, so that the hair in back stuck out at a 45-degree angle. She said she had published a poem or two in some Christian magazines, but that her manuscript had so far been rejected by publishers.

“I refuse to edit a single word,” she told me. “My hands were guided by God. What do you do?” she asked. I confessed that I too was a writer, but mostly about travel. “Oh,” she mused for a while. And then she asked, “Have I offended you?”

“Not at all,” I said, rolling up the remains of my trail mix and finishing off my tea. “We all have our own spiritual beliefs.” And then I escaped, but not without being blessed with her business card – from a real estate company.

It’s difficult at times to keep your personal judgement sufficiently at bay so that the character you’re describing shines through on her own. But, of course, your own judgement is the lens through which you experience the world, so it’s important to err on the side of the Golden Writing Rule: show, don’t tell. My sense of irony, however, is always a little difficult to control.

In the parlor car on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, they serve a light lunch, and it’s a pleasure to escape the hustle and crowding in the dining car. Here I met Alex, a robust man in a long-sleeved plaid shirt. We introduced ourselves as the train slowly wound through the magnificent pine-forested Cascades. His English was excellent, but I detected an Eastern European accent. He was Russian! I couldn’t believe my luck.

“I have to ask your forgiveness for bringing this up,” I said, “but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: what do you think about what’s happening in the Ukraine?”

“I do not approve of this,” he said. “In fact, many people are not approving.”

“And Putin?”

He smiled – at my audacity, or at the fact that everyone asks him this question? “His official rating is 83%, but it’s really in the low sixties,” he said. “Putin has done nothing to develop the economy. But people in Russia are used to dictatorships. This one, at least, is soft dictatorship. When Yeltsin tried to introduce democratic reforms, people were uncomfortable.” (What a trove of information!)

“So you obviously don’t work for the government.”

“I am travel agent.” This gives Alex the chance to travel the world on an agent’s discount, and he’s taken advantage of it. We were just then passing a pristine river winding through a narrow alpine valley. He said, “This looks just like Siberia.” I snapped a photo.

Capturing the style of speech – accent, grammar – is often overdone when painting a character with what comes out of his mouth. That can be distracting, so I tend to under-do it, which may not be enough!

My last evening on the train, I was seated with Bill and Phyllis, a cheerful couple in their seventies, who had only been married for fifteen months. Bill asked his wife if she wanted butter with her roll, then grinned at me and said, “We’re still getting used to each other.” He had almost no chin, but an ear-to-ear smile. I guessed they had met at church, since Bill mentioned that his son and granddaughter and been to Nicaragua on a missionary school-building project. Phyllis asked me what I had ordered, apologizing for her macular degeneration. “I’m sorry, I can’t really see your meal from here,” she sighed. They had both ordered the “light entrée” – a flattened piece of chicken breast coated with an unidentifiable sauce and served over white rice. Phyllis took a couple of bites, then leaned into her new husband’s shoulder and asked, “Is this the chicken?” All of us laughed.

No need for irony with Bill and Phyllis – just delight!

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2015

P1070686

Sense of Taste in Writing: The Hell of Hyperbole

 

For me, the most challenging sense in writing is the sense of taste, which is why I’ve left it for last. I love good food, interesting food, food from all over the world, but I am utterly challenged to explain what it is about a particular taste that captivates me. I think I am intimidated by professional food writers . . . in their constant bid to outdo each other they have descended into the Hell of Hyperbole where we are left wondering what the hell they are talking about. Thus my delight at finding the following description of the output of British caterers in a recent UK Guardian:

From “Wedding Season is Here: Crimes Against Food”

by Jay Rayner

“We are meant to be experiencing a British food revolution, and in many ways we are. There are better restaurants than ever before. But in the business of mass catering we are generally awful. I say generally. Obviously, if you run a catering firm and you’re limbering up to complain, I don’t mean you. You’re brilliant. Likewise, the food at your wedding was obviously fabulous. It’s everyone else.

“Everyone else is responsible for dry canapés that taste only of margarine and complacency. Everyone else is responsible for desiccated lumps of yesterday’s pre-cooked chicken the colour of an old stained sink; for sauces that could creosote fences and vegetables so overboiled you could suck them through a straw; for cream desserts that have split, and overbaked tarts with pastry like walnut shells. And the cost! I only use exclamation marks for shouting, which is what I’m doing. THE COST! Despite economies of scale, caterers charge more for this dismal crud than the price of a quality restaurant meal and rising. Why are they allowed to get away with it?”

 

I don’t think that anyone who has attended a catered wedding — on either side of the Atlantic — would fail to understand exactly what Mr. Rayner is talking about.  Applause, please.  SSH

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

 

Sense of Touch

How is it that the human hand is so perfectly designed to play with kittens?  You stalk your fingers deliberately across the floor and he crouches, revving up his hind legs for the pounce.  You roll him over and tickle his belly while he grabs you around the wrist with his forepaws and tries to kick your fingers away with his hind feet.  You scoot your hand quickly out from behind a table leg and back again, and he gives chase in a perfect feline ring-around-the-rosy.  Or you slide your hand under the bedclothes and suddenly poke up a finger and he comes hopping sideways across the blanket, back arched, tail fluffed up, to attack.  But best of all, is swooping him up into your lap where, with the softest stroking of your index finger across his tiny forehead, he falls instantly to sleep.

© 2015, Sandra Shaw Homer

Photo by Marten Jager

Photo by Marten Jager