new docA year ago, in an effort to stop me from gnashing my teeth about things I couldn’t change, my doctor took the (extreme) step of forbidding me to engage in politics. Since I live outside the States and can no longer participate directly, this effectively slammed the door on reading about politics, or talking about politics, or even listening to other people talk about politics.

Unlike my previous life, where I was a player, now geography and my physician were forcing me to sit on the sidelines and not even watch the game.

Truth in Advertising: Mr. Obama wasn't really this red when he spoke, but he WAS very animated.

Truth in Advertising: Mr. Obama wasn’t really this red when he spoke, but he WAS very animated.

It’s hard to keep to that edict, especially around a New Year, when so much change is heading our way – and so much news, a ton of it political — is swirling around it. A recent Gallup poll, for example, reveals that a plurality of Americans believe government is the single biggest problem currently facing the country. Now this is a highly significant development for political junkies like me. Since time immemorial, concern about the economy has had a firm grip on the #1 spot, but now its run is over, discontent with Washington usurping it.

Is this a reflection of the recent election — or the next one? A critical question coming just as Congress is turning “Red” with a flood of Republicans and even the President is coloring up, as he animatedly threatens to veto legislation that’s still miles from his desk.

gcarA non-political change – that will surely become political — and one to make even the most adventurous among us take pause — is the rise of the driverless car. These robotic vehicles will be road-tested in San Francisco this year, then, assuming not too many people land in the hospital, zoom  to the assembly lines for a full market debut in 2017. That prospect might help the stock market — a bright and shining ornament in an otherwise awful 2014 — hang on to a luster some experts predict will tarnish as the year wears on.

Just when you thought you’d heard it all about healthcare, there’s a lot of change in that as well. Haven’t signed up for a plan yet?  Tsk. Tsk. That’ll be $325 please, payable to Uncle Sam. And while you’re at it, you can throw in 19 other related taxes that kick in this month. (I’d describe them but for once I’m going to obey the doctor. The stress level would just be too much.)

Speaking of taxes – and politics — more states will probably legalize marijuana in 2015, but not without some blood-letting. The states want the revenue. The lawyers want the DUI business. And a whole bunch of folks want the pot. Stay tuned.

New Year. New times. And change all over the place. Michael Crichton wrote in Prey that most people are unaware of the evolution that’s taking place around them. I beg to differ with the great man. I don’t think you can step out your front door without seeing it.

In my own life, I don’t even have to go that far. Change is coming in three weeks and my nervous system is already squealing like a novice’s glass harmonica. After 20 years, the couch where I write is going in for a makeover. It’s a Big, Big Deal. It has to be carted out of my house, thumped down the truck going down mtn3mountain on a truck, and delivered into the hands of the upholsterers in Panama City after a torturous day’s trip.

Already, I’ve tried out two or three new writing spots and found all of them wanting.  One has too little sunlight, another too much.  A third is in a major traffic pattern. And the fourth is – well, it just isn’t my couch.

agathaI try to channel my inner Agatha Christie as I go through this process, knowing that the Dame needed only a firm surface for her typewriter and a chair to crank out 91 books and become the world’s best-selling novelist. For a moment, I feel abased. But only momentarily. I will miss my sofa. And somehow, I think Dame Agatha would have missed it, too.

Other changes are in store. The seasons are shifting and we all know what that means. Up in the States, people are struggling with cold and snow and the “Winter Blues.” (This is the mild, season-only version of “Writer’s Blues,” an affliction which can Black Cloud you at any time just because it wants to.)

hot dog lady's umbrella

Photo courtesy Margaret Mendel

Margaret Mendel, author of Fish Kicker, writes that she feels the blues coming on when she sees snow falling on the umbrella of the hotdog vendor in front of her building and she thinks of the homeless man and other sad folks who congregate under the mini-restaurant’s roof.

From the Agnes Martin Collection.A Brief Time Out: Margaret, do not look at unfortunate people during the winter unless you are prepared for the avalanche of feelings that will ensue.  Instead, go to the Guggenheim, pull up a sofa, and ponder why this — is called “White Flower” and why you, too, can own a similar Agnes Martin for only $3 million, give or take. They ain’t called “Wordless and Silent Artworks” for nothing.


Meanwhile, here in Panama, we got short-changed with only two seasons, instead of four.

Not Happening Here.

Not Happening Here.

But, while we look in vain for snow to fall on our palm trees, there’s no lack of other sensory stimulants. At the moment, our Winter, also referred to as the “Green Season” by travel writers and “Rainy Season” by anyone with a brain, is just ending. This means we have the joy of saying goodbye to what we think of as normal precipitation, that which comes in tropical downpours (read “buckets”) and greeting the rain du jour —  fierce periods of the drenching stuff, mostly sideways, brought by ferocious winds, which (just as we’re ready to pack our bags and say goodbye) devolve into soft breezes and dazzling displays of sunlight and cloud formations.

bajareque1The winds will continue teasing us for about another month or 6 weeks and the deluges will shortly give way in entirety to gentle Bajareque mists that flow over the Continental Divide from the Caribbean. Because Bajareque is often present while the sun is shining, it can also look like snow.

"Tropical Snow" falling during this Bajareque.

“Tropical Snow” falling during this Bajareque. Credit:

For those of us who miss the real thing, this “Tropical Snow” is a wonderful, enjoyable substitute, one capable of pulling your eyes out the window every bit as much as the real item.

The Bajaraque also spins off rainbows like cats do kittens, making January eponymously known as “El Mes de Arco Iris.”

Here’s a double rainbow caught from downtown by Jacob Overgaard. The changeable skies are also a feature of this time of year.

Here’s a double rainbow caught from downtown by Jacob Overgaard. The changeable skies are also a feature of this time of year.

Double and triple rainbows are frequent fare here and even the elusive nighttime rainbow can be spotted. I’ve only managed to glimpse one, a mostly monochromatic display of greys and whites, but other more fortunate souls report seeing Technicolor. Either way, it’s a unique and riveting phenomenon.

richter 5 edited a As the seasons change, we experience more earthquakes. If you think this sounds like pseudo-science, you’re technically right – most scientists agree with you. But after nine years, pseudo or not, I’m ready to buy into it. Every December like clockwork (and every April) we dance to the earth’s fiddle. There were several quakes this past month, including a real jig – 6.6 – in the first week. Fortunately for us, the epicenters for most of these temblors are about 50 miles away, off the coast, deep in the ocean. Even so, all the pictures were askance and lots of things wobbled on the shelves.

This is also Summer vacation for school children and a time when our little burg holds multiple events that attract tourists and locals alike.

festival1You think because you live in Boston or NYC that you get all the pleasures of gridlock? Think again. When  La Feria Internacional de las Flores y del Café  comes to town next week there won’t be space enough in our thriving little metropolis for an ant to park his wagon.

And to think we moved here for the peace and quiet.

And to think we moved here for the peace and quiet.

carnaval1 edited flipped canal 1tvCourtesy


One of the unusual orchids found locally.

One of the unusual orchids found locally.

We’ll have a few days to recover from that, then comes a week of the Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival, followed by a week of Carnaval, and after that the Boquete Orchid Festival.

By then, I will be thoroughly worn out from the time of year that usually lets us recuperate from Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But is it really a difficult time to write? That depends. Like life anywhere, you make of it what you will. John Grisham wrote  A Time To Kill and The Firm between the hours of 5 and 7 in the morning, every morning, then went to court and put in a draining day as a plaintiff’s attorney. I’m sure he had plenty of distractions to contend with, but he didn’t get his knickers in a twist over them. Instead, he built the foundation for a huge career in those early morning hours.

Needless to say, I’m trying to channel my inner Grisham, too.

power lines down resized fixed


out1Still, when the roaring January winds blow down the power lines and there’s no computer for a while – sometimes hour after hour – and sometimes day after day — that can fray anyone’s temper.  2014 produced an unusual number of electrical problems but eventually the power does come back on.


In the meantime, I’ve never known pen and paper to have an outage.


Despite the ambient light from outside, this room would still present plenty of obstacles to getting around. Courtesy:

Distractions, whether a fair or a blackout, are, I believe, nature’s way of keeping us in touch with our senses. If the power is gone, everything looks distorted, feels strange, and sounds different.

Even with lanterns, it’s a challenge to all of our senses. Our fingertips probe the shadows and see where our eyes can’t. We sniff the air and move about cautiously, cognizant that our children and pets have come over to be near us. As we enter a closet and flip on the light, only to realize there is none, we automatically remonstrate with ourselves, then shake our heads and acknowledge that what we’ve just exhibited is learned behavior – not stupid behavior.  People are uniquely human when the lights are out.

Other kinds of distractions – the world’s best Pina Colada at the Coffee and Flower Fair or “Tropical Snow” falling outside the window — certainly engage the senses as well.

Courtesy Mei at

Courtesy Mei at

In the end, all these distractions have as much to offer a writer as they take away.

Mood, for example, so prominent in a blackout.

coffee resized



Scene, when surrounded by festivities with vibrant tastes and smells of flowers and coffee.


Plot as in frantically thinking: “Is this earthquake going to be THE BIG ONE?”

scared2 Each of us shapes our writing life according to what nature has given us – both internally and externally.  Stephen King pulls the curtains when he writes – and we all know what that’s done for him. I think most writers “pull the curtains” when they work, either in a literal or a figurative way. My husband often urges me to step out into nature for just a moment, especially on glorious days. But I don’t notice that environment when I’m engaged in writing. I pull the curtains on most of life when I work, but part them when I’m truly disengaged. My philosophy is that closing out too many of both the delights and the frights deprives you of a wealth of material to plumb as an author.

It’s an attitude that I need to reinforce as I say goodbye to my dear little sofa and try to choose between potential writing places that either let in too much sun or too little. Right now, I’m inclined to go with the sun – even if that does mean throwing on some beads and heading out for Carnaval or succumbing to pina coladas in pineapples. Because in the end, it’s really All in a Day’s Work. And the pina coladas might even be tax-deductible.

Do you have a writing environment that you think you can’t live without? Have you ever had to try?  What about drawing the curtains? And parting them? How do you cope with change, distractions, annoyances and disturbances in your writing life?  I’d love to have your thoughts on these and anything else in this post. And if you have suggestions for coping with sofa loss – those too – please. Please.

Thanks for reading — and Happy New Year!.

~~Britt Vasarhelyi

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