Quarantine Hotel: Day Four – Fishbowl

It’s over 6am coffee that I have my most insightful moment of the trip so far.

“What’s an analogy, exactly?” asks my son, finishing up some English homework. It might be Saturday in Sydney, but it’s still Friday in Tacoma, and he’s been doing online school since 2:30am.

“It’s a comparison.” I pause for dramatic effect. “As in: Quarantine hotel is a lot like being in a fishbowl.”

We look at each other. We have no idea how today will just make those words seem bigger and bigger.

It starts off well enough with the nurse’s 9am call. Negative on the Day 2 Covid test! And freedom on March 9 (Day 14) – anytime before 10am!! Provided we don’t test positive on Day 12, of course.

We spend the morning happily blogging, emailing, homeworking, scrolling. I read the news: In Sydney, top stories include a funny Dear Susan piece on condom etiquette and the astonishing pronouncement by an expert that not needing masks anymore signals a return to normal life. In Tacoma, by contrast, the daily case count is 170 and we are still, unbelievably, having to protest Black deaths in police custody.

The New York Times runs a story about how people around the world are coping with hotel quarantine. I read it avidly until I get to the part about the guy who ran half-marathons in his room.

Overachiever. I shut the laptop.

The kids tease me about this blog, and my son steals my phone to make a hack comment on my Instagram feed.

Then there’s a knock at the door. We stare. It’s 11am – way too early for the lunch delivery. Puzzled, I open the hallway door and see at my feet a single, shiny packet of Tim Tams.

What the heck?

Is this the work of some kind anonymous blog reader who feels sorry for us? Is it a regular Saturday morning gift from the caterers? Maybe it’s proof of the hidden webcam, a Hunger Games-style donation to spur on more chocolate wars?

Thoughtful, we set the packet on the table. No way will it incite us to squabble. The entertainment’s over, folks.

It starts to drizzle. I toss crumbs to the mynas, who snap them up and ignore me.

Then I get an idea. What if I could somehow speak beyond the fishbowl, communicate our plight to the carefree Sydneysiders walking by in the street? Obviously I don’t want to complain; we’re very comfy, well-fed and have a balcony (although to be honest, we ARE paying $4,500 for the prison – er – privilege. Actually, Mum is.)

No, just a short, sweet summing up of the situation will do. Poignant, yet hopeful. Witty, even. And it has to fit on the balcony glass, obviously.

Hmmm. This is like haiku, only harder.

I have it! Excitedly I gather our old travel itinerary and write big letters on the backs of the paper. But how to stick them up? There’s only four fruit stickers left. (We’re getting better.)

Then I spy my daughter’s gum. With a sideways glance, I swipe a stick and sashay nonchalantly out the door. Then I get to work, chewing minty mouthfuls and making sure the letters are in the right order.

“What are you doing?” calls my daughter from behind the curtain.

“An art project.”

Then it’s done. Ta-dah! Satisfied, I lean my phone dangerously over the railing and snap a sign-selfie.

“STUC K IN QUARAN-TINE.”

The phone rings – it’s my sister’s son this time, with his girlfriend, bringing more essential supplies like tea, coffee and a freshly-made latte. Oh, and a Sharpie marker for my art project.

Delighted, we wave down and chat on speaker phone. I point at my sign and they laugh.

My kids stare at me.

“What are you DOING?” they ask, incredulous. “This is so EMBARRASSING.”

“I think it’s fun.”

“It’s not. You’re going crazy.”

“You stole my GUM??”

“Only one stick…”

We chat some more, breaking out of the fishbowl for ten lighthearted minutes until they leave.

I pull out my flute and work some more at the Bach, slipping into “Summertime” whenever people go by. A few of them look up incuriously, stare at the sign – then walk on.

It’s uncannily similar to watching fish in an aquarium.

3pm – workout time. Inspired by the half-marathon guy, I measure out a loop around our apartment using A4 (letter-size) paper, which is 11 inches long. Ignoring Australia’s metric system, I discover there’s 63,360 inches in a mile (now you know) and my loop is 555 inches. I do the math and start running, swatting away my son who’s doing his own unique workout by lurking behind doors and leaping out at me, cackling hysterically every time I flinch.

One mile later Mum calls, and we all chat. Dad’s clearly tired from his treatment yesterday.

Suddenly there’s a scream.

“Ugh!! Did you eat ALL THOSE TIM TAMS???”

“Not all of them!”

“I can’t believe this!” Thumps. Slams. My son, gesticulating frantically.

“Is everything all right?” asks Mum.

The argument just gets bigger and bigger, magnified by the fishbowl. Earnest conversations are overheard (there’s zero soundproofing) and hurtful. Angry words, angry emails, then silence.

We eat dinner, separately. It’s couscous, bland and dry.

It’s then that I hear the birdsong. I step onto the balcony, and a symphony of song rises through the evening coolness into pink-tinged clouds. Whips, curlicues, trills and falling fifths. Entranced, I grab my flute and start imitating, calling, replying. Over the road a woman glances up and smiles, gives a thumbs-up. My flutesong is a poor amateur in this opera, but I’m just thrilled to be on the stage.

The sun sets; the singers retire. In the darkness we meet in the bedroom and talk through some deep, painful stuff. It’s not solved, but resolved – a little bit.

Ten days of swimming to go.

Quarantine Hotel: Day Three – Game On

bananagrams

The cracks are showing.

It begins at 6:15am with an angry text: *Put on some headphones!!!*

A violent whump from the pillows in the bedroom. Another forceful text.

Trying fruitlessly to fall back asleep on the sofabed, I glanced over at my son, who’s deep in a group presentation for his English class. Both of us are desperately hoping the wifi doesn’t cut out before he finishes.

More whumps.

Raising eyebrows, he puts on headphones and settles in for the rest of the class, while I give up and make coffee.

Halfway through my 7am Zoom meeting, the argument begins. Why didn’t you wear headphones? But I told you in advance. That doesn’t matter, you woke me up.

It’s going to be a long 14 days. Maybe games will help.

I rootle around in my sister’s suitcase. I suggested Boggle and Scrabble; she added Bananagrams, cards, an indoor basketball hoop, badminton racquets, a soft Frisbee, indoor ping-pong and something called “100 Board Games.” Wow.

I pick up a racquet and start playing badminton hacky-sack. Nobody else joins in.

After morning class – which includes, ironically, an incomprehensible professor panel on abolishing the prison system – we tuck into lunch. Mum calls from the hospital where Dad’s doing a treatment – every conversation is like another puzzle piece into their world of living with cancer. As we chat, I sit on the balcony where the fierce Australian summer sun is settling inexorably in for the afternoon.

It burns my pale, Northwest-winter skin, the perfect recipe for melanoma – just like Dad.

I go inside.

We try more games while my daughter chats on her physics lab. After a near-miss with the TV and the Frisbee flying into the laptop, I give up and do some yoga. Then a little flute practice on the balcony, which is the furthest I can get from my kids. (I brought my flute over to play duets with Dad, maybe, if he’s up to it.) It’s probably still incredibly annoying to them, especially the high-register F# major scales, but the passersby down on the street look up and smile at my Bach.

Even the myna bird comes to listen – triumph!

“We got him onto the railing yesterday without even trying,” says my son, without looking up.

Next game – balcony spitting. The kids join me outside, and my daughter takes a full swig from her water bottle. Then, mouth full, she shoots me a mischievous glance. She’s been practicing massive burps all day, and I wouldn’t put anything past her. A flashback to the time we were all thrown off Notre Dame Cathedral after my son started long-range spitting off the edge wafts through my brain.

“Don’t you dare.”

She smiles.

“Why – what are you gonna do?” teases my son, picking up the bottle. “Make us leave?”

“I’ll take a photo and put you in the blog!”

They just laugh.

I look down. Luckily nobody’s passing. With a final glint of her eyes, my daughter spits a less-than-graceful arc over the railing. It falls onto the gravel, far away from anyone else. Still:

“Oh my gosh! This is a massive Covid security breach, you guys. This is why they lock us up, imagine if – “

“Oh, chill. Jeez.”

I’m left alone on the balcony, except for the myna bird, which has stayed to watch the entertainment.

4pm – workout time! I’m really hooked on this dance workout gal (Kyra PRO on YouTube, if anyone wants to follow along at home) and today we bop along to oldies from “Shrek” and “Grease.” There’s a rare family moment where we’re all doing ‘50s arm-wiggles and singing along with Olivia Newton-John, but it evaporates pretty quickly after dinner.

“All right, I’ll do these dishes now, but you’d better start doing your own.”

“I do my own!”

“No, you don’t! And you take forever in the bathroom.”

It escalates. (It doesn’t help that they’re now both taller than me.) I try to make peace, then I just try to escape, but there’s nowhere to go. I wonder if the hotel staff are used to hearing loud screaming fights from quarantine family rooms. And I think about the next 11 days.

In my Mum’s family there’s a tradition: If you’re cross, you go out for a long walk.

I head out to the balcony, which is rapidly turning into a kind of sacred space. The wifi doesn’t work out there, you can’t really hear what’s going on inside, and despite the constant rush of industrial traffic there’s a kind of peace, a reminder of life outside and beyond. Out there, we’ve had some pretty deep conversations: dreams, hopes, life, death.

Now, in the humid summer darkness, the cicadas are ringing in the trees. A bird sings a silvery coloratura. High above, a fruit bat wheels and shrieks, a black triangle cutting through the night haze.

The Moreton Bay fig exhales; I can almost taste its green oxygen, almost feel its halo of soft, leafy air. A lone cyclist whirrs by. I think about the sad Facetime call we had earlier with my husband back home and two miserable dogs. I think about Dad, and about all the millions of people out there in Sydney living a great life, virtually Covid-free – so starkly, unbelievably different from the pandemic life people are living back in America.

I take one more long inhalation, as if I’m about to start the Bach.

Then I go inside and slide the door shut.

Quarantine Hotel: Day 2 – Work/outs

Today began early. Really, really early.

My son’s school starts at 4:30am Sydney time, so it’s not a surprise when his alarm goes off. With one bedroom and one living room, we decided I would take the sofa bed as I have the least need for sleep, so I don’t mind when he turns on the light, logs into school and talks with teachers.

Then my daughter’s alarm goes off. She has a university physics mid-term at 9am, and needs to study. She hits snooze, three times in a row. By the time she gets up, I’m well and truly awake.

Sending Mum another silent thank-you for the French press, I make coffee and head for the balcony.

hotel sunrise

Two hours later, the sunrise is beautiful. The three of us watch the pink haze rise over the fig tree and the Qantas building next door, in silent appreciation of our new world.

8am – a sharp knock at the door. It’s the Scottish nurse, in full PPE, and we try not to squirm as she wiggles a cotton Covid-test swab up our nostrils while soothing us with her lilting accent.

Then it’s back to work. We have strict instructions to keep quiet during the physics exam, and after a couple of sharp altercations over talking-during-meetings, we all keep quiet. At 9:50am, my son and I log off the hotel wifi, which still takes a worryingly long time to upload my daughter’s final answers. At least it’s free.

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve all been doing online school and work for a year now. We’re used to the challenges, the distractions, the workarounds and hacks. Teachers are REALLY used to our pleading emails.

boy at computer

But the Quarantine Hotel adds a whole other level. Luckily, I have leave from my day job in zoo communications, but I’m still managing two festivals from afar: Tacoma Ocean Fest and the brand-new Tacoma Light Trail.

And now, this blog. Which had a slightly bumpy reception at the place of origin.

“Did you start a blog about this?” comes the incredulous voice, scrolling through Instagram. “Really?”

“I thought it would be helpful and fun,” I say, a little lamely. “I won’t mention your name.”

“You already used my picture.”

“I think it’s a lovely picture.”

“That’s not the point.”

Meanwhile, my son pulls out his camera for photography class and artfully rearranges the fruit bowl, a lush still life that testifies mutely to our dietary slackness. I make a mental note to eat a banana later.

At last, school is over and we change into our workout clothes. My daughter has found a YouTube dance workout instructor who’s infectiously cheery, and we kick, shimmy and laugh our way through “Mamma Mia: Part 2” and “Latin Hits”. Inspired, we move onto resistance band and crunches, and I get through 20 pushups in the bedroom while my son does ten backflip burpees.

“I swear, we’re going to be in better shape than ever if we keep this up,” my daughter says. “What do I do for biceps?”

I grab a bottle of Pinot Grigio and try some curls.

There’s a knock. Lunch! Veggie rolls and more fruit for the bowl.

But only two Tim Tams.

(For non-Australian readers: Tim Tams are Aussie chocolate biscuits (cookies) straight from heaven. Chocolate crunch coated in more soft chocolate, they disappear from our kitchen faster than you can say “Steve Irwin.” The first packet my sister sent is long gone.)

tim tams

I mean, really. Who are these caterers? They clearly know we have three people in the room: they sent us three rolls, three pieces of fruit, three Danish pastries.

So – two Tim Tams? Is this some kind of Hunger Games/Lord of the Flies experiment? Is there a secret webcam in our room to amuse our captors when we fight to the death over dessert?

My daughter rises above, and nobly waives her Tim Tam rights.

I eat a banana, feeling virtuous. Then a Tim Tam.

The afternoon, thick with sticky Sydney humidity, slows down. We read, work, struggle with the wifi, make tea. My laptop is on Tacoma time, like my son; my phone on Sydney time, like me. Every glance at the clock involves a calculation, a translation, like living in two languages.

It rains. We all go out to the balcony to watch, as if we’ve never seen rain before. (Those who share our Pacific Northwest home will laugh at this idea.)

I call Dad, to give him extra love on an important day: his 62nd anniversary of being an Anglican priest. Sixty-two years of deepening his faith, strengthening that of others, serving God, walking in light. It’s as much a part of him as my mother is – they married three years before he was ordained. And now, that faith is giving him – and her, and me – a quiet peace about this journey that’s before him. His roots go deep, like the Moreton Bay fig across the road, drawing water up through a massive underground spread and growing with serene grace through traffic, pollution, drought, smoke.

fig tree in sun

But it, too, will eventually die. Some of Sydney’s fig trees are around 150 years old but they’re showing their age, despite careful pruning and mulching and fencing off. Connected as they are to the fungi, microbes and other trees around them, and providing so much forest life after they die, old trees presumably don’t stress about dying.

Nothing lasts forever. And, like the tree, Dad is completely at peace with that. I’m striving to get there, too.

Quarantine Hotel: Day 1 – Little Things

It’s quite amazing how much joy you can get from little things when you haven’t got much else.

Like coffee.

Hearing some hotel horror stories, Mum has tucked in a French press and packet of Vittoria into my sister’s suitcase, and after three days without a latte you’ve no idea how good that one tastes. Then there’s the toast – with the new Vegemite – and I barely look at the slightly stale pastries that were in the breakfast bag left outside our door last night.

I take everything onto the balcony and eat amid the noise and bustle of a Sydney weekday morning. Trucks fly through the puddles, clumps of umbrella’ed workers hustle across the intersection in regular batches off the train.

coffee on balcony

Nobody sees me. And if they did, they would have no idea I’m sequestered up here like a potential plague carrier, my germy breath dispersed before it can hit the ground two stories below.

But I don’t care. I can stretch my legs, enjoy a leisured breakfast, know that I have paid leave from work and absolutely no cooking, shopping, errands or housework for the next two weeks.

As the kids get stuck into their remote schooling, I putter around, taking delight in tiny, ridiculous actions. Deep in the suitcase I discover printed calendar pages, the days ready to be checked off Crusoe-style. But how to put them up on the wall? I scan the apartment, then spot yesterday’s oranges, still ignored. Yes! Fruit stickers! Proud of my upcycling skills, I admire the calendar posters and efficiently write in “Covid test” on Days 2 and 12.

I’ve just finished the washing up when there’s a call on the room phone. It’s the nurse, checking we haven’t got Covid and asking after our mental health in a fetching Scottish accent.

“I’m fine,” I say, asking my daughter an eyebrow question. She nods, laughing. “Yes, we’re all fine. Thanks!”

And it’s completely, ironically true. Locked up for two weeks in a room, with my father slowly dying a couple of towns away, we’re actually in far better mental health than we’ve been for the last year. No worrying about every little cough. No stressing about how long you’ve been inside the supermarket, or that awful woman behind you who keeps taking off her mask and sneezing. No agonizing over test results, or missing all your friends, or wondering if you just made a terrible decision by going for a socially-distanced walk with them. No reading the death news or case counts and wondering who’s going to die next. Just – eating what you’re given and waiting 14 days to join the normal, happy, Covid-free life just beyond the balcony. Of course our mental health has improved.

But back to the exciting schedule of the day. My son finishes his morning classes and takes a nap. I do some yoga, read the news. Eat fancy caprese sandwiches with my daughter on the balcony. Make a cup of tea.

Then I notice the crowd of squawking myna birds occupying the Moreton Bay fig across the road. They wheel and dump, crash-landing into the palm trees outside the window. Hey! What if I could elevate my prison status by befriending a bird? That would give me purpose, a goal. I start tossing bits of Danish pastry onto the footpath, pausing as a couple of soldiers walk by with newly-arrived quarantine luggage.

My kids are shocked – feeding wildlife? I explain the invasive nature of myna birds in Australia, and how losing one or two to human contact would probably be a good thing, then keep tossing Danish crumbs, eventually luring a couple of birds onto the balcony below. Finally – triumph! – one hops onto the railing and cocks an eye. He chirrups. I coo back, delighted at my Dr. Doolittle abilities.

It’s been a big day, and it’s not over yet. I install the SIM card my sister thoughtfully packed, then call Mum. Dad and I joke around, quietly enjoying the absence of those dreadful seven thousand miles of separation.

 A friend calls to chat. I answer some emails, do a Zoom meeting from the bathroom to avoid interrupting my kids’ classes, and spend a sweaty 20 minutes on a “Mamma Mia” YouTube dance workout before tucking into the Mexican casserole dinner left, as always, outside the door.

It’s all so thrilling that by 9pm I’m bushed. Opening the balcony door, I say a silent good night to the fig tree, where the mynas are already asleep, then sink into exhausted oblivion.

wall calendar

Quarantine Hotel: Day Zero

We’re hungry, with no food in sight; jet-lagged, in a room without a key. Yet strangely, I’m at peace. After a 27-hour journey from the other side of the planet, we’re safe in a place where all we have to do is live through the next 14 days and we’ll be set free in paradise.

We’re at the Quarantine Hotel, Sydney – but it’s not Lonely Street. In fact, I’m stuck in a room with my two teenagers, which is possibly as far away from alone as you can get. Hopefully we all survive with sanity intact.

The decision to travel from the U.S., where we live, to Australia, where my family lives, wasn’t made lightly. An Australian, I’ve lived in America for 20 years, most of them in Tacoma, Washington, with my kids and husband. But I miss home, and when my dad’s cancer started spreading rapidly to his spine, ribs, pelvis and liver, I knew I had to come back for a while.

Despite the pandemic.

Covid-19 has streaked its way through most of the world, leaving death and disarray in its wake. The U.S. has been hit the hardest, a fatal combination of a fend-for-yourself health care system, a tendency to politicize everything (including public health) and vociferous liberty-or-death attitudes. Over 500,000 deaths later, the virus continues. But Australia benefited from both island isolation and a willingness to follow rules – so the Covid case rate here in Sydney is currently zero.

But part of that success story is a strict two-week quarantine of all overseas visitors – like us.

So my kids (who are Australian citizens) and I got ourselves tested, jumped through all the immigration hoops, enjoyed a plane flight with ten rows all to ourselves and spent hours walking through Border Force and customs to be granted – luxury!!! – a “family” room.

“I’m sorry, it doesn’t have views of the Harbor Bridge,” said the army official apologetically.

We didn’t care. It had a balcony for fresh air (my worst fears allayed), separate living and bedroom and a full kitchen (with a toaster!) and laundry. There was even an oven, should we care to bake.

Compared to the horror stories I’d read of desperate people ironing toast and washing underwear in the sink, it was heaven.

But we’re still pretty hungry. After the camo-dressed soldiers had taken down our details, wheeled in our luggage and departed with the key, we realize that we have no food, and no idea when lunch (the first of our caterer-delivered meals) is supposed to arrive.

“I have some chocolate,” I offer.

My kids stare at me like I’m crazy.

“We don’t want chocolate,” they say, with the edgy patience of people who haven’t eaten since 3 a.m. “We’re HUNGRY.”

To pass the time, they both take showers, and I realize there are only two towels. Also, one set of sheets for two beds. My U.S. phone doesn’t work, and I don’t want to rack up bills with the landline.

I suddenly feel the reality of our imprisonment.

Then comes a quiet knock on the door. Aha! I open it to find a shopping bag just outside, full of salads and fruit and pastries. Smiles all around. I manage to message my sister, who’s standing by with a pre-planned suitcase full of books, games, Tim Tams and Vegemite – life’s essentials. Hastily adding some items to the list (milk, instant ramen, Shiraz) I fish out the phone chargers and we settle happily down for the night, only popping outside to wave down to my niece in a surreal moment after she delivers the suitcase of goodies to reception.

As the kids turn out the lights and slump under the comforters, I pause at the balcony door, breathing in the humid, polluted Sydney air. Across the street a giant Moreton Bay fig, taller than our hotel, rustles in the salty breeze. Home. Just out of reach, but only for 14 days.

I exhale, and shut the door.

Bass Yoga

YinYoga no text

Long, relaxing yoga poses…deep, looping double bass…

Want to deepen your yoga experience, or that of your students? Add the slow, looping harmonies of a double bass, with improvisations that follow the symphony of your breath to shape a landscape of sound that takes you to a different place.

Ask about Whale Yoga, a collaboration of music, words and our ocean, where looping harmonies weave with songs of humpback whales and meditation washes over you like waves.

Enquire for availability and price.

Czárdás!

Join myself on double bass and piano, and my daughter Bianca on violin, as we play some fiery, Gypsy-inspired music: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 5, Bartok’s Romanian Dances, bass solos by Francois Rabbath, tangos by Astor Piazzolla and Monti’s famous showcase “Csárdás.”
With dance by Tacoma City Ballet, art by Becky Frehse, Audrey Tulimiero Welch, Jesse Gardner and Audrey Elliott, and drinks and nibbles in the elegant ballroom of Tacoma City Ballet.

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Multimedia storytelling: Tacoma’s gulches

Down in “Tacoma’s gulches, you’re in another world – a wild one. Deep ravines sandwiched between residential streets, fed by springs flowing to Puget Sound, the gulches are a unique result of land, sea and erosion: filled with tangled branches and moss, with deer, coyote and birdsong. Thanks to 150 years of European settlement, you’ll also find trash and sewer lines, blackberries and ivy, drug users and the homeless – as well as trails and restored habitat. Some Tacomans want to tame the gulches; others want them kept wild. Each one tells its own story – if you go in and explore.”

This self-produced multimedia story, with all my own text, photos, video and interactive design, ran in The News Tribune in July 2014. It won the 2015 award for Best Completed Research (M.Comm) from the University of Washington Communications department, and second place in the Comprehensive Coverage category for the 2015 Northwest awards from the Society for Professional Journalists. I wrote, shot and edited it myself, laying out the design on Adobe Muse.

Content Strategy: VisitNewcastle.com.au

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As part of my Masters degree, I completed a full content strategy for the City of Newcastle’s Economic Development department, which oversee the city’s main tourist website. visitnewcastle.com.au. I took a full audit, and suggested a big move away from the current text- and pdf-heavy design and into a mobile-responsive site that tells the unique Newcastle story with multimedia and a local-voice vibe.

What’s content strategy? Matching great content with your audience needs and business goals. I assess who you are and where you are digitally, tally your resources and come up with a metrics-driven plan that includes style guide, editorial calendar, social media planner and more.

Writing: Tree-house Magic

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The Burl at Treehouse Point. Photo: Rosemary Ponnekanti

“It had been an average kind of afternoon in outer Issaquah: lunch at an Irish pub, a short trail walk, snapping photos in a ferny forest. But as darkness crept in, damp and chilly through mossy trees, things started to get magical. Lights began to wink on high above me behind rough shingles and shadowy figures made their way up twisty stairs, half hidden behind tree trunks. I was sleeping in a tree-house, one of eight perched high in the canopy like something Tolkien might have dreamed up, at what has to be one of Washington’s more unusual destinations: Treehouse Point.”

 

This is just the beginning of a travel story I wrote for The News Tribune’s “Getaways” print section in March 2014. For 15 years I’ve written journalism stories: breaking news, features, arts reviews, travel stories. I write long- and short-form, from obituaries to humor. I seek out the best stories and tell them in the best way.

I’ve also given writing workshops and won awards for journalism and fiction.