Monthly Archives: July 2011

Departure

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Dawn, or thereabouts.  My daughter is coughing up a storm in her room; my son is snuggled in his bed, clutchng his newly earned black belt.  I am curled up in a ball wondering why I’m so scared as my husband snores contentedly next to me, his hard earned vacation just hours away.

I am terrified.

I ask myself why.  I ask myself how this happened?  When did I turn into this insular, quaking, pathetic creature who doesn’t want to leave her house, her neighbourhood, her zone of safety?  I’m a Sagittarius for God’s sake – we’re the happy-go-lucky, wanderlust sign.  What is wrong with me?

Once I land in Barcelona, I know I’ll be fine.  If I’m not then I’ve given my husband permission to park my sorry ass in a bar somewhere within stumbling distance to the hotel so he and the kids can wander at will without me dragging them down.  I’ve been on Google Maps since the sun came up, obssessively mapping out our steps from the hotel to wherever.  Example:  Our hotel to Las Ramblas.  Literally, take a left, another left, then a right and there we are.  I already know where two convenient subway stops are.  I know that, on the subway we can get to Park Gruell in about 16 minutes.  Having this kind of knowledge gives me comfort – helps keep the fear at bay.  My husband shrugs and says, “We’ll just wander.”  Such words fill my heart with dread and that’s a shame.  Because without wandering, how can one discover?

My children are still young enough not to be worried about much of anything – except maybe where the next meal is coming from.  They still delight in the unknown, the undiscovered, the happened-upon.  I think they will take this trip the way I wish I could:  with open eyes and open minds.  It will be a true adventure.

I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself but I’ve got some serious lessons to learn on this trip – how to wander, how to let go, how to open my mind and my eyes.  Is it too late for me?  Google Maps is great and real but it’s not real, if you know what I mean.  This blog is going to be written proof of progress, or not.  We’ll see.  Like I said in an earlier post, I want to prove at least to my kids that I’m capable of getting through a family vacation without making everybody else miserable.

Deep breaths….oh, and we’re not even packed yet!!  Time to wake the husband…his wife whisperer skills are going to be put to the test today!!

Next stop:  Barcelona!!

 

Stress Alert Level: Orange

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Approximately 48 hours to go before we leave and my veneer of rational calm has cracks in it.  No, make that fissures so wide they could swallow a car.

My son’s black belt test is this evening, approximately four hours of watching my 11 year old go through hell.  His stress, hidden just barely beneath the surface, adds to mine but there’s nothing I can do for him except stay quiet.  He has to go through this alone.  In the meantime, I scurry about with at least 3 “to do” lists on the go.

My daughter, after a week of intensive soccer training in extreme heat and a game last night, is also falling apart.  She is as sick as a kitten and was up all last night with a severe sore throat and headache.  I stumbled between her room and ours for most of the night, terrified she would wake my son and furious at the fact that my husband can (and does) sleep through absolutely everything.  I was tempted to wake my son so that he could practice some of his kicking on his dad.

This morning dawned bright and beautiful; I did not.  I drove sans the benefit of caffeine (which should be illegal) to our local auto club office to obtain my international driver’s license.  I now have positive proof that driver’s license photos are bad whether local or international.  Also, I really should remember to at least comb my hair before leaving the house.  I look like that picture of Sirius Black in “Prizoner of Azkaban” in the Daily Prophet:  stressed bordering on deranged.

I resolve to take lots of deep breaths and not to start drinking until after my son’s black belt test.  I resolve to send him nothing but positive thoughts and love.  I resolve to replenish the Advil supply because surely it will be gone before the day is through…

 

That Certain Something

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As to the title:  French women have it; Italian women have it.  I don’t got it.

While surfing websites about Rome, Athens, Florence, Barcelona etc. yesterday, I got to thinking about tourists and what a strange species they are.  I had the misfortune (or fortune) to stumble upon a secton about Rome entitled “Thieves, Gypsies, and Pickpockets”  Another section:  “Crime.”  Another section: “Crimes Against Tourists”  These sections went on for PAGES about all the different ways tourists can be scammed, violated, and robbed of money and memories (camera theft) in the major tourist destinations like Rome.  Especially, Rome.

Yikes.

On the subway to my son’s tae kwon do class, I asked him what he would do if someone threw a baby at him.  The look on his face was, of course, incredulous.  So my lecture began: “The gypsies have a tactic where one of them will either pretend to drop or they will actually toss a “baby” at a tourist in order to distract them and while the tourist is having a heart attack, freaking out, or trying to catch the baby, their pockets get cleaned out.”  I paused.  “Usually, it’s not a real baby, though.”  My son:  “Usually?”  I shrugged.  My son asked, “How do they know we are tourists?”

I had to laugh.  A picture flashed through my head:  a family of four, all wearing Birks, smelling of sunscreen.  One or both of the adults is sporting a knapsack that might as well have a bullseye on it that screams in fluorescent lettering “TOURISTA.”  Then there’s the haphazard walking, the gawking at ancient buildings, the ever-present camera, and numerous other signs.

“Oh, honey – it’s kind of obvious.”

Tourists, as a species, stick out like polar bears would in Tanzania.  So, this morning as I schlepped to my local Starbucks in my usual North American summer uniform of tie-dyed tee shirt and denim shorts, I wondered: why? And is there any way in hell I can blend?  Picture woman, walking by herself on a city street in Toronto, laughing wildly.  Other pedestrians move away, avert eyes…

Why?  No European woman would be caught dead looking the way I do most of the time.  I can’t picture the situation improving when I’m tramping around Europe – comfort is key.  European women look…different.  They look pulled together, effortlessly elegant.  Only the very young and thin wear denim.  If I dressed more like an Italian /Spanish/ French woman – would I still have that “tourist bullseye” tattooed on my rear?  Probably.

It’s not just about the clothes…it’s an aura.  European women  have that certain something that North American girls just lack –  something that cannot be easily named.  Is it posture?  Is it the walk?  Is it their clothes?  I have no more hope of looking like a European woman than I have of passing myself off as a polar bear.  Especially, in the Mediterranean. My husband and son – they are the most likely to blend, blessed as they are with dark hair, eyes, and skin.  My daughter and I, with our blue-green eyes, freckles, and skin so pale we glow in the dark – not a chance.

I bought some casually elegant dresses to wear but now I have nowhere to hide my money belt.  I have dark, chic sunglasses but if I wear them, I won’t be able to read the fold out street maps I bought.

Somewhere, across the sea, petty thieves are laughing.

Itinerary of the Damned

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Please note:  the above title is tongue-in-cheek.  I am not serious; I am rarely serious – except of course when I’m yelling at my kids.

In five days, Brilliance of the Seas heaves her large bulk out of the port of Barcelona with about 2,000 intrepid tourists aboard for a 12-day cruise.

In February,  I obsessed about packing as much culture, sights, and fun  dammit, into each port of call on each day.  I went to the library, I faithfully copied down names of places and neighbourhoods, restaurants, and gelato stands.  I am still looking for definitive information on decent public toilets in the cities we’re supposed to visit.  (I think I found it yesterday – there are none.)

Now, in the few days left, I’m chanting a new mantra:  wing it.  I am failing miserably at this mantra but I say it determinedly anyway.  I  must prove to my family that I can take one vacation in their lifetimes where I DO NOT have a series of nervous breakdowns.  Really.  I can do this.

We have little choice; we cannot afford the expensive off-shore tours offered by the cruise line. We are severely allergic to “guided tours” anyway.  We don’t mind a bit of exploring (as long as our tummies are full and bladders are empty before we start).

Let’s take Rome as an example. Rome was not built in a day; nor can it be seen in one.  Any grandiose plans I might’ve had about seeing every relic and church were long ago shelved and replaced  by a more realistic approach.

Here I must profess and declare my love for Google’s “Little Yellow Man.”  I run away to a foreign  city with him daily.  Yesterday afternoon, he and I had a rather pleasant time in Rome as I attempted to map out a walking route.  Let’s face it:  just walking in Rome can yield amazing sights.  We’ll try to see two major sights in the morning, eat lunch in a nice trattoria, and then hit a couple of sights in the afternoon.  I plan to end with a splash in the Trevi Fountain.  Every time I see a gelateria, I plan to eat some.  I predict the kids will become addicted to Bomba di Crema.   I’m hoping the walking will even out the caloric intake.

Athens, oh Athens.  I hope the entire city is not on strike while we’re there.  Even if we just see Poseidon’s Temple and the Acropolis, it will be fantastic.    Athens stresses me more than Rome  – I have no hope of being able to fumble through the Greek alphabet.  Deciphering their signs will be next to impossible.  As much as I hate to say it, a guided tour might not be a bad idea here…

In Nice, France, I’ll be on the beach, followed by an authentic Salade Nicoise and a carafe of vino.   Santorini offers more in the way of sightseeing but the logistics (boat tender, cable car, donkeys?) make me nervous.  I found one website that highly recommended the donkey ride up the steep mountain into town in lieu of the cable car.  That actually sounds kind of fun and the pictures would be hysterical.  Yes to donkeys…unless they’re on strike too.

We dock in Salerno, Italy which offers access to Naples and Pompeii.  We say “No” to Naples (sorry, birthplace of pizza) and “Si” to Pompeii  via the Amalfi Coast.  I fantasized about motoring up the coast in a rental Ferrari, wearing chic black sunglasses with my hair held back by a Hermes scarf…  then I remembered the two children.   I’m sure Hertz can hook us up with a nice sedan .  I am not sure how many petrified remains the kids are going to tolerate.  I predict we will not tarry long in the shadow of Vesuvius but a leisurely visit to Portofino sounds fine.

This trip is a big deal for us and the bottom line has got to be FUN.  If that means missing some “important” sights, then so be it. There’s a hill overlooking Florence that I want to climb; the website says its basically nothing but a car park but it yields the most fabulous views of the city – I can picture us standing there, snapping photos and just drinking it all in, the Duomo glowing in the summer sun below us.  Winging it could be just fine.

My Bittersweet Affair…With Rejection

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Beware to those who think all I do is blog and eat bonbons all day…

I really do write.  At this point, I am a short story writer; what I’m not is a successful short story writer.  This means that rejection is a part of my daily (or at least weekly) life.

A very wise writer friend of mine reminded me recently that a lot of writers get enough rejections to wallpaper an entire room before they achieve success.  I wish I had a studio that needed wallpapering because the rejections are piling up.  At least I can take heart in knowing that in befriending rejection, I’m not alone.  And befriend rejection I must.  As a writer, I must absorb the rejection without letting IT consume ME.  I must take it in but I don’t have to feed it.

I’m sure other writers have all sorts of tricks for coping.  My tricks involve denial and avoidance. When I get an email from a literary magazine, my heart skips a beat.  I immediately get out of my chair without opening the message.  I get busy – making a sandwich, putting wet clothes in the dryer, petting the neighbour’s cat….anything to keep me away from my computer.  Eventually I come back, inhale deeply and open the email.

Most editors are pleasant enough – given the amount of submissions they get, I’m surprised they can say anything beyond “NO!”  The emails are brief and cordial.  “We enjoyed reading your story; however, at this time we are unable to publish it…” or “Thank you for sending us your work; however, your story is not what we’re looking for right now…” I’ve had weird rejections that said, “This was incredible!  Great job!  We loved it!  But…”  Those are puzzlers.

I try to send my work to publications where they might be a good fit.  I read the submission guidelines and the editorial comments very carefully – I don’t just throw the spaghetti onto the wall to see if it sticks (although I’ve been tempted out of sheer frustration).  The editorial process remains something of a mystery to me.  Only the editors know what they want; my job is to write.  And, trust in myself.  Admittedly, this is hard to do when the pile of rejections grows ever thicker.

The important thing is to not give up.  Never give up!  The time will come when I inhale deeply, open the email, and read something like “Dear Writer, Your story really spoke to us and we’d be pleased to include it in our Spring Fiction Edition…”  Of course, I might be so excited I’ll forget to exhale…

Until that glorious day, I am tempted to treat rejection like a dog; I will teach it to heel and sit quietly at my feet.  I can’t let it jump up and slobber all over me.  I can’t fight with it either because rejection has teeth – it can hurt me if I let it overpower me. When success comes I’ll be ready for it.

That’s One Hot Visa, Ma’am…

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Little did we realize when we booked our Mediterranean Cruise last December that we would all have to buy entirely new wardrobes.  Cruising, it seems, has not let go of some of the old ways typical of travel back in The Golden Age.

On our 12-day cruise, we have been told there will be three “formal” nights, three “smart-casual” nights, and six “casual” nights in the main dining room.  There are other options other than the main dining room but only the MDR offers a choice of seating times. I refuse to cut short my shore time to race back to the ship for a 5:30 dinner seating or be stuck with a buffet/cafeteria line-up in the Windjammer Cafe.

If I’m honest, I have to confess that my kids’ summer wardrobe consist of micro-short denim shorts (girl child) and down-to-the-knees baggy board shorts (boy child).  It is made quite clear on the Royal Caribbean website that none of the above selections would be welcome in any dining facility on the ship except maybe the Teen Discotheque.

So armed with comfortable walking shoes (just purchased) and a cooler to keep the smoking hot Visa card in, we ventured forth to the Eaton Centre on Saturday with the RC acceptable attire list for each night clenched in our sweaty fists.  As luck would have it, we quickly found ourself amid thousands of other shoppers indulging in Summer Sale Madness.

For our daughter, I bought handfuls of frothy cotton sundresses for sightseeing and “casual” nights, all for under $15.  She got a skirt for $9 at Zara.  While none of these items will likely make it much past summer, they’re perfect “cruise wear.”  She already had a fancy cocktail dress from grad and we bought her another, her first quintissential LBD at Guess for 50% off its regular price.  Her new teeny-weeny bikini was also purchased at about 40% off.  It never ceases to amaze me how they can charge so much for so little material…

Boy child needed more “dress” slacks and shirts AND some decent dress shoes as all he had were hiking sandals and skateboarding shoes.  Thankfully, good old Sears came through again.  Now, for husband:  he has suits galore and more ties than he’ll ever wear again in this day and age of “business casual.”  However, he does not own something called a “sport coat” – I think it’s something my father used to wear when dining at the country club.  Needless to say, my husband had no idea what to look for and the uber-youthful employees at various stores had NO IDEA what we were talking about, even at The Bay.  He went to Banana Republic Men but sadly, that shop was unaware of the Summer Sale Madness going on around them.   We need things but we have limits…

By the end of the afternoon, salespeople were getting 3rd degree burns from our burning hot credit cards and it was time to stop.  We know, even after indulging in such insanity, that we probably still don’t have everything we need.  On “smart-casual” night, we may have to smuggle food to my jacket-less husband out in the hallway.

Of all of us, I was amazed to find that I was the best “kitted-out” in terms of formal and “smart-casual” items – me, who regularly stands in front of my closet just before our quarterly date nights declaring she has nothing to wear.  I will never be able to use that excuse again.  Oh well, after this cruise, we’ll not be able to afford to go anywhere for years to come so my usual uniform of jeans and a tee-shirt will suffice.

Five days to go!!!!!

Inspiration

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Summer lies over the city like a wet blanket.  The air is so humid you could slice it, put butter on it, and eat it.  The slightest movement requires effort; thinking too hard might cause one to break a sweat.

Inspiration doesn’t come as easy now that it has to swim through the pea soup my brain seems to have become.  And yet, if I am very still (which I want to be anyway, in this heat), I see it everywhere.

As someone who dreams things up, literally, I can sit on a park bench and make up a story about the steady parade of ants at my feet.  I people-watch, noting details about those who pass, making up stories about them.  I sit and daydream by the lakeshore and ideas will float through my head like the puffy white clouds that float over Lake Ontario.

Last night, at 3:02 a.m., I crept down to the living room for a break from the oppressive heat upstairs.  I sat curled up on the sofa, gazing out the window, thinking the most I would see at that hour was a raccoon or two.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gangly young man came galloping up the street.  At first I thought he might be running from someone; I drew back into the darkness, afraid.  Then, as he slowed to a walk right in front of our house, he proceeded to test the doors on each and every car parked on the street.  His shaggy blond hair glowed in the streetlights.  I watched him and wondered how he came to be here on this Monday morning, running, seeking an illicit opportunity.  I didn’t know this boy; I don’t want to know this boy but a story followed him up the street, like Peter Pan’s shadow.

Almost more interesting than the blond 3:00 a.m. thief was the next pedestrian who happened by at 3:45 a.m., with bags of what looked like groceries.  He seemed completely unconcerned at the hour; he walked casually, unhurredly.  There is a 24 hour grocery store near but he came from the wrong direction.  Where had he come from?  Where was he going?  Would he encounter the blond boy further up the street? Were they partners in crime?  Did the bags contain lettuces or loot?  Another story…

I used to rely on dreams for my story ideas and over the years, dreams have served me very well.  I tend not to dream when it’s hot outside like it is now although I had a great one about my late dog Boomer the other night.  In the dream he still lived but got separated from us in a new neighbourhood and we thought him lost for good.  Then one day off in the distance, we saw him standing on a high, treeless ridge.  Next to him was a large wolf.  Another story to be born?  Family pet finds new life in the wild – or, he might be a spirit dog haunting a wolf pack or the story might be a woman who sees them is slowly going insane and the family pet and the wolf are hallucinations.  A picture her on the Bloor subway line flashes through my head; she looks up and sees large wolf and a friendly Black Lab in the seats across from her…Endless possibilities abound.

The heat forces me to slow down, forces me to quiet myself.  In the quiet, heavy stillness inspiration appears where I least expect it. Despite the heat, I feel refreshed and ready to write.

Reading Day

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I’ve been a very selfish banshee of late.  I’ve sat here at my laptop, preening and going on about me, ad nauseum.  I’m a wee bit sick of me.    No doubt my “friends” on Facebook are sick of me as well, what with the constant blog links and all…

So today, I vowed that I would get my head out of my own derriere and go exploring.  Today I am going to explore the other hard-working bloggers out there who are talented,are dedicated to their craft and who have so much to say on a variety of topics.  I might only have time to explore the blogs about writing but at least it’s a start.  Already, I’ve read so much that I feel full – like after a good meal.

Of course, some posts are not to my taste; some I don’t “get.”  But that’s ok.  I don’t have to like them all and I don’t have to get them all.  That’s not the point.  The point is the exploration.  Titles and photos catch my eye and pique my curiosity.  If I like a post, I’m sure to let the blogger know.

Let’s be honest: we love to be read.  We love to know that someone out there has taken the time.  There doesn’t have to be universal agreement, they don’t have to comment (although there’s nothing like a friendly or encouraging word to brighten my day).

I think every Friday will be Reading Day.  To loosely paraphrase an Annie Proulx quote that I just read on someone else’s blog, Reading is the best way to learn how to write.  Forgive me, Annie if I’ve not gotten it quite right…

Reading is also the best way to open your mind and get your head out of your own….well, you know.

Happy Friday, bloggers!!

Popsicle Sticks

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I’m writing a novel.  It’s my first attempt.  Ok, so not my first attempt but my longest attempt – I’m up to page 136.  I re-read (I know I shouldn’t do that) and I get very scared.  Why?

I have no freaking idea what I’m doing.

This particular story has been in my head for a number of years.  It has been written down in various forms, going in various directions and none of them got me beyond page 30 or so.  The main characters I can see quite clearly in my head.  I have a sense for their personalities, their likes and dislikes…and yet, I can’t seem to get their full selves onto the page.

Imagine, if you will, two three year olds, with sticky jammy fingers, playing with popsicle sticks.  They are plain, unclothed little sticks although someone might’ve (a busy, harried Mommy perhaps) drawn on rudimentary faces.  The little children make the sticks hop around on a table top, playing a game.  That’s what my characters are like right now, to me:  little naked popsicle sticks.  They have no depth, no layers, no personalities…they go through whatever motions I make them go through and then…nothing.

I try to take deep breaths and remember the words of Natalie Goldberg in her classic book, “Writing Down the Bones.”  Just write.  Just get the story down.  Anne Lamott, same advice:  write it.  It will be a shitty first draft.  It might be (and I’m paraphrasing here) the worst assemblage of words ever known to mankind.  At first.

Get the story down.  Lay the bones on the ground in some semblance of order and then go back and build on those bones.  When I’m not panic-stricken and hyperventilating, I like to imagine the wooden bones of an old sailing ship – the spine, the ribs, the acres and acres of raw timber nailed together that formed the skeleton.  After that is complete, the rest of it can be added on.  I wonder if shipwrights ever looked at these “bones” and wondered if the damn thing would ever float?

Of course, as I sit here in a cold sweat, I wonder if I’m doing it all wrong.  What if it ends up being like one of those IKEA pieces that you have to lay out on the floor, you screw it all together and realize it’s all backwards and upside down?  Back to the boat analogy, what if I’ve put the mast where the keel is meant to be?  I worry about painting my characters into corners that they can’t get out of and thus, I think I let them drift, wandering from scene to scene with no purpose in life.

This is turning into a full-fledged panic attack.  I need to stop.  I’ve gone beyond the point where I’m willing to listen to my own good advice!  Time to put my tools away and take a break, otherwise the ship will be sunk before its even been on its maiden voyage.

Mama Has Bad Juju

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My son’s black belt test in tae kwon do is in a week.  I may or may not be permitted to attend the test.  I have already been banned from:  soccer games that mean anything, soccer tournaments, tae kwon do tournaments, certain restaurants which shall remain unnamed.  We really hope I am allowed on the cruise ship…

For those who know me really well, my banishment will come as no surprise because, if I’m honest, the Wee Banshee is a bit…high strung at certain times, especially at her children’s sporting events.  Well, not at the events but usually in the days and hours leading up to said events.  I can be…again, if I’m honest, hysterical.  Maniacal, even.

I won’t even go into the types of things that I do before such events; suffice it to say I bring everyone’s stress level from “Mild & Manageable” to “CODE RED!!”  I don’t mean to but I get so nervous.  Will we get there on time?  Do we have proper directions?  Does son or daughter (depending) have their uniform in order?  What do you mean we have to stop for gas?  WHY COULDN’T YOU FILL THE CAR UP WITH GAS YESTERDAY???

Case in point,  a particularly disastrous tae kwon do tournament: We left late, had to get gas, my son spilled chocolate milk all over the front of his snowy white uniform, when we stopped to buy wet wipes the directions to the tournament got caught by a gust of wind and flew out of the car, NO ONE was speaking to each other upon arrival at tournament, result not good.   Before the next tournament, my son had a little chat with his dad:  “Does she have to go?”  Dad (no doubt biting the inside of his cheek, hard): “Do you want her to go?”  “No.”   I didn’t go, son got gold medal.

My daughter, although she is like the Rock of Gibraltar tempermentally, probably prefers me not to attend her important games.  The sound of the Wee Banshee shrieking at her from the sidelines is just too much for her, forget the pre-game hysterics.

I want my children to do well at their respective sports.  I want them to be well prepared.  I want them to be able to walk out the door without forgetting things.  If I wasn’t hovering and snapping at their heels like a well-trained Border Collie, they’d wander out the door half-dressed, with no directions, and no gas in the car.  But even as I write this, I realize that its my fault they can’t walk out the door on their own.  Woof.

I will ask my son if he wants me to attend his test.  If he says no, I’ll understand although I  will try to negotiate a compromise (like standing just outside the door, peeking, no sobbing)  When he passes (and he will),  I will silently run out of the building and do a little dance on Danforth Avenue,bringing a few minutes of joy to the elderly Greek men who hang out at the taverna down the street.  Before the test,  I will even volunteer to take the subway instead of riding in the car, leaving the driving to The Calm One (my husband).

The Big Trip looms – another “event” that will cause me to fly into hyper-Banshee mode.  The OCD is kicking in, the repetitive checking of passports has already begun.  I see the children huddling with their dad, no doubt devising ways of slipping a strong tranquilizer into my latte before we board the plane.  They don’t want to be embarrassed.  They don’t want to be forcibly de-planed in Newfoundland.  But, how to keep Mama calm or at least, reasonable?  When my kids ask, slyly, if I can take another plane to Barcelona, I will politely decline but yes, I will sit in another row.  If I have to.