Monthly Archives: February 2012

One of Those Days (Weeks?)

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Because I blogged about the record-setting, page blistering work I laid down last week, the Writing Gods have seen fit to blow this week all to hell.  I know that sounds pessimistic for a Wednesday but it’s Leap Day so it doesn’t count, right?

Sick kids, doctors appointments, emergency Deadmau5 errand running (don’t ask) – all of it has put me behind the 8 ball with my writing and I am crazily, massively, toxicly (is that even a word?) off-track.  And I must shrug my shoulders – not only as a way to relieve the incredible tension that has built up there but also as a way of saying, “It’s ok.  Don’t worry.  You’ll get back to it.  Don’t STRESS.”

Ha!

It’s hard not to stress when the aforementioned previous week was so invigorating and mood-boosting and this week is so…not.  I could chalk part of it up to the approach of Spring – the weather is acting all schizophrenic too – warm and sunny one day, brutally cold and snowy the next.  How can I remain consistent when Mother Nature has clearly forgotten to take her meds?

Because it’s February 29, I’m giving myself a pass of sorts.  I’m reading other people’s blogs (hello, Friend in France – so good to see you returned from Africa in one piece, not mauled by lions!) and my international array of newspapers.  I’m going to get a haircut.  I might make some soup.  Oh, exciting stuff, this. 

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that going with the flow is not a flaky mantra meant to excuse all manner of slothful behaviour (although there are those I know who will never be convinced otherwise).  It is an absolute necessity for me.  Words will come; time will come to me.  The Universe will provide – I just need to take a deep breath and relax.  Forcing things – never a good idea.

Angie’s Hunger Games

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Watched the Oscars last night.  The show didn’t induce chronic yawning like it normally does.  I don’t recall seeing anyone yanked offstage with a giant hook and Cirque du Soleil were tres cool.

I was doing fine with the whole thing until Angelina Jolie presented her little section of awards.  All of us in the room gasped collectively at the sight of her (we’d missed the red carpet entrances).  My first thought was somebody get that girl some food so she can lift the statue.

As she stood smiling, her lips a gharish red (the only plump things on her entire body), the crowd in my living room came up with their own ideas about why she looked so skeletal.  The most severe comment was “that’s what heroin does to you…” 

I’m willing to give Angelina the benefit of the doubt.  I don’t think a good old boy like Brad would let his lady go down the toilet with heroin.  He seems too…grounded for that.  I think I know what the problem is.

Angie has too many kids.   I know she loves them all dearly – all 75 of them.  It’s just that when you have that many kids, there’s probably no room for her at the table and thus, she doesn’t eat.

So, here’s my little message to Angelina:

Angelina, try this:  pull a stool up (if you’re too weak from hunger than get a minion to do it for you) to the kitchen counter of whatever chateau you’re living in now.  Start simple with a bowl of cereal or pasta.  Make time and space to feed yourself.  Forget being a vegan or eating a pro-biotic, macro-biotic sea kelp only BS diet – get yourself some nice simple carbs and chow down, for God’s sake.

We know you’re busy with the kids, writing, directing, learning Serbian, etc.  You must take care of yourself first.  We busy moms in the real world often eat standing up.  Or, in the car.  In fact, eating out of the pot on the stove is ok too if you just don’t have time to grab a plate.  I do not recommend eating standing up in the car out of a pot.  Dangerous.  But, then you’re Lara Croft.  You could probably pull it off…the point is we’re all busy and we find time to eat.  You can too.

I’ve seen Brad taking the kids on outings.  When there’s room at the table, get a minion to whip up an omelet or something.  Use this time to eat, girl.  Skeletal is out this year, healthy curves are in.  There is nothing sexy about a bag of bones in a designer dress.  You looked like an advertisement for the horror flick, “Woman in Black.”

Angie, you scared my kids last night.  I am taking up a collection here in Canada; we’re going to send you some stuff…Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Hamburger Helper…maybe a box of Timbits…eat up.  Take care.

From Breakthrough to Breakdown

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Like most writers, my head is full of voices,words and phrases all the time.  It rolls words around and around until they take shape as something useful.

This past Friday was an exceptional day.  I pulled up The Novel and my fingers could barely keep up with my brain.  I wrote until I could look away from the screen and still see words floating in front of my eyes.  I was in The Zone.  Whether any of it is good is quite beside the point.

I didn’t re-write, tinker, or edit.  I just went flat-out as if I was driving across an endless empty desert; no traffic, no speed limit.  The kids came home from school, I kept writing.  The cat needed food, I ignored her and kept writing.  Darkness fell over the city; I kept writing.  And, then…

Screeching halt.

I think my engine died in the middle of the word “the.” Yes, it is possible to have such a tiny word go unfinished. There it sits, on the page, “th–”  The stream of words dried up so fast it was the opposite of a flash flood; it was a flash drought.

At that short little word, my mind heard the end-of-day whistle blowing.  More than that, it was Friday – time to clock out. My brain was adamant and there was nothing left to do but snap the laptop shut and make a pizza.  

In the wee hours of this Monday morning, my brain was back on the job. Somewhere in the world, dawn had broken and my brain was ready even if my body was not.  The gates opened; a flood of words streamed through, keeping me awake for hours. 

Weekend over – back to word work.

The Heroism of Growing Up

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When my daughter was very, very small – so small, in fact, I did not realize she could speak in full sentences – she laid upon me some words of wisdom that I’ve never forgotten.  Strapped into her car seat, her chubby face streaked with juice, she said, “Mommy, life is hard.  And a little bit tricky.”

Today a bronze statue was unveiled in London’s Trafalgar Square as part of something called The Fourth Plinth Project Series.  It is a simple thing – not glorious or imposing like the lions – a boy on a rocking horse.  The minute I saw it, tears filled my eyes.  It reminded me of the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens.  Captured very simply but very powerfully was the innocence of youth.

The article describing the statue, the artists, and the series said the statue “acknowledges the heroism of growing up.”  Growing up is hard.  I watch my children struggle with it daily; hell, I am struggling with it still at the half century mark.  Today’s children are faced with so many choices, so many paths. I can hardly keep up well enough to do the bare parental minimum. 

Every now and again one of my children will inform me that they do not want to grow up; that in fact, they want to go backwards.  My daughter swears her best year was when she was five.  Life was good, fun, and very simple.  My son wants to be my little boy forever.  His way of putting it: “Growing up sucks.”  I can’t always disagree.

 I think back to my own childhood and marvel at how simple everything was.  I rode bikes, played  games, lay in hay fields staring up at the sky for hours while a dog napped next to me. I remember having a rocking horse just like the one in the statue.  It was made of pale wood with a painted red saddle and real leather reins.  One of the rails got chewed up by a dog but it still rocked.    

Growing up takes courage, especially these days, for kids and parents.   Put one foot in front of the other, every day.  Don’t look down.  Find a park with a statue.  Sit.  Gaze. Enjoy. Remember.  Watch out for pigeons. Chase them like you used to.

To Catch a Thief, 2012

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‘Member back in the good ole days when we worried about physical muggings or pickpockets who casually bumped into you on the  bus and heisted your wallet?  These days you can get mugged and not even know it until days later…when the bank calls…

Our bank called last night to politely inquire as to whether we had really purchased over $10k of electronics at two different stores on the opposite side of town.  “Um…honey?” my husband called.  He looked around, “Nope, same old tv we’ve always had.  Really?  So, nice stuff.” 

Apparently our muggers had expensive taste in electronics and helped themselves to quite a lot of it.  My credit card never left my wallet – and, as I found out from the bank this morning, – it never has to.  Thieves are very sophisticated these days and can obtain a wealth (pun intended) of information without hauling their dishonest asses out of a chair.

According to the bank, there are as many ways to get your credit card information as there are types of credit cards.  And here I thought if I shielded the pin pad with my hand while keying in the PIN, I was safe.  Ha.  I cut the woman off after she recited the fifth method; I just didn’t want to know any more.

And, why bother? I thought.  I can’t protect myself from these people.  The best thing I can do is make sure there is fraud protection in place through the credit card company.  Or, I can cut up all my cards and use cash only – but in this day and age, that’s just not practical.  And, as has always been the case, not the safest either.  But, honestly, I would rather a good old fashioned pocket picking to what happened to us last night.

To those who purchased that nice 55 inch flatscreen with surround sound system, 3D and built-in bar, I hope it falls on you while you’re trying to hook it up.  Karma, baby, karma.

Tinker, Tailor, Writer, Why

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I confessed to my husband yesterday that I did not make much forward progress on The Novel last week.  This type of confession is dangerous because it leads him to think I sat around watching Oprah reruns and eating the proverbial bonbons.  What I could never get him or anyone else to understand (unless it was a fellow writer) is that although very little forward progress was made, I did a tremendous amount of writing.  Except that it was re-writing, re-positioning, re-vamping of characters and the like.

Enter The Tinker.  Or, more correctly, The Tinkerer.  The story had been going along swimmingly until I started to over think it (as I tend to do with everything, not just writing).  I could feel my mental wheels start to sink into the mire and slow until the entire enterprise had ground to a complete halt.  

The problem with over thinking is often it is never a huge item that starts the derailment – it can be quite small.  I find myself muttering, “There is no way Esmereldarina can be carried off by trolls on the back of a Welsh pony; it has to be something stubby, shaggy, and attitudinal like a Shetland…”  Of course, I come to this realization thirty pages after I’ve already written the troll/pony scene…and so…

I go back and tinker.  Then I find more things to tinker with and more and more.  Soon, I’m back at page one rethinking whether or not I want this story to be about trolls who use ponies as transportation anyway

Hearing this sad tale over coffee yesterday morning, my husband came up with a great suggestion.  In his nerdy line of work where they hardly give trolls a thought, they use something called “parking lots.”  These are like storage documents where they put random thoughts and tinkering ideas for use or consideration later.  I could use a “parking lot” document to write down all of my doubts about the minutiae without actually destroying all of the progress I’ve made.

Key to writing any story of any length is to get it down.  Tinkering destroys that possibility.  If while I’m  having heroines kidnapped by equestrian trolls, I can harbour the idea for exchanging the ponies for four-wheel drive quads in a parking lot document for use (or ridicule) later.  Then, its head down, keep on writing. 

This week I vow to make good forward progress.  If I have to fill up a parking lot, so be it.  Save the tinkering and tailoring for later.

Bossy Characters

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So I’m in the shower and my heroine’s ex-husband peeks around the shower curtain while I’m trying to rinse hair dye out of my hair.  I know, awkward, right?  “Not a good time, Brad.” I say.  “I know,” he says.  “It’s just that your portrayal of me in The Novel…it’s just not working for me.  I’m going to the Caymans.  See ya.”

I stood there for a minute, Miss Clairol Espresso hair colouring streaming down me in coffee coloured rivulets, stunned. “Well, thanks for the heads up, buddy.” I mumble.   How could he do this to me?  It would be like Tom Cruise announcing halfway through a film shoot that he’s a bit bored so he’s grabbing Katie & Suri and heading off for points unknown and forward the paycheque…the nerve!

Tom can do what he likes but Brad cannot.    Or, can he?  And more importantly, why shouldn’t I let him? Characters speak to writers all the time.  Mine usually aren’t so bossy or so absolutely determined that they should go this way or that; I’m thinking that this is a very good thing.

I’m going to listen to Brad because I”m approaching this draft of The Novel in a whole new way.  I’m not forcing things like I usually do.  I’m letting things flow.  If Brad, my main character’s pain-in-the-ass ex, wants to jet off to the Cayman Islands, I’m going to let him.  I will follow him there in my mind, spy on him – see what kind of naughty things he’s up to.  I hope he gets in loads and loads of trouble.  At the very least, I hope he gets a sunburn because having Emma’s dog repossessed was really pretty low.

I don’t mind re-writing or tweaking because so far, the vibe has been amazingly good with this draft.  Words are flowing, scenes are shaping, and when something doesn’t feel right, a very helpful character is there to tap me on the shoulder and whisper helpful advice.  I just wish they wouldn’t do it when I’m in the shower.

Was it Something I Said?

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Deep breath, Banshee…

Even casual conversations about health care are a dicey business.  I know that.  And being an ex-pat American living in Canada makes it even dicier.  I took the world’s best healthcare for granted until I moved to Canada – yes, I was one of the extremely lucky Americans who always had an excellent healthcare package through my job.  If I needed something, I called my doctor, got in to see him/her right away, and got on with my life.  I didn’t miss entire days of work waiting in a clinic or an emergency room nor did I waste countless hours calling around trying to find a doctor who took new patients.

From 2002 until 2006, my family went without a regular family physician here in Canada.  There were none.  If I drove by a clinic that had a “taking new patients” sign, I’d cross lanes, block traffic and perform other unsafe manoeuver to get to it.  When we  finally found someone who was taking new patients, we’d get one appointment and then be told  Dr. So-and-So was moving to Saskatoon, or Lethbridge, or Dubai.  I began interrogating doctors, “So, are you planning on moving, retiring, going into the Witness Protection Program, dying, or winning the lottery in the next 2 years?” 

In Calgary, procedures of all kinds, major or minor, had waiting lists.  Women went out-of-town to have their babies, sometimes driving up to 2 hours away for an OB/GYN appointment.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is not in much better shape.  The only difference here is that we have at least half a dozen hospitals to choose from in a 5 mile radius.  Because here, an Emergency Room visit is often the only way to get seen…by anyone.  We thought we had a lovely family doctor  only to find out that she left rather suddenly right before Christmas.  There was no warning, no letter, no notification from her office.  Gone.  Was it something I said?  Oh, I forgot to ask the Witness Protection question…

So now my daughter needs a diagnostic ultrasound on her shoulder and I have no doctor to write the actual referral.  I feel like I’m constantly chasing my tail and when it comes to my family’s health, this is not only frustrating  but scary.  I just got off the phone with the clinic.  They have one doctor left who is taking new patients…I’m trying not to picture the kid who gets picked last for the sports teams in gym…and I asked the receptionist (who told me this doctor is very nice):  “Do you have her chained to a desk so she can’t leave?”

She laughed.  So did I.  Then we both said at the same time, “It’s really not funny is it?”  No.  It’s not.

In Praise of…Reading

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Several things brought me to this post:

  • The path to the hair colour aisle at the grocery store
  • Shakespeare
  • My novel in progress
  • Highbrow literary pursuits

Don’t worry, even those who love me and know me well have a hard time following the trails in my brain…

Item #1:  Yesterday,walking past the racks of magazines and “supermarket novels” in order to get to my box of Natural Instincts Medium Brown (aka Espresso) hair colouring, I wondered if my novels would ever displayed with Road & Track on one side and Mickey Mouse gift wrap on the other.  As I walked past the Clive Cussler paperbacks, the Jodi Picoult novels, and others whose names I didn’t immediately recognize, I wondered if I would mind if my book was sold in a supermarket…

And, then I thought about the fact that Jodi’s and Clive’s kids probably have had top-notch university educations, braces paid for in cash, and at least two vacations a year in lovely, tropical locations.  Nope.  I wouldn’t mind at all.

  I don’t pretend to be aspiring for prizes such as the Booker, Giller, Pulitzer, Oprah Book Club (if it even exists anymore).  On the other hand, I don’t want to be known as a overtly commercial book-churning roboton.  I aspire to write engaging and readable stories – well written, of course – something I’d like to read. I aspire to…dare I say it… entertain.  I do not aspire to have readers yanking at their hair trying to figure out the mystical meaning of the novel’s deeply buried sub-plots.  Relax, read, enjoy.

Item #2: Shakespeare has come up a fair amount in our household recently.  Sunday night we watched the movie “Anonymous,” which, for any die-hard Shakespeare fan, is a bit unsettling.  Surely it doesn’t really matter whether Shakespeare penned all of those great literary works or not – what matters is there are great literary works out there that should still be read, explored, and enjoyed. My daughter is about to embark on her very first Shakespeare experience with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She, like so many other students her age, is completely intimidated by the very name Shakespeare. 

But, if you believe popular culture’s portrayal of him, he was  a hard-working guy who was as confounded by the fickleness of muses as any other writer can be.  He struggled no doubt but also enjoyed great commercial success.  As both actor and writer, he lived to entertain.  Or, somebody using his name did, anyway.

Item #3:  The Novel is humming right along…except when I allow myself to worry that I’m not going to win a Booker, Giller or be the next Shakespeare.   I worry that I will worry myself right out of writing it.  Naturally, I tell myself to stop worrying and write it down – leave off the concerns until later.

Item #4:  I have had people suggest books to me that are uber-literary, and on the short list for this prize or that…nine times out of ten I give up after a few chapters.  Like a lot of people,  by the time I settle down to read, it’s late at night.  I’ve been writing and worrying over words all day.  After that, I tend to my family.  At bedtime, I don’t want to work too hard.  My taste in books runs to the witty, sharp, fast-moving, humourous (but not necessarily light).  I don’t do plodding, laborious, or deeply insightful; I hate books that have me asking “WTF?” at the end. 

I like to emerge from one of life’s greatest pastimes sated, happy (although sorry the book ended).  I stretch like a cat, yawn, and say, “Wow, great book!”  It is my greatest wish that someone emerges from their reading cocoon someday happy and sated after reading one of my books.  Guess I’d better get on with writing it…

Of Bells and Haunting Melodies

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Some days, I’m quirkier than other days.  Today I’m waxing nostalgic about church bells and psalm singing (in Gaelic no less) even though as my son describes me, “She’s allergic to going to church.”

One chilly spring  Sunday in the late 1990’s, we visited my sister-in-law in Calgary, Alberta.  Her house  overlooked Elbow Park.Adjacent to the park, nestled into the hillside sat Christ Church, a charming old Anglican church complete with bell tower that contained bats and…hand rung bells.  As I stood on the hillside that morning, the bells pealed out over the park.  I looked at my husband and said, “If we ever move here, we must live where I can hear these bells!” 

Several years later, we were living in a house so close I could see the bell tower.  Hearing the bells brought me peace – a feeling that all was right in the world (or at least my little corner of it).  Weather permitting, the windows of the house were flung open to let in the happy noise. 

Christ Church’s bells – there are eight – are hand rung in a very specific, mathematical sequence known as “change ringing.”  The bells are gargantuan but they hang in frames allowing them to be swung in an arc over 360 degrees easily – by children or seniors – pulling on long ropes.  However, it is an art that requires constant practice and attention.

Change ringing originated in England and has been practiced since the 17th Century.Churches all over Europe and North America have change ringing bells; in the United States, change ringing bells rang from Old North Church in Boston before the American Revolution. 

To hear bells in Toronto, I can’t just lean out my window. I have to go to St. James Cathedral at Church and King Streets.  This church, which has 12 bells (the only place outside of New York City with 12), known as the Bells of Old York.  They are the only set of change-ringing bells in Ontario. 

 Where the bells light a joyous light deep inside me, psalm singing rips open my heart, brings me to my knees and lays me bare.  How could such a thing be appealing?  I have no idea.  Closing my eyes when I hear these haunting melodies, I feel the wild landscapes, the angry seas even though I can’t understand the Gaelic.  My niece, who lives on the Isle of Skye, says the first time she heard it all the hairs on her arms stood straight up.  I had the same reaction and yet, in true Celtic fashion, I cannot resist.  I click on YouTube and dive in.   Hairs rise to attention while the haunting beauty of the music flows into me. 

Practiced first in the small, remote kirks of Scotland, psalm-singing exists elsewhere – brought by the Scots who came to North America in the 18th and 19th Centuries.  It can still be heard in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee by Appalachian descendants of these immigrants.  It is sung “a cappella” traditionally and is led by a “precentor” – one who sings beforehand – who sings out a couple of lines to the congregation and they return it.  It is haunting, it is beautiful.  It is woven into the DNA of some of us like coloured threads are woven together in a tartan. 

As the congregations in places like the Hebrides age, the art of “presenting” is at risk of dying out.  Thanks to technology like YouTube, perhaps new generations will learn of it and continue to pass on the ancient tradition of this moving music. 

(Videos of change-ringing bells and Gaelic psalm singing can be found on YouTube – I don’t have a video upgrade.  For the bells try Trinity Church NYC, for the singing try “Gaelic Psalms,Back Church, Isle of Lewis”)