Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Two A.M. Workout

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My family is closely acquainted with my anxiety.  It ain’t pretty.  The usual symptoms include yelling, strange facial tics, leg jiggling, and copious amounts of tears.  Episodes usually occur in airport queues, the St. Lawrence Market on any given Saturday morning, or cobblestone streets of otherwise picturesque Mediterranean tourist destinations.

Members of my family have been known to resort to calming tactics endorsed by The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan.  I am embarrassed to say the tactics work as beautifully on a 5’6″ Banshee as they do on a Schnauzer.

Last night, for the first time, I had an anxiety attack in the safety of my home, in the dark, while everyone else in the family slept blissfully on.  I’m not sure which is worse:  coming unhinged in dazzling Mediterranean sunlight in public or alone in the dark.

At first I thought it was just the usual 2 a.m. hot flash – which, by the way, is not a flash but more like a tsunami of heat spreading from my feet, up the length of my body until it reaches my brain.  Hot flashes wake me up and send me scurrying off to the loo to splash cold water for a few minutes.  No biggie.

Last night I went to the loo, did the cold water routine to no avail.  The heat rose and rose.  I flipped on the bathroom light, fully expecting to see steam shooting from my ears. Nope.  I gave up and started to return to my bed when my heart began to race as if I were in mortal danger.

I went back to bed willing myself to be calm. My heart rate went from fast to supersonic. I sat on the edge of the bed with my hands closed around my throat trying to prevent my heart from shooting out of my mouth and onto the floor (which would be bad for any number of reasons not least of which being when things fall onto my bedroom floor, I can never ever locate them again).

By now I was panting.  Marathon runners, Olympic swimmers, and women in labour do not inhale and exhale at the pace I did last night.  Husband snored on, undisturbed.  If sleeping through calamities (real or from my imagination) were an Olympic sport, he’d be a gold medalist.

Inexplicably, I decided that jogging up and down the hallway between our room and the bathroom was the thing to do.  Mind you, my hands were still around my throat.  I am not a natural runner at the best of times; last night was no exception.  My pajama bottoms (no drawstring anymore) continually fell down around my ankles, tripping me.  My balance was off because my hands refused to leave my throat.  My form was more awful than usual.

At this point, the cat decided to see what was happening.  She watched for a moment before deciding she had an opportunity to accelerate my demise by darting under my feet – what cat could resist?  In my confused state, I thought she wanted to comfort me.  Let the record show that cats do not enjoy being picked up, squeezed tight, and taken for a jog.

The hyperventilating, racing heart, and sweating refused to abate (small wonder).  Naturally, I decided to do a stair workout.  Thank God the cat decided to sit this one out. I would surely not be around to write this if she had decided to join me on our narrow staircase, in the dark.

Keep in mind while you picture this spectacle, that we are in the middle of a heat wave and our air conditioning is not on.

The panic attack abated; I found myself sitting on the stairs sweaty but hopeful that I had managed to burn a few calories. The cat observed me with bemused disdain.  Maybe she felt a tad sorry for me  – she slept curled at my side for the remainder of the night.

Could 2 a.m. workouts in baggy pjs be the next big thing?

#(*@%*&(*@*Q@

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More to the point:  

What I meant to say was:

 Take a good look at these images because soon, according to a recent blurb in National Geographic magazine, this is what handwriting will look like to children.  Wait.  Scratch that.  That is already how some student handwriting looks to me.  Ahem, you there in the basement playing video games, you know who I’m talking about!

Forgive me, I must pause to wipe away the tears…

I know that my children consider me to be the most ancient of dinosaurs – mostly because my grasp of modern popular culture is so dim and because I quote facts about ancient history (the Sixties).  This doesn’t usually bother me until I read something that informs me that handwriting (cursive) will soon no longer be taught in schools because, really, what’s the point?

I was tempted not long ago to write a post about the lost art of letter-writing but this blows any such idea straight out the window.  Letter-writing, while no longer done slowly, contemplatively with pen and paper, can still be achieved with a keyboard but to tell me that handwriting as a basic human function is going the way of the Galapagos Turtle?

Soon, wise men say, humans will no longer be instructed on how to form letters in one continuous sweep of the pen.  One of the best things about cursive is that it’s as different as the people doing it.  Personalities can be detected in the loops, swoops, and dots – probably more so than in the images above.  You can tell, if you’re schooled in such things, if a person is left-handed or right-handed.  If they’re tense or relaxed.  Shy or egotistical.  If they’re Jekyll or if they’re Hyde.  So much can be gleaned from a person’s signature. How much can you tell about someone tapping on a keyboard?

Soon, my kitchen table will no longer be littered with stray pens and pointless pencils that seem to leap out of the old coffee mug that serves as their corral.  How will I totter over to my wall calendar and write down the times for my Geriatric Zumba class if such writing implements are to be extinct?  Yes, I still have a giant paper wall calendar.  Yes! I still attempt to write on it with a ballpoint pen, stopping every few seconds to shake the ink back down to the tip…I am sad, so very sad.  Very nearly obsolete, I am.

I will no longer be proud to show off my left-handed pen grip that avoids twisting my hand at an unnatural angle and dragging my hand across the top of the page like so many other lefties.  I was schooled by even older dinosaurs who tried and failed to turn me into a right-hander.  If pens and pencils are to go the way of the Dodo bird, will Crayola crayons go too?  Will our children only be taught how to colour using Microsoft Paint or some other program?  Methinks I am going to buy some colouring books and hoard them – something bizarre and exotic to show the grandkids who will likely never experience them…

Perhaps, cursive writing will be considered an ancient art form like calligraphy. A point was made in one of the articles I read – there will have to be people schooled, presumably, in how to read old handwriting if we are to have any of our ancient (cough) history preserved and explained.

None of this is new, the lament has been going on for some time.  The National Geographic article just illustrated it really well, showing a line of handwriting being slowly dimmed by the strokes of an eraser, line after line, fading until it was no longer legible.  Still I weep.  I’m going to go practice my cursive Z.  And, then the Q.  Perhaps there will be a job for me in my dotage, after all.

“Whats your gran do all day in that museum?”

“She’s a hand-writer.”

“Ohhhhh.  What’s that?”

When I Love You is Not Enough

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About a month ago, a girl killed herself.  A student at a local high school, on the honour roll, popular.  Her story was kept very quiet – there was no sensational, sentimental news coverage about yet another casualty to the shoal-laden waters of teenager-hood. There were shocked whispers from those who knew her. And then, silence.

I am not saying that every teen suicide should be plastered all over the front pages. I cannot imagine that helps families deal with the pain; no doubt it would heighten the already unimaginable grief they suffer.  What I want is for…God, what do I want?  Let’s think about that for a second.

I want teen and young adult depression, behaviour disorders, and mental illness to go away, as in eradicated.  This is an unrealistic wish because the stats are going in exactly the opposite direction.  There is a crisis of mental illness among our young people.  The children cannot be our future if they’re too ill to face today, never mind tomorrow.

There is a part of me that wants to run and hide from this information.    I don’t suppose the Amish community would accept me and my two electronics-addicted kids but sometimes I am tempted to try.  I can see us now, piling into our four-door sedan, driving to wherever the Amish live.  We would abandon our car, our iPhones, our Blackberrys and we would stand, waiting and hopeful…please take us into your simpler world…save us.

Nope.  They’d turn their buggies around and flee as if the Seven Horses of the Apocalypse were chasing them.

There is no escaping from the fact that our children are in jeopardy.  A multitude of factors can be pointed to – from our obsession with material things to various media to our lousy diets.  Are we, as some would argue, poisoning our own young with too much information, not enough sleep, and too much white sugar?  Their little brains are being affected by something; they are short-circuiting like so many overloaded electrical panels.

Depression has long plagued the human race – evidence shows that even the ancient Egyptians suffered.  I was born at the tail-end of the Boomer generation; I’ve suffered from depression off and on since birth.  However, for most of my life, I slogged through the fog undiagnosed, as do a vast majority of people who live with some form of the illness.

Todays young people are not allowed the luxury of sleep or downtime.  Busy children are children who don’t have time to get into trouble.  Well-intentioned parents over-schedule – after all, extra-curricular activities will mean well-rounded, successful children and isn’t that what we want for our kids? Maybe they think that if their kids are kept busy, they won’t have time to get depressed.  If only.

While parents over-schedule, the world over-stimulates.  Studies now show that Internet use is changing the way kids brains develop. Factor in the crap diet that harried parents feed their kids as they speed down the highway to hockey practice from piano lessons in the minivan and you have a timetable for disaster, a recipe for a nervous breakdown.  Don’t get me started on the genetics factor…

The principal at our local middle school gives a speech every September.  It goes something like this:  Your children, because of where they are in the developmental process, are about to leave you.  They, for all intents and purposes, are going to be snatched by aliens.  They will be returned to you in about 7-10 years when their frontal lobes are closer to being fully developed.  Be patient.  One day, your child will reappear as if they’d been there all along.  They’ll say “Good morning, Mom” and stand blinking in the kitchen wondering why they can’t find the cereal bowls even though you renovated the kitchen five years before.  It’s ok.  This is normal.  Good luck.

The first time I heard that speech, I burst into tears.

I want to cry now when I think of all of those under-cooked brains out there that are beleaguered by feelings of hopelessness and despair far beyond what the normal teenager feels.

The statistics are scary.  One out of every twenty teens is depressed.  Look at the average class size in a high school or middle school.  Do the math.  A great many go forth undiagnosed because these same children cannot articulate what is happening in their heads. Their parents, too busy negotiating traffic whilst eating something in a paper wrapper, aren’t listening.

Listen.  I’ll say it again in case you weren’t listening: listen.  This means shut up and listen.  Parents are great at talking and listening at the same time which…isn’t…really…helpful…it’s no wonder our kids spend a good portion of their time rolling their eyes at us.

Enter another girl.  Pretty and smart,she doesn’t think she is good enough for anything, not even living.  Another statistic, another teen suffering from depression.  She thought about doing what the other girl did.  The difference?  She asked for help.  She knew something was horribly wrong and she took the first steps to stop it.  She pushed her parents to listen, knowing that all the I love yous in the world were not enough.

People might sigh and exclaim, “But she is so young! So perfect!”  Yes but depression is an illness that knows no boundaries.  It can afflict anyone at any time. Is there hope?  Absolutely!  But, this other girl must work to re-wire her brain.  There will be setbacks and sparks might fly.  She must always be diligent, watchful, and aware.   If she can change the way she perceives herself now, she can carry that learning into her future like a torch held high to light her way.

The Dance

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Fiction writers live in two vastly different worlds; the world of their imagination and the world of say, dirty diapers or  full litter boxes.  It’s a delicate dance sometimes – if a writer is not careful, hands could get…icky whilst daydreaming about a story.

I’ve never been much of a dancer, frankly.  I make no secret of preferring the land of make-believe to anywhere else; however, my reality is I have a husband and two children and a cat who is overly fond of her litter box.

A bigger danger than the aforementioned icky hands is when reality refuses to wait at the side of the dance floor for its turn.  Reality could be seen as an attention-starved brat who gets quite nasty when ignored.  Reality cuts in, not with a polite tap on the shoulder, but with a resounding thwack on the back of the head.

Let’s just say I’ve woken up with a headache for the last few days.  Reality wins; if it didn’t, I’d be carted off by some stern looking men in white jackets.

Because reality can be quite a bully sometimes, the writing inevitably suffers.  Unless, of course, you’re Aaron Sorkin who commented during an interview recently that he didn’t have to live in the real world.  Gee, that’s great for you Aaron.  Congrats.  I haven’t quite reached that level of wealth or arrogance. [Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Mr. Sorkin].

Some say writers should just write and damn anything that gets in the way!  Well, ignoring reality might mean we end up homeless or sick or really, really thin – none of which will aid the writing in the long run.  An author quoted in this month’s Poets & Writers said a full-time job, kids, and a life meant that writing takes a back seat at times.  No other choice.

Dancing between two worlds can be done but I worry that I’m too much of a klutz to pull it off.  I am comforted to know that everyone suffers the same bruised ankles and trodden on toes that I do.  The dancing might have to go on without me for a while, the stories have to sit on the sidelines and rest their feet.  They will be asked to dance again, never fear.

The Light

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A potentially sanity-saving email from The Literary Man popped into my inbox this morning.  A writing prompt.  “Write about light,” it said.  Fear and worry have threatened to render me useless, mute, and paralyzed.  I lay in bed this morning wondering if I could even summon one word again, let alone sentences, paragraphs…ah, banshee are dramatic creatures…

And so, some light.  Thank you Literary Man!

I woke,pulled curtains aside and discovered a morning dripping in light.  Gone was the heavy air that had enveloped the city in a dirty, yellow haze.  The dawn was crystalline, pale blue like an aquamarine dipped in water.  Tree leaves fluttered, outlined in razor-sharp relief, ridiculously green against slate gray shingles and blue sky.  Fear was lifted from the world. I threw back the covers and watched columns of dust ascend, remarkably disciplined for dead skin and cat dander, into the sunlight. Coloured prisms twirled on the walls like strings of gems hanging in a breeze.  The clarity of light outside terrified and mesmerized.

Looking away from the window, my eyes met heavy dark furniture, dull walls, duller carpet.  If whitewash were at hand, the whole house would be put to the brush.  Everything should reflect the sparkling light; I wanted it to careen off every possible surface.  How could light be captured in such morose surroundings? Would it not flee? An incandescent bulb would no longer seem adequate, an inferior imitation to this brightness. Clouds formed in the west, deadly filters of this faultless light. I closed my eyes; in and for an instant, darkness fell again.

Place

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I left the literal chill of Calgary three years ago for the hustle and bustle of Toronto.  I traded Stampede for Dundas Square; suburban malls for the Eaton Centre, Queen’s Park, Lake Ontario and a beach less than a mile away.  I’ve never been a Westerner or a Prairie dweller; those skies are too big for me.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has a wealth of history that is more familiar to me, a child of the mid-Atlantic and New England.  We have brick here, lots of it.  We have summers and negligible winters (comparatively speaking).  There is a pace and a pulse to Toronto that Calgary will likely never have but with that pace comes…or goes…or lacks…detracts…irritates…

Big cities can turn on you in an instant, a New York minute.  They promise you shelter, a degree of anonymity and then bang, literally, stray gunfire can cut you down.  It has always been so.  When I was in my early twenties, the very first apartment I had overlooked a green belt in Washington, DC that snaked between two major thoroughfares.  Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it?  A green belt in the midst of all of that asphalt.  I’d sit on my balcony at night and watch muzzle flashes in that green belt as rival gangs fought each other for that patch of grass.  I learned that gunfire isn’t “bang-bang” like we said when we were kids; it was more of a muted popping sound, depending on the wind and how close it was.

I feel insecure in Toronto now.  I feel unsafe.  I’m tired of the rudeness, the traffic, the inability to go to sleep at night without wondering what’s going to happen in the wee hours when the five pubs that surround my house close, spewing forth people in various stages of drunkenness and ill-humour.  I remind myself that this is part of the “pulse” of the place that I wanted when I fled the icy confines of Calgary.

Do I long for the suburbs?  Oh, dear God no!  I was in the hinterlands, that paved Siberia yesterday and fled towards the smoggy skyline of downtown at inordinately high speed.  Acres and acres of treeless subdivisions, row upon row of houses that all look the same interspersed with the small-to-medium shopping plazas – no thank you.  Where I live, I can walk to anything I want or don’t want; in the suburbs there is no escaping the car, the sameness.

Place has been on my mind a great deal lately.  The Novel has re-immersed me in Scotland, land of bitter conflict and soulful joy – and that’s just in my own family.  That place has a gravitational pull on me that cannot be easily explained. When I’m in Scotland everything feels raw; a feeling that scares and attracts simultaneously.  I could never live there; it would tear me apart.  Part of me wants to be torn apart.

I have been homesick lately; odd, for a gypsy.  I long for the ocean, the sable coloured sand of my youth.  I am taking my children for the first time to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where I spent every summer from birth to age fifteen. Those barrier islands change hourly with the wind and tide.  Our cottage is gone but the sand is still sand; the ocean is still my tumultuous swimming pool filled with salt.  We will go out on Avalon Pier, climb Jockeys Ridge.  From that highest sand dune, we can see both the Atlantic to the east and Albemarle Sound and the tidal inlets, ribbons of water that snake inland to the west.  We will watch the sun sink like a fiery red ball beyond Roanoke Island as I tell them about Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony.

My kids might shrug, complain about the black flies. We will trudge back to our motel and scrape sand out of places we didn’t know it could go.  But at least they will hear Atlantic surf, a sound they will never forget.  They will wade into the water and marvel at the warmth as the Gulf Stream passes close to shore there, so unlike the frigid Pacific waters off Vancouver Island – the only other ocean they’ve encountered.

In July, I’m to be mentored in a workshop by a man who has mastered the sense of place:  Alistair MacLeod.  With only a sentence or two, MacLeod can take the reader across the sea to the Highlands of Scotland then back to the pine forests and rocky coast of Cape Breton.  Reading one of his short stories last night I swear had to rub the salt spray off my skin.

I just finished a book called The Sandalwood Tree; set in India in 1947 at the end of the Raj, in a single sentence I was transported.  I could smell the dust, the dung fires and could see the colourful saris and Bougainvillea vines climbing the trees.  I don’t think I could handle the real India; however, it was thrilling to feel its life come off the pages of a book.

Is it easier to write about a place like India – so powerful, so extreme, so in your face than it is about an everyday North American concrete jungle like Toronto?  Can I make the streets of my east-end ‘hood leap off the page? Do I want to, feeling as disenchanted as I do right now?  Maybe I should take my coffee cup,sit outside in the wet-blanket heat and let it wash over me for a bit. Maybe it would help me feel the love of the place once more.

Place. It’s easy to miss even when you’re right there.

 

The Red Chair

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I have a dream that is far smaller than getting published or having famous writers line up to get a signed copy of my book (Bono, George Clooney, and Colin Firth are in line too).  It is…

I just want a real desk and a comfortable chair.

About a year ago, my husband and I were talking about my writing.  Such discussions are like walking through an unmarked mine field at the best of times and this was no different.  We were in our  bedroom and he was sitting in the Red Chair.  The Red Chair is crammed into a corner by the window.  It is exceedingly square and boxy, large and ungainly.  The chair doesn’t really fit but because we need somewhere to toss our clothes at night, we have it in the bedroom.

(Picture this in bright red.)

My husband stood up and wondered aloud if perhaps my desk couldn’t go into the corner.  I was aghast!  I was indignant!  I was insulted!  Nobody puts Banshee in a corner!!  Imagine being creative with your face stuck up against a wall – a wall that isn’t even painted a nice colour!

It would be like writing in a time-out corner.  What am I, six?

I’m reconsidering…

I need a private place to work.  If I can’t have a room of my own, then I’ll take a corner in a room where at least I can close the door.  At this very moment I am in my cluttered kitchen at a laminate peninsula which is the wrong height.  No matter how I adjust my (uncomfortable) chair, my arms are not at the right level or angle.  I hurt from stem to stern.   Being in the kitchen in an open concept house means every noise hits my ears.  I can hear the kids, I can hear the cat scratching in her litter box downstairs (not an inspirational sound, let me tell you).

Here’s what the corner has going for it:  It is private. Even though I know it’s bad feng shui to have one’s back to the door, I’ll take that over writing in the middle of a freeway.  I would also be close to a window which has a pleasant aspect to it – right now there’s a lovely maple tree making soothing rustling sounds and providing visual interest.  However, I need a desk and because the corner is small, the desk would have to be petite. 

We  don’t own such an item.  I don’t know if the right desk exists.  How do you find something exactly the right height, depth, and feel?  I don’t know any carpenters who could whip one up for me.  It doesn’t need drawers (although one for pens and paper would be nice).

While on my lunch break today, perhaps I will scan  IKEA and Craigslist.  I will cruise by little antique places  this weekend to see if there’s anything out there. I would put it to good use.  I would write as best I can on it.  I would give it acknowledgement in my book.  “And, I would like to extend a special thank-you to my desk…” 

But, what of the Red Chair…what of any chair?  Excuse me, Ma’am…could I test drive your chair?