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Cats, Ducks and Nags

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For the uninitiated, place names on the Outer Banks seem a bit odd.  Ancient fishing villages like Nag’s Head and Kitty Hawk and Ocracoke sound whimsical at the very least.  Their history is every bit as colourful as their names.  Ocracoke was home port to Blackbeard.  Legendary Cape Hatteras  has witnessed the death of countless ships and sailors on its treacherous shoals. Corolla is home to wild horses descended Spanish ships that foundered off the coast.  The Outer Banks are so much more than just beach.

However, the beach is the primary reason anyone from the mainland sets foot on these narrow barrier islands.  There are literally miles and miles of beach and the water is warm; the waves, respectable.

I’ve been going to the Outer Banks probably since I was an embryo.  Some of the earliest photographs of Baby Banshee were taken on the beach at Kill Devil Hills where I sat baking in the summer sun in an ill-fitting red bathing suit and a small straw hat.  My last visit, until a couple of weeks ago, was when I was fifteen.

A recent issue of National Geographic magazine re-awakened a strong tide of desire to see my Atlantic beaches again.  I did some math; it had been thirty-five years since I’d been to my summer playground.  Disgraceful!

So when my husband was cobbling together our summer road trip, I knew we had to pass through North Carolina to get from Atlanta to Washington DC.  We would be so close – couldn’t we just veer eastward for a couple of days and sink our toes into some Atlantic sand?  I pleaded (it was whining).  I shed tears and lamented that my children had never dabbled their feet in the Atlantic Ocean – an oversight that rendered this East Coast girl a negligent parent.

Once my husband agreed to the detour, I regaled everyone with tales of my beachy summers – climbing the East Coast’s biggest sand dune, the Wright Brothers, how my mother used to be able to buy fish right off the piers, Mr. Midgett’s fruit and veggie truck, the cottage, the sea, the salt, the sand…

Upon our arrival at the Hilton Garden Inn at Kitty Hawk, fresh from our disastrous hotel experience in Virginia Beach, my children heard there was an indoor pool and hot tub. Seriously?  My youngest rooted around for a charger for his DS.

I stood on the balcony of our room and looked out at the ocean.  And burst into tears.  Why didn’t anyone get it?  Mind you, we’d only just arrived but still…

Gently, patiently, my husband tried to explain that to the kids it was just a beach, an ocean.  Nothing more, nothing less.  It was a hotel with Wi-fi and room service.  I grumbled but knew he was right.  It was impossible for my children (or my husband) to appreciate the meaning a place called Kitty Hawk held for me.  I came to realize that my memories were largely unshareable.

In spite of threatening skies, I ran down to the beach.  I sat down and let waves break right at my feet. Surf rushed around me.  Soon my skin and hair were caked with salt and my bathing suit was filled with sand.  I was three years old again and happier than I’d been in a long time.

My daughter appeared at my side, gazing apprehensively at the crashing waves. Here was my opportunity.  I stood up and waded out into the surf and she followed.  Soon we were being knocked around by the surf.  We were soaking wet and holding our suits on for dear life.  We shrieked with laughter and ran in and out of the water trying to escape what we used to call “the washing machine.”  The boy child was more reticent but soon he was in there too.

That night, already enamoured by the place, my husband bought an embarrassing amount of beach paraphernalia – shovels, buckets, diggers, skim boards, frisbees…as if the kids were five years old.  Nonetheless, everything (except maybe the skim boards) were put to good use. We all found our inner five-year old again on that beach.

That is the beauty of the Outer Banks beaches – they are tailor-made for family fun.  There are no nightclubs – the closest you’ll get is some dude with an acoustic guitar playing on a  restaurant’s rooftop deck.  There are no casinos and no tacky boardwalk.  There are restaurants that cater to families, eclectic clothing shops, motels run by the same family for generations, and an assortment of “beachy” tourist stores.  The most radical thing you’ll see are the mini-putt golf places built to look like pirate ships.

Mostly there are cottages – my husband and I walked down the beach for hours just looking at them.  They literally come in all shapes and sizes.  Some have rooftop decks that you wouldn’t dare have one cocktail on because getting down would be so dicey.  These cottages are awash in sand, damp bathing suits and towels, and tuckered out kids.

Family vacationing is the essence of the Outer Banks. Although there are way more cottages there than when I was a kid, the place has not lost its family feel.  Just avoid the “highway” where all the fast food restaurants are (although if you ever go – you must go to Capt. Frank’s – it’s on the highway around mile post 4 or 5.  Best cheese steak I’ve had in a while.  It’s a no-frills kind of place but it puts anything like McDonald’s or BK to shame – as it should.  Don’t let the girl behind the counter scare you.  She’s just busy as all hell.

Another good place is right by the Hilton – Rundown Cafe.  We ate at The Black Pelican on our last night but I seriously can’t remember what I ate.  It wasn’t bad – just not memorable.

Seriously, you could spend all summer sampling the restaurants there.  Some good, some tired and some have literally been there since I was a child (Port O’Call Restaurant).  We wanted to try Awful Arthur’s.  Or, Tortuga’s Lie.  Or, (ahem) Dirty Dick’s Crabhouse (the T-shirts are hilarious).  We just didn’t have enough time.  We did find time for the most amazing (and not at all healthful) breakfast pit stop:  Duck Donuts.  Made fresh while you wait, they come to you warm.  They are melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave.  Someone I know cried all the way across the causeway back onto the mainland.  Memories flooded my brain like a storm tide.  My mom cooking bluefish in a pound of butter.  My dad flying down at weekends and skimming the surf in his Beechcraft Bonanza (giving my mother a fright).  Leaving the cottage after breakfast and being dragged reluctantly off the beach for dinner.  Paddling out beyond the breakers and floating on a raft for hours (pre-Jaws).  Falling asleep in a giant Adirondack chair on a deck overlooking the ocean, my long hair sticky and hopelessly tangled with salt.

I hope my children think well of this place I hold so dear; however, I don’t hold out too much hope.  When asked if they wanted to try to rent a cottage there next summer, both declared it the most boring place on earth.  What is wrong with these people?

I’ll be back!

I will make the 13 hour drive – alone if I have to.  And, I’m taking the puppy.  You people are on your own.

[Note:  we don’t have a puppy.  But, if we did…]

Next stop:  Washington DC  – home town!

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Scriptura, Interrupta

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Let’s face it, sometimes life gets in the way.  In typical fashion, I come screaming around a corner, trying to do two things at once and SMACK! I run head first into it.

It is now Friday and I’ve gotten nothing done.  Nothing. Zip. Nada.  The children have both been desperately sick with a nasty flu bug – high fevers, excruciating headaches, and other assorted symptoms too disgusting to talk about.  My brain is just a hunk of non-functioning gray matter taking up space in my skull right now.

The Novel lurks in a desk drawer like a restless demon.  In the middle of the night, I can hear it scratching and banging, begging for attention.  I ignore it. The sheer daunting nature of fixing what is wrong with it, imagining more things that might be wrong with it scares the bejabbers out of me.

At two-thirty in the morning, as I fill a glass at the kitchen sink, I contemplate killing the whole project.

In my gut I know I won’t kill it and then I wonder why the hell not.  As I place cool wash cloths on a child’s fevered brow, I carry on this internal argument.  At dawn I find myself asleep at the wrong end of our  bed, curled up like a small dog.

I need to give myself a bit of a break. I am tired, half-sick, and over-caffeinated.  I begin to doubt every single thing from my use of punctuation to my ability to construct a story to whether my voice is really mine.

The absolute worst thing any writer can do is ignore the natural voice.  It would be like Taylor Swift trying to sing an aria from La Boheme. I’m no opera aficionado but I know that the result would be…painful.  If anyone tries to tell Ms. Swift that she should cut a CD of operatic classics, she should take her hair and whip that person across the face with it.

My voice is pretty well-defined.  Good thing because I’m a lousy imitator.  I know its range and that’s what bothers me sometimes – is it too limited?  Can it ever be richly layered, complex – like a very good wine?  Wine, not whine…

My voice is sounding a bit strangled right now because I’m hyper-ventilating.  Taking a deep breath, I open a book I’ve acquired entitled, A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins.  There is a passage that shines like a lighthouse’s beacon through coastal fog.

When the Irish writer John McGahern was asked how to write good fiction: “he replied that first you write one good sentence, and then you must write another good sentence to follow it.”

Alistair MacLeod said basically the same thing.  He said he takes a long time to write because he’s careful with his sentences.  He writes one sentence.  He ponders it, speaks it out loud.  Then he writes another.  It is a slow, careful process.

This book by Hodgins also recommends throwing down a first draft quickly, with no editing or revising.  Ha!  I think that’s my problem.  I keep forgetting that The Novel is still in shitty first draft stage.  It’s not supposed to be pitch-perfect and it’s ok for parts of it to be horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, and foul.

There’s life: horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, foul.  In the next moment, it’s sweet, lovely, and deeply satisfying.  Writing is no different.  Sometimes, the writer must just slow down and take a deep breath.  And, some Advil.

#(*@%*&(*@*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?”

Fear of Mail

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Recently, I submitted an essay to a Toronto newspaper.  Imagine my shock when my inbox registered one new email from an editor Saturday morning.

Shock, which led to cold sweat, which led to trembling hands that hovered above the keyboard and…quickly shut down the computer.  I scurried out of the room like a frightened skunk (without the odoriferous trail, thank you.  I wasn’t that scared).  Throughout the day, I found myself staring at the unopened message that lurked in my inbox.  “I will open it in the morning when I’m feeling stronger/better/more caffeinated/alone in the house so no one can hear my wails or see me take a long pull from the vodka bottle…” I said to myself.

I pondered telling my husband but knew he would chide me for being so silly.  So I told the cat.  She rolled her eyes and turned her back on me, thus confirming that she believes all humans to be weak and inferior.  This is a kitten who charges at things she’s scared of.  Maybe I should be more like her.

Every time I get a notification from a literary magazine or an editor, I freeze.  Picture a small, helpless animal in the headlights of a car.  After thawing myself, I walk around the house for hours muttering and chiding myself for walking around the house muttering.  What are you scared of? I ask myself.  Rejection.  Rejection, resmeckshun, I say to the scared, frozen part of me.  So what! To steel myself, I convince me that the email is  without question a big old fat jeering leering rejection. My clever little mind imagines it to be a paragraph of cruel, cold, cutting remarks about the truly pedestrian, flatline-inducing banality of my essay.

The object of this exercise, as many of my fellow writers might know, is to make the usual flat, one-sentence rejection (Thank you for your submission but it isn’t what we’re looking for) less devastating, less whimper-inducing.  Preparation is nine-tenths of the battle, I say to myself.

My success rate with this home-brewed reverse psychology is spotty at best.  I very nearly always whimper.

Fear of rejection is the single tallest impediment to a writer’s forward momentum and possible success.  For years, I wrote volumes without submitting it to anyone, anywhere.  Once I tentatively began submitting, I experienced rejection just like everyone else does and I survived.  Yet, every time I am faced with an unopened email, I do battle with myself again.  I tell myself, “Hey you survived the last rejection!  You lived to write again.” Then, a very small voice squeaks out some truly terrifying words:  “Maybe it’s not a rejection?”  Dear God, who had the nerve to say that?

I opened the email from the editor at The Star, with my son standing next to me, holding my hand.  It said (and I quote): “Thanks. I will read and get back to you.”  Nothing scary about that.  The cat rolled her eyes and left the room. I exhaled.

Third Branch from the Top

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[The following is part of a challenge issued to me last night on the subject of journal writing.  My son, Grade 7, has weekly journal assignments where he has to write a page of anything.  Anything. Video games, dinner, splitting atoms.  He thinks it hard.  My husband agreed.  I could write about anything, I say.  Even that tree branch…”Ok, honey, make that your blog post tomorrow…]

8:59 a.m.

The squirrel flicked his tail as he sat in the crook of a tree branch.  The branch was gnarled and twisted, only partially leafed out whereas its neighbouring branches were heavy with leaf buds.   It wasn’t much, but it was home.  Third branch from the top. Doug turned his back to the dead part and inspected his tail which, frankly, wasn’t much to look at either.  He sighed and scratched behind his ear with his sharp claws and then absent-mindedly began nosing dried leaves back into his nest.  He tried not to think about finding a new home; after all, it was spring – a time of hope, renewal, and finding a mate.  A gust of wind came,the third branch from the top groaned as if one more wind would do it in completely.  Doug dug his claws into the wood and held on.  Finding a mate.  He should’ve taken care of that weeks ago but as everyone knew, Doug lived by the last hairs on his tail – leaving everything to the last possible minute.

As soon as the wind died down, Doug scampered out to the very edge of the third branch from the top.  He bounced and swayed.  With the exceptional balance that most squirrels possess, he hurriedly groomed himself, fluffed up what was left of his tail and waited as he did every morning for the little girl to walk ,under his tree.  Ha! There she was, walking as she always did with two or three other humans.  She never failed to stop and look up, waving her pale white paw at him.  He chattered at her and flicked his tail.  She showed her teeth as always and as always, Doug wondered if this was a good thing or a bad thing.  In his world, if another creature showed their teeth to you, it meant you were to get bloody.  If things went badly, you ended up as a meal.

She’d saved him when he was young – he’d fallen out of the nest and was three-quarters of the way mauled by a cat when the little girl appeared, waving her arms and making strange, loud sounds that scared the cat away.  The cat had taken most of Doug’s tail with him but the little girl didn’t seem to mind.  She put him in a box lined with soft warm things.  Doug’s mother complained about how she’d never get the smell of human off of him even though she’d nearly licked him raw when he returned. Doug’s mother had been beside herself for days – chattering on about how Doug was born with so few advantages to start with and now this – his half blond, half black tail hanging in tatters from his scrawny body.

The little girl never lingered but kept walking.  Doug sat on the edge of the third branch from the top for a few more minutes, trying to remember the smell of humans.  A spray of tree pollen covered him in a fine green-yellow dust.  He shook himself from head to tail nearly tipping himself off the branch.  He ran back to his nest, nosed back a few more of the twigs that were sticking out at odd angles.  He was supposed to meet his brother for grub digging later.  Or was it his sister?  He could never remember.

A robin landed at the end of the third branch from the top.  Doug spun in fury.  The robin – fat and fluffy, well groomed and well-fed – everything that Doug was not – eyed one of the few leaf buds on the branch and began pecking at it with his tiny beak.  Doug let out a high-pitched shriek and raced towards the insolent bird.  The robin hesitated for a moment, rudely, and then fluttered away as if he had better buds to pick at.  My branch, my branch, Doug huffed.  Third branch from the top.  It’s not much, but it’s mine.

9:14  a.m.

There.  Not polished, not prize-winning.  It just is.  Easy-peasy.

Who’s That Girl? Oh S#(*, It’s Me…

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Ever walked by a shop window or a big mirror, seen the reflection in the glass as you pass and wondered for a split second, “Who is that?” For once, I’d like to do it and think, “Who is that lovely, pulled-together, chic creature?”  and then realize it’s me. 

That exact scenario hasn’t happened yet.

Usually, what happens is I catch a glimpse in the glass and stifle a scream…or, at the very least I groan and quicken my pace.  But during my mini-writing retreat the reflection in the glass was inescapable.  I walked by a gigantic mirror in my hotel room between the sleeping area and the bathroom (hence the inescapable-ness); I then caught a glimpse of a grumpy looking stout woman in really bad clothing (in my defense, there was a draft in the room and I am a devout layerer.)

I stopped in mid-stride and did a double take.  Holy shitballs, I exclaimed out loud.  That’s what I look like.  I peeled off my bulky wool sweater and still the image refused to slim down.  I looked like a pear with pink and green mold growing on it.  Not a pleasant vision. 

When did this happen?  How did this pear-shaped creature take over my usual svelte self?  It dawned on me that I had perhaps taken the “fatten up to survive a Canadian winter” thing too far.  Sadder still is the realization that we had a really mild winter…

The really bad clothing problem can be rectified but the shape of me – well that’s another problem altogether and given the state of my idling  metabolism – it won’t be so easy to fix.  There are several very serious obstacles standing in my way.

Obstacle #1:  I am severely allergic to exercise.  Just the thought of planned physical activity can throw my back out or bring on a migraine.

Obstacle #2:  Exercise allergy notwithstanding, I have an unreasonable fear of fitness clubs.  I hate the music, the overabundance of spandex and sweat, the judging (bullshit, you know it happens). 

Obstacle #3:  Severe lack of funds.  Even if I could overcome #1 & #2, I can’t afford to join a gym.  I do have an exercise bike in my basement…somewhere…

and finally, we come to Obstacle #4:  Me.  As we all know, #4 is the only one that really counts and the one who drives all the others.  I see runners, joggers, and cyclists every day – I feel pangs of jealousy when I see them out there no matter what the weather.  They are better than me.  I run like a three-legged water buffalo.   I’m scared to death to cycle on city streets and that leaves walking.

But will walking be enough?  I think I will enlist my soccer star daughter as my personal trainer.  She is trained by a fairly maniacal coach who is a believer that fitness wins the game.  She can teach me some mat exercises, some core workouts, etc.  The problem is, who is going to make me do it?

I know – that stout woman in the hotel mirror.  I am finally at the point where I will do anything to avoid seeing her ever again.

 

Pedestrian Thoughts

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I have lived in cities where pedestrians are plentiful; I have lived in cities where pedestrians are non-existent. I have been in cities where, as a pedestrian, I am automatically added to the endangered species list.  I have also lived in a city where pedestrians are treated like sacred cows are in India.  It is never so simple as looking both ways and crossing a street.  As the mother of two fast-moving, cell phone-wielding kids, I live in constant fear.

In Toronto, where I live now, the streets are something of a free-for-all.  There’s hustle, bustle, honking, and loads of other pedestrians and motorists vying for space on the streets.  Toddlers learn the fine art of jaywalking at the heels of their parents.  Motorists perform U-turns in the middle of downtown streets if they see a parking space on the opposite side – such actions are the norm here.  I am a dual citizen of the streets – both motorist and pedestrian.  I love that we have side streets here, a maze of shortcuts and alleys that get me where I’m going – fast – when I’m driving.  I also love that Toronto is a pedestrian-friendly city.  Even late at night, the sidewalks are never empty.  There are many days when I don’t have the car and if I need to go somewhere, I walk.  

 As a pedestrian, I am uber-conscious of the vehicles around me.  They are bigger than me.  If I jaywalk, I run and go when there’s a good gap.  I know as a motorist, it’s really hard to stop when a pedestrian blunders into the street.  Give cars time and space.  Sure, as a pedestrian and parent of two kids, I wish the cars would slow down although I love driving fast.  More than anything else, I hope the drivers and my kids are paying attention.  As a pedestrian, I try to be considerate  – as a motorist, I know how frustrating it is to wait on a short light when pedestrians are just milling towards the opposite curb like drunk goats. 

Years ago, there was a slogan “Speed Kills.”  If it’s still around, it needs to be updated:  “Inattention Kills.”  Pedestrians are as guilty of stupidity as the drivers.  I see countless people texting, looking down at their phones while crossing streets – even while jaywalking.   As a pedestrian, I am constantly amazed at how seemingly blind drivers are. If you’ve got a licence to drive that several thousand pound vehicle, at least have the brains to pay attention to where it’s going.   Even our illustrious mayor can’t be bothered to pay attention – he was recently seen on his cell phone while driving.  Surely the mayor of the city can get himself a hands-free device?  When he flipped off the concerned citizen who outted him, I’ll bet he had no hands on the flipping wheel…wow, he’s classy AND smart.

 The world over, the motorist vs. pedestrian debate is endless but when did being attentive become the exception instead of the rule for both parties?  We have tried very hard to instill a healthy sense of caution in our kids but realistically, when they’re walking with a group of  friends, herd mentality rules.  When one darts off the curb, the whole herd tends to go whether it’s a good idea or not.  There is a wreath that lies on the side of a street I drive often.  A teenager, following the herd one night, didn’t make it.  In my humble opinion, everyone needs to pay attention and take responsibility for their movements on the streets.