The Slow Slog to Salvation

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School is back in session.  The weather has turned with the abruptness of a quickly turned page.  Everyone is in “back to the grind” mode.  That includes me.

Aside from posting anecdotal blogs about our summer vacation, there is a virtual autumnal cornucopia of story ideas floating around my head.  On top of those, The Novel is close – make that very close – to being finished.  The Shitty First Draft, that is.  I’m already coming up with ideas on how to change it.

For the first time in  a while, I gave The Novel an entire days’ attention yesterday and it felt good, productive, worthwhile – like getting back to the gym does.  Sure, the muscles are stiff and reluctant but once they get warmed up, it’s like you never got off the elliptical or the stair-stepper or whatever.

The creative mind is a muscle that must be exercised regularly, given proper nutrition to build it, and proper rest to…well, rest it.  Believe it or not, sometimes the story needs to sit and stew awhile.  Having said that, I get ansty and cranky when I don’t “work out” the creative part of my brain – just like some people get homicidal when they don’t visit the gym regularly (I wish I was like that).

See – I’m trying to justify what a lazy ass I’ve been all summer.  I envy writers who can knock out a novel in sixty days.  At least, I think I do.  When I’m staring at the page wondering whether Aunt Alexandra should laugh off the latest tragic turn to her life or throw herself off a cliff, I envy writers  that seem to have it all figured out in advance, who can make snap decisions.

But, no matter.  It’s Fall, if not officially by the calendar then by every other indication.  It’s back to work time.  Back to the writing life that keeps me grounded, happy, and whole.

The truth is, I get grumpy when I take any time off from writing.  There is salvation in the telling of the tales.

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Birthplace of a Banshee

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I have to admit, I got nostalgic as our crowded, sandy Jetta sped (figuratively speaking, of course) along once familiar highways.  Road signs pointing to places like Jamestown, Williamsburg.  Closer to DC, the signs read Woodbridge, Quantico, Potomac Mills.

Things kinda ground to a halt where they always have done:  Tyson’s Corner.

There, it seemed the Beltway, Washington’s legendary ring road, was being revamped.  An endless line of traffic stretched from suburban Virgina, across the Potomac, and well into Maryland.  Day-um.

I know the Beltway.  It doesn’t scare me or intimidate me but like everyone else who drives it, the damn thing frustrates me.  Clearly, nothing had changed in that regard.  What has changed since I left my hometown in 1993 is the sheer volume of traffic.

Jesusmaryandjoseph, the TRAFFIC.  First I supposed it was construction.  Then I mused that it was the downpour combined with the construction. Then, over one hour later, having not gone more than two miles, I considered the fact that there were too many cars on too little highway.  Looking around as we sat – what else could we do – I looked at the new lanes under construction and knew instantly they would not be enough.

Welcome home, Banshee.

Talking to friends during our visit, the consensus is that too many people drive in DC.  There is constant gridlock – on every freeway, parkway, avenue, and side street.  If a goose so much as poops on Connecticut Avenue within an hour of rush hour, it will cost motorists hours of delay.  They will sit and sit and fume and fume (as we did) and they will never see any evidence of a problem – just the endless glow of tail lights ahead of them.  The goose will have made it back to Canada before commuters in DC get to their homes.

‘Nuff about traffic.  Once we made it to our hotel, The Madison on 15th Avenue NW, we were almost too pooped to notice our luxe surroundings.  The Madison is a posh hotel where power brokers come to schmooze each other.  The game hasn’t changed in this town.  The outdoor cafe was full even as we dragged our road-weary selves in around 11 pm; everybody in it oozed something – money?  Power?  Importance?  We oozed burger grease and sand.

The linens on the bed were the finest we’d felt yet.  The decor was the epitome of understated elegance.  Thank you, Visa rewards points for this hotel I murmured as I passed out on at least 101 bed pillows.

The next morning I awoke to find my husband gone.  This is not at all unusual.  He likes to wake early and get a lay of the land before he herds us sleepy folk around.  I knew roughly where we were – the Washington Post Building was two doors down and the White House was right around the corner – but the husband likes to explore.  Plus, he’s well-trained to scope out the nearest Starbucks for me as I don’t go very far at all without a latte.

Sure enough, he had it all worked out by the time we got up.  The plan on this very, very hot day was to see:

  • The Smithsonian’s Natural History and Air & Space Museums
  • The White House (from the outside)
  • The Spy Museum
  • any other art gallery or museum that was free

The Smithsonian complex crams no less than ten museums within a mile and they’re all FREE.  The Potomac River along the Tidal Basin is also chock full of things to see – also free. That said, it’s nearly impossible to see everything in one day – the museums are huge and crammed full of fascinating (ever-changing too) exhibits.  By the time you get to the memorials on the river, you’re at risk of falling into the water due to exhaustion.

On this day, I left the museum trekking to the family; I paid my respects to the Gems section (Hello, Hope Diamond!) and then I split.  I had a lunch date with my dearest friend from DC who is like a sister.  If I ever get famous and if she ever decides to write a book – WHEW!  I’m in trouble.  That kind of friend.

I walked up Constitution Ave to 12th St. NW and hopped on the Metro at Federal Triangle.  I scurried by the IRS Building with my head down (yeah, I owe them some money). During the short walk, I noticed how clean everything was.  DC looked like it was all spiffed up for a party.  I also noticed how lovely the buildings, the trees, and the wide streets were.  It’s a beautiful city, my city.  It’s funny how we can live in the midst of beauty (for over thirty years) and fail to see it.  Was it always this nice?

Once I figured out the Metro ticket machine (thank you little old man from the info. kiosk!), I was on my way.  On DC’s Metro system, riders pay by distance; the further you go on the line, the more it costs.  Unlike Toronto where you pay $3 whether you go one stop or 20. Fares increase during peak hours.  Based on the traffic I’d seen, it was clear more people needed to ride it.

After a lovely lunch, my friend and I battled midday gridlock to get to her house in a close-in suburb.  Around six pm her husband joined us for the rush-hour gridlock back to the Metro station nearest their house.  Here’s the thing about the transit system in DC: once you get to your stop, you might still have a long commute to your house (if you live in the suburbs).  Yikes.  If I ever live there again, it will be downtown.

Over dinner that night at Irish pub in the heart of the city, the family recounted their day.  The kids’ favourite place had been The Spy Museum.  It sounded awesome – very interactive.  The kids were fascinated by the prevalence of spy games during the Cold War. Offices, hotels, and restaurants were all bugged back then.  DC was on the front lines; there was a spy on every corner.

DC is the epicenter of great power.  The architecture reflects this.  As we walked by the Old Executive Office Building my husband commented, “This whole place was designed to impress.”  Absolutely.  Maybe Washington has always had to prove itself, to “dress for success”; that’s why there is so much grandiose architecture downtown. Back in the beginning, the U.S. had to fake it til it made it.  Nothing like a lot of marble and gold leaf to accomplish the effect.

So much there wasn’t time for: the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials – I know that even my somewhat jaded teens would’ve been moved and impressed.  The Capitol Building, surely one of the most wondrous sights.  Then there’s Georgetown – a perennially hip district once full of boutiques and funky shops.  A side trip to Mt. Vernon would’ve been cool too (the kids are always asking me about George Washington).

Nonetheless, Washington, birthplace of Banshee, got a huge thumbs up from everyone.  We will surely go back and see much more.  Thanks grande dame by the Potomac, hopefully we will see you again soon!  I am proud to call you home.

The traffic, though.  Get that sorted.  It reminded me a lot of Congress:  perpetual gridlock.

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!

A Word on Family Road Trips

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Road trips used to be easier.  We used to truss  sorry – fasten securely in their car seats – the kids up in the back of the car with a laptop, some DVD’s, some snacks and we’d reach our destination with nary (ok, a minimum) of complaint.

Times have changed.

Our kids, both teens, are no longer content to sit in the back of any moving vehicle unless it contains at least two of their friends and is rolling towards either a mall, a movie theatre, or an amusement park.  Once the destination is reached, said teens flee the car before any other humans can see that they’ve arrived under the control of their parents.

So, imagine their…let’s use the word dismay…at being trapped in a car – not even a cool car with video screens or GPS – for upwards of nine hours at a time whilst their parents (one driving, one napping) provide absolutely no entertainment whatsoever and who have the unmitigated gall to drive right by any and all amusement parks.

Think then of the parents’ resultant rebuttal dismay  at being trapped in same said uncool vehicle for upwards of 9 hours at a time with bored, slightly hostile spawn.  Some tempers might become frayed.  Ok, just mine as my husband is a saint.

Back in the good old days, the worst we dreaded from our little ones was a tiny foot hammering away at the back of the seat  or a sudden potty break.  Mostly, our kids were dreamy travelers – they napped.  Our daughter’s eyes would start drooping the minute we strapped her in.  I remember my son sucking contentedly on his pacifier, his huge brown eyes gazing up at the car ceiling as if it was the most fascinating thing on earth.  Then his eyes too would close and peace would descend on our little mobile world.

On this trip, my daughter’s steely blue eyes bore into the back of my head, not blinking.  If I dared make eye contact in the rearview she fixed me with The Look, then slowly peeled her gaze away.  Oh dear.  We’ve gone beyond the days when all discontent could be fixed with a container of Honey Nut Cheerios, a sippy cup and a Dora the Explorer backpack full of paper and crayons.

The boy child was somewhat easier to handle.  He was quite content to sit for hours and play his DS.  The problem with this strategy revealed itself after we realized he hadn’t had a decent meal in six hours.  Dr. Jekyll, may I introduce Mr. Hyde?  Not pretty.

My husband and I must shoulder the blame for subjecting them to the monumental torture of a summer road trip to start with.  However, if I may just offer a word (or 500) to my “little” ones:

Sometimes, just sometimes, the world does not revolve around you.  Reality sucks, I agree, but sometimes trips have to be arranged according to time, budget, and parental desires as follows:

  1. It’s a miracle we went anywhere at all this summer given your father’s work schedule
  2. Sadly, none of our lottery tickets paid out and the miracle did not go so far as to provide us with an unlimited budget.  These days, we simply cannot afford to fly all four of us…anywhere.  Even if we could’ve afforded plane tickets, we would’ve slept in the airport terminal as a car rental would’ve done us in financially
  3. Last summer was The Big Vacation; this summer was about catching up, re-visiting old stomping grounds of the adults.  As you saw with eyes glazed over by stupefying boredom, your parents had friends, lives, houses, sand dunes that they could claim as their very own territory before you two became the focus of our familial universe

I know you did not enjoy this summer’s vacation as much as last summer’s.  And no wonder but it is important to realize that last summer was The Big One.  Not every summer will be filled with exotic locations such as Monte Carlo, Rome, and Santorini.

Kids, I wish we could.  I wish we were so filthy, stinking rich that we could go somewhere new and exotic every summer – and we could take all of your friends with us – in separate private jets, no less.  That is not our reality.  Next summer?  You’re probably going off to separate work camps nature camps.  Or working and going to the pool or that really, really big lake out front called Lake Ontario (complete with beaches, lifeguards, and cleaner water than we saw anywhere in the Mediterranean – or Virginia Beach).

[LECTURE ENDS HERE]

In an effort to reach some sort of common ground, I attempted to ascertain what comprised a good vacation – private jets and exotic locales notwithstanding.

Conclusion?  There is no common ground, at least not in our little unit.

My idea of a good time is my snow-white ass parked on a stretch of pristine beach with a good book, a bucket of SPF 50 by my side.  If a waiter wanders by with a tray of margaritas, so much the better.  My idea of a wild and crazy time is to add headphones to that picture.

My husband loves a little bit of time on a beach but ultimately he gets twitchy and longs for some physical activity – playing frisbee, flying a kite, blasting up and down the shoreline on a jet ski.  He also loves museums and churches.

The kids want to be waited on, catered to, and entertained.  Location is the only thing that differentiates vacation from an ordinary day at home.  My daughter loves a good pool and a beach with awesome, adrenaline-pumping sport like parasailing. She drives a mean jet ski.  My son would be just fine in a cave – not spelunking but playing video games.  Only occasionally would he emerge, blinking, into the light of day to sightsee.  I haven’t really nailed down his favourite type of place but the Colosseum and the Coca-Cola Museum were his two faves from the last two years.  A trail of chocolate would help in drawing him forth from any cave.

Are separate vacations the answer?  I need copious amounts of downtime – and food/alcohol at regular intervals – or I become unbearably witchy.  My husband and daughter are marathoners who can sightsee until their legs nearly drop off.  My son is a wildcard – depending on his mood and the charge left on his DS.

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing – a break from the tedium of everyday life.  Can this family’s vacationing future be saved?

Mining For Gold

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Our recent road trip – the “Going Home Tour 2012,” (among its more polite nicknames) – stirred up a whole barrel full of memories.  As I wandered up K Street one steamy evening (only slightly lost), I wondered why I hadn’t used more of my past in my writing.  Oprah has her “Ah-hah moments.”  Mine was more of a “Duh!” moment.

I was born at George Washington University Hospital in 1961; the city – and my nation – saw huge upheavals of change in the Sixties.  Of course I don’t remember all things clearly but so many events were a backdrop to my childhood – JFK’s assassination, the civil rights marches on Washington, MLK’s speech, RFK’s death, the Vietnam protests, Watergate – Washington played a central role in all of that history and I was there, more or less.

There was a period in my  late 20’s to early 30’s where things got a little blurry.  My mother had just passed away and I was left with equal parts grief, guilt, and money.  These ingredients combined rather neatly into a period of binge partying and shopping (often at the same time).

I remember (vaguely) nights drinking in Georgetown and Adams Morgan, bad decisions regarding men, not being able to find my car the next day and walking out of a rest room in one of Washington’s best restaurants with my gauzy black skirt firmly tucked into my stockings.  If Mayor Barry hadn’t been…um…otherwise distracted back then, he might have invited me to live elsewhere.  I was Snookie with light hair and freckles.

I get a knot in my stomach at those memories but I shouldn’t shy away from them.  I should dive right in and create something.

Childhood summers were spent on the Outer Banks. Those sandy barrier islands are where most of my childhood’s happy memories come from.  In the works is a trilogy of short stories set in different villages there:  Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Nag’s Head.  Seriously, who can resist those names?  Beaches are great settings for those mini-soap operas that often unfold during summer vacations.

Last week, as we drove across the Wright Memorial Bridge, memories came blasting back.  My husband commented later that it was obvious I was re-living some of my youth.  I ran up and down giant sand dunes, I played in the surf, I smiled a lot.  Not all memories were happy but that’s ok.  Material is material; all of it should be embraced.

New York: what can I say?  Though I consider NYC an old friend, not all memories from there are Hallmark moments.  As I walked by the McGraw-Hill Building, I cringed visibly at the memory of a rather disastrous job interview.  When I was 12, my mother put me on the Metroliner from DC with cab fare pinned into the hem of my dress.  She schooled me on how to hail a taxi and told me to be rude and fake an accent.  I did ok.  But would I put my 12-year-old on a train for New York City nowadays?  I shake my head then ponder a story…

There was a guy (isn’t there always?) from the New York area. There are less-than-stellar memories surrounding his family.  They were well-to-do Upper East Side types; they had money and connections.  I was a hick girl from DC.  I was Nobody.  For a very brief moment in time, I was connected to the Somebodys.  And then, suddenly, it was midnight and I was left with some mice and a pumpkin…I grin mischievously at the thought of a scathing little story about them but I must be careful there.  Upper East Side types are notoriously litigious.

Despite my exhaustion from driving, visiting, and sightseeing, I realize this trip was a mining expedition.  Before, I was all worked up about “going home again.”  Going home again as an outsider is fine – especially if you’re a writer.  Such a position offers the perfect blend of perspective and recollection.

In the dark, damp caves of memory are thick veins of pure, pure gold – just waiting to be extracted.  Now, where’s that pickaxe?

Hell Has an Ocean View

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Family fun destination…not for us

For those who might be residents or devotees of Virginia Beach, let me apologize in advance.  I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the place, really.  Maybe I was just tired (so tired). We arrived in a driving downpour and found ourselves in a hotel right out of a low-budget horror flick.

In our defense, pictures lie.  They lie so convincingly and perversely – making innocents (us) think that all oceanfront hotel rooms must be stunningly beautiful – if only made so by the view.  I’d never spent any time in VA Beach; I’m an Outer Banks girl.

Further to our defense, we booked all the hotels using our Visa points.  Therefore, we were somewhat at the mercy of the Visa rewards program’s choices. That reminds me, I should call Visa right now and tell them, for the protection of their loyal customers, to remove that hotel from their list as a public safety service.

So.  We arrived in a downpour, exhausted by the long drive from Atlanta.  My husband came back to the car after checking us in, an odd look on his face.  “It’s old,” he said as he stood outside the car, droplets of rain dripping off the end of his nose.  “It’s definitely an older hotel.”  Maybe he meant “quaint.”  I was tired.

The mouldy hall carpet, slightly squishy underfoot should’ve been a clue.

We were tired.

The not-so-faint smell of urine in the elevator, hallway, and well – just about everywhere – should’ve told us still more.

We were SO tired.

Upon entering the dark, dank, smelly orifice that hotel management dared to call a room, I sensed what would happen next:  one or both children, tired as they were, were going to take running leaps at the beds, flopping their innocent pure (heretofore healthy) little bodies down on coverlets that had not been laundered since the early ’70’s.

Don’t just wash – scrub!

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”

I was too late.

My son, my youngest, my baby hit the top of the covers with a loud thwump, scattering God knows what kind of airborne pestilence throughout the room.  Gagging, I headed for the bathroom.  Gagging again, I retreated and stood in the middle of the room.  Have you ever been somewhere that you didn’t want to touch anything?

Strains of bad music floated up from below our room.  Worst cover of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song ever.  Gazing out the cloudy glass door to the balcony, I saw my beloved Atlantic yards away.  Hell has an ocean view.  Looking down, I saw  an open air “cabana” attached to the hotel, source of the “live” music.

There must have been some kinda look on my face when I turned around.  My husband mumbled something about parking the car and fled.  Maybe he realized he’d better hide the car or I was going to make a break for it.

The song ended; unbelievably there was not only applause but rebel yells and whoops the likes of which I hadn’t heard since  attending a Civil War re-enactment as part of a school field trip in Grade 5.

Photos lie – were those swimmers inoculated?

“At least there’s a pool, Mom,” said my daughter.  She is one who always tries to look on the bright side – like her Dad.  We looked down at the murky, grayish-blue water in the pool.  Dark, unidentifiable things lurked in one end.  “No, I would rather have you in the ocean even though it’s a red flag day.”

We walked to the beach after my husband deemed it safe to return from the parking garage – our lucky car got to be a few blocks away from Hell.  As we walked by the open air pavilion/concert venue, we saw the band – a few grizzled old fellas hammering away on guitars with one or two equally grizzled women grinding away in front of them.

One good thing about that night:  we found a decent restaurant.  Authentic Northern Italian food in a family-owned restaurant.  I regret to inform you that I cannot recall the name of said restaurant.  I shot a few glasses of wine in quick succession.

Several times in the night,  my own miserable mewling woke me up.  Some time in the night, we acquired a new band (reggae).  I think at one point I tried to sleep sitting up so as little of my body would touch the bed as possible.

Dawn broke revealing heavy, leaden clouds.  My husband and I decided to go in search of coffee.  We stepped into the hallway.  “Is there a waterfall in the lobby?  I didn’t notice it coming in…” I began to say.  My husband pointed over my shoulder.  “Nope.  That’s the water feature, I guess.”

Rain was pouring down through the ceiling tiles into the hallway outside our room.  We were on the top floor and obviously the roof was in the same shape as the rest of the place.  Underneath our feet, the carpet squelched and belched, completely waterlogged.  My face must have said it all.  Within the hour, we had booked a room further down the coast on the Outer Banks. 

We never packed so fast; it was if we had been unexpectedly sprung from prison.  I hit the Wright Memorial Bridge from the mainland to the Outer Banks doing about 95 mph.  I lowered all the windows down – not only to smell the tangy salt air but  also in an effort to expel whatever airborne spores we still carried from Hotel Hell.  As our tires thumped over the sectioned concrete of the causeway, I could feel my mood lifting.

Every summer, around the middle of July, the wheels of our family station wagon spun over that same white concrete.  The Outer Banks – OBX – stand for summer and always will.  I hung my head out the window like a dog and inhaled the salt wind.  I was on my way home.

“Hello, Aquaman. I’ve Got a Mission For You…”

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Hey, Aquaman.  It’s time to pull yourself out of your retirement clamshell and pull off another rescue mission.  I need you to bust a few dolphins out of the Georgia Aquarium who are being subjected to repeated episodes of unspeakable cruelty by an evil, tone-deaf dude known as “The Star Spinner.”

Let me ‘splain…

Atlanta, Georgia is home to the world’s largest aquarium – ten million gallons worth.  On the face of it, it is a spectacular facility thanks to big corporate dollars – The Home Depot and AT &T among others.

On their website, there are a lot of references about devotion to conservation and research for marine life.  The website also provides information for school curriculums going all the way up to Grade 12 as well as summer camps.  So far so good.

The biggest “wow factor” is the huge (there are not words descriptive enough to convey its enormity) ocean tank filled with gigantic whale sharks, rays, and other astounding creatures.  You will not soon forget having a whale shark glide over your head as if you were swimming with it.   The other exhibits were…ok.  I’d seen better, frankly.

The whole place is slick, shiny and visually stunning.  Like a Maserati at a car show.

Until the dolphins.  The poor, poor dolphins.

We were very excited when told that the dolphin show (AT & T’s “Dolphin Tales”) was included in our ticket price.  We raced to the auditorium, found good seats, and were gobsmacked by the sheer size of the place.  We couldn’t believe how many people the place held.

I’ve been to a few dolphin shows in my day.  The best I can recall was at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago – educational and entertaining in a venue where everyone got splashed with some dolphin water.  Another good one was in a water park near Puerta Vallarta, Mexico that seamlessly meshed education and entertainment – afterwards, my kids swam with some dolphins in a special pool.

On the one hand, I hate that we exploit these magnificent animals for our entertainment; on the other hand, they are a thrill hard to resist.  Who doesn’t love a dolphin’s playfulness and acrobatic prowess?

Soon, the lights went down and an expectant hush fell over the 50 million or so people crammed into the auditorium. Spotlights shone on the water, loud music blared out of surround-sound speakers (surely heralding the arrival of the dolphins?), and then…a man in a cape appeared above the tank.  His cape appeared to have gotten tangled in someone’s Christmas tree lights.  I couldn’t help but wonder about the wisdom of electrically lit attire near so much water.  The man shouted that he was known as “The Star Spinner” and evil sea monsters ate his ship or his piano or something.  I became confused. Where were the dolphins?

The man in the sparkly cape stopped shouting and began to sing.  Badly.  After a few notes, I knew at least one thing instantly:  the Georgia Aquarium Dolphin show was the only place that would hire this man.  People winced; seniors could be seen switching off their hearing aids.  Babies cried.

Was this for real?  And, for the love of God, where were the dolphins? And if this man was causing us auditory pain, what kind of effect was it having on the dolphins?

In short, the show was not only embarrassingly bad in terms of entertainment but embarrassingly short on…dolphins.  Maybe this was for their own protection.  When they did show up, they were like a cheesy sideshow act.  They did flips, waves, and jumps.  They carried glassy-eyed, frozen-smiled trainers on their tails.  The star attractions were then quickly herded out so the sparkly dude could continue warbling about evil sea monsters.

There was no educational information passed on about dolphins, their special skills, their habitats.

Reminiscent of a very, very bad Six Flags show, I began to be concerned for the well-being of the dolphins (not an emotion I expected to have at a state-of-the-art facility). Special effects with explosions, strobe lights, loud (bad) music as well as insultingly bad singing –  is that a good environment for these marine mammals?

If the Georgia Aquarium is at all invested in the health and well-being of marine life, they should halt this travesty immediately.  It’s insulting to the humans and more importantly, to the dolphins.  Is this place truly a groundbreaking simulated marine habitat dedicated to conservation and research or is the Georgia Aquarium all about the corporate dollar?

So, Aquaman, what do you say?  Let’s go spring those dolphins, get them away from the bad Vegas actthey’re trapped in now.  Sorry, Georgia Aquarium, you get a big, fat Fail from us.  You could do so much better with all those millions…