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Saturday, April 30, 2011

How Lucky

Spring, which seemed to have been playing hooky this year, is apparently guilty of nothing more than extreme tardiness. To give you an example of what I am talking about, last Friday (April 22), looked like this:

In 2010, it was almost three weeks earlier when I took this:

But yesterday, the sun came out at the same time I was required to drive 40 minutes down the coast “on assignment.” As I meandered down the two lane highway, I rolled down my windows and drank in a blast of warmth that inspired the stalled forsythia, the early rhododendrons and the Bradford Pear blossoms to vault from their buds. Chatting up seaside restaurant owners for an article, the back of my neck burned under a first exposure to sun.  As I write this, the resulting prickle brings a smile to my soul.

We wait for spring, long and hard here in New England. Sometimes winter seems like it will never tuck itself away. We slog through arthritic damp and mind numbing cold long after we expected to have packed wool clothes away. Finally though, when we begin to think it never will, spring appears. This year, it came yesterday, and it looked like this.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dialogue Exercise

I was stuck a few weeks ago, not moving forward on my current project.  Then, I used this exercise from the writing workshop to stimulate things:

"Write two pages of dialogue between two characters.  Be fresh and try to show character traits in speech and action.  Now edit the dialogue, removing names, greeting and telling-speak.  Remove all attributes except for he/she said.  Add fiction-speak, action and reaction dynamic."

I haven't written up to this scene yet, but now that I know it is going to happen, perhaps I can find a way to get there.

“Hello Mother.”

At the sound of her voice, I stood, nearly knocking over my orange plastic chair. She looked to the bed where Harrison lay attached to tubes, then gazed to the green line, spiking and descending on the beeping EKG. My hand reached for my pearl necklace as I caught my breath and exhaled. “Dear Lord.”

This older version of Bethany walked slowly across the patched linoleum, reached between the bed rails and touched her father’s arm. “How is he doing? The nurses said he’d be out of it for several more hours.” She touched her hair, shook her head, folded her arms across her chest and stared at me. If it weren’t for that look, I’d have had a hard time reconciling this mature woman with the fresh-faced girl who packed her suitcase and disappeared fourteen years ago. It was the same look she used on her last night at home—when she stamped her foot and said: “All you ever cared about is how things appear to everyone else. Well Mother, I don’t care what people think, I care about what is.” Now though, her skin was pale; her cheekbones gaunt, as if her scull was attempting to swallow her eyes.

“Yes, he’s still unconscious,” I said, leaning over to brush Harrison’s hair back where it lay on his forehead. Then I remembered and pulled my hand away.

“There is so much I’m surprised at today, so I suppose we can add the fact that you are standing in this hospital to a long and disagreeable list. Perhaps you can shed some light on how you happen to be here? Not only has my husband had a heart attack and driven off the road into a retaining wall, but I’ve arrived here to discover he had a companion in the car. That shouldn’t be a revelation, I suppose, since I suspected all along that he was up to something. I hate that I had to become a detective, but all those absences from the office added up. One does like to think one knows one’s husband, and back when, I could set my watch by your father.

"Mother!" She raised her hand as if to stop me, but no. I wasn't through. 

"Not to mention, he never traveled for work in thirty-five years. But when he refused to discuss his comings and goings with me, especially that trip last spring, I was reduced to following him. I was behind him last week when he drove into to one of those cookie-cutter apartment complexes outside of town and let himself in. Seems like they are always building those monstrosities; stacking them onto the hills like Legos. They do nothing to improve the landscape, even Harrison says that. It’s unlike him to choose a place so plebian—I’d expect him to be a bit more creative in the location of his assignations, but like any cuckolded wife, I suppose I don’t know my husband as well as I imagined."

"Mother, listen..." she said.  But I wasn't stopping.  She'd just protect him.  They'd always been a team.  Two against one.  But for the last several days my worries had been churning inside like a cesspool and now they were overflowing.  Harrison tells me I never let anyone get a word in, but at that moment, I had speak, I had to get rid to the words, to vomit them if you must know.  I had to tell someone, even if it was Bethany.  I folded my arms, mirrored her stance and continued:

"No,  You listen.  The girl in the car. Not his lover. A child. A teenager. His daughter I imagine, since according to that idiot nurse who presumed I knew who she was, she has his last name. How the gossip mongers will love that. My husband—conducting a clandestine affiliation long enough for the product of his relationship to become a teenager. That news will keep the old cows chewing for months. And now you appear from God knows where. It’s all too much for me to take, you know.”

On the other side of the bed, my daughter closed her eyes. Shaking her head, she laid her hand on Harrison’s chest. “Oh Mother. It’s like you to jump to that conclusion. You always projected how things would go bad. That was the problem. On the outside, it was all about how things looked, because if things looked right, no one would know about all the things you assumed were going wrong—even when they weren’t. Oh God, I can’t do this right now. I can’t. You are going to have to excuse me; I just wanted to check on Dad. I need to return to pediatrics now and get back to Melanie.”

“Get back to Melanie? You know the girl from the car? You are aware of your father and his paramour? You’ve met his daughter?” The room began to dim. I gripped the side of Harrison’s bed to maintain my balance. “Of course, I didn’t think of that. She’d be your half-sister.” I willed my sight to clear, tightening the muscles in my neck and lifting my chin. “You’ve been in on this with him all along?”

Bethany touched her hair as if she wanted to gather it up, then jerked her hand away, dropping it to side. It’s funny the things you think of at a time like this. She’d finally cut it into a disciplined bob like I’d wanted her to all those years ago—emphasizing her high cheekbones, although she’s a shade too thin for my taste now.

She backed up toward the chair against the wall. “I need to sit for a minute," she said. “This is my fault. I was foolish enough to think I could keep things from you forever. But life has a way of changing the stakes, doesn’t it. I had to come home. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not well. The apartment dad has been visiting does not belong to his love interest. He rented it for me. He’s been helping me. I didn’t want you to know. I never wanted you to know. Now that you do, I’m sure you’ll find it impossible to let things be. But Mother, Dad has not been cheating on you. Melanie is not his daughter, she’s mine.”

As always, any constructive criticism you'd like to offer will be appreciated.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tempted to Lunch

I'm a restaurant reviewer again this week.  If your interested, you can find my post here:

Happy weekend to you all and for those celebrating holidays; enjoy!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What, this Old Thing?

Best I can tell, I started writing this poem in 1998.  On my first ever flash drive, I've got a file 24 pages long, dedicated to three poems.  This one by far, has the most versions--page upon page of highlighted, underscored, italicized, edited lines. I went at it again in 2002 and once more in 2006 but the dratted thing never felt finished.  Even as I cut and pasted it here, I deleted words, added a phrase...

I refuse though, to consign it to flash-drive-oblivion because I so love what inspired it.  In case you can't guess, it encompasses a memory that rises each summer, when I take a trip to the blueberry farm next to a man-made pond in the town next door--which gives me great pleasure and loads of fat berries, but fails to recreate the depth of certain childhood experiences.  At least once a summer, my sisters Sarah or Connie or my friend Martha and I rowed across a lake to bushes that drooped heavy with berries at the edge of dense woods lining a far shore.  We usually came home with a small tin, half full--enough to make one small Blueberry Buckle.  That's it.  Perhaps it was all the work, for such a smidgen of delicious reward, that sealed this memory in my heart.

If you ever get a chance to pick native blueberries verses the cultivated variety, take it.  Native plants are sparse and low to the ground, the fruit tiny; it takes ages to fill a tin.  But each petite morsel offers an explosion of taste, like a good poem, where every word adds punch and value.  I rarely attempt poetry much anymore, but once in a while, like picking indigenous berries, the effort to seek out, pare down and refine ripe words, provides a rewarding exercise.

Lake Waban Gatherings

Rowing from
this seamless beach,
weaving circles
through the warp
and weft of
we glide to an
embroidered cove,
where blueberries
hanging from
green leaf threads,
stain our fingers,
purple our tongues—
and knit us
into patterns
of vintage summers.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Great White Hunter Bags her Man

Neither husband or I are what you would call animal lovers. He liked the dogs he had growing up, but didn’t have a compelling need for one of his own. I never had a pet, unless you count the goldfish that lived on the kitchen counter one winter. My family's Yankee habit of turning the heat down at night didn’t bode well though, and the little guy went belly up after a week.

With that being the sum of my experience, owning an animal never seemed like a necessity to me. Nine years into our marriage though, our daughter arrived—and like most parents, we found out that expectations shift dramatically once a child is involved. By the time she was ten, our girl beseeched us for a pet. “Everyone has one,” she said, and she wasn’t far from wrong—when she completed an essay in school about her “family,” she was the only one in her class without a critter of her own.

When she came home with that bit of news, we felt bad and pondered the prospect of inviting a four-legged creature to live in our house—which provided us with months of conversational struggle.   Neither of us yearned for a pet, but if we were to get one, our choices had us sleeping in decidedly opposite camps.  Not only was his experience all dog, my husband professed to hate cats. He was the guy in the room that they head for, as a result of that implausible feline intuition that leads them to the person who will be most annoyed.  As for me, well, non-leash-law-related dramas during childhood left me with a deep-seated fear of everything canine.  I freeze when they approach me.

My husband did not advocate for a dog; he just didn't want a cat.  As for me, if we had to have a pet, in my mind, a cat was the lesser of two evils. Back then, we were both working outside the home; our daughter was in after-school care and a happy dog would require more than our limited time allowed. For the most part, a cat wouldn’t poop on the floor and would maintain a level of self-sufficiency with which I could cope. We might have reached an impasse, but in spite of his reservations, there’s nothing my husband wouldn’t do for his family. So shrugging, he agreed to a cat adoption and off we went to the shelter.  Two weeks later Winkie, a nine-week-old, mostly white kitten joined the team.

Except she didn’t. In one of life's many ironies, she and our daughter immediately drew lines in the sand and have either taunted or ignored each other since.  My husband and Winkie disregarded each other, and I became the caretaker.  Before I knew it though knew it though, emotion blossomed.  Who knew a fuzz ball running to the door would be so warming?  Even though it’s mostly because I'm the regular food supplier, Winkie surprised me with her level of attachment.  She followed me like the puppy I didn’t want, snuggled under my chin and taught me the joy of non-human affection.

I'd like to tell you that she and my daughter became friends too, but I'm all about honesty here.  And my husband, well, let's just say he noticed the cat when he had to.  Nonetheless, over the years, she's evolved from a charming nuisance who climbed up the insides of the sleeper sofa and into the walls behind built-in book shelves, to a mature feline who occasionally charges our legs but otherwise, tolerates her humans with a condescending air.

Recently though, things have changed. Seven years into it, our indoor cat discovered her hunting instincts and presents us with evidence of the mice who have temporarily (I hope) taken up residence in our house. About the same time she found her inner stalker; Winkie abandoned my lap on the sofa in favor of my husband’s. She lounges with me until he sits, at which point, she paces in front of him mewing. Oblivious to the newspaper or magazine he’s holding, she leaps onto his chest.

At first he suffered her visits, muttering about cat hair. Then, she began catching mice. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but now, when she hops on board, his hand sits on her head stroking. As the first one to emerge from the bedroom each morning, he scoops her up as he walks to the kitchen.  If she’s had a successful hunting expedition, he praises her. When we see evidence of uninvited creatures, he teases her for not doing her job.  For her part, she demands and receives space on his lap each night and from my place on the sofa, I recognize something deeper then their growing affection.

Way back, I wasn’t sure I could love any animal, but I do. It’s even more of a surprise that the resident cat-hater and our feline have become friends. Winkie’s evolution into a mouser extraordinaire led to the last thing I anticipated. Long after you think you know yourself, or the person you live with for that matter, things can change.   In a twist I never expected, my husband and I have both become "cat" people. 

As the words to that old song go: "Two out of three ain't bad."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dragging my Feet

The text arrived last Friday afternoon. “Mom, I only have 29 days of school left.”

Our daughter was in sixth grade when a piece I wrote (the first “Middle Passages” ) was published in a magazine. Our only child was going away for a week on a school “retreat” that took place at a summer camp in early September. The only way I could cope with my worry was to write it out of me. A week, you laugh? Well, now I do too, but until that point, she’d never been away for more than an overnight. In spite of rain and stay-up-all-night roommates, she managed through those five days and so did we.

That experience was like dabbling a proverbial toe in the lake compared to two years later, when, at her own request she spent a month away at summer camp. We dutifully drove up to the frozen New Hampshire woods in mid-winter, trudged around in the snow with a caretaker, declared the place suitable and dropped her off at the end of July. I cried when we pulled out. She tells me that she almost did, but then squared her shoulders and went to meet her bunkmates. That went so well, she returned for two more summers. Since then there have been school trips to Montreal, New York and Philadelphia, and extended visits with her cousins during vacations.

But add it all up, and over the last almost 18 years, she’s been apart from us for less than four months. And now, less than 30 school days stand between us and her high school graduation. At the end of the summer, we’ll pack up her belongings and deliver her to a dorm room two hours and an entire lifetime away. Lately, denial is my middle name.

My sister’s middle child is graduating this year too. She has long since begun writing lists and organizing for the joint bash she will be hosting for her son and his friend. Every time she brings it up, a pit in my stomach opens and I duck my head into the sand—which is where I kept it firmly ensconced as our daughter performed in her last “All School Band Day,” served her final Mass at church; and as she prepares for an end of a twelve year dance career recital. Guests traveling from out of state confirmed flight reservations for the graduation ceremony last week, we completed applications for local scholarships and still, I kept my eyes closed to the future.

But when she sent the text above, reality appeared in block letters across my phone screen. As much as I’d like to grab time like an errant bed sheet and yank it back, I can’t. At the end of May, the last day of school will come. No matter how I feel about it, graduation will follow the first week of June.

So, Saturday, I sat down and wrote out a list of family members she’s asked us to invite to a small party, sketched out a menu, and a what-to-do-if-it-rains plan. Yup, we'll be commemorating a major life event here.

How much time do you think has to pass before I feel like celebrating?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Plot Thickens

Historically, I haven’t one for reading mysteries. I don’t like to be scared—remember, I’m a conflict avoider. Until this week, in my mind the word “mystery” equated with terror. (I’ve mentioned throwing Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot across the room previously in Middle Passages.) So two summers ago, when my sister, visiting from Australia, suggested I read Elizabeth George, a British mystery writer, I dutifully wrote the author’s name down on my reading list—and did nothing about it.

Fast forward to last week’s writing workshop and the discussion of creating stakes for our characters. When the workshop leader recommended reading suspense and horror because they teach you about stakes, I squirmed. If sleep is on the agenda, horror has to remain on the bookshelf. But I’m a dedicated student, so I checked out Careless in Red, by Elizabeth George from the library on Saturday.

The book is a psychological mystery and though I’m more than two-thirds through, there hasn’t been a scary piece. I’m not going to spoil the story, other than to say a crime has been committed and so far, every character in the book has a motive. The story unpeels itself layer by layer, revealing opportunity and yes, stakes, and folks I can’t put the thing down.  Um, you know that missing Middle Passages post Monday? Well after chores, I read all day Sunday, which led to a great big blog post blank the next day.

So many times, I find it easy to predict the outcome of a novel even when the author includes a “twist.” This time, I catch myself looking for the least likely candidate because that’s who is usually guilty, and no one comes to mind. I’m over 500 pages into it, and still more possibilities present themselves. Talk about a compelling read.

I’m still trying to get myself around the idea of stakes and how to write about them. But if the net result of this workshop is that I’ve learned to take the recommendation of my big sister (Thank you Sarah.), and been introduced to a new genre, I end up far ahead.

The bad news is that I might miss a lot more blog posts.

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools Us

If you lived in New England 15 years ago, the phrase “April Fools Blizzard” likely conjures up some challenging memories. Overnight from March 31 to April 1, 1996, an intense storm clobbered us with wet, damaging snow.  Major highways were closed resulting in thousands of stranded travelers. The weight and volume of precipitation downed power lines and decapitated trees. In our case, it took an entire day to shovel the almost three feet of slop.

So this  year's little dollop which came overnight and is now falling off limbs in massive blobs, splotching the road underneath, is nothing more than a faint echo. It’s an ugly day here. But all across the Eastern Seaboard, I’m guessing folks are sighing in relief.

For those who are still waiting, like me, here's wishing you warm spring days ahead.  Happy Friday.