Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The G8 Chickens

Tap, tap, tap. Many fingers on many keyboards.
Slurping coffee. Stressing out.
Tap, tap, tap.
Deadlines are many and close in the summertime at a community newspaper in cottage country. Publications that were lean all winter are now fat and spicy with ads. Summer tourist guides, maps and specialty magazines are lined up like pregnant mothers and we're popping them out sans epidurals, only caffeine and sugar and blood pressure pills keeping us from jumping off the main street bridge.
Outside our door, excitement is building.
The G8 is coming to Muskoka for a day and a half but the preparation, which has been going on for two years, is building to a crazy crescendo. It is the day before the summit of world leaders is to begin and the highways are full of police cars, motorcades and army vehicles. The skies are full of helicopters and jets.
We huddle in our chairs, trying to concentrate on work, but every so often a resounding roar shakes the building as a jet flies overhead on its way to the nearby Muskoka Airport. When that happens we leap to our feet and run out the door, getting an unparalleled view as the low-flying planes go by. We're like laying hens, all discombobulated and excited, clucking and carrying on before being corralled back to our desks to lay another egg.
Our boss is getting nervous. He's trying to keep us focussed, but it's tough. Yesterday we all flew out of the building when an earthquake rattled us like dice in a cup. It's been years, maybe decades, since the last earthquake in this area. That, combined with the G8 preparations, has been throwing us off our game.
He throws us some special feed. Fruit and doughnuts. We peck away at it nervously, our eyes darting from our monitors to the window.
Suddenly the windows start to shake. Another earthquake? No! Another plane! We leap from our desks, run out to the parking lot and look up. The biggest, blackest plane I have ever seen is overhead, so close we can almost touch it, and it is roaring. We can read U.S. Air Force on its side, that's how close it is.
Gail Knaus, our production supervisor, who is probably the most wound up of all of us, starts to squeal.
"It's Obama! He's here!"
The U.S. President is definitely the biggest fish at this meeting of big fish and the thought that he might be arriving, just a few kilometres away, is more than we can bear.
"Let's go see," I say, running back inside to grab my purse. "Everyone get your I.D. in case we're stopped."
While we're all excited, some of us are more dedicated (nervous) than others, and they go back to their desks. Me, Gail, Lisa Garbett, Leah Burton and Jason Willis have decided to throw caution to the wind. WTF, how often does a U.S. Air Force plane land at the tiny Muskoka Airport? Never! Would we tell our grandchildren about working yet another day? Or would we tell them about the time we tried to meet Obama?
We pile in my Jeep and take off. The excitement is so high that I find it hard to drive in a straight line. We're all talking at 90 miles an hour, all at once. It's like a booze cruise, only we're not teenagers and there's no booze. Actually it's more like that movie Chicken Run, where all the hens try to fly the coop.
As we turn off the main highway we expect to be stopped by security but there's no one around. As we approach the airport we see the huge charcoal-coloured plane has landed. It is so big, bigger than all the airport buildings put together. The airfield is full of army vehicles, soldiers, police and weird equipment we speculate is radar gear.
Up ahead we spot a car pulled over at the side of the road. It's Karen Longwell, one of the newspaper's photographers, taking pictures from a safe vantage point. We slow down, yell something at the window at her and, all pumped up with foolish adrenaline, we head for the airport gates.
I'm thinking, there's no way they're going to let us get close but Gail yells at me to keep going, so we do. Incredibly we pull right into the airport parking lot, where there are all kinds of people in uniform and hunky looking guys out of uniform. Gail immediately gets all giggly... she has a thing for hunky guys. I mean, who doesn't... except Leah, of course. And Jason, who's wedged in the back seat with Lisa and Gail.
We pile out of the Jeep and head for the gate, a colourful group of pullets clucking and giggling, anticipating getting the boot any moment.
But we never got that boot. It was pretty clear there were no leaders on the plane - when the planes carrying leaders arrived, nobody got within a 5 mile radius of the airport. This plane did have an interesting cargo, however – a bunch of Secret Service guys, all chiseled and hard-bodied and young and, did I mention hard-bodied???? It must be a prerequisite, being good looking, to get a job guarding the president.
So we have a good time, talking to Secret Service guys, OPP officers and other gawkers like ourselves. Photographer Karen comes and takes our photos and we giggle and carry on for a bit longer before deciding to get back in the Jeep and go back to work. We're all strapped in and ready to go when a particularly hunky Secret Service guy walks to a car parked nearby.
Gail goes looney.
"Let me out!" she says, squished between Jason and Lisa. She doesn't wait for Jason to move, though. She practically crawls over him in her attempt to get out.
The poor guy. He gets a nervous look on his face as Gail flutters up to him. I mean, she looks harmless, this middle-aged woman fluttering and giggling, but you never know. We hope he doesn't shoot her.
We watch from the Jeep, making wisecracks and groaning with embarrassment. There's our fearless leader, out slobbering over the Secret Service guy.
Lucky for her, he starts to smile. Then laugh.
Then, unexpectedly, she throws her arms around him and hugs him. Hugs him! He looks startled but then he hugs her back and laughs.
We're hooting and squealing and laughing and giggling and just beside ourselves. Gail lets the hapless Secret Service guy go and she crawls back in the Jeep, triumphant, glowing, excited beyond belief.
"I welcomed him to Canada!" she says. We laugh like loons, laugh all the way back to the office, laugh all the rest of the day and the rest of the week.
The chickens go back to roost, back to our deadlines, back to our stress. But we have a gleam in our eyes. We have glimpsed the glamour of the outside world and our coop will never be the same.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Media Lies, Eh?

I just cut someone off my facebook list because they said, "The media lies about everything."
I am so sick of hearing this.
This is always farted out the mouths of people who are not, and who never have been, members of the media, so they don't know what they're talking about.
These are often liberal-thinking people who like to think they're above racism, prejudice and making generalizations and yet they think nothing about lumping an entire profession into one negative comment. They wouldn't be caught dead making generalizations about anybody else but they say "media lies" without thinking twice. For some reason society thinks it's OK to media-bash. I'd like to see the world go back to a time when there was no media, when there was no way for people to find out what was going on unless they attended those boring meetings themselves. Now they sit around on their keesters and cruise the internet and watch the TV and bitch about the lying media. And if they do go to an event and see what goes on for themselves, and the media coverage doesn't match up with their personal view, they see that as media lies.
I was a reporter for 20 years and I did nothing but my best to tell the truth. And I can tell you, the people I work with have the same philosophy. There may be bad apples in any barrel but not every piece of fruit is oozing with rot and worms.
So to everyone who lumps the media together and calls us liars I say this:
Fuck. Off.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Black Fly Summit

I can't believe I haven't written about this before.
I mean, the G-freaking-8 is going on in my backyard and I haven't said boo about it yet.
Well, enough of that shit. Today is the day I let loose on what is the biggest thing to hit Muskoka since the invention of the black fly.
We're talking the G8, people, the summit of some of the world's greatest political leaders. We got France, we got the U.S., Italy, Germany, the European Union, Japan, Russia and Canada, of course, and we've got them in HUNTSVILLE.
In case you don't know where Huntsville is, it's in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere.
It's this little town that thinks it's a big, important town, sitting on the tip-top of some of cottage country's most expensive real estate. Not everybody is stinking rich. There are plenty of folks who haven't seen a dentist since the second coming of Christ, but there are enough Beamers running around to make everyone think that the Royal Canadian Mint shit gold nickels on these thar granite hills.
Normally the busiest thing to hit Muskoka is summer tourist season, where locals put up with diamond-clad plastic surgery patients drowning in daughters named Muffy, dogs named Miffy and designer dog-shit baggies that smell like rose bushes.
Now isn't normal. Now is anything but normal.
The streets are filled with cops. Every third car on the main drag is a marked cruiser. Every second car is unmarked. The poor asshole in the shitbox in the middle is sweating bricks the size of Cadillacs, hoping he can get home before someone shoots him in the back of the head.
The restaurants are full of steroidal men in army fatigues with necks the width of the Muskoka River.
The highway is one long motorcade of cop cars, limousines, motorcycles and army trucks.
The skies are buzzing with armed forces helicopters - I had no idea Canada had such big helicopters. All you hear is how cheap Canada is when it comes to national defence - I had the idea Canadian helicopters were flown with rubber bands pulled off broccoli bunches.
It's freaking scary being average Joe Citizen amongst all this.
Some farmer went out and shot a groundhog last week and he was instantly surrounded by men with guns.
A golfer at Deerhurst Resort went after a lost ball, which was returned to him by a soldier who growled, "Take your ball and get outta here."
There are fences as high as apartment buildings around the perimeter of the resort, where the summit is being held.
There are rumours of submarines in the lake.
There is a running BUZZ of weird energy. It's all everybody's talking about.
When the phones went out last week it was because "G8 security was testing phone blockage."
When Highway 11 was closed down today it wasn't because of an accident, "it was because of the G8."
When the earthquake shook everybody up, it was because "they're testing missiles for the G8."
It's crazy!
It's exciting!
What's really bugging me, though, is because the G20 is happening in Toronto on the heels of the G8, all the media is talking about is Trawna this and Trawna that.
Well, WAKE UP people!
There's always some big shit happening in the Big Smoke.
The real story is a small town in Bum-Fuck Nowhere being visited by Barack Obama and a billion and a half dollars' worth of boys in khaki.
But that's not what is bugging those boys, no sirree. What's bugging them are the local mosquitoes and black flies. Apparently there's been some bitching about our bugs. I don't know what they're so surprised about - everybody knows June is High Season for bugs in Muskoka. And no amount of submarines, machine guns and tanks can do anything about that.
Here's a suggestion for our visitors:
1. Take a piece of duct tape and a Bounce sheet and tape the sheet to the back of your ball cap, fedora or army helmet. This is known to thwart deer flies.
2. Wear light clothing, not dark clothing like camouflage. Bugs like dark clothing. So, soldiers, put on some pastel capris and you'll be fine.
3. Invest in a Mosquito Magnet. They're small enough to put in your tank and guaranteed to kill mozzies within a one-mile radius. Heck Barack, you could probably fit one in the back of your limo.
4. I personally recommend bug jackets. They're not pretty, and they're hot as hell, but they are also good disguise mechanisms. Nobody would be able to tell a Barack from a no-nuker from a cop. So everyone would be nice to each other and play nice with the other kids.
Now, I sincerely hope that my house isn't surrounded tonight by guys with big guns.
I am not an ingrate, a communist, or a protestor. In fact, I'm barely a local yocal. So please, don't come in the middle of the night and steal my laptop and shoot me. Promise? I'm getting married in the fall and I don't want to have to deal with hiding bullet wounds with make-up.
P.S. - If I don't show up at work tomorrow, will somebody please come looking for me?

The G8 leaders and the leaders of the developing nations wait for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to arrive to a family photo during the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy on Thursday July 9, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Apparently he DID show up -- just late!

Barry Larock, A Man Well Named

He's the coffee fund guy to me.
He's the Christmas movie guy.
He's the newsroom Casanova who put a blush on a photographer's face and wound up walking down the aisle with her.
He's one of the nicest guys anybody's ever met.
Barry Larock died Monday night in a Peterborough hospital. He was only 45.
I just found out and even though I haven't seen Barry in years, I'm devastated.
It's not fair, you know? It's not.
Barry had more than his fair share of health problems. Born with a heart condition, doctors told his parents that Barry wouldn't live to see 30. Six open heart surgeries later, it seemed that Barry had firmly buried the doctors' prognosis. Then, out of nowhere, out of the complete and unfair blue, Barry found out he had cancer. He fought it like he battled with his heart, four years of fight.
He knew he wasn't going to win this one, though. He blogged about life and death and cancer. But Barry was determined to get the most out of what life had left for him.
And, from what I hear, he did it better than anybody.
I just loved Barry.
I mean, who didn't? He touched everyone he knew.
I worked with Barry in the late 1980s. We were all adventurers, explorers, pirate scribes, hired on by Metroland as the first editorial employees of a brand new community newspaper, Peterborough This Week. There's something exciting about starting a new publication, especially when you're young and confident and foolish.
There was Paul Rellinger, the comedic editor with a heart of gold, nicotine-stained fingers and a weird love for Jerry Lewis' annual telethon. Tanya Robertson (Stewart) was the tall, willowy, uber-organized health reporter who washed her kitchen floor three times a week. Chandra York (Tremblay) was my smoking buddy who got me to quit and who could write like a house on fire. Thom Whitby was the excitable entertainment reporter with the cool car who knew everybody in the city. I covered City Hall for a few months until they moved me to city editor. Jennifer Craw was the short, blonde, hard-boiled photographer, tough as nails, carrying around bags of camera equipment like a pack horse and always in a hurry.
Barry was the sports reporter. He sat over in the corner and plunked away at his computer, writing up Peterborough Pete's games and soccer scores and making us laugh with his quick wit and his raspy voice.
Barry was the coffee guy. We had a coffee pot in the newsroom and we paid a quarter for a cup of joe. Barry collected all the money and looked after buying coffee and creamer and anything else we needed. Thanks to his efforts, we had enough money that year to pay for a Christmas party. He was rabid about it almost and we teased him about being king of the coffee fund.
Isn't it silly how we remember people?
The other thing that hits me about Barry, at the oddest times, is that he used to go to the movie theatre on Christmas Day. In the afternoon, when all the noise and fuss of the morning was over with, before the noise and fuss of dinner, he and his friend would go catch a premiering flick at the local moviehouse. I thought that was the weirdest way to spend Christmas I'd ever heard but, years later, every time I hear about a movie debuting on Christmas Day, I think of Barry.
He looked all innocent, like a boy instead of a young man, all pink-cheeked and blonde. Little did I know he was busting some moves on Jennifer the hard-boiled photographer. They had gone to journalism school together but it was the Peterborough This Week newsroom where romantic sparks flew. They later got married and had a son, Trent, no doubt named after the Trent Canal that winds its way through the city.
Barry, of course, was so much more than the coffee guy or the movie guy. He became a local legend in Peterborough sports circles, writing and coaching and working for the City's recreation department. Mostly it was his class, his sense of humour and his kindness that won people over. Certainly there will be a great number remembering him this morning.
Ah Barry, how the world will miss you.
You were one of a kind, my friend.
And while I know Jennifer and Trent are going through a bad time, I think they are incredibly lucky to have been such an important part of your short life. My heart goes out you both.

Funeral arrangements can be found here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Sweetness

When we weren't looking, summer arrived at the river.
The water is warm enough for swimming, the roses are blooming, the bullfrogs are croaking and the painted turtles are sunning themselves on the big white pine that fell into the water a few years ago.
The boys spent most of the weekend waterlogged, cannonballing off the dock, trying out their new wakeboard vests and even swimming all the way across. Sam was mighty proud when he beat both Dave and Angus in his round-trip river swim. Look at the smile on that beautiful face.
The boys had quite a weekend. Not only did they swim the Muskoka channel, they went to their first dance. OK, so Angus has been to school dances before, but neither have been to an "adult" dance. It was Dave's brother Max's 50th birthday surprise party Saturday night. With no babysitter we brought the boys along with us to the Sundridge Legion where they danced almost every dance. Sam showed off his best Saturday Night Fever moves - which looked really amazing when he was boogieing to Crystal Chandelier and other old country 'n western favourites. I've never had so much fun at a dance - I couldn't stop laughing at how cute Gus and Sam were, tearing up the dance floor.
Tonight I found out Angus received 13 nods at the Grade Seven awards ceremony. Three of his honours were provincial. What a little brainiac (must take after his mother!). I am SO proud of him. Congratulations, Gus!
After the phone call, Dave and I finally launched our new boat - well, it's new to us. We bought it for a song from our good friends Lynda & Roger - THANK YOU!
As the sun set in a noisy cacophony of colour we cruised down the river at a genteel pace. We saw a crane take off. A beaver swimming away from us. A baby bunny hopping along the riverbank.
It has been 30 or more years since I travelled northern waters in a boat other than a canoe or an aluminum fishing boat. Tonight I was brought back to summer evenings on Twelve Mile Lake, the quiet rumbling of the motor, cottage lights blinking through the trees, fresh wind in my face, my dad capably handling the wheel.
This is my bliss. This is summer on the Muskoka River.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tracy Nita Pender - Both Sides Now

Huntsville, Ontario, Canada
enroute to Arizona, U.S.A.

Facebook is in mourning today.
You'd think Tracy Nita Pender had up and died or something. There are tons of tributes and good wishes being sent her way, not because she's cooling on a slab somewhere, thank goodness, but because she's leaving town. And not only is she leaving town, she's leaving the country.
"It's official," she posts on FB. "I'm moving to Arizona in early July. But a wee piece of my heart will remain in Muskoka with my lovely northerly friends."
So far, there are 26 comments on that post.
Mandy wrote: "Are you serious? I think that sucks, Muskoka likes you here."
Brodie wrote: "We will all miss you so very much! Sometimes I don't think it's ever gonna be the same without you on the [softball] team. You're always a great shoulder to lean on and an awesome ball player! You are a strong woman and I wish you all the best on moving home with your family! Keep in touch! Miss you lots."
Her brother, Kevin Pender wrote: "Great – just when I thought we had a whole international border protecting us from you, they go and invite you in!"
(Only from a brother.)
Fact is, everybody who knows Mizz Pender is put out by her big announcement. Me just as much as anyone else. Tracy and I work together at a newspaper/magazine/media company in the Muskoka area. She's the talented editor of Sideroads, a popular magazine, as well as being the special sections editor for everything from gardening supplements to wedding guides.  As a graphic designer I work with Tracy on a lot of these publications and I've gotta tell you, nobody is as organized as she is. She is a sheer joy to work with. She has stories in early. She has photos to go with. She has layouts and dummies and headlines and contact info. She's got it all and she makes my job so simple I could do it in my sleep.
The other day one of the head honchos sat down beside my desk and said, "I'm really going to miss that girl. She really knows what's going on. She's got it all right here," and he taps his forehead.
It's not often the honchos miss anybody when they leave. But, as you can see, Tracy is a bit special.
She's also in a unique position to finish things off for American Weeks. She's a Canadian who has just gotten her Green Card. The rest of her family lives in the U.S. so even though she's leaving her homeland, she really is going home.
I sent some questions to this spunky soon-to-be ex-pat and she sent me a thought-provoking reply. Her story, by the way, is called Footsteps. And if it doesn't make you cry, nothing will.
Happy travelling, northern pixie. I'll miss you.

1.Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? What's with the three names? What's with the kitten hat (that I love)? What's up with the whole American-Canadian thing? Which one are you? Why are you leaving us? 
That's alotta things in one question, m'friend. I'm Tracy Nita Pender, a 35-year-old writer, editor and keeper of two nanimals (Jake and Stewart). I'm going to Arizona, the land of sand and backyard orange and grapefruit trees. The land where I breathe so much easier, for some reason. Try it: go to the desert, stand and stare at the horizon and inhale. Things smell calmer. I'm a fan of calm these days. I've used my three names ever since I got into the biz-ness at the age of 20. I put Tracy Nita Pender on all my written work because it makes it easier to track myself online - and yes, people have stolen articles I've sold for publication and blatantly put them on their personal websites without crediting the right peeps. An-NOY-ing. The kitten hat? I bought that hat in Parkdale when I lived near Roncesvalles. It's uber soft Angora and I liked the pink ears. If I have to jam a hat on my head, it better have character. No one can look at that hat and be grumpy. I know it makes me look 12, but it's worth it. I'm American (as of last Thursday) and Canadian (since March 15, 1975.) Well, actually I have permanent resident status for the U S of A (as of last Thursday). I'm both. Because I believe you can be more than one thing at any given time. ;) Why am I leaving you? Because I also believe in movement for the sake of progress. Because I believe in being happy and actively pursuing that happiness. And because after a long, long, LONG wait, now that I can work in the US of A I'd like to join the fan-damily. They're good people, and I miss them.

2. Because you know both countries so well you are a good person to ask: what's the difference between the two? Are Americans different than Canadians and, if so, what are those differences? What are our similarities? What can we learn from each other? and what are you going to miss most about us Canucks?
I don't know both countries that well, to be honest. I can tell you the random items you can find in American gas station snack areas are killer. I can tell you their drink sizes are large enough to choke an eph-elant. And yes, there are differences between Americans and Canadians. But I prefer to focus on how we're all humans trying to survive on this thing called Earth. I think trying to compare an American to a Canadian completely depends on WHICH American and WHICH Canadian you are talking about. We're all different. And I heart difference.
What am I going to miss? I'll miss the rampant recycling program we have here (honestly). I'll miss the change of the colours in the fall because as far as I can tell palm trees and cacti don't change colour. I'll miss how patriotic we all get on Canada Day, and I'll miss hearing other people say 'eh?' Because we do say it a lot. We do. Trust me. I'm intrigued to learn about the American political system, and I'm pretty sure I'm a democrat. And I'd marry Jon Stewart if he asked. 

3. Why do you write and how would you describe your writing style? What are your writing aspirations? What is the writing climate like in Muskoka and what have you learned from writing here?
I write because I don't know how to not. I write very colloquial, and apparently I kill off a lot of characters (ask the judges from the novel marathon a few years ago. One of their comments was something like 'in 80 pages did five major players have to die?' But c'MON, two of them died in the 1860s of old age and they only showed up in FLASHBACKS. Sigh. I didn't kill them all in the library with a candlestick.) 
I write because I see characters in my head and think they have something to say. I write because I love language. I'd like to finish my novel A Fair Price and send it off to a publisher (dum dum DUMMMMMM). But writing and editing all day at work leaves me with little drive to sit at the computer once I get home. That, in itself, is an excuse because if I were more driven I'd just do it. But I find excuses. I need less excuses. Maybe I should work at a garden centre in Arizona and then I can come home and live and breathe my own characters. Muskoka is a wonderful spot for writers of all types. It's just up to people to look for the community. It's always there, just under the surface, hiding in the spaces between letters and the pauses between commas. It's there if you want it. My writing group is wonderful and I will so hugely miss Paula, Sasha, Tiina and Dawn. Cathy joined more recently and I haven't had the pleasure of sharing a group with you yet, but I will miss your enthusiasm and boundless ability to encourage other people to write. I'm glad the cheerleader (you) finally took her own advice.

4. Your story is heartbreaking. I understand you read that at a writerly event - what was that called and when was it? - what was the reaction of the audience and how did you manage to read it out loud without bawling? What did your mom think of the story? How do you think she survived this kind of tragedy - and how has it shaped your own life?
I didn't think of my mom's story as heartbreaking when I wrote it, I just thought of it as a story that should be told. Because I thought that her younger brother Bruce deserved to have his name said out loud by other generations of his family. I read the piece at In My Mother's Shoes, an event started by Krysia Bowers (I hope I spelled that right) and Maria Duncalf Barber. They started the event a few years ago, and it's an evening of art, poetry, music and sharing held on Mother's Day weekend. It's about how we walk in our mother's shoes - how they shape our world and how we are influenced by them. Someday when I grow up I hope I'm half as strong as my mother is. I don't know how the audience reacted, I was staring at my paper. :) And I did read it without crying, but when I practiced at home I cried twice. Musta been the wine I had beforehand. Haha. My mom liked the story, but I think she was really taken aback that I remembered it and that I wrote about it. I hope she found peace in it, and I hope it made her smile. I think she survived it like all people survive tragedy - by putting one foot in front of the other until this moment turns into that turns into an hour turns into a year. I think it shaped me because it really hit me like a sucker punch to realize how much there is that I'll likely never know about the woman who brought me into this world. 

5. What book most summarizes being American to you? And what book says most about being Canadian?
I don't think I can answer this, because being American or Canadian is different to every person (that whole 'judge the individual not the colour of their flag thing). But I can tell you some books by American authors that I will never ever forget: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow. AnYthinG by Nathaniel Hawthorne and recently I was brought to tears by Push by Sapphire. Canadian: The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence; most anything by Margaret Atwood - but the Robber Bride is stunning; Alice Munro (the woman is my idol); Swan by Carol Shields; and Not Wanted On The Voyage by Timothy Findley. 
I could go on and on, but I listed things I could pick up and read over and over and over and over. 

By Tracy Nita Pender
My mom, who is all of 5-foot-3 on a good day, is actually small enough to put in my pocket -- because I bring her everywhere. Her voice is often in my head when I am struggling with some decision. If I'm having a particularly bad day I can feel her arms around me, hugging me across the miles. She's there, I know.
It's funny. Through much of my life I've ventured into new areas, only to find that my mom has walked there before me. I sometimes forget that she had a life before I showed up. 
When I moved to Toronto's West End I called her to tell her about this great park right by my apartment. 
"High Park," she said. "I know, dear. I used to take you and your brother there when we lived near the Junction. You were pretty young, you probably don't remember it."
At the age of 30 I decided I needed a change of pace. Some new scenery. I decided to move to Muskoka on my own. Mom was supportive. But she worried. Because it took me hours further away from the safety net of family. 
I promised her I'd be careful. I promised to watch for bears. I promised to call often.
I had no idea my move to Huntsville would weave my life with the fabric of my mom's childhood memories.  
A few years ago my mom and dad came to visit, flying in from Arizona. We went to Algonquin Park with the intention of dining at Bartlett Lodge. 
As we drove out, mom and I sat in the back of the truck, chatting.
About boys, about work, about the blackflies.
It was grey and a bit drizzly. I wanted the day to be perfect. I wanted to show them they didn't need to worry about me, because I was all grown up and fine.
"I haven't been back here since my brother died," she said quietly.
I stared at her as she stared out the window.
As the details of a strange, unknown truth spilled from her, my mom seemed not my mom. But younger. Far away. Lost in her own thoughts. 
She told me of the family vacations to camp in the park. Of her younger brother Bruce. Of how he had slipped under near the bridge. Was missing. She remembered the search party, the police, the people. She remembered grownups talking about him. About how he must be in the water still. And she was little. Really little. It was getting dark. She took his coat and started walking. Down the road toward where everyone was looking. Walking, clutching the jacket. Because the water was cold, and he'd need it when they found him so he could warm up. And she walked. 
I imagine her footsteps, small but steady. I picture the stars coming out. I feel the grief of my grandparents when it ended how no one wanted it to. 
And suddenly my grandmother's anger at me for going swimming at the dock without my brother, without a lifeguard, made sense. 
And suddenly I understood why papa always made me wait for my brother to go the beach with me.
Mom said they packed up that night and drove home, never to return to Algonquin Park. 
I can't fathom how heavy the weight of that memory is. The grief of losing her younger brother in a place so full of life, beauty, vitality. 
I can't imagine how I would take a single step if I were to lose my brother. 
Since then, her feet, the ones that walked across Highway 60 to find Bruce, the feet that carried her through that crazy, ridiculously grown-up, painful night, have borne both her weight and mine.
Because she carries me when I'm feeling low. She makes me laugh when life is all too serious. She reminds me of the brat I was as a child, and the bigger brat I was as a teenager. She brings comfort with a smile. She is my co-conspirator, my best friend, my euchre partner.
I'd imagine going through that kind of an experience would make one hold close to their family with both hands.  Never let them out of sight.
But my mom did. 
She encourages us kids to try our own paths. She tells me to find my own happiness, wherever that might be. 
She encourages me to write, believing in my fiction when I feel I have nothing to say.
She encourages me to walk in my own shoes.
And she lets me know that no matter how big or small, how hurried or leisurely, my footsteps can always carry me home. 
Where she is with open arms.

Two songs for you, Mizz Pender: one for you and your mom from my Canadian heroine, Jann Arden. And the other is to remember Muskoka by.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tony Noland -Tony the Tiger

Philadelphia, U.S.A.
Blogging at Landless

There's no tiger in Tony tonight but there certainly is one in me.
"I just read your #fridayflash," I say, sitting up in bed, arms crossed, reading glasses hanging off a purple chain around my neck, laptop in my lap.
Tony's head is half-buried under a pillow on his side of the bed. 
"Uh huh," he says, half-asleep.
"Did you want to explain this?"
"Uh huh."
I wait, my blood pressure rising.
A snore comes from beneath the pillow.
He jumps, yells "whaaaa," the pillow flies up and whacks me upside the head. 
He's sitting up now, looking dazed.
"Cathy, what in the hell do you want?"
My hair is askew from the pillow. I blow it out of my face and try to look dignified.
"I'm hurt, Tony. Your story, Tony, it's about two women and sex and … and I'm thinking if you're writing about, um, sex, then you must not want me anymore." My bottom lip trembles. It's everything I can do not to cry.
Tony sighs.
"What story?" he asks.
"The chardonnay one. The one with the bridesmaids and the guy who looks like Harrison Ford with the big noodle."
My husband of nearly 19 years, the father of our four children, rubs his eyes wearily and smiles.
I love his smile.
I hate that I'm mad at him but I love that smile.
"Sweetie," he says, reaching for my hand, "it's just a story. Fiction. It's what we write."
I try to feel relieved. But then I remember what he wrote and I get upset again. "Tony, you wrote 'ass' in your story; some girl admiring his 'ass.' What if the kids see it? What if Ethel at the supermarket sees it? God, Tony, I'm embarrassed thinking about it!"
"It's not my ass,  Cathy, it's Daniel's ass."
"You're writing about Daniel's ass? Who's Daniel? You're not gay, are you? Tony? You're not going to leave me for this Daniel guy, are you? Is that why you listen to that Elton John song all the time?" I start to blubber this time, and not in an attractive way. Tony grabs a Kleenex off the bureau and wipes the snot bubble that's forming under my nose.
"Thanks," I say. 
Tony gives up on the idea of sleep and sits up. "I don't write because I'm thinking about leaving you," he says. "I write for a lot of reasons, as I imagine most people do. Sometimes it's to work out a story I have buzzing in my head; sometimes it's to get a point across, or to hold a point of view up to the light to see the flaws more clearly. Some writing is therapeutic; some is just to show off, or just for fun. Sometimes it's just to do something as an artistic expression, arising from the impulse to create something of beauty and grandeur and power."
He talks patiently. A sparkle appears in his hazel-green eyes whenever he talks about writing. I start to feel better.
"The currency of writing is in the emotional impact it makes on the reader. I guess I did a good job on this one, judging by your emotional reaction. I wrote Another Glass of Chardonnay because the image came to me of a serious flirtation gone horribly wrong … and then it went off into an entirely new direction as I wrote it out. This particular piece evokes so many different responses, depending on who you identify with – humour, delight, arousal, pity, anger. I can't claim it's art, but I like it."
I like it, too. "Your story reminds me of a date night romantic comedy," I say, "A slightly risque one that might star Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. I love those two together, don't you? Hollywood definitely has the romantic comedy down to a fine art form. Honey, why do you think it is such a popular theme in movies and in novels? And why does it seem to be such an American thing? Certainly Canada is almost incapable of producing such a beast."
Tony arches his eyebrow. He's probably wondering how I would know so much about Canada, being married to him and living in the States and all. But I am a mysterious flower, a trillium, as a matter of fact.
"Movies and novels are frequently a venue for wish fulfilment. Spy movies and novels let us imagine ourselves as urbane, clever and tough. Adventure movies and novels let us imagine ourselves as strong, resourceful and dedicated. Romance fiction lets us be witty, bold, coquettish and passionate. All of the different genres and sub-genres exist to allow us to experience whatever we want out of romance – independence, dominance, helplessness, pure physicality, or deep emotional connection."
He smiles down at me. He's so much taller and more handsome than I am.
"Am I boring you, sweetie?"
"No," I say admiringly. "Never."
"Everybody needs to love and everybody needs to laugh. Romantic comedy lets you vicariously fulfill both of those desires while ensuring a certain distance that keeps it safe.
"I don't know that Hollywood has any kind of lock on romantic comedies as an example of escapist fiction, or if it's a particularly American thing. I can't speak authoritatively, but Americans always seem to be looking over their shoulder to see if what's coming next is better than what they have. That deep-rooted anticipatory dissatisfaction has certainly led to a lot of great advances, as people have asked, 'How could this be even better?' 
"However, it's also led to an ethos of the throw-away society based on assumed obsolescence. Is it that Canadians are inclined to think more deeply, to be more accepting and find satisfaction in their lives, less beset by the restless discontent that makes Americans twitch so much?"
His left eyebrow, the one with the old scar on it from a punch in the face – no, I didn't do it – twitches.
"All I know is, if I could write a knock-out romantic comedy, I'd be happy to have it star Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. I would look so awesome on the red carpet at the opening in London."
"You would look awesome," I tell him. "You look awesome in anything. Even those ratty grey gym shorts you wear to bed every night. Imagine if all those bazillions of female followers you have on your blog could see you in those."
Tony stops smiling. "I don't have that many female followers, do I?"
"It sure seems like you do. They're always commenting on something you have to say."
"Let me see the laptop for a second," he says, and grabs it out of my hands.
"Hey!" I say. "I was drooling over Alan Davidson. Give me that back!"
"Hang on," he says, and starts to count his female followers. He stops suddenly and asks, "who is Alan Davidson?"
"Just this Canadian blogger guy… well, stud-muffin, how many?"
Tony has a triumphant smile on his face. "There are 81 friends and followers of Landless, only 36 of which are female. Hang on…" he punches in a few numbers on the computer calculator. "That's just 44.4 per cent of the total. I think it may seem like I have MANY female followers because they are somewhat more vocal than the male followers. For instance, the only proposals of extramarital affairs I've received have come from female followers, although I'm pretty sure they were all just kidding."
I pick up my pillow and thump him with it as hard as I can. The laptop goes flying and hits the carpet with a dull thud.
"Oh way to go, jealous one," he says, reaching for the computer. "I was just kidding. Lucky for you, this thing still works.
"Seriously, though, what's up with that? If my fiction and my blog appeal to women more than men, why might that be? Hell if I know. I'm a guy – confusion about that kind of thing is written in my DNA. It can't be my fiction, since that's all over the map. I've got main characters that are male, female, confused, confident, troubled, sanguine, victorious and victimized. Some of my writing is like this story, funny and risque, but I'm pretty sure most of it is in a much darker, harder tone. 
"I haven't gone back and tallied up the count of nice versus nasty though, so I'll just posit that. 
"Is it the blog posts? None of them are overtly saucy, unless someone else out there has a semicolon fetish. I mean, someone out there. Not someone else. Because I don't. I mean, I like semicolons, but not in that way."
I look at him like he's a strange kind of bug.
Tony chuckles.
"Anyway, I've always understood that if you want friends, you need to be friendly. That's easier in some contexts than in others but, in general, I'm a pretty friendly kind of guy. To be honest, however, I've never been very good at determining when women are flirting with me versus simply being friendly. Although it hasn't been an issue for a long time, it got me into trouble sometimes in the past.
"Women would get upset, thinking I was playing at being Mr. Cool and deliberately blowing off the flirtations when, in fact, I was not being restrained and aloof … just dense."
"You do have your moments, Tony," I say.
"Gee," he says, "thanks. You hankering for another pillow sandwich?"
"You do and you, your grey shorts and all your female followers are sleeping on the couch."
He grins and flicks off the bedside light. "I think we're going to need a bigger couch."

Another Glass of Chardonnay
by Tony Noland
Carol couldn’t go on sitting there, just sipping her wine and wiping her lips. As much as she hated the old saying about bridesmaids and getting laid, if she didn't make a move on this guy, some kind of a move, she’d be kicking herself for weeks. It wasn't just the tuxedo; Daniel would have been heart attack gorgeous wearing jeans and flip flops. No, it was everything about him. His eyes, his hands, his ass, everything. Out of the corner of her right eye, she watched him.
He wasn't just incredibly cute; he was articulate and funny, like a young Harrison Ford. Indiana Jones-type Harrison Ford, not Han Solo. Carol had definitely hit the lottery in the groomsman department. Her brother's other friends were obviously preening in their rented tuxes; Daniel looked like he'd been born to wear his. He was graceful, muscular, and a great dancer, although he didn't make a big deal out of it.
Please, she thought, please let him not be gay.
Ever since the wedding ceremony - hell, ever since the rehearsal last night - she had been dropping hints and flirting like crazy. He seemed to be receptive and had returned the banter, but was letting her make the moves.
Ellen, Carol's sister, had been hitting on him too, but Carol didn't think he'd been paying her any attention. She hoped not.
One final swallow finished off her wineglass. She wiped her lips, then lowered her hand to set her napkin on her lap. Eyes fixed front, with a deep breath, she slid her hand over onto Daniel's lap.
He stiffened, but said nothing. She paused, then pressed his left thigh with her open palm. Daniel wiped his own lips, then moved his left hand under the table. He rested it on her wrist, gently pressing
her hand to him.
Carol flushed and squeezed him. His fingers closed lightly around her wrist; she slid her hand farther over, wanting to make her intentions clear. After a moment, she reached her target.
Not gay, she thought, not at all gay.
His left hand around her wrist, he gently urged her on, placing her hand firmly on top of... another hand?
What the hell? Was he some kind of pervert? Touching himself with his right?
It was then that she felt the other hand try to pull away, its long fingernails scratching hers. Carol tried to pull back her own hand, but Daniel's fingers around her wrist held it in place. The other hand, the one with the fingernails, was also unable to escape. Carol couldn't help but have her hand side by side with someone else's, pinned down on top of Daniel.
Carol leaned forward to see who was sitting on the other side of Daniel, just as her sister Ellen did the same. They both sat back, bolt upright.
Daniel, both of his strong hands under the table, held them in place in his lap until they calmed down, and the danger of a public scene was passed. He turned back and forth from Carol to Ellen, giving each the kind of smile that would light a cigarette across a crowded bar. Then, slowly, he released their wrists and lifted his own hands to the table. He leaned back in his seat to see what they would do.

This one's for you and your lovely wife, Tony. It was just photoshopping, bad photoshopping, I swear ...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lou Freshwater - Not Looking for Happy

Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A.
Blogging at Baby's Black Balloon 

Lou's out on the front porch watching the rain.
I'm in the kitchen boiling the kettle for tea.
It's one of those cold, gray all day rains that has stretched into all week. A steady torrent rushes across the eavestroughs and out the downspout. Blackbirds huddle in the bird feeder, feathers soaked. Dark sedans cruise by, new puddles in their wake. An old woman carrying a black umbrella and a grocery bag picks her way along the sidewalk.
"She reminds me of Lucille," Lou says.
"Who?" I call from the stove. The kettle is just starting to whistle and I can't honestly hear what she's saying. "Hang on, Lou, tea's almost done." I pour boiling water into an old Brown Betty and toss in a couple of Red Rose tea bags. "Only in Canada, Lou," I say loudly, gathering the rest of the tea stuff onto a tray and carrying it out to the porch. 
"Pity," she says, smiling.
Lou has a lovely smile. Fragile, really. Timid and somehow hopeful. But lovely nevertheless. She is sitting on a love seat near the screened windows, a heavy fisherman's cord sweater and faded Levis loose on her slender frame. She looks 15 years younger than she is.
"See that woman with the umbrella?" she asks. I nod. "She reminds me of Lucille."
"A woman I wrote about."
"A real woman?" I ask.
"Real enough," Lou says. "She is every woman who has never gotten a break yet continues to get up every day – with her dignity intact or ready to fake it – and punches back in order to help instead of hurt the people she loves."
Lou is watching the woman make slow progress down the street. I follow her eyes and try to see what Lou sees. "You see a lot in one old woman walking in the rain," I say.
"There's a lot in all of us," Lou says. "Lucille, she's compassionate and ornery, and handles things on any given day that would break the back of lesser people, even though she knows there is no pot of gold at the end of any rainbow."
We are interrupted by Lou's cell phone. It's one of her two kids calling, asking when she's coming home. "I won't be long," she promises. I pour tea while she's talking. Her face is animated, relaxed. The writer sylph has disappeared and in her place is a caring mother. When she's done, she picks up her tea and asks what we were talking about.
"You," I say.
"No we weren't," she says. 
"Maybe not. But I am curious about you. You're one of the strong silent types on the #fridayflash circuit. Strong and knowing, yet quiet and unassuming. Sometimes I just want to ask who the heck you are."
Lou looks away. A moment or two of silence lingers. I wait.
Finally she speaks, her head still turned away, staring down the yard in the long-disappeared footsteps of the old woman with the black umbrella.
"I'm a country girl," she says. "I'm a city girl. I'm strong as nails but I feel every wisp of wind like it moves through my core. And sometimes that makes me very tired.
"I am a mother and that is always the thing that comes first, even on the days when that is the hardest thing.
"My day job was a student, and now I have no day job. Will you hire me?" she asks with a rueful smile.
"In a heartbeat," I answer. 
"Lou," I say, "why do you write?"
She sips her tea while she thinks, and finally puts the mug down on the tray. 
"I write because, in my tumultuous life, it is something that has always been there internally, even though I'm only now beginning to understand it.
"And because it is the thing that makes me feel like all of my cells are together and working in harmony as they should be."
"You write so well," I say.
"Thanks," Lou says.
"No really. Your writing has a very iconic, classic American flavour. You remind me of Steinbeck. And your characters are always real. Do you even realize what a strong American style you have?"
Lou stares at me. 
"What?" I ask.
"I don't know how to answer this," she says, "because I am floored by your comparison. If I have a 'master' which I hold as my standard, it is Steinbeck. I consider him to be the American writer. He never went saloning in Paris and he never put form above character and telling the truth. He wrote about being an American by doing stuff, real stuff, and by being an American. And Steinbeck has such a tangible affection for his characters."
I kinda laugh. "Like you care for Lucille?"
She smiles back.
"Yeah. I wrote that story because I love Lucille. Seriously though, I should only have half of an English degree because I concentrated so heavily in American literature and, although I don't know what my 'style' is, I certainly aspire to be an American woman writer who uses her voice to honour those who don't have one."
"So Steinbeck is your favourite author then?" I ask. "Oh, did you want more tea?"
Lou shakes her head to the tea.
"I must throw in Moby Dick as my honourable mention but my favourite remains Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. It is my favourite for all the reasons I mentioned before, but also because of the staggering descriptions of both the environmental landscape as well as the landscape of humanity.
"It sums up my feelings about my country because it truly does show the best and worst of America. You have the faceless greed and inhumanity of the banks and others, and then you have the gut and grit and determination of the American individual, whose only weapon against brutal circumstances is an indomitable strength and will. 
"These are some of the individuals and the big issues I wish more of today's literary writers would take on instead of navel-gazing and showing off with pretty cartwheels."
Lou turns and looks at me. "I've gotta go. The kids are waiting. I've gotta make dinner and then tonight I have some volunteer work to do."
She does a fair bit of volunteering. A few years ago she was honoured with a volunteer of the year award in North Carolina. I remember her saying once, "I try to leave things a little better than when I found them. It's one of the things that keep me going."
My heart goes out to this woman, whose real name is Lori, who always seems so sad but writes with such enthusiasm. I want to reach out and hold her, and tell her everything is going to be ok.
Instead, I just ask her another question. Well, two questions. Is she a happy person or a sad person? And why does her blog have such an unusual name?
"Baby's Black Balloon comes from the Goo Goo Dolls song, and that may answer your happy or sad question. 
"Having said that, I am not looking for happy. 
"I am looking for moments to treasure and I still manage to find those on most days."

Black Balloon 
by the Goo Goo Dolls

Baby's black balloon makes her fly
I almost fell into that hole in your life
And you're not thinking about tomorrow
'Cause you were the same as me
But on your knees

A thousand other boys could never reach you
How could I have been the one
I saw the world spin beneath you
And scatter like ice from the spoon
That was your womb

Comin' down the world turned over
And angels fall without you there
And I go on as you get colder
Or are you someone's prayer

You know the lies they always told you 
And the love you never knew
What's the things they never showed you
That swallowed the light from the sun
Inside your room

Comin' down the world turned over
And angels fall without you there
And I go on as you get colder
Or are you someone's prayer

And there's no time left for losin'
When you stand they fall

Comin' down the world turned over
And angels fall without you there
And I go on as you get colder

All because I'm
Comin' down the years turn over 
And angels fall without you there
And I'll go and lead you home and
All because I'm
All because I'm
And I'll become
What you became to me

by Lou Freshwater
In between a few smacks of gum the cashier at the Piggly Wiggly said, “That’ll be ten fifty.”  Lucille took out her book of food stamps, the ones she called her coupons, and handed them to the girl to pay for the powdered baby formula now being put into a brown paper bag.  Lucille then placed a Hershey’s bar down on the counter and took a dollar bill out of her dainty change purse and handed it to the girl.  Philip had been asking for the last two weeks and she figured this would be as good a day as any.  She finished with the cashier, put the candy bar into the bag with the formula, and walked out into the parking lot to begin making her way toward the main road.
Although it was still October, winter was hissing at Lucille from the trees.  It had been a cold and rainy spell.  Her path along the side of the road was a maze of shallow muddy dips in the ground. The cars blew her dress every time they passed her. She walked for about a half mile to Four Corners.  There was one blinking yellow light in the southbound direction, but nobody ever paid any attention to it, so it might as well have not even been there.  Lucille stood at the corner, waiting to cross.  She hoisted the brown bag from one hip to the other, in one fluid swinging motion. Finally, she got a break in the traffic and started across, right into a hole of thick and dirty brown water which soaked her right foot, sock and all, down to the bone.
After another mile and a half, her foot was so cold she could barely tell it was there anymore.  It felt like her body ended at her ankle.  As she got near her place, she adjusted the tortoise shell comb that she had used to pull her hair back off her face.  There were about ten buildings in the cluster where she lived.  All washed out brick and graffiti.  They called it Beau Gardens, but everyone still called it the plantation. Underneath her shoes she could feel the shattered glass and even though it wasn’t making much noise, in her head it seemed loud as it cracked underneath her rubber soles.  Taking her key out of her dress pocket, the one she usually wore to town, Lucille quickened her pace. The hissing had turned to a heavy cold mist and the brown paper bag on her hip had started to sag and collapse, making the weight and the shape of the baby formula seem even more awkward in her arm.  Her knee felt like it was about to give out, making the last ten feet seem like a mile.
Lucille looked at the small porch overhang with two white columns holding it up.  Right about then, Philip opened the door and started to come out.  “Turn your tail around and get back in there before you catch phenmonia,” she said, hardly opening her mouth.
“Ms. Margaret said I could come out and help you.”
“Hush your mouth and get on back in there. Right now!”
Philip turned and went back in, leaving the door open to suck the cold air inside the tiny apartment.  Lucille stiffened her back and said to herself, “Six more, just six more.”
She took a step.  “Five more.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

America - Rita, Lou & Tony

Before I say anything else, let me say this: would someone please go over to Alan Davidson's blog and enter his holiday-themed writing contest? The guy is over there, wearing out the knees on his good oilskins, begging people to send him stories. Jesus, Mary & Joseph, it's getting embarrassing. And don't look at me, I already sent him one – it's up to you now. Only one more week until deadline and he has actual PRIZES. Good prizes, even. So go. Humour me. Humour him.
Thank you. I now return you to our regularly scheduled program.

American Weeks – I may have to rename it American Month if this goes on much longer!
Seriously, though, we're in the homestretch with only two more American writers to feature.
Tomorrow night I hope to get Lou Freshwater up at the River. If you haven't come across Lou's blog at Baby's Black Balloon, you'd better show tomorrow. To me Lou is a female combination of John Steinbeck and Bruce Springsteen. She wears her intelligent heart on her emotional sleeve and her stories always take my breath away.
Tuesday night look forward to meeting Tony Noland, one of the most popular men on the #fridayflash circuit with a happy ton of faithful followers who applaud and converse with this prolific and – dare I say it – sexy male scribe. There's a village about an hour away from me named Norland (famous because Mike Myers sometimes gasses up there on his way to the cottage). So I always have to check myself when I'm talking about Tony for fear he winds up at the Petro-Can instead of his blog, Landless.
I have had so much fun doing this, I can't even begin to tell you. Scarfing back apple pie with Anthony, interviewing John in his bathroom, photoshopping Alan's pix on Uncle Sam, it's all been a blast. Thanks to everyone for participating and everyone else for commenting.
I was only going to do a quick note tonight to let everyone know I took the weekend off but will be back in the saddle tomorrow, but I believe I am incapable of writing short. Even a short note.
I would suck at haiku.
Tonight I leave you with a clip from one of my favourite American musicals, West Side Story. When I was a kid growing up in Markham, Ontario, me and my friend Mark and his little brother, Andrew, would dance around the rec room of my parent's basement, acting out this song. (We also did Radio City Music Hall-style tributes to Joni Mitchell and Jesus Christ Superstar, but that's another story.)
To an unwordly Canadian girl growing up in a small farming community, Rita Moreno's famous lilac dress and her incredible dancing were America. I thought everybody down there was glamourous and exciting and terribly, terribly exotic.
I still love this movie. I have I Feel Pretty on my iPod. I know most of the words to Tonight. And I still cry at the end.