Writing 101 – Day Six – A Character-Building Experience

My friend – i’ll call her Kate – wasn’t always my friend. In fact, the first time I met Kate I was accepting her resume for a position available at my workplace, and I remember thinking, “Oh God, please, don’t let them hire her, I swear if they hire her, I will have to kill her.” So of course she was hired.

Kate is short of stature, and tending towards Rubenesque. She isn’t afraid to wear clothes that accentuate her assets, and she’s the first to point out her own flaws, sometimes taking self-deprecation to a higher level. She has black hair that is shot through with dandruff from excema – a fact i think must drive her crazy given her previous life as a hairdresser. She is quite pale of complexion, and acne spatters her cheeks and forehead. She does a great smokey eye makeup that I will always be envious of, and she reminds me sometimes of Elizabeth Taylor circa National Velvet…with a nose ring. She will often come to work dressed in a flamenco-style skirt and calf-high boots that always make her seem far taller than she really is – even when she’s sitting down.

I have seen some people described as ‘bubbly’, but i’ve often found that used as a euphemism for ‘bimbo’. Kate is definitely one of the bubbliest, non-bimbo types I’ve ever met. She is genuine and positive and a caring soul. When you talk – she listens with her whole body leaning in, absorbing what you’re saying. I’ve always found blue eyes to be cold, but when Kate is listening or empathizing, they are warm and compassionate. However, when she is riled or defending someone, they are capable of ice as well. I’ve sat beside her for an entire work shift and never seen the level of optimism and energy fade – each person gets the same friendly, familiar greeting as the one who comes in a minute before the shift is done. Her standard greeting is a Cockney ‘Allo, ‘allo, ‘allo!” even though she’s born and bred in Canada.

She is so fabulous in a customer service position, because she actually cares about the people who come in every day, and will do everything she can to make sure that the patron is satisfied. I am not an outgoing type of person, and it took me a fair few months before I could comfortably be on the same shift as Kate. Once I told myself to give her a chance, and engaged her in conversation, it felt like she understood that I took time to warm up to people, and that I wasn’t as exuberant as she was. She kept a safe distance, but after a few more shifts, and calling on our common bond of motherhood, I understood her appeal, and what it was like to be this woman’s friend. It’s like this great big warm, magnetic light that calls to that part of you from grade school, that needs to be liked and appreciated, and draws you into her sphere of influence. It’s great to be around someone like that, who can make you feel like you’re the most amazing person on the planet, and while she may say that she is so lucky to work in the place that she does…really we’re very lucky to have her.


Writing 101 – Day Five – Be Brief

She had crumpled up the paper and left it to be blown around with the rest of the trash. I knelt and retrieved it from the wet gutter, opening my words to the light of day. Remembering every word without reading them, I put the apology in my pocket and walked back the way I had come.

Writing 101 – Day Four – Serially Lost

I lost my nephew in a Walmart for thirty of the longest seconds on record. I discovered that it is possible for a five year old to become invisible in the space of seconds. One minute he was there, the next minute he was nowhere to be found, and I was sitting on a stack of ten-pound bags of potting soil, feeling my brain about to melt. For some reason  thought that opening my eyes wider would help spot him, or induce a bout of x-ray vision, perhaps. I tried to remember if there was a procedure to follow that didn’t end up in me being charged with child neglect,but no luck. I went through all the ways I could tell my sister I had lost her only child in Walmart, and then tried to open my eyes even wider.

‘He can’t have gone far,’ I thought, desperately trying to put a good spin on my nephew’s debut on a milk carton.  I didn’t want to stray to far from my potting soil ground zero, because I knew as soon as I walked away from that pile of dirt, my nephew would appear, not see me, and disappear even more deeply than he already had. Logic is not a thing that occurs when I am in panic mode.

I did make a quick survey of the aisles closest to me, and could actually feel my heart sink in my chest when again he was nowhere to be found.

I had finally resolved to go to the last resort of the lost and ask customer service to put on an announcement that I was unfit to be the temporary caregiver of  a living thing when someone tapped my arm from behind. I turned around and saw the sparkling blue eyes and impish grin of my nephew, who had apparently decided that I had suffered enough.

My reaction was pure stereotype: I grabbed him and hugged him as close as he could bear, then held him out at arm’s length and  bawled him out for scaring the life out of me. Then I went and bought him a Frosty.

The urge to disappear on out elders must run through my sister’s genes. I remember her pulling a similar stunt on my mom, and once on me when we were kids.

My own son has been thoroughly schooled on why he should never, under any circumstances and on pain of death (or at least a good grounding) hide from Mummy anywhere. I have never played hide and seek with him, and he’s actually lucky I did decide to have children after going through that terror-filled afternoon. My nurturing side took a real shitkicking that afternoon, and  I not only thought I wasn’t clever enough to take care of a small child, but  also that being the one responsible for losing one I loved so much would probably run me for life. Life, as they say, goes on. Time heals all wounds. The powerful play moves on.

Writing 101 – Day 3 – Commit to a Writing Practice

The three most important  songs in my life are probably pretty fluid. Ironic as a musician that I have a hard time pinning down just three that are meaningful, I think there are a few that have marked important passages in my life: Brahms clarinet sonata in F minor was the piece I played to get accepted into my university of choice, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in d minor was the first live (or recorded even) piece of music to make me cry – it is still one that I can’t not listen to it, and the Copland Clarinet Concerto is my great white whale – it’s a piece I love dearly and know intimately, but am pretty certain i’ll never be able to play it except in my basement.

University was probably the time of my life where I learned the most, and not just academically or musically, but also stepped into a much larger world – to the Matrix extent, but it was a bit of a culture shock. I went from being a big fish in a very little pond to being a tetra in the Atlantic.  I learned a great deal about humility that first year, and the many years since actually. I also learned a great deal socially, in a personal and political sense – those five years shaped my outlook for the rest of my life, I think…

I would also add a fourth piece to my list of important songs: the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back. This was the first album I ever bought. I loved it so much that I played it on the record player and held up my tape recorder to it so I would have it with me on our summer family road trips. I bought the album before I saw the movie, and it led me to classical music and music as a pathway to the soul, maybe even more than University did.

This is why is pains me to see orchestras pooh-poohing movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks – these aren’t to be underrated – this is the future of live orchestral performance. This is the bridge to a younger generation of instrumental music, and many orchestras are ignoring a sure-fire draw to their theatres, just as Shakespeare was a draw to Elizabethan audiences. Music is music and you can’t say one is better than another, not really. You can certainly appreciate other genres, even if you don’t like it, which I think is a point many people miss.

Music is the path to an open mind, and to become judgemental about it only closes the mind.


Writing 101 – Day Two: A Room With a View

The parking lot of my local Y has not seen a paver or a line painter ever. The parking stalls are more helpful suggestions that use skills learned from years of parking in front lawns at the PNE: “Is there room? Ya got room?” The tarmac has degraded to the point of very closely-knit pebbles and a connective web of charcoal cracks runs through the entire lot. When it rains, the lot turns into a life-sized version of Frogger, and we jump from high ground to high ground, dodging the cars that are desperately trying to make their escape.

Noah and I survive the obstacle course and negotiate the double glass doors of the front entrance. Considering the amount of children that come through these doors, the glass is always remarkably clean. This could also be because most of the children that come through these doors are pre-programmed to press The Button. This is one of very few things that toddlers can feel they are in control of: I can make the door open. I can hold up an entire network of foot traffic just by approaching the doors. “Oh Jimmy, do you want to push the button? Okay, Let Jimmy push the button. No, not like that honey, like this. Like this, are you watching mummy? Okay everyone let’s let Jimmy push the button for the next door (double glass doors, remember?)” So as a result, no one pushes the glass door itself when The Button can do it for them.

The front lobby has undergone many aesthetic and physical changes, but the one constant is the warm smell of pool chlorine. It immediately sends me back to swimming lessons, riding bikes with no helmet on, and rolling down the window just a tiny bit when Dad fills up the car at the gas station. The carpet has been replaced at least once, the watery grey institutional is gone, in its place is a smart office pattern in warmer, welcoming colours. The concrete block walls are painted white and decaled with vinyl letters and the latest corporate mission statements on the walls. The girl at the front desk is a usual evening one – nice enough, but clearly disinsterested in the light trickle of parents, children and gym buffs coming and going.

I follow the professional carpet to the adult change room, exchange my polyester work uniform for something casual and comfortable, lock it up and head up what I always see in my mind’s eye as an unnecessary number of stairs for a gym. I always imagine that a wise yogi, not a water fountain should be what greets whoever makes it to the top of this staircase, ready to dispense wisdom of the ages.

The room is harshly lit and densely populated with recumbent bikes, stairclimbers, spinning bikes, treadmills and a wall that has seen more than a few trendy cardio machines and equipment come and go. The go-to equipment, the free weights, line an entire mirrored wall. I grab a dry and a wet paper towel from the dispenser, and scope out my machine. Today I made it here. Today I win.

Writing 101: Unlock The Mind

I can’t believe i’m actually sitting here doing nothing but writing…after a day filled with cat litter boxes, laundry, dishes and dealing with the Final Day (caps absolutely intended) of Spring Break, this feels as decadent as anything i’ve done in a long while. I used to teach middle school english, and always started each class with a ten minute free write. I never understood why the kids complained about not having anything to write, but now that i’ve got myself under the gun, I understand a bit better of what they felt. I need start feeling less like everything I produce needs to be a finished polished work right off the bat. There’s always room for improvement, dare to be wrong, dare to be less than perfect – just be honest. For a long while I felt that anything I wrote wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t even keep a journal because I felt guilty about jotting down some simple honest feelings whether they were good or bad. If I can’t be honest in a format that only I will read, how can I ever hope to try for anything more as a writer. After all these years, I do still consider myself to be a writer in my heart. I haven’t actually published anything except for that one chapter of fanfiction about 14 years ago…that’s probably the last thing I ever wrote, actually…weird.

So i’m not much for just stream of consciousness writing – I’m too much of a control-freak Virgo to actually let go enough to put anything to mind down on paper – I can’t even let spelling mistakes and punctuation errors go by without fixing them…trying to get better at that, letting go, not worrying about other people’s perceptions/opinions/perceived opinons…so far it seems to be working – at least I think it’s working, I haven’t bothered to ask anyone, so that’s got to be a good start.

I just looked at my timer: (see above notation about control-freak Virgo – I will not write a word more than 20 minutes once the alarm goes off, yes I set an alarm) and we’re sitting at about halfway – I should stop looking, beause then I start worrying about what i’m going to write. When I did this exercise with the middle-schoolers, I always told them, “If you don’t know what to write, then just write that!” Jesus, that was stupid…on so many levels. Sometimes, I just want to go back to my younger self and give her a good slap upside the head. This is so dumb, I feel like “publishing” a freewriting activity is a bit of a let-down after the rousing success of my “why don’t sharks eat clowns?” joke post (answer: read the post, it’s pretty funny).

I am not by nature someone who has problems deciding what to say, but just writing anything that comes to mind seems to dam everything up. It must pass through a worthiness filter before being allowed access to the typing neurons. Can you tell biology was not a strong suit of mine? I know enough, let’s leave it at that… This actually might be a better thing to do with a pencil and paper – it’s harder to go back and make corrections when you’re writing things, but then i’ve been writing fluently for far longer than I have been typing flurently. I am a do-it-yourself typer, I never took classes in keyboarding when I was in highschool, and was a hunt-and-pecker (*snicker*) for most of my adult life. At some point along the way, a typing speed was required of other jobs I took on, and so while I learned how to type relatively quickly and somewhat accurately, it still feels a bit foreign, like speaking French, but thinking in English. I see the words that I type in script in my head.

Watched the 2010 version of Robin Hood today – it actually did not suck as bad as I thought it might. I was curious (being Canadian) how much Alan Doyle (from legendary Canadian folk rockers Great Big Sea) was featured in it