First Drafts is a collaborative blog aimed at providing writers with a place to share their work on any subject they like.

(Near-) daily writing prompts are emailed to you to provide guidance or inspiration.

To sign up to First Drafts and to start receiving the writing prompts click here.

For previous writing prompts click here to visit the archives and choose any subject that inspires.

The Free Directory of Independent Writers and Artists

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Impervious

A bit more flash fiction. I'm not sure what's up with 'Lydia', but she keeps coming into my consciousness.

Lydia was sitting at her computer. Nothing was coming. She’d done a couple of writing exercises to warm up, but couldn’t produce anything else. At least nothing she wanted to keep.

She kept gazing out the window. The sun was out after weeks of cloud, snow and drizzle. The clear blue sky was inviting. Nothing better to do, she checked the weather channel - minus two Celsius – not bad. Better to be outside getting exercise than staring blankly at the computer monitor. - She was good at rationalization. - It was still early, not yet noon. There was time to take a short drive up the mountain and hike one of the short trails off Mt Seymour Parkway and be back well before Dr. Phil.

She put on her boots and ski jacket, looped a scarf around her neck and stuffed a pair of gloves in her pocket. She probably didn’t need the scarf, but you never know. Better safe than sorry, her grandmother always said.

In fifteen minutes, she was pulling over to park at one of the mid-mountain lots. It was a glorious day. She stepped over the roadside cement barrier to enter the trailhead. The snow was well-trampled with occasional dirt patches breaking through the most travelled parts of the trail.

Lydia knew exactly where she wanted to go. She headed for a jagged ridge just beyond the second bend in the trail. Following the ridge about thirty metres to the left, she came to a slight outcropping of rock that overlooked the water below. There was a panoramic view of the city across the inlet - the perfect spot for meditation and inspiration. She found her usual spot on a broad flattened boulder. - It had made her laugh the first time she saw it. The indentations on the surface mimicked the curves of her butt, literally begging for her to sit. It had become her special seat. - She eased herself onto the rock, bracing for the momentary icy-cold dampness through the fabric of her jeans.

This is exactly what I need, she thought, a chance to get away and clear my mind. Fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes later – she wasn’t quite sure – she heard a rustling below her. Strange. It’s usually silent in the winter. It’s too early for animals and there isn’t a trail down there, so it couldn’t be people. She heard it again. Curiosity got the better of her and she just had to look. Standing at the edge of the ridge, she peered over and thought she saw movement - something round and dark. Could somebody have gotten lost and fallen off the trail?

“Halloo! Is somebody down there?” No answer. But there was the rustling again. She eased her left foot over the edge to get a better angle. Yes, she was sure there was something moving. Grabbing hold of a branch from a nearby bush with her right hand, she slid her left foot a little further down the slope. - That’s when the branch snapped. - The sudden movement dislodged the loosely packed snow from under her boot and she found herself with legs splayed, half-straddling the lip of the snow-covered ridge and slipping downhill.

“Great.” She leaned towards her uphill leg, grabbing handfuls of snow and dirt, hoping to get a solid grip. It didn’t help. Instead, she felt herself sliding further downhill in a split-legged position until her right heel finally let go of the remaining lip of the ridge and she rolled, bumped and skidded down the slope, eventually coming to a thawumping stop and blackness.

By the time she woke, Lydia was too numb to feel anything. She was impervious to the cold. Lying in a snow bank will do that to you. She looked around to get her bearings. Straight in front of her she saw a dark green garbage bag snagged on a bush. It was ballooned out with trapped air, bobbing back and forth, and rustling against the loose branches.

At least, she thought, now I have something to write about.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Smoke

Steve Harper stood by the large window of his apartment looking out at the panoramic views it offered.

Usually he could look out over the city to the mountains that flanked it. Usually at this time, as day bled into dusk, the city was just starting to sparkle as the lights came on, though the buildings could still be seen, golden in the setting sun. Usually at this time the mountains were coloured a deep purple, darkening to a black as they met the city skyline. Usually at this time the sky looked as though it was on fire, a fascinating mix of reds, yellows and oranges that Steve thought beautiful.

But not today.

Today it was not the sky that burned, but the city. Everywhere he looked buildings were alight, down at street level cars and trucks spewed thick, black smoke into the air. Dark specks that were people ran in all directions, sometimes alone, sometimes in big groups. Where they went, fire followed. A pall of smoke hung over the city like a shroud. What a fitting description, Steve thought.

The wail of sirens filled the air and every now and then Steve could see a police car or fire truck dashing in response to another outbreak of violence, looting or arson. The city’s emergency services stood no chance, they were powerless to hold back the tide of anger that was sweeping through the populace. In some cases, Steve was sure, the services themselves would be joining in.

The outbreaks were steadily heading from the south to the north and he knew it wouldn’t be too long before they reached his neighbourhood, his building. This wasn’t just a riot, not just a brief show of rebellion that would soon be quelled.

No, this is it. The end game. Tonight the city burns and tomorrow it will be nothing but a shell. The ice in the drink he held rattled as his hands shook. He took a deep swig of the amber liquid to calm himself.

The call would come soon. As a member of TRU - Tactical Response Unit - it would only be a matter of time before Steve’s pager went off, calling him to do his duty. He was surprised it hadn’t come already, but he supposed the Captain had his hands full at the moment. In truth, he should have headed to Garside - TRU headquarters and home of all the city’s enforcement teams - hours ago. Most of his team would already be there. Yet he hadn’t and he was beginning to wonder if he would respond when the call actually did come. He turned to look at the closed door at the far end of the room.

Behind it his daughter slept. He couldn’t imagine leaving her with Mrs Harman two floors down as he usually did when he was called in. Not today, not when he knew there would be no stopping this plague reaching his building, not when he knew that even those on the eighth floor, as Mrs Harman was, wouldn’t be safe.

He turned back to the window and saw more fires had begun a block closer. What was it now, thirteen, fourteen blocks away? It wouldn’t be long. Two or three hours at most before his own neighbourhood was beginning to burn.

The pager attached to his belt beeped twice. Steve Harper took another swig of his drink before looking down and checking it. It was Garside and the 911 code was tacked onto the end of the message. Urgent, it meant.

He looked back outside and watched the chaos unfold. The smoke drifted closer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

General Comment

Sorry I haven't been posting anything here lately! I've been trying to get moving on my nanonovel from November and it's really so very rough and slapdash that it's almost like starting over.

But I wanted to point out something that I thought was neat. The last time I wrote something from a prompt ("river") I posted it here. Writing was not going smoothly for me that day and I was frustrated with what I wrote. I didn't feel that it conveyed the picture in my head very well. Well, it really didn't, but apparently it worked well enough that Rozanne got the idea of what I was going for and she commented to that effect.

I had been tinkering and tinkering with the opening segment to my novel. I wanted to show the main character as being on the outside of things, of her life, her relationships, her marriage... just a lonely onlooker in her life. And Rozanne helped me see that it was this that I was also taking a stab at with the river thing, where I described an episode of my own life where I'd felt like an outsider amongst the people around me and I decided to rework the river piece and see if it can become a beginning for my novel.

Who knows? Maybe I'll trash it all tomorrow and start again. I haven't a clue what I'm doing! But I've felt this week like I shouldn't waste time on prompt writing when I should be making progress on this novel writing and it turned out that perhaps the prompt writing and the novel writing were one and the same.

So I'll try to work in some more prompt writing. And thanks again, Rozanne, for showing me what I wrote with fresh eyes.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A wild-eyed dream......

She picked up the phone after the first ring. "Hello......., is that you Tillie?"

"Of course, it's me! It's 8:30 in the morning.........I call at 8:30 every morning!.........ma, listen, I had this terrible dream last nite. I woke up sweating with a terrible hot flash to end all hot flashes!"

"So this was a "hot" dream?"

"Nooooooo.....it was not a "hot" dream. It just made me hot........oh forget how I felt. I was terrified! It was sooo real. I dreamed that I had twins ma! Twins. They kept crying & screaming. I tried to wake up, but I couldn't."

"How sweet. Twins. Was it boys, girls, a mixture? Dark hair, I hope!"

"Ma, who cares if they were boys or girls with or without dark hair. I'm 49 years old, I've missed 2 periods, feel lousy with nausea. I dream of having twins & you want to know about boys or girls! Ma. Don't you know how aggravated I am because of all this? It's terrible. I keep telling myself, it's the change, but then I remember Aunt Ida having a baby at 50! Ma, I can't stand it. What if I'm pregnant?"

"Oh shush! You worry too much. Aunt Ida had a baby at 50 because she was fooling around with her boss, that's why she got pregnant. Your boss is a kid so don't worry........ah, he is a kid, right......also gay? So, you're not pregnant. At least, I don't think you're pregnant. You said yourself that Sal sleeps in another room. Right?"

"Ma. Yes, Sal sleeps in another room.......but that's got nothing to do with the price of eggs in China. Once in awhile, he sleeps with me. You get that ma? Once in a big while.....he sleeps....."

Yeah, yeah. I'm a woman.........I get it! I guess pregnant is not what you want to be right now? Am I right or am I right? Did you tell Sal?"

"You got it! Pregnant is not what I want anymore.....like nada.......forever. And what? Are you kidding? Tell Sal? He'd love it. He could brag to everyone about his 'super, duper sperm!' Come to think of it, twins would be easier to take than his struttin' around, showin' off. He keeps saying that bald men are more virile. A baby, maybe twins. That's all we'd need. All he worries about is his virility. He could make one of those commercials except he'd have to explain why he needs a pill since he sleeps in another room or in the recliner & falls asleep after supper every night.!"

"So. Whadda' ya want from me? At my age I can't be sympathetic. I'm too worried about my arthritis & what to cook for supper. Don't act crazy. It's just a dream. And don't even think about Aunt Ida........rest her soul. Even if she did fool around with her boss! Maybe you should go to a doctor about those dreams. What's this? Maybe the third or fourth bad dream you've had lately? Except having twins doesn't seem like such a bad dream?"

"Ma! Don't you think I should see a doctor about being pregnant not about bad dreams? You think I should see a doctor?"

"Well whaddya' ya think I think? Sure, I think. Doctors can usually tell you if you're pregnant even tho' you aren't anyway. You should maybe see one to check it out. Do baby doctors take care of bad dreams, too? You could check about that too."

"Ma. I don't know why I tell you these things. You don't make sense sometimes. But I feel like I have to tell you, ma. I tell you everything. Maybe that's the problem..........why you don't understand. Maybe I tell you too much. But this is different. You're the only one I can tell. This is embarrassing at my age.I thought I was through with all this......babies & stuff. I'd rather have grandchildren, but we know that's out. Well, so far, it's out."

"What embarrassed? Lots of women are having babies later in age. I don't think all of them are test-tube babies. Maybe a few. Or some have other women carry their eggs, right? That seems dumb to me. But today, I guess nothing surprises me anymore. So age shouldn't embarrass. Not sleeping in the same bed with your husband is embarrassing. So is having a baby with your boss when you're 50 years old. Now that's verrrrry embarrassing! See what I mean? And besides, why is being a grandmother out, so far?"

"Yeah, ma. I see what you mean. I shouldn't tell you this stuff. That's what I mean! I guess I'll call Doctor Z. She's a family doctor, but she'll know about this. Probably about the dreams too."

"Good, see Dr. Z. And what about being a grandmother? Why is that out for now? You want to explain this to me. Me who doesn't understand, but listens anyway to her crazy, but beautiful daughter! Why no grandmother, so far?"

"Ma. You know. I told you that Vicki says no to having kids. She & her "significant other" don't want to bring anymore kids into this world. At least that's what they say."

"Right. Now I really don't understand. What if we all felt that way? Then they really wouldn't have to worry about bringing anymore kids into the world. Should we be ashamed.....we wanted families. You & me. We got married, we had kids, right? What's so bad about getting married. About bringing kids into the world? Yeah, I know what they say, but do they really think that way? I think they'll change their minds. They go down to city hall, have a wedding, have babies. I see it happen all the time."

"You see it happen all the time? What did you drink for breakfast? It doesn't happen all the time. At least not with our kids or our friends kids. They all have weird ideas. They don't want to commit. What does that mean ma? When I got married, I don't think the word commit came up once. Not even once. Now it's every other word Vicki says when she talks about not marrying her "SO".......that's what she calls him.........her "SO". I swear. When she says that I expect her to add a "B" to the "SO!" Ha! Wouldn't that be funny if she slipped & said "SOB! instead of "SO." Sal would split a gut laughing..........& I think I would too. But none of this helps me with this problem."

"So will you call Dr. Z for an appointment? Why don't you do that & call me back, ok?"

"Yeah, ma. I'll let you know. And ma, would you go with me. To the doctor I mean? You understand, right?"

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

river

This was just a scene I wanted to capture.  I want to overhaul it into a slice of rural Idaho life, with the poverty (both financial and of the imagination) and lack of movement or hope.  This is choppy and is only a beginning;  words felt like sludge today.  I may revisit it and I may not...




I was sitting on the edge of the river, dangling my feet in the water while watching my children swim.  Another wife was sitting with me, also watching her children.  We were both "reunion spouses;" our husbands had gone to school together and were convened with the rest of their class at the 20-year reunion barbecue party by the river.

There weren't too many of us spouses, at least ones that hadn't also gone to the same school.  This was a small town in Idaho and most of the couples had been couples back in high school, too.  Or if the original couples had divorced, they had paired off with other former classmates, making complicated work of sorting out which children belonged to whom.  Not that most of the children of these classmates were young, other than mine and those of my new acquaintance.  It had been shocking for me to discover how many people my age had grown children and even grandchildren.  But that comes with marrying one's high school sweetheart and settling down early.

My husband had ventured out.  He'd joined the navy at 19 and though we met and married (I was a college student) only a few years later, at 22, we opted not to have children right away so that Bill could go to college when he got out of the navy.  Although he ended up going to the university that is only about 45 minutes away from his hometown, it might as well have been a different state altogether.  Or country.  The few times he would run into a an old classmate during those college years, maybe two years after their last chance encounter, maybe even one, there'd inevitably be a conversation such as:

"So, you still up at the college?"

"Yep," Bill would say.  "I'm in my sophomore year.  Two years down and two to go!"

"That many?!  How many years is this deal again?"

I still don't know how many people he went to high school with really understood that he was in college, and not training for some sort of certificate program.  It was just a completely different view of life.

So at 38 we had the youngest children of the class and the woman sitting next to me at the river was someone I desperately wanted to get to know better, as she had the next-youngest children.  Her husband had also ventured beyond the state boundaries of Idaho and that and the fact that we were both outsiders - she had grown up in Texas - was promising.  There was another night of reunion festivities ahead of me this weekend and I was hoping to have an ally.

Mostly we were talking about how we didn't know anyone there.  "We haven't been back here since we got married," she'd say.  Since we lived about five hours away I had to resort to a more emotional distance.

"Well, we come back every year, maybe twice a year, but I never really fit in," I'd counter.

"Oh, my husband's family doesn't know what to think of me, what with the way I talk and all," she drawled.  "But they just don't get that there are cities in Texas, too!  They assume that I know how to ride a horse and drive a tractor but I'd just as soon spend the day at the mall!" she laughed.

Not one to enjoy shopping, I was trumped.  For a minute.  "Yeah, even the women in Bill's family hunt and fish.  And I'm a vegetarian!" I produced this proudly, only realizing at the last moment that I'd be eating all weekend.  While I had an on-again, off-again relationship with vegetarianism, I was currently off.  Now I'd have to shun the meat all weekend or eat when she wasn't looking.

I was staring at the water and periodically mediating squabbles between my children when I suddenly heard a voice call out, "Aunt Diane?"  Even after being married for 16 years most people in Bill's family get my name wrong.  I was a little dizzy for a moment; I'd spent the past twenty minutes detailing what an outsider I was and then I was being recognized by a niece at the river.  It was a little unsettling.

As we chatted - she was scoping the sites by the river for her upcoming wedding and Bill and I, and the kids, "should come" - I marvelled at her new height and poise.  The first time I had ever met her was just after Bill and I had gotten married and were on our long honeymoon trip.  She was about four and had settled immediately onto my lap.  "I should have gotten you a present," she said mournfully.  "Maybe a watch!"  My heart had melted.  I'd squeezed her tightly and assured her that no present was needed and just as I'd said this her father, one of Bill's older brothers, had growled at her.  "You leave them alone!  Go play!"

She'd slipped off of my lap and slunk dejectedly off, despite my stammering protestations that all was fine, that I liked talking to her, but Don would have none of it. 

Looking at her now, with her toddler on her hip (she'd gotten pregnant high school, and the man she would be marrying was not the father) as she discussed wedding plans, I felt maternal, or whatever the equivalent for aunts is. 

[segue to wedding] - This part is lifted in pieces from an old blog archive:

Ah, Idaho weddings. I fretted a bit on the way over there, thinking that I hadn't dressed up enough. On the one hand, I know Bill's family. They are casual, to say the least. But it was a wedding. I had chosen the only thing I could think of, considering the heat, a casual sundress sort of thing. Bill and the kids were also in "casual Friday" regalia. But as soon as we arrived, I was reasssured. Jeans. Shorts. T-shirts with topless bar logos. I was considered dressed up.

The bride was scheduled to arrive by boat, on the river. Everyone was milling around the folding chairs, drinking. Drinking? Isn't that supposed to be after the wedding ceremony? Oh, but I had forgotten that in rural north Idaho, you always byob. People arrive even at a wedding with their big plastic cups of "pop."

train


From A Writer's Book of Days:

"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody thinks it's true." (After Paul Simon)


Kelly and I would be walking home from school, holding hands tightly the way first-graders do.  If we were going to her house, we'd pass close enough to the train tracks to hear the rumbling and whistling trains and we'd clasp hands even more tightly, our nails digging into each other's palms.

Because the elementary school was fairly close to the train tracks,  we had many assemblies with scary films meant to educate us about the dangers of trains and playing on or near their tracks.  Kelly once almost passed out and I threw up at a particularly gory scene where the young heros get squashed at the end. 

So the films worked.  Even the sound of the faraway whistle gave us the shivers.  We'd never dream of playing within sight of a train.

Sometimes we walked to my house and once along the way we came across some graffiti on a fence.  We asked my mother what "fuck" meant and she reddened and told us to never say that again. 

When Kelly got home she asked her mother, Jan.  This was 1972 and Jan and Kelly's dad, Danny, were hippies.  Jan told Kelly that  it was another word for "love."  For about a month Kelly and I parted ways at the end of our walks home by saying, "I fuck you."  Someone must have put a stop to it, or maybe we just got bored of it.

The 'T'

(so I wrote something yesterday that dealt with trains, and since the topic just happend to be trains I figured I'd share a portion of it...My trip on the T.)

She was on the T by 7:07 and on her way to the courthouse. Jennifer loved the T. People watching provided her endless amounts of amusement. That early in the morning about seventy five percent of them are reading. And ninety percent of those reading are reading the Metro, a small newspaper you can purchase for a quarter every morning. Of course the big news that morning was the Steelers winning it all. And some article about a man causing some trouble at a gay bar. The paper didn't much interest her.

She focused her attention on the people. She thought it was hilarious how people sat every other seat. They'd stand before they filled in the other seats. She wonder if there was being kept out of the loop or if this was just one of those days where crazy things like this happened.

The train was eerily quiet. No conversations for her to eavesdrop on. So she amused herself with the many ads posted around. The train was reaching the Charles MGH stop. Jennifer took a moment to enjoy being above ground. The sun was just peaking over the rooftops, and she caught a glimpse of the Zakim Bridge before the train shifted and the view was taken away. The next stop was hers. She had to switch lines to the Green Line then take the train all the way to the end to Lechmere. Then from there is was a brisk walk for two blocks in the crisp morning air, to the Cambridge Courthouse.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Train

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, but I wonder how many have been on a train and listened to the sounds from inside.

How many have experienced the rhythmic vibration that imbeds itself deep in your brain; the side-to-side kachunking jostle; the click, click, clicking of the rails; the bumping up and down in your seat; and the whoosh – silence, whoosh - silence as the train passes stationary objects. The experience reminds me of that school sing-along song, “The Wheels on a Bus”.

I love train sounds. It makes me feel like I’m really going somewhere -- that it requires work to get from point A to point B. None of the quiet hum of an air-conditioned car or drone of a plane for me. I like the rattle and clacking of a train.

Monday, February 06, 2006

When Lydia awoke

Oops, I misread the prompt. Sorry. I'll post what I have anyway. It's a bit of flash fic.

When Lydia awoke this morning, she was filled with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. Janie was coming – arriving on Air Canada 211 at 11:40 from Calgary.

They’d known each other since junior high – inseparable despite radically different personalities. Janie was the wild child – extroverted and opinionated; Lydia - quiet and prone to introspection. From the outside, the only thing they had in common were their green eyes. What others didn’t realize was that they complemented and balanced each other. They were able to confide the deepest most intimate secrets to each other.

Their lives, not surprisingly, had taken different paths. Janie had moved to Toronto for university and Lydia had stayed in Vancouver. Not that they hadn’t tried to keep in touch. The first year, they wrote each other every month, then it gradually tapered off to a couple times a year, then only a few lines on a Christmas card. They completely lost touch after each had moved several times in the intervening years.

Lydia had married her high school, football captain sweetheart. She’d started dating Jeff in grade ten after he gave her a ride home from a fundraising event jointly held by the football jocks and the choir. They were another unlikely pair. After the wedding, Jeff went on to dental school while she worked as a teacher’s aide. When Jeff graduated, he set up his dental practice and they settled into the upscale neighbourhood of Kerrisdale. Shortly afterwards they had two children – a boy and a girl. How corny was that?

Janie, on the other hand, had lived the bohemian lifestyle of a student while getting a degree in Fine Arts. At some point, she decided her degree wouldn’t get her a job that paid enough to finance a love of art, travel and clothes. She went back to school and got a degree in business admin and marketing. Straight out of the U of Toronto, she got a job at a high-powered marketing firm in downtown TO. For four years, she climbed the corporate ladder - travel plans put on hold – as she lived the executive high life of expense accounts, fine dining and hobnobbing with Toronto society. It seemed she was being groomed for a shot at buying into the firm’s partnership. That is, until she met, and shortly thereafter, married the CEO of one of their clients. She quit her job and settled into a four bedroom executive home in Oakville. When Lydia heard about her friend settling into suburbia, she couldn’t believe it. No way would the Janie she knew want a house, kids and “suburban hell” (as she would not so delicately put it). Janie assured her it was what she wanted.

Anyways, they hadn’t seen, spoken or heard from each other in fifteen years. It was only by a fortuitous coincidence, they connected again on the internet. They’d both started weblogs - Lydia, calling herself, Deeyah - and Janie, now calling herself Jane. Independently following links and comments on various blogs, they recognized similar references to their high school. It was Janie, who first asked, “what year did you graduate?” It didn’t take more than a few emails to fill in the rest.

They corresponded and chatted back and forth for several months, catching up on their lives. Both were divorced – Janie twice. Lydia had remained in and around Vancouver, while Janie had moved from Toronto to Montreal to New York, back to Toronto then to Calgary where she now lived. Both had two children – all of them grown, moved out and independent.

Today, they would see each other again. What if they didn’t like each other anymore? What if they had nothing in common? What if this meeting was a big mistake? What if, what if, what if . . . . They’d both find out soon enough.

Waiting in the baggage claims area, Lydia scanned the arriving passengers. Janie said she’d be wearing a camel, mid-calf length coat with red scarf. Who knew if they’d recognize each other through the extra pounds, lines and years? Best to have something identifiable to avoid any embarrassing hugs with complete strangers. Lydia was wearing the West Coast uniform of jeans, T-shirt and jean jacket.

Lydia spotted the red scarf first, then the unmistakable long-loped stride of her friend. Peering through the people in front of her, it took Janie a few seconds to respond to Lydia’s frantic waving. With a flash of recognition and big grin, she strode straight over to engulf Lydia in a bear hug. They stood back, looked at each other and laughed. All the years melted away; the extra pounds didn’t matter; the extra lines didn’t matter; only the eyes mattered – they were exactly the same.

next morning

"When I awoke the next morning..."


...I was still cold.  I didn't have to remember what that pain in my chest signified; I hadn't stopped hurting even in my sleep.  While my body rested and repaired, my heart and brain worked tirelessly to keep the wounds open and fresh so that even before my eyes opened I could feel the icy-cold shakiness of my hands and the ache in my chest and the knot in my stomach, and every morning was the same for several months afterward.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

smoke

A little nonfiction which fuses into fiction, maybe the beginning of something?

When I was little I would watch my grandmother smoke, fascinated.  I'd run giggling through the cloud of smoke that surrounded her and for the entire rest of the day my clothes and hair and skin would smell like smoke.  This fascinated me, how the scent could linger for so long.  It seeped into the pores of my skin and hair, clung stubbornly.

Looking back later, I was incredulous - still am - about how this was allowed to happen.  I was asthmatic - still am - and my parents were normally so careful about my health.  They made my brother and me wear seat belts long before most people commonly did so.  They were very careful about our safety and yet I was allowed to play in Grandma's secondhand smoke every weekend and that makes me wonder, now, why that was allowed to slip through.

But that clinging smoke, that stubborn refusal of the smell to leave makes me think of you and about how when I met you I ran giggling through your very presence and for years I haven't been able to get the feel of you, the smell of you out of my hair and skin and clothes.  No matter how many showers or shampoos, no matter how many times I launder your shirt as soon as I pull it over my head I smell you again and I inhale deeply even as I know that the effects could one day kill me.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Stage Fright

I was a shy child. I hated being the centre of attention and didn't like to do anything that would draw attention to myself.

I wouldn't even raise my hand in class when I knew the answers to questions. I'd scrunch down as low in my seat as possible in hopes of avoiding eye contact with the teacher. Most of the time it worked - at least I thought it did. Maybe it was just teacher's way of taking pity on me. I was a very good, geeky student otherwise.

In sixth grade, we were given an assignment for a short speech about an animal. At first, I was petrified. Then I convinced myself I could do it. After all, it was only two minutes - surely I could manage one hundred and twenty seconds. So, in typical obsessive fashion, I found myself a topic – the tree frog – and practiced and practiced.

Come the day of the speech, I was nervous, but confident. Probably too confident. I had little index cards with me as prompts and started with my memorized opening sentence. This was going to be easy, I thought. I continued on. Things were going smoothly, until at about the halfway point, I was momentarily distracted by a boy sitting at the front of the class. (He was sitting there because he was always getting into trouble and the teacher wanted him close to his desk.)

I was scanning the class, making eye contact - as we'd been told to do – when I came across Leo, with his finger up his nose. In that brief moment, I lost my train of thought. I blanked out. I stood there for an eternity, my face getting hotter and hotter. I looked down at my index cards. I looked up. I looked for the teacher. In a panic, I ran through the speech in my head, trying to find where I left off. I finally blurted out the ending and skulked back to my seat in humiliation.

It probably wasn't as bad as I thought. But at the age of eleven, it seemed horrendous. After that one speech in sixth grade, I battled severe stage fright for years. Any time I had to speak in front of a group of more than a few people, I'd be in a near panic. I finally got over it in university when much of our course work involved group presentations.

Today, I'm amazed at the aplomb with which my own children handle public speaking. Their school had them making class presentations at a very young age and it seems almost second nature to them, now. I envy them their self-confidence.

stage fright

1. I have no idea why I suddenly decided to be in the sixth-grade talent show. I played the flute in band and was first chair, but I decided to sing. True, I was in chorus and had been for years. But anyone could be in chorus. All you had to do was have good grades and be able to keep up with your schoolwork. Could I sing? I don't think I ever gave it a thought. I'd been singing for years and I liked it well enough, so I figured, why not sing a solo?

And then the song I chose! I did get some help from Mrs. O'Kelley, who taught chorus and was in charge of the talent show. She pulled out a file of "popular" songs and started leafing through them. Most of the songs we sang with Mrs. O'Kelley - both in chorus and in the regular school music program - were medleys of TV songs and commercial jingles. Most of them were outdated, so it's odd that to this day I can recall the words to commercials from my parents' generation, commercials I've never seen. So when the theme song from M*A*S*H flashed in front of me I stopped her. "That one. M*A*S*H," I said. I had never known there were words to the song, and I imagined how impressed my peers would be at my knowing them.

"Suicide is Painless" is not really an appropriate song for a 6th-grader to sing, especially if she doesn't even sing all that well. I learned the words to the song pretty easily, and I was familiar with the tune from TV so I didn't see the need to practice. There was a rehearsal but the equipment wasn't set up. It was more of a run-through for timing. Somehow I still avoided hearing my voice.

When it was time for the show I confidently walked onstage. Even though I'd heard, after my name was announced, a titter of dismissal amongst the popular crowd I still held on to the idea that I'd wow them all by knowing the lyrics. (And I need to mention that while memorizing the words, I'd failed to grasp their meaning.) For the first time in my life I started to sing into a microphone and booming from the speakers was a thin, warbling, crackling voice. Was that really me? And that thin, warrbling, crackling voice was singing, "...suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please." What? That kind of song is this? Then it launched into, "..without that ever-present hate, but now I know that it's too late..." This was awful! This sad, dark song and my terrible, sickly voice - kids were laughing and I could see their faces, their expressions of derision and contempt and there was nowhere to go. I had to just stand my ground and finish the song.


2. I was in Toastmasters in Idaho, when I was in my early twenties and new to the area. It had been a wonderful way to meet people and to stretch my writing skills. As soon as I learned that writing a speech was... writing, I was in love with the whole arrangement. I even learned to get over my fears of public speaking and I got to be fairly good.

When the annual contest came around I worked really hard on my speech. I wrote a cute little essay for the "humorous speech' category called, "How to Name a Cat." I worked in French writers, 80s TV shows and even my brother's regrettable method of having named his cat. I won at one level, and then another, The next level was a dinner to which I invited our best friends and my brother. I had been basically reading my speech, although I knew it well enough that I was not glued to it. I was getting good at eye contact and gesturing and could see that I wanted to take it to the next level. No papers in front of me. No podium! I would memorize the speech (which I pretty much already had) and move around a bit, really wow them with personality.

And I did great at first. I had them right where I wanted them. I paced, I gestured, I smiled and charmed. And then I came to the end of one sentence and my mind went completely blank. I just stood up there, staring at the audience. I saw the faces of my friends, turned expectantly and joyously towards me, poised for the next laugh. I saw my husband, my brother, all... waiting. As soon as I'd realized that I'd lost my train, I could feel an expression cross my own face, one of panic and horror. I couldn't stop it. It just pulled my features of its own accord, took over my face. As soon as the audience sees that expression, that fear - their faces change, too. From expectant, confident enjoyment their expressions change to ones of anxious pity. Regret. Expressions that say, Damn! She was doing so well, too...

It all passed in about five seconds and then the next line came to me. I pulled myself together and finished the speech as well as I'd started. And ended up taking second place, which I was happy about but the first-place speech hadn't been nearly as well-written as mine. But the audience really wants to trust the speaker to be in complete control and I had lost their confidence for five seconds.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

lunchtime

I've said this a hundred times (or at least four), but I'm going to try to jot something down here for every prompt!  Most of the time it won't be anything complete or fleshed-out, but just a snippet or two or three that came to mind when I read the prompt. 

Today's prompt about lunchtime made me think of:

  • High school lunches with the gang of boys who were my friends, my band-geek chess-club, D & D-obsessed cluster of misfit boys whom I loved with all of my heart.  And how Maria, after I fixed her up with Roy, threatened to mess with the formula which, in my opinion, had been working just fine.  (Find that section in my journal.)  I love that story about jealousy even among platonic friends and the status I felt I had as only female...

  • I also thought of elementary-school lunches with the metal lunchboxes and the thermos that always smelled like sour milk.  Once you put milk in it it was ruined forever.  You just couldn't get that smell out.

  • And...  that chicken noodle lunch my mom made for me whenever I was home sick.  That and fried egg sandwiches.  My mom is a terrible cook but I loved those "sick lunch" meals and I would then think of her being home every day while we were at school (because of course, I didn't think of this normally at all, because the world revolved around me and other kids, not moms and their mysterious lives) and I'd envision her eating like this, this feast of comfort foods, whenever she wanted...


That's all I got to today.  I hope to write more in response to tomorrow's prompt, but I really plan to at least write something for each one...