Author Archives: Caroline

Sandwich Life: Pride in the Name of Love

Sometimes our children surprise us, these beings that once were akin to writhing amoebas, nothing but instinct and reflex.

Those early days of their lives were so infused with emotion that I remember them vividly. The tiny mouth working in sleep, a chirping sound in the night that I knew would grow to an insistent howl, perfect little feet with a toenail for each toe, soft dimpled skin, sweet scent of newness.

They grow slowly but steadily. It can sneak up on you, if you aren’t paying attention.

My son is sixteen years old. He drives a car, shaves (on occasion), has hair in places only men have hair. He is tall and strong and beautiful with youth.

He has always been creative: imaginative play and then music, dance and drama. This year, he joined the school play: Twelve Angry Jurors. At first disappointed at getting a small part, he soon ended up with the additional responsibility of stage manager. He had to make prop lists, set up the stage, attend every rehearsal, make sure water ran from the tap (they had a real working sink on stage) and that the rotating fan was plugged in.

The cast and crew put in countless hours and, on the night of the performance, the air sharp with nerves and anticipation, these young people put on a show that left me completely gobsmacked. Were kids that talented when I was in school? Well, I know I wasn’t. From the first moment, the audience was in rapt attention, pulled from scene to scene, moved to laughter and tears, forgetting for two hours that these were the babies they once swaddled, the children whose knees they bandaged.

My heart swelled and sang (off-key because I’m tone-deaf) with pride in the accomplishment of not only my son, but every one of them, from the actor with the largest part to the smallest, from the people who coordinated the sound-effects to the lighting.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m biased because my kid was involved. Well, of course. But not long after that performance, the school was rewarded with several nominations for awards. The Cappies are like the Oscars for local high school theatre. The play was nominated for:Cappies

  • Sets
  • Sound
  • Lead Actor in a Play
  • Critics’ Favourite Play

As the awards night approached, I was informed that my son needed a suit, his first. My children grow so fast, I’ve been reluctant to buy them expensive clothes for fear they’d outgrow the togs before they had a chance to put them on their backs. However, I have noticed that, since last year, his pants have stopped turning into floods every September first, so I relented.

We went to the mall and got him a single-breasted black suit with a teal blue dress shirt and tie. A man’s suit.

The Cappies gala in Ottawa is held each spring at the National Arts Centre and is treated like a mini-Oscar night. There are photographers, a red carpet, a reception area, announcers, interviewers.

Just before the evening of awards was set to start, the feeling in the building was electric and exciting, abuzz with adolescent enthusiasm.

The lights dimmed and the ceremony began. Every award announcement was met with exuberant screams from that play’s cast, crew and spirited parents.

My son’s production of Twelve Angry Jurors did not win for sets or sound. It did not win for critics’ favourite play. But the boy who played Juror #3, the young man who had moved the audience to tears, won the award for Lead Actor in a Play. The place erupted into thunderous cheers and whistles. The young man took the stage, he thanked fellow cast members, their drama teacher, his beautiful girlfriend (aw!). He received his award and a thousand-dollar scholarship toward his post-secondary education.

We were elated, my husband and I. So proud of this group of young men and women who gave their time to learn lines, block scenes, practice and practice. Not to mention the drama teacher who pulled off this award-winning feat with a school that has close to half the student body of other schools that were in the running.

Afterward, I hugged my son, straightened the collar of his new suit, and told him I was proud of him and his friends.

“Thanks, Mom,” he said.

A few days later, we were out driving somewhere, just me and him, and he said, “You know what, Mom? I’m still so happy for Brett.”

“Me too,” I said.

“I’d rather that Brett won for lead actor than all of us won for best play.”

“Really, why?”

“Because he got that thousand-dollar scholarship. And he was so happy.”

The happiness of his friend meant more to my son than winning an award.

Now that’s something I can be proud of.

Sandwich Life: Kaleidoscopes and the New Normal

Sometimes I feel like I’m waiting for the next crisis.

In my experience, just when you get accustomed to a situation, an unexpected emergency comes along to derail you and you’re thrust into a new reality you’re sure you can’t cope with. But amazingly you do and eventually it becomes the new normal.

I am constantly struck by the resiliency of the human animal. Our capacity to endure, to survive and even thrive after a traumatic event is astounding. A parent dies, a child is injured or falls ill, a teen gets into trouble, a spouse betrays the marital trust. And still we go on.

When I was six years old I got my tonsils removed. Some of the memories of my hospital stay are vivid, like waking each morning to my roommate’s bare butt in the bed next to mine, and throwing up on my brother’s shoes when he and my mother visited me after the surgery.

Memory from that age is not continuous. It doesn’t feel like this happened and then that, but more like flashes of lightning. A strobe image or episode here and then there.

My mother gave me several gifts while I was in hospital, most of which were designed to relieve the boredom. There were magazines, puzzle books and coloured pencils. And then she handed me a cardboard tube with a spyhole at one end. Attached to the other end was a round rotating container of colourful plastic beads. When I shook the contraption, the plastic pieces rattled within it.

This was my first kaleidoscope. I held the eyepiece up to the light and saw a fractured world of shape and colour. A starburst of glittering reds and blues. My mother reached out and turned the end piece and the entire scene changed. A whole new set of colours and shapes fell into place, this time predominantly green and yellow. It was different but equally beautiful.Kaleidoscope

When my father died and my ailing mother came to live with us, I thought the beads would never fall back into place, that life would never be beautiful again and I would live it perpetually suspended, everything slightly skewed.

In a way, I was right. Nothing would ever be the same. But, like a kaleidoscope, while you can’t get back that first pattern of reds and blues that you loved so much, you can find a new life pattern, and in it there is always beauty.

Writing Life: Annual Conference Trip Report OWC 2014

Each year, in early May, I attend the Ontario Writers’ Conference (OWC). An annual weekend of camaraderie among fellow writers, where we talk, eat and commiserate. At the venue, people I see only once a year, from Durham region, Toronto, Cambridge and Owen Sound, arrive and greet one another with hugs.

That May weekend, we arrived in Ajax as a small Ottawa contingent (we’re known as “The Ottawa Contingent”) of three: me, Kelly and Jeff.

My personal highlights included:

Wayson Choy, as always. He’s the conference’s honorary patron and attends every year, always delivering a stirring speech, and sometimes teaching a workshop or master class. This year it was a master class about daring to write your personal truth. He told those us who were privileged enough to be in attendance that truth is not fact but, instead, is a matter of perception.

MasterClass

The Master Class learns from the master, Wayson Choy.

“If I tell you my truth, you will add yours. You cannot help it.” ~ Wayson Choy

I was looking forward to, again, driving Wayson on Saturday morning from the hotel to the conference venue. This would be my third year and I value the one-on-one time with the master. That morning, however, when I asked him if I was driving him, he was unsure. He thought perhaps another person was picking him up. I told him I’d wait around for a few minutes and if no one came to get him, he could drive there with us, the Ottawa contingent. He agreed.

Ten minutes later, another woman who was attending the conference and staying in our hotel came through the lobby, spoke to Wayson, and off he went with her. “Hey, I said to my companions while he and the woman drove off, that’s my Wayson. That bitch stole my Wayson!” Ah, well, you snooze, you lose, I suppose. There’s always next year. To be fair, I later attended a workshop with the woman who stole my Wayson and she was not, in fact, a bitch.

No matter. There were people to meet, books to buy and workshops to attend.

Allyson Latta spoke about finding the courage to share your personal story. She also had some great tips for editing our work. I wish we’d had more time to absorb her wisdom.

Aside from emcee Dorothea Helms, aka The Writing Fairy (who did a fabulous job), my favourite lunch speaker was Andrew Pyper. We’d met recently at an event at the Rideau Street Chapters in Ottawa and I read his latest novel, The Demonologist. Now I’d become all fan-girl and I bought The Guardians and got him to sign it. Also, if you’ve never heard Andrew speak, know this: he’s gut-bustingly funnier than you’d expect a horror writer to be.

Back in December, when I was selecting my workshops, I realized I had a difficult choice to make, which happens when several workshops run concurrently. My good friend Allison Baggio was giving a talk about overcoming insecurities at the same time as Sam Hiyate, the literary agent, was scheduled to speak about writers, agents and the shifting landscape. Dang it! I’m horribly insecure, but I also don’t have an agent and I really want one (any agents reading this, I’m available). And tips about how to approach agents in the digital age are more than welcome. Sadly, I chose to miss Allison’s talk, although I heard it was awesome. Oh, and buy Allison’s books.

Priscila Uppal spoke about how to turn your obsessions into books. She talked about some of the things she’s obsessed with and how those translated into her work. She read excerpts from her published poetry, novel and memoir (impressive? yes!). I’m looking forward to reading her memoir, which sounds fascinating. And I learned that poetry does not, in fact, have to rhyme. Who knew (eh, Kevin)?!

The closing speaker was novelist Terry Fallis. If you plan to hear this man speak and you experience bladder leakage from sudden bursts of laughter, wear your Depends.

And then I won a raffle prize and another thing, which put a smile on my face!

As always, OWC 2014 was a joy. The organizers seem to get it running more smoothly every year and I can hardly wait for OWC 2015. Thank you, all!!

And now, here are some bad selfies:

MeandAllison MeandJeff MeandKelly MeandLori MeandME

MeandKevin

Sandwich Life Missives: Good News/Bad News

This post is about how life as a member of the Sandwich Generation has its ups and downs.

I’ve been contemplating the nature of good news versus bad news. What constitutes “good news” and does its nature depend mainly on context? How relative is it; does bad news in one circumstance become good news in another?

Last week, and with mixed feelings, I traipsed off with my eighty-year-old mother to the Memory Disorders Clinic for a re-assessment (our third, at least). I waited until the morning of the appointment to tell her we were going because she gets anxious about such things and I didn’t want her to spend a sleepless night in useless worry. I also told her the appointment was to renew her prescription rather than to redo the memory testing. A small white lie. Very small. Very white.

As usual, the weather matched my feelings about going. That is, we drove there through a torrential downpour. Thankfully, the memory clinic is only thirty short kilometres from my house, through dense downtown traffic. I left an hour before the appointment and we made it on time.

A television in the waiting room was tuned into The Weather Network. These people must know my mother. It was a useful distraction because Dr. K, the memory doctor, was running half an hour late. Mum only glared at the clock and sighed six times. That’s a doctor’s office record for a half-hour wait. Yay, Weather Network.

The puddle of rainwater under my chair from my drenched coat had almost dried by the time Dr. K poked his head into the waiting room and called Mum’s name. After we got settled in his office chairs and before he started talking, I noticed the sound of the rainstorm outside. The listened to the wind howl around the old windows, like the ghost of all the memories his patients had ever lost as they swirled in mournful circles, trying to get back in.

And then the doctor started talking. He went through all the previous concerns and asked if we thought the medication had helped (who knows) and whether things had stabilized or grown worse (hard to say). And then he pulled out the sheets of paper and a pen for the actual memory testing. These are standardized sets of questions designed to test various aspects of memory and I’d heard them all before, in one form or another.

He asked her the date and she hemmed and hawed and then, miraculously, got it right. Day, month and year. He asked her to remember three words and repeat them back to him, and two minutes later he asked for the three words. She didn’t know he’d given her three words to remember, never mind what they were. On it went. Tests of short-term memory went horribly badly. But on tests of puzzle-related skills she seemed to do remarkably well.

After the test he said that, overall, she’d done significantly better than the time before. Nowhere near normal, but better. We decided to stay the course with the medication and he recommended I make an appointment with the secretary for a year from that date. No one ever knows what they’ll be doing in a year, so you just have to wing it and hope for the best.

Outside his office he stopped us and with furrowed brow asked my mother to walk for him, and then to lift her arm and do some other physical tests.

“Hm,” he said, a hand cupping his chin. “I see some signs of early Parkinson’s Disease.”

I was not shocked. Given her shuffling gait and the posture of her hands and body I’d thought of this before. But no professional had ever actually said it. It felt like a figurative blow to the solar plexus.

“If it gets worse,” he continued, “call the office and arrange to come back sooner.”

I assumed it would be obvious if something “gets worse.” There were no further specifics on the matter.

Dazed and with the ambivalence that comes only with the one-two punch of good news/bad news, I wandered toward the receptionist, mind whirring. The good news wasn’t particularly good and the bad news seemed pretty bad, but not astonishing. How would I process this? What would the fallout be? Do higher scores on the test mean that she’ll suddenly be able to make a sandwich or do her taxes? No. Does an observation of small, very early Parkinson’s symptoms mean she’ll be in a wheelchair tomorrow? No. Does either “revelation” mean anything at all? I don’t know.

I booked the appointment. The one for next year. One year from that date. Three-hundred and sixty-five days, twelve months, and four seasons away.

Again, as before, I was to be cast out for a year without direction, as if into the swirling winds of a spring rainstorm, the randomness of which I could not control.

The Slut Pose, or Why You Need to Clean Your Bathroom Mirror

I was on Facebook the other day when I noticed a disturbing trend in the photos of many of the young women I came across. I’ll call it the Slut Pose. In case you haven’t been unfortunate enough to view this increasingly popular phenomenon, I’ll describe it for you: young women, some very young, stand in front of a filthy bathroom mirror, contort themselves into an unnatural pose that resembles the preparation leading up to hitting a golf ball with a three-wood, and then take a “selfie” photo of it.

These young women (and I call them that as opposed to young ladies) pose either alone or in pairs, or more rarely groups. Each face sports an odd, lip-plumping pout that gives her the moue of a primordial fish. She pushes out her spandex-clad buttocks so they look as if they’re swollen to twice their normal size, which has the same effect on her fledgling yet burgeoning young bosoms, and these future milk-makers seem barely constrained by whatever slim pieces of fabric she’s managed to stretch over them.

She is, inevitably, a beautiful young person. So, why then would she feel insecure enough to post such a photo of herself on a public site? And I assure you this is public with a capital Pee. These photos are not protected by privacy settings, however, even if they were, most of these girls have hundreds, if not thousands, of Facebook “friends.”

I have several objections to such objectification, not the least of which is location. I understand that every bathroom has a mirror, and every bathroom door has a lock, but must she always produce these masterworks of insecurity and look-at-me attention-getting in the privy? As much as I appreciate viewing her bathroom from several different angles, I would love it if instead she’d put the cell phone down and give it a good clean, including the mirror. Oh, and after she does that, I hope she’ll remember that no one wants to see the inside of her loo. Ever.

I also object that the ubiquitous nature of this phenomenon might make my son think this is proper behaviour for a young lady and that looking at girls in these poses is okay; or my daughter might think she should climb onto the bandwagon and do this too.

I would like to tell our Slut Pose woman that the attention she gets from her self-portraits is not the attention she wants, even though it feels like it when the Facebook Likes and Comments come pouring in. This kind of attention is not about who you are. It’s not about your accomplishments, your character, your charm or your intellect. Maybe you feel insecure and not smart enough. Maybe school is a struggle and you haven’t yet found a passion that fulfills you. I say: you will. Give it time. Pour your boundless energy into building up your skills, character and confidence.

I find myself wondering when this happens. When does the sheer joy and un-self-conscious abandon that is apparent in a photo like this:

Soccer_Joy

Become the sad desperation apparent in a pose like this:

Slut_Pose2

Or, equally sad, this:

Slut_Pose3

When does she erroneously begin to feel like any attention is good attention? What happened to our little girls who loved to play and swim, who found joy on a soccer field, in dance class or climbing a tree?

I was a teenager once. I remember the hormones and angst, the insecurities and fears. Fortunately, I didn’t have Facebook on which to post permanent reminders of my own adolescent foolishness. Someone needs to guide these girls to the right path.

I don’t have answers but what if we women—the mothers, step-mothers, aunts and cousins of the Slut Pose generation—stepped up to show them how ridiculous and decidedly un-sexy these poses really are? I’ll be the first.

Not_so_Sexy

You’re welcome (I think I just slipped a disc). If we all covered Facebook in photos like that I suspect the Slut Pose wouldn’t remain cool for long.

Finally, if sexy is what she’s going for—although sexy is not the first word that springs to my mind while viewing the many variations of the Slut Pose—she’d do well to remember that nothing’s sexier than a strong and independent woman who respects herself enough to keep her knockers off the Internet.

Stories from the Road

When you go on a road trip, it’s inevitable you will come home with stories. At least, that’s the hope. What’s the point of adventure if nothing happens worth talking about? Like Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Not much fun for little Harpo.”

When I set out with my two friends, Gayle and Kelly, to the annual Ontario Writers Conference, I hoped to accumulate some stories. Stories from the trip, and inspiration for fiction stories, both from the fabulous workshops and readings, and by osmosis from spending so many hours surrounded by the creative energy of passionate writers.OWC_2013

Let me start by saying that, if you’re a writer, whether you publish traditionally or self-publish — regardless of whether you write literary fiction or fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or anything in between — you will almost certainly benefit from attending a conference. The networking opportunities alone are priceless. You might even make a friend or two along the way.

Also, it’s essential for writers to get off their plush office chairs and head out, blinking against the brightness, into the wide world. Stories come from our overactive (sometimes scary) imagination, but they also come from our experiences. Little quirks about the people we meet find their way into characters and flesh them out, making them feel more real. If you’ve never been anywhere, it’s arguably more difficult to describe with authority and authenticity the sounds of a jungle, the stink of a fish market or the feel of ocean spray on your cheeks when a wave breaks on the rocks below your feet.

So here I present my little stories, such as they are.

Story 1: Wayson Choy

In case you’re not familiar with this guru of a man, he’s a national treasure. A writer of the highest calibre whose novels and memoirs capture the essence of the Chinese-Canadian experience. In person, he is humble, gentle and philosophical. At the conference, he was described as a Yoda, which he is, only taller and less green.

On Friday night, the conference held an event called the Festival of Authors. It’s an evening of author readings and networking, and I spent the time greeting old friends and meeting new ones. When the evening was winding down, my friend, Kevin, who’s one of the conference organizers, asked me if I could drive Wayson Choy back to the hotel where we were both staying. We’d already arranged for me to take Wayson to the venue in the morning, so it was a good plan for me to meet with him and arrange our morning drive. Besides, spending more time in his company is as welcome as spring sunshine. Many who know him call spending time with him: “Worshipping at the Church of Wayson.” This is apt.

I had a lovely private chat with the great man during our nighttime drive back to the hotel. When we arrived in the lobby we realized we were both going to the same floor. We went up in the elevator together and strolled down toward our respective rooms, which were across the hall from each other. We agreed to meet in the lobby the following morning at 8:10 am to head off to the conference venue. And then we said our good nights.

My friend, Gayle, who hadn’t attended the Festival of Authors, was already lying in bed. I whispered a hello, grabbed my pyjamas and ducked into the bathroom. I changed and brushed my teeth. While I was about to climb into bed, I heard a soft knock on the door. Without thinking, I went to it and opened it wide to find Wayson standing in the hallway. He asked about checking out and bringing his suitcase to my car in the morning. I answered his questions, all the while keenly aware I was talking to the incomparable Wayson Choy while wearing my jammies. To his credit, the gentleman did not bat an eye at my state of undress.

“Goodnight, Mr. Choy!”

Story 2: The Conference

For an eventful day, it was relatively uneventful. And, with me, that’s generally a good thing. I didn’t crash my car (which is, apparently, my “thing”) on the way to the venue. I didn’t accidentally show up in my pyjamas (although that might have helped Wayson Choy remember who I am). I didn’t break anything or throw up or trip and fall. I didn’t say anything ridiculously stupid (that I’m aware of).

What I did do was talk to brilliant writers about writing, drink lots of coffee, eat some great food and attend some kick-ass workshops. I learned about voice and character, and some specifics about the journey from book to film (which would be cool, so if you’re a film producer, call me!). I bought a book and got it signed. And I forgot to take pictures. Any photos were provided by friends.

Note to self: Next year, take pictures, dumbass!

Story 3: It Won’t Let Go

All conferences must end. It was time to go. I needed gas. My husband had just got a gas card for me so I was looking for a station that matched my card, for the points, you know. Thankfully, this particular company is popular and there seemed to be one on every corner. I pulled up to the pump and Gayle ran off to get money from a bank machine while Kelly hung out in the back seat updating her social media with news of our wonderful weekend.

I inserted and removed my points card. No problem. Still jazzed and keyed up from a busy weekend, I then shoved my credit card into the gas pump. It resisted a little so I shoved harder. And, then, it was stuck. My card was STUCK in the gas pump. Okay, maybe I inserted it upside down, but the thing’s rectangular; it should not get stuck. I grasped the thumb-nail-sized piece of plastic that I could still get hold of and pulled, wiggled, jiggled and jostled. It didn’t budge. At all. Kelly got out of the car. I explained the situation and she proceeded to reef on my poor lodged credit card. Nothing.

While Kelly ran inside to tell the attendant about our predicament, I asked a likely-looking young man, with his pregnant wife in the passenger seat, if he had any tools about him that might help me out. A pair of pliers, perhaps. He shrugged an affable “no” and proceeded to fill his car with gas without getting his credit card embedded inside the gas pump.

Kelly came back out. Well? Apparently, the lone woman operating the cash register couldn’t leave it to come out and give us a hand. We took turns jiggling the completely unyielding card and then Gayle came charging up and asked what was happening. We told her and she marched with steely determination inside, saying something about insisting the woman call the manager. Kelly and I took more turns yanking on the card. Kelly broke a nail. I began to entertain thoughts of cancelling my poor credit card and abandoning it forever to the heinous machine that stole it from me.

The young man at the other pump finished gassing up and asked us what was actually wrong that we might need tools. We told him and he walked over to take a look. He grasped the card with his strong man fingers and pop. Out it came. He handed it to me and walked off while I shouted my thanks. I believe I called him an angel.

I am thankful there are good and kind people out there who will help others who encounter a problem on their weekend road trip. I am also thankful gas stations have more than one pump, because I’d be damned if I was going to try sticking my card in that one a second time.

Story 4: To the Zoo

On Sunday, we took a detour and went to the Metro Toronto Zoo. If you haven’t been and you like zoos, go to this zoo. It’s absolutely fantastic. And I had the bonus of going with a friend who has a degree in zoo keeping. When I told my son about Kelly’s degree, he laughed. Me: What? Him: Zoo keeping. Me: What? Him: It sounds dumb. They should call it something else. Did I mention my son is fifteen?

When you go to the zoo with someone who has worked in zoos, you get the dirt. The behind-the-scenes insight about the time she and a friend were almost disemboweled by an irate ostrich. About how the male fruit bat’s penis extends as far as his chin (lucky little lady fruit bats!). About how she once had to help catch a dangerous big cat (I forget now which species) that had escaped.

Plus: Animals! We were lucky that it was a beautiful spring day that felt like midsummer. The zoo wasn’t busy and we didn’t have to jostle for position to see the elephant’s arse. By the time I got home, my sinuses full of zoo pollen, my eyes had puffed up such that I could barely see. This is not a good look for me.

Overall, the Ontario Writers Conference 2013 was another great success full of inspiration and stories. The organizers, who I now consider friends, did a fantastic job and everything ran smoother than ever. If you’re interested in reading about OWC 2012, check out my blog post from last year.

On Accidents and Luck

I am accident prone. No, I’m not overly clumsy (just regular clumsy). I don’t have bruises over 30 percent of my body and I haven’t fallen down the stairs lately. But I do seem to have an invisible (to me) target on my back or forehead or somewhere on my person that is a magnet for traffic accidents.

In February 2011, I was driving to the ski hill along an icy highway in dodgy visibility when a poorer driver than I am hit a patch of ice, overcompensated and steered right in front of me. Considering I was travelling at more than 80 km per hour, I didn’t have much of a chance to save myself. So, WHAM!

Despite braking and trying to steer away from Ms. Bad Driver, I rammed into her, and then sheared off ten posts of the highway guardrail. We careened into the median, coming to rest with the former nose of my car inches from the guardrail of the lane going in the opposite direction. I say “we” because my ten-year-old (at the time) daughter was in the passenger seat. “Were we just in an accident?” she asked, as the car hissed to rest and sighed its final death rattle.

Front end of the first car. RIP Nissan.

Front end of the first car. RIP Nissan.

That car was a write-off and, through both no-fault and the other driver’s insurance, we had to replace it. After much research, debate and haggling with Jerry Lundegaard down at the car lot, my husband and I finally found the right car at the right price. For a while I missed my old car. There had been nothing wrong with it and I’d liked it. RIP little Nissan.

The following year—this would be the winter of 2012—I was travelling home on the bus. I work downtown and take the bus to the office. I figure, let someone else worry about traffic, weather, and if there’s a hockey game scheduled for that night. One of the perks of taking the bus, because I don’t suffer from motion sickness, is that I can get some reading time in. So, on this particular weekday afternoon, I was blissfully reading away when the bus suddenly braked, crashed into something (WHAM!), swerved and scraped its left side all along the cement wall of the dedicated bus lane. This seemed to go on for hours but probably lasted less than a minute. I got thrown to the floor, where I scraped my tender buttocks. In the ensuing silence, passengers began moaning, rising to their feet, brushing themselves off, and asking each other if they were all right. Thankfully, most of us were okay.

Bus Crash. Out of Service indeed.

Bus Crash. Out of Service indeed.

We disembarked and waited for another bus. Meanwhile, rush-hour buses were backing up along the transitway in both directions in unprecedented numbers. Finally, a bus arrived to take the crash victims, not home, as one might expect, but down one stop so we could climb up out of the transitway to street level and wait for a bus with hundreds of other re-routed and disgruntled passengers. With my sore back and scraped buttocks, I had to stand on a crowded number 61 for an hour to finally get to my car at the Park & Ride lot. Poor show, OC Transpo.

Which brings us to last week: March 2013. I was again driving to a ski hill, alone this time. I was on my way to watch my now-thirteen-year-old daughter compete in the provincial alpine ski championships (she’s a helluva skier and I’m helluva proud of her). As I drove through a green light (it was green, as green as green could be; Kelly green, bottle green, green as Ireland and envy) another car came barreling through the intersection in the opposite direction. In that split second before impact, I recall looking up at my light (GREEN) and his light (RED). And then: WHAM!

Mr. Bad Driver (perhaps a relative of Ms. Bad Driver from two years earlier) T-boned my car. My side airbags came ballooning out to cushion my head against the driver’s side window. (Did you know that when airbags explode, it smells like smoke?) Again, my poor, damaged car came to rest. Again, I wasn’t seriously injured. But again. Again? Really!? I cried, bawled, beat my fists against the steering wheel. AGAIN?! A nice man opened the door and asked after my well-being. A good question considering I’m sure I appeared quite hysterical.

Write-off or not? We must wait and see...

Write-off or not? We must wait and see…

An ambulance, a fire truck, a tow truck and a police car arrived. Sirens wailing, lights flashing. Three very nice people waited in the cold to tell the nice police officer that it wasn’t my fault. At all. I thanked the witnesses at the time but wish I’d been able to do more for them. I wish I’d had three bouquets of flowers and three boxes of chocolates I could have given to those lovely, generous people.

My car is now languishing at the collision yard awaiting assessment. We’re not sure if it’s fixable or another write-off. I missed my daughter’s afternoon ski race. I have a rental car that’s so big it won’t fit in my garage so I have to park it in the driveway. It snowed a foot overnight.

I’m supposed to feel lucky. And I do. I’m not only alive but not injured in any way, beyond generalized soreness that heals in less than a week. It’s an odd kind of lucky, though. Sometimes, thinking about people who aren’t in at least one traffic accident each year, I feel less lucky.

When I finally get my car back—or a new car as the case may be—if I offer you a ride anywhere, say no.

Let Yourself Be Rare

American Idol is back. This most guilty of pleasures is gracing our television screens once again with a new season. With voyeuristic ferocity, the Idol fan can watch the latest incarnation of William Hung in his or her spectacular fail, while—possibly in the very same episode—also witnessing the first televised performance of the singer who will eventually win this extravaganza.

But something happened on the show the other night that made me sit up and take notice. One of the contestants received a golden ticket to Hollywood. That’s not notable, you might say, and you’d be right. But this particular young lady, whose full back story I can’t now recall, waved it in the air and said something like, “This proves that if I can do it, anyone can.”

Is that so? She’s clearly never heard me sing.

This brings to mind how easy it is for people who have talent, and who have worked hard to develop that talent, to minimize their ability. How simple it is to believe that what we can do ourselves is easily doable for others. But is it?

I can write. I’ve always been a good writer, at first for my age, later for any age. I was precocious when I was young enough to be labeled precocious: the highly peculiar child who enjoyed writing essays and enjoyed getting them back even more. Writing is pretty easy, isn’t it? If you read the books, do a little thinking, spend the time to craft some good sentences and put those together to make great paragraphs: voila! It’s not magic or even rocket science.

I can see this attitude already manifesting itself in my 13-year-old daughter. Like me, she’s good with words and consistently receives not only high marks in English, but high praise from her teacher (and from several teachers over the years). I see her shrug it off, as if being good at writing is a given. Anyone can write, right? Wrong. I know, after several-and-a-half decades, that many people cannot write a decent sentence to save their lives. Some people can cook, some can sing, draw, do math, write, grow green things, sew, knit, train an animal, shop, or program a computer. Some people do those things poorly, or can’t do them at all.

However, if a person finds success using their innate talent, they’ve likely also honed it. Practiced it until it comes easily and what they do is of high quality. When you enjoy doing something, practicing it is less of a chore and more of a joy. Athletes who eat, sleep and breathe their sport do so because of how much they love it. NHL hockey players, LPGA golfers, Olympians and other elite athletes practice their sport for the love of the game. So, too, do writers, painters, actors and singers. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!

Of course, it’s best to spend time practicing a skill in which you have a hope in hell of achieving a level of proficiency. I could practice singing all day long but I’d never do better than Hung’s painful rendition of She Bangs. Plus, I’m sure I’d realize this and wouldn’t enjoy the journey. Writing’s my gig. And with every finished piece, short story or novel, journalistic article or technical manual, I know I’ve learned in the process and am improving.

If you’re good at something—math, English, sports, drawing, video gaming—don’t devalue your skill by assuming that anyone could achieve the level of skill and accomplishment that you’ve achieved. As Christopher Robin said to Pooh in A.A. Milne’s classic stories, “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Let yourself be rare, or even unique, in your ability and accept the praise as it comes. We who are willing to work to achieve our goals deserve nothing less.

Building Relationships the Social Media Way—A Writer’s Story

If you are embarking on a writing career—as a freelance journalist, novelist, short story writer or anything in between—effective use of social media can help you make connections, create paying work and bring your words to more readers. But you have to be willing to put in the sometimes considerable effort that it takes to succeed.

Social media (and I’ll treat “media” as a single noun rather than a plural because these days “media was” sounds old-fashioned; let’s face it, Latin is a dead language) is first and foremost about its adjective: social. It is a give and take. It’s about sharing information, commiserating, helping and, yes, on occasion exchanging the odd tidbit of innocuous gossip. The success or failure of your social media presence is entirely up to you and how much effort YOU are willing to put in.

I have been lucky enough to have had some success using social media, due to considerable time and effort on my part, but also largely due to the generosity of the people I’ve met.

This blog post is not intended to be a name-dropping brag-fest, so I’ll refer to the authors and editors who I’ve met, and who have helped me, by their initials only. A diligent researcher/stalker could easily find out who I’m referring to. Suffice it to say, those who are referred to here are nationally (some internationally) famous best-selling Canadian authors (they know who they are). Whoever they are, they are all exceedingly generous of heart and spirit.

The Forums

Before I joined Facebook and even before Twitter existed, I became a member of an online forum called Absolute Write. This is an international site for authors of all stripes and levels of ability—fiction and non-fiction—editors, agents, booksellers, and industry insiders. Many of the more famous authors and agents operate under a pseudonym but their expertise is easy to recognize and invaluable to new authors.

Because it’s an American-heavy, international site, it’s easy to play Spot the Canadian. The forum has a private messaging feature and building relationships with the Canadian members of the site has proven to be an extremely enjoyable and fruitful venture for me. Using these forums, I met KC, a poet and novelist who has become a trusted mentor and beta reader. He also told me about the Ontario Writers Conference, which I now attend annually and at which I’ve met in person dozens of other authors, like RJW, AK, AB, SC and the other SC, JCS, CB, and so on.

I met RJW, a best-selling author who gave me the name of his agent and allowed me to use his name when I contacted her. She didn’t end up taking on my work, but I’ve been grateful to RJW for all his support over lo these many years.

I met AK, who is a novelist with an eye for cover design. When I posted on the forum that I didn’t love the first draft of my publisher’s cover, she generously offered to play around with the image and text fonts. As a result of her efforts, I ended up with a cover I could be proud to call mine.

To attain relationships like these, I had to build trust by posting frequently and intelligently about what I know (and admitting when I was wrong—ugh!). My online self needed to be trustworthy and approachable. It takes a bit of work but if you find an online forum you want to be a member of, jump in and build some strong relationships with the other members. You won’t regret it.

The Facebook

I have two Facebook pages. One is personal, where I can use privacy settings to post the occasional photo of my family and share a bit more personal information with friends only. The other is a public author page, where I post links to blog posts and reviews of my novel. I use it to post writing-related information and, ideally, build a fan base. I don’t think I have any actual “fans” but I have the page ready just in case. Come on over, like my page, and say “hi:” https://www.facebook.com/pages/Caroline-Wissing-Author/253742287989560

The Twitter

Twitter is the most recent social media outlet I’ve joined but, ultimately, one of the most valuable. Through Twitter, I found out that author AA was coming to my town. She invited me to her reading, where we met and discovered the same publisher published our first books. She gave me advice to increase my readership.

And, in one of the biggest changes to my career path, I was contacted through Twitter DM by PD, the editor of a local quarterly magazine. She wanted to help promote my book and increase Christmas sales by writing a blurb about the novel in the winter issue. She also asked if I would be interested in writing a feature article for the same issue. Heck, yeah!! I interviewed the subjects, wrote the article and enjoyed every minute of it. I also got paid for doing it. I’m working on my second article for the magazine and now have these credits to add to my freelance resume. Thanks, PD, for your support and confidence in me!

Some Last Words

What about privacy? I believe you can grow and maintain a significant social media presence and still retain your privacy. Be careful what you post or tweet. Always think before you post. Always. If you’re unsure, let the comment sit for a few hours, reread it, and if it seems okay, post. If not, DON’T! On your personal Facebook site, use privacy settings diligently to protect your photos and posts. On Twitter, confine your interactions to business-related matters. Keep your personal circumstances as vague as you feel you need to in order to be comfortable.

Writers on social media who post only about themselves and don’t interact by commenting on other people’s pages, or retweeting, replying or favouriting on Twitter, are missing opportunities to connect and grow their network of contacts. And it’s not just about growing contacts, it’s also about making friends because these are real people out there, with experiences and knowledge to share. And one day, it might be you with knowledge to share.

Writers today are living and working in a rapidly changing environment. Let’s face it; we need all the help we can get!!

My Life as a Sandwich

If you’ve read much of anything lately, especially if you’re of a certain age and situation, you’ve probably come across the term “sandwich.” It not only aptly describes a particular situation but can also define a generation, as in Sandwich Generation.

As I am the egg salad snugly ensconced between slices of rye, I feel as if I need to share my situation, both for commiseration and simply to get it down and let it out.

For the uninitiated, sandwich refers to those of us who have children living at home while, at the same time, have a parent or set of parents aging beyond their ability to live independently. This is a tight spot indeed. Just when our children need us most—and let us not be fooled into thinking teens and preteens don’t need their parents—our attention, time, energy and patience are firmly divided.

When my father died suddenly of a massive stroke in October of 2010, I had no idea the burden I’d be carrying today.

I wasn’t particularly happy about my parents’ original decision to move clear across the country, twelve years before when my father retired. At first I thought I’d miss them and was just being selfish. After all, I’d recently had my two children and didn’t want my little ones to miss out on getting to know Grandma and Grandpa. But I saw how much they loved being out there. The weather was beautiful year-round, they golfed at a club and had friends, they went out the theatre. I was almost jealous, it sounded so idyllic.

They got older, of course, and had a series of health scares, which had me rushing to pay exorbitant fees for last-minute plane tickets to BC. My father had a mild stroke, my mother got hit by a truck at a pedestrian cross-walk, and the worst of all: my mother almost died from a bout of severe septicemia caused by a kidney infection. This last illness was devastating. In its throes she became confused and disoriented. I later read that 40–60% of patients with septic shock die within 30 days. But my mother survived. Sadly, so did the confusion and disorientation.

My father took over her care after I flew back home to my waiting family but my mother never fully recovered. I didn’t know the extent of my mother’s difficulties until after my father’s death, when I brought her to Ontario to live closer. I wish my father had shared with me more about my mother’s condition, both for his sake while he was alive, and for mine after his death. At first, I thought I might set her up in a little apartment of her own but soon realized she had trouble learning new things, like how to use my microwave, and didn’t seem able to organize herself into putting together a sandwich.

I researched independent retirement residences and found a beautiful one close to home. Thankfully, my father had provided well financially and we weren’t limited by lack of funds. My mother moved in and appeared to enjoy it, although she rarely joined the activities beyond taking meals in the dining room. And then the dreaded phone calls and warning letters began: “Your mother’s smoking in her unit again.” And that was the end of that. My rebel-without-a-cause mother was about to get kicked out. She wasn’t even being surly or belligerent. Just smoky.

Because she’s not able to manage independently, and there’s not a retirement residence in the whole country that will allow an old woman to smoke on premises, my mother now lives with me, my husband and our two teenage children. She takes the smoking outside and into the garage but continues to refuse to quit. Should she injure herself or become ill and have to go to hospital or into residential nursing care, it’ll be cold-turkey, baby.

So, now I’m cooking, laundering and cleaning for five; chasing down errant homework assignments; ferrying kids to their various lessons; installing nightlights to the bathroom; repeating myself ten times a day; worrying when I’m at the office and my mother is home; worrying whenever my kids are not at home; NOT writing fiction; and am never, ever alone.

Being egg salad (or ham or tuna) is an adjustment but I know we’ll all survive. Somehow.

Survival Tips:

Communication

If your parents are aging yet still independent, I urge you to talk to them no matter how uncomfortable you might feel about certain important topics. Discuss what would happen should they become ill or injured, or if one of them should die unexpectedly. Talk about options that might make a sudden change easier, like downsizing from the old family home to a condo or apartment (and throwing out the years of accumulated junk in the process), or moving closer to together, ideally to the same town.

Talk about how your parents are doing financially. Their generation wasn’t much for sharing that kind of information with their children, but dig in your heels and insist on knowing their situation because you might end up switching roles before you expect to. If you’re going to be the parent, you need to know.

Take Time for Yourself

Yeah, I rarely do this. But I imagine it would be a darn good idea. Independently pursue a passion; get together with friends; sit alone in a Chapters for a few hours with a book and an impossibly large coffee full of pumpkin and whipped cream (with sprinkles); go shopping for yourself (not anyone else: yourself); take a long walk.

Patience, Patience, Patience

No one is intentionally trying to make you mad (although I’m sometimes suspicious that my daughter is taking an independent class in Button Pushing 101). When my mother asks me for the third time what I’m making for a potluck dinner, I know she’s simply forgotten what I told her five minutes before; if she remembered the answer from the first time she asked, she wouldn’t ask again, right?

Sometimes I breathe. I’ve tried doing this in the room where the chaos is occurring but I get a lot of looks and the occasional offer of a paper bag. Best to go off alone to a bathroom. Breathe, count, visualize yourself NOT strangling your fifteen-year-old, your mother, or the husband who isn’t even home yet and isn’t that part of the damn problem.

Let It Go

Laundry piling up? Toilet accumulating that special yellow glow around the base? Dishes so hardened with old food you’re considering throwing them out and buying new? That’s okay. It means you’re making time for important things, like your kids, your spouse or yourself. That stuff will still be there when you get back to it. And we all need something to look forward to.

Don’t Ignore Your Children

Older children still need you. Make time to talk to them about school, friends, pressures and whatever might be bothering them. Don’t assume that because they’re older they don’t need you anymore. I think teens need parental guidance and involvement more than ever. Even if you have to leave the laundry or a dirty house, make sure you (or your spouse) are there to attend their recital, parent-teacher interview, sporting event or speech. They might not articulate it but your praise and approval still mean a lot to them.

Know You’re Not Alone

Hello! *waves* Here I am in the same boat with you.

I know at least half a dozen families who are currently living with, or have lived with, one or more aging parents. If you find someone out there in a similar situation, chances are she has some of the same struggles. Get together for coffee and a gab session about your individual frustrations and coping strategies. Knowing we aren’t alone helps us humans in managing our struggles. I don’t know why, but it does.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

So after all this trying to look after your own needs and letting things slide, you still lost patience with your mother and got angry at her. So you just yelled for 10 minutes at your daughter for using your hairbrush and not returning it to its proper place in your bathroom, and then lit into your son for eating all the school snacks. So you just called your husband a dick for deciding to clean the garage on the same day you’re trying to prepare for a dinner party for 12. These things happen (not to me; these are merely examples of what could happen, you understand). Forgive yourself and move forward. You’ll do better next time. Or not. And that’s okay too.