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Family, Featured, Lifestyle, Navy Football, Travel

Family and Community

October 15, 2017

Family and community are two words that are flung around like confetti nowadays. We’re a football family. We are a community of like-minded individuals who like a certain musical group. We think of community not as something where we are actively involved but where we are brought together for short periods of time. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing bad about this. It’s just that the meaning of the words has dulled with overuse.

Take this past weekend as an example. As many of you know, my husband and I are rabid, and I mean rabid, Navy football fans. We’ve had season tickets for about 15 years, beginning when we lived in Northern Virginia and games were a lovely day trip to Annapolis. When we moved down to Smith Mountain Lake, it never crossed our minds that we would cancel our tickets and stay home to watch games on television. It was just too much fun to be in the Navy-Marine Corp Stadium with upwards of 33,000 fans five times a year.

We tried once to make this a day trip. Too long a drive, too much traffic, and two grumpy people in one car. We started staying overnight, meeting up with friends we’d left behind when we moved further south. We made these five weekends away our time to play. Limited access to social media, except for an occasional posting on Twitter or Instagram. Mostly, we stayed in the moment with a group of like-minded fans who all sit in the same seats every game. Our group has changed over the years, but at the same time it has also stayed pretty much the same. Every year we have about 50% turnover, so we get to meet new folks all the time.

Last weekend was a zoo at the stadium. Navy hosted Air Force. Sellout crowd of over 38,000 people. Way too many cars for the parking lots and surrounding streets and lawns. The day starts with the March On when the Corp of Midshipmen march into the stadium in winter blues, even though it was 80+ degrees. It was after October 1, so winter blues it was. Everyone stands when the colors pass. Everyone stands for the National Anthem and then the fly-over. The game begins after both teams run onto the field, the coin toss at the center tells the teams which one gets the ball first. By now, the fans are “ready for some football.”

Our boisterous group cheered, moaned, and jumped up and down throughout the game. It all came down to the last 15 seconds when Navy held on to beat its rival of 50 years. Only Army and Notre Dame have played Navy for more years.  Parents whose children go to the Academy go wild; fans like my husband and me go wild. There’s little like the pageantry, the unabashed patriotism, the symbolism of an academy game.

So, Navy won and the 38,000+ fans clogged exits to get to their cars. It took us over an hour to get out of the stadium and onto the highway that would take us to our hotel, the same one we’ve stayed in since we moved to the lake. It was so late that I went straight to the restaurant before checking in. We were starving. Never did it cross my mind that the two men at the front desk would be worried because we were so late. When we finally dragged in, Sam, who was on duty, called out to Ivan who was in the back area, “They’re here. They’re safe.” I didn’t realize that they would be so concerned. Ivan charged out of the manager’s office, around the counter, hugged me. He shook hands with my husband.

We’ve come to know Ivan over the years. We’ve prayed when he struggled with cancer and cheered when he was pronounced cured. We worried for his family in Puerto Rico after the recent hurricane. He told us, “they are all alive.” No running power, no electricity, no telecommunications, but his family was alive. We rejoiced in the news.

Okay, so it sound silly, but that little group of fans in Section Two, Blue Side is like a community that gathers together five times a year. And the two men at the Hilton are like family, because who else but family worries if you stay out too late.

Maybe the words aren’t so overused after all. I’ll keep my Navy community and my Hilton family, thank you very much.

9/11, Emotional Release, Emptiness, Featured, Grief, Inspiration, Lifestyle, Memories, Patriotism, Stress, Survival, Twin Towers

Seminal Events

September 11, 2017

We all have seminal events in our lives. Most are personal–births and deaths, weddings and divorces. Some, however, are public. Massively public. Depending on how old you are, you can respond immediately when someone asks, “Where were you when…?” Pearl Harbor. Kennedy was assassinated. The Challenger exploded. Armstrong walked on the moon. 9/11.

This will be published on 9/11. September 11, 2017. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard my country was under attack. I remember watching the twin towers fall again and again on television, never thinking that, to a child, all buildings in all cities were under attack. Watching the Pentagon on fire, not knowing how many were killed or injured. Weeping when passengers took down a jet in Pennsylvania before it could be turned into a weapon.

Yes, we can remember, but what I remember most is what happened later. After. When we drew a collective breath and realized there were no additional planes in the air waiting to attack us. When there was a run on US flags and poles for displaying them. People who had never flown the flag did so with unabashed patriotism. Some flew it to thumb their noses at the cowards who attacked us. Whatever. They flew them. Whole subdivisions, whole city blocks bloomed red, white, and blue. Many of those flags still fly all these years later. Mine does, although my original flag has long since gone to its grave. Properly destroyed in a military-style ceremony when its colors were retired forever.

Doors opened to strangers. When the commercial jets were pulled from the skies and hotels filled up, people took in strangers. Some stayed more than a week, because the skies were closed for many days. New friends became instant best friends. Blocks had cookouts and group functions to share their grief, pain, anger. Strangers worked hard to help their hosts. Prayers. Hand-holding. Hugs. “Thank you” didn’t seem like enough, but it was.

As days turned into weeks, people in cities looked for hiding holes should there be another attack. Knowing cities could never be evacuated should there be a biological or nuclear attack, city dwellers looked for places away from home where they could feel safe. We gave eight families invitations to our lake house, where we now live year round, but where in 2001 we didn’t. We told them where to find the outdoor key, told them to eat what was in the freezer, sent them maps not only to the house but the local services. Gas stations. Grocery stores. Pharmacy. Liquor stores.

We were lucky. No one needed a rush evacuation due to new attacks. Everyone who knew where the keys were came for long weekends after the initial fear cycle was behind us. The keys are in the same place, so if anyone needs to get out of any situation, they have sanctuary with us.

I have never forgotten the kindness the world showed the US. It seemed that even age-old enemies stood beside us symbolically. We wept and raged together. Later, we met together on battlefields against a common enemy.

The blog entry will be published on September 11, 2017. My gratitude toward the world hasn’t weakened. We were all Americans for a period of time. All over the world. The world became one when we were attacked.

Now, I wish we could become one again. Not due to a tragedy. Not due to a natural disaster. But, because we need to be one world. We need to stand together. We need to build bridges. We need to make amends for our actions which have disrespected other countries. We need to open the door of friendship. We need to be the grownups. We need to do it now.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Interacting

August 28, 2017

Have you ever sat in a coffee house or bar and watched how people sit or stand when they talk with each other? I love watching the gestures, facial expressions, set of the shoulders–anything that makes me think the people want to talk and listen to each other. Recently, I’ve noticed something else.

Men and women sit differently. Women like to sit at a table and face each other. They look at each other, paying attention to facial expressions. Whether it’s a table in a restaurant or a low table in a coffee house flanked by comfy chairs, women like to look at each other. Maybe it comes from learning to read expressions at an early age. “Be careful. Mom’s on the warpath” does not mean Mom is wearing war paint but that her face is set and she’s not going to brook any nonsense. We learn that smiles mean it’s safe to approach, maybe even ask for something. Frowns are off-putting. We learn not to go near until the frown goes away.

Men, on the other hand, like standing at a bar side by side. Whether they are bellying up and leaning on the bar itself, or sitting on bar stools, or turning their backs on the bar to watch what other people are doing, men seem to be more comfortable talking out of the sides of their mouths, glancing over occasionally. When something like a crowd of women or a good game on big screen televisions captures their attention, they may pause at the distraction but resume the conversation a few moments later.

Women like words. Lots of words. They like telling stories about their friends, sharing plots of television shows, catching up on each other’s kids. They fill their space with so many words that they seem to hang in the air, crowding out everything else. They’re in a cone of chatter.

Men like silence. Lots of silence. Grunts, nods, shrugs are as important as words. Single words, monosyllables convey as much between men as clouds of chatter do to women. Men like to think about one thing at a time. Women created multitasking. They are always focused on something they have to do later/tomorrow/right now.

We’re wired differently. Ain’t it great?

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Travel

Hot July Night

July 24, 2017

Instead of a hot August night at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, my husband Terry and best friend Glenn joined 7000 of our closest friends for another hot July concert at Wolf Trap. The venue is outdoors with a covered pavilion and lawn seating. The temp peaked at 96 with high humidity by 5:00. We’d arrived around 5:30 and with gates opening at 6:30, we had a long, standing wait to get in. We actually heard the sound check, although we couldn’t see the stage from the gate area.

Because we arrived early enough to be third in line at our gate, we were assured we’d have a good spot once the gates opened and the land rush began. We had a plan: Terry would immediately rent back rests, Glenn would dash downhill to stake out our homestead, and I’d follow more slowly with the blankets and food. Recently recovered from a broken wrist, I don’t “dash” anywhere. Glenn is a pro at this and had grabbed a great place only about fifteen feet up from the front of the lawn area.

We’d been following this band for years. I became a fan when its first album was released fifty years ago and never stopped buying every new release. In all formats except 8-track tape. Among the three of us, we knew the words to nearly all of the hits. Glenn had been following the reviews as the band worked its way across country. Not a single slightly sketchy review to be found. From 17,500 people at the Hollywood Bowl earlier in the summer to our paltry 7000 at Wolf Trap, the band sold out every venue for its fiftieth anniversary concert series.

The reason for the tour, beyond saying thank you to the fans, was to recognize the life-changing effect the first album had on the band and its fans. The concert was split into two halves: in the first set, the band played hits from many of their albums and singles over the years; the second set was the entire inaugural album from first note to last. The fans came to adore their favorite singers; the singers came to be adored.

Just before the encore, Justin Hayward, the lead singer, thanked the fans for joining them on their life’s journey. The sheer fact that we were there to celebrate was testament to the effect the songs from that first album had on so many of us.

We writers can take a lesson from The Moody Blues. We can thank our fans, our readers, for joining us on our writing journey. It takes so little, but Justin’s recognition of what we’d done over the years, loving the band, made all the difference. The fans were speechless before erupting in a standing ovation that lasted many minutes.

Writers don’t get standing ovations, but we do get to meet fans who buy our books. May we never forget to say “thank you” when we hand back a signed book.

To those readers who continue to enjoy my scribbles, thank you. I hope I’ve entertained, and I hope to continue entertaining for many books to come.

Featured, Lifestyle

Thinking About Toes

July 10, 2017

First of all, the word “toes” is a funny one. It rhymes with nose and does. It’s a plural referring to ten digits at the end of two feet. Now, feet are more than just things we walk on; feet are also units of measure. Toes are not units of measure. They are simply things we need to stand and walk.

I’ve become something of a toe fetishist this summer. It all began in April when I put on sandals and looked at ten bare toe nails. Off to get a pedicure and have bright red polish applied by a professional who not only took care of said toe nails, but the entire foot and my calves. Massaging and scrubbing until my legs were purring with pleasure and my feet were soft as a baby’s behind. It felt so good I should say I’m a toe hedonist, but that was before color choices.

I was one of two women getting my pedicure that first spring day. I poked through fifty shades of red before deciding on one that was perfect. The woman next to me was enjoying getting coral on her toes. We chatted about how and why women chose different colors. Very enlightening, because I never choose coral (coral lipstick washes my face out), but heck, that shouldn’t apply to toes, should it? For me, it seems to. I never lean toward coral shades.

During the last pedicure, the nail salon was crammed. Every chair was filled; many more waited for polish to dry or to begin their appointments. Nail art was in full swing. Several women were having rhinestones glued to big toes; others were opting for stencils of flags, flowers, or dogs. Covering everything was a thick coat of clear varnish to keep the designs from fading.

I grew fascinated by two different approaches to making statements with nail polish. One young woman was having a French manicure, pink nail beds with white rims at the tips. She was going to a wedding and wanted fingers and toes to match. Of course, silly me for asking. The other fascinating approach involved a twelve-year-old and her mother. The child had selected ten different colors ranging from deep purple to hot yellow. I thought she couldn’t make up her mind, but no, she wanted each toe painted a different screaming color. Her mother agreed, then asked for five of the colors for herself. She started with bright yellow on her left little toe and worked her way to purple on the big toe, reversing the order on the other foot. When she left, her daughter looked like a happy neon billboard; mom looked like she was signaling someone with one purple big toe and one screaming yellow big toe.

Me? I settled for a lovely brick shade, not too bright, not too dull. A Goldilocks shade. Maybe I’ll get brave next time and opt for purple. Or not.

Featured, Lifestyle, Travel, Writing, Writing Style

Summer Memories

July 3, 2017

Late last year, I shared a short story here called “Toad.” Set in the high desert of Southern California, it was the tale of an imaginative little boy in the late 1950s. To be a free-range kid in those days was heaven, because Toad could go anywhere but toward the highway. With his two best friends, Shorty, the gray burro, and Rex, the German Shepherd, Toad roamed the desert alone or with his younger brother, Jimmy. The story was filled with sunlight as you would expect from something set in the summertime desert.

Toad began as a bit of flash fiction. I loved the little boy. Later, I expanded the story several times. I wasn’t done with Toad. The further away I was from Toad, the clearer I could see him. I couldn’t get the boy out of my head. I wondered how he would grow up, who his friends were, what happened to his parents, his brother.

The more I thought about Toad, the more I really wanted to write more of his story. What I didn’t want to do was  write a novel. I wanted more freedom to explore, to change voices, to change points of view. I’d read a novel by Clifford Garstang, What the Zhang Boys Knew, a few years back. Cliff’s work was a novel in stories, wherein a pair of boys living in an apartment complex in Washington, D.C. figure prominently in each story, which focus on other residents in the complex.

I couldn’t put Toad in a high-rise in Washington, but I could leave him in the desert, let him go away for school and work, and return to his roots. Along the way, Toad picked up a good friend, Pollywog, who moved in “up the road.” Pollywog and Toad met in high school, before they went their different ways. A not-so-nice aunt and her two young girls, one a spoiled princess who hated everything and one a studious child who hid from conflict inside the pages of books, joined the family. Jimmy, Toad’s younger brother, found voice in his own story.

Toad remained the center of the stories, as did the desert compound where he grew up. Family came and went, married and divorced, had kids and lost kids. Life went on, but Toad’s story unwound in ways I didn’t expect.

I have a lot of work to do on this before it’s ready for publication. I hope it’s out in the first half of next year.

And why did Toad draw me in? Partly because I spent many summers in the compound, which was exactly as described in the stories. Party because I was a free-range kid, something my grandkids can’t be nowadays. Partly because I knew and loved the inspiration for Toad. His story needed to be imagined and told. I hope I do him justice. Time and our family will tell.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Summer Doldrums, Early

June 26, 2017

I spoke with several close friends about their drive to do something. Since the beginning of June, they’ve had the summer doldrums, otherwise known as the summer blahs. Yes, they know chores have to be done, and they do them, but then they want to sit beside the pool, or on a dock on a lake, or on the patio, pour a glass of iced tea (sweet or unsweet, depending on your degree of “Southern-ness), and dive into a book. We want some lounge time, me time to read what we want, not what we may have had to read for work. We want a steamy romance. a chair-rattling gothic, a keep-the-lights-on mystery, a spy thriller.

Me? I chose a spy thriller, P.A. Duncan’s A War of Deception. Like something right out of the John Le Carre school of spy thrillers. this blends old-fashioned Cold War spycraft with modern locales and themes. Bad boy spies and the women who love to hate and love them keep me turning pages.

Why don’t you join me? What are you reading today? If it’s one of my books, please take a pic and let me know where you are and which one you’re reading. If not one of mine, that a pic and post to FB. The author will be delighted.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Worms

June 5, 2017

You read that right: worms. I woke up this morning thinking about worms.

Before I continue, I confess that there is little in nature I like less than a worm. I hate them. I know earthworms are good for the soil, but I don’t have to like them, do I? I don’t know why worms were on my mind before dawn today, but they were.

Think about all the way worms appear in our vocabulary. Remember the childhood complaint: Nobody likes me, everybody hates me. I’m going to eat some worms. Now, I never knew that eating worms would be a good idea if no one liked you, except by doing so you might gross someone out. Watching someone eat worms would gross me out, even if they are considered a source of protein and a delicacy in some parts of the world. I prefer chicken or tofu for my protein, thank you very much.

In early spring, when the earth warms, the rains soften the hard ground, earthworms emerge and slither across driveways and sidewalks. A harbinger of spring, I love it when they appear. Just don’t ask me to touch one. I don’t like slimy things, and worms are right up there with the slimiest.

Ear worms are another annoying, albeit not slimy, evidence of worms. No one likes to have “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “It’s a Small World” stuck in your brain all day. “Nights in White Satin” or “Sound of Silence,” maybe. In fact, definitely “Nights in White Satin.” Usually. ear worms are the most annoying interruptions. And the more you try to get rid of them, the louder they get.

What about sayings we hear from our parents and grandparents. “The early bird gets the worm.” Or, “he’s caught like a worm on a hook.” There are more. Add your own favorites.

The more I think about it, it doesn’t end well for the worm. I think I’ll leave it at that.

Donna Knox, Featured, Lifestyle

Dragons and Funny Interpretations

May 29, 2017

You all know I’m going through rehab to strengthen the wrist I broke on April 25. It’s getting better. I have enough rotation to type. Alas, rehab isn’t fixing the typos I make. And I can’t play the piano.

Right after I had my spill, I bought Natural Dragon software so that I could keep working. My friends warned me that the software has to learn your voice, your cadence, and special words you use. They were right.

After going through the set up exercises for Dragon to learn my cadence, it was time to try it on a manuscript I was editing. Because the writer I’m working with has a penchant for putting commas in the wrong places or leaving them out entirely, I trained my left hand to drag the mouse to the spot where a comma needed to be inserted. I said, “comma.” A comma appeared. About the fifteenth time I said, “comma,” my husband asked if I was working on a friend’s manuscript. He’s heard me worry commas into the text more often than not.

Well, I got fat and sassy, so I thought I’d take a crack at one of my works. I was pretty good with most of the edits, but the software kept inserting Sad Sack for Mad Max. These words don’t sound anything alike. I really couldn’t figure out why Sad Sack sounded like Mad Max. I still don’t get it.

Worse was when I started working on a new manuscript. There is no way the software learned the name of the main character. I admit Sa-Li Ma is an unusual name. He’s Chinese, so it’s not unusual for him. Dragon couldn’t, just couldn’t, figure it out. Sa-Li came out Solly, Sally, Sully, Salim, silently, and several other silly mistakes. It’s pronounced Sah-Lee. Now hard it that, especially after I put it in the Dragon dictionary.

I figured Ma wouldn’t be all that hard. It means “horse” in Chinese. It’s pronounced Mah. I had everything from Ma to Mott to Meh to Mole. Mole??? Really???

I whined to a girlfriend who advised I change the character’s name. I did. Surely Dragon should be able to understand John Doe. Leave it to say, Doe came out in a variety of different spellings. Oh, well, I can use search and replace for John and manually change Doe to Ma.

The software picks up all sorts of speech. I turned to say something to my husband when he passed my desk. Damned software picked up every word with no errors. But a name, no way. You can’t imagine what it did with a sneeze.

I’m not going to quit on the software. I’m also not going to try writing any dialog in dialect. Not gonna do it. Uh uh. And I think I’ll not cough.

###

Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

“Wait, What?”

May 22, 2017

A few years back, James Ryan gave a commencement speech at Harvard’s College of Education where he advised graduates to question everything. His first bit of wisdom was what he called, “Wait, What?”That’s when you’are telling your kids something, you throw in, “I need you to clean your room.” Your kid hears “blah, blah, blah, clean your room, blah, blah, blah.” Your kid says, “Wait, what?” The clean-your-room comment is the only thing to penetrate text brain. Ryan’s message was about listening to a message and questioning it.

Journalists and writers are sympathetic questioners. We want to know the answers. So we ask the questions.

A writers most important question could be “What happens if…?”

What happens if you put a plain-looking man in a group of “pretty people?” How can you make him stand out? Does he have the gift of gab? Is he uber-smart? Is he a billionaire? Or is he an ordinary guy who listens when people talk and asks questions to keep them talking?

A few years ago. my husband and I visited Blowing Rock, NC. We’d just checked into our motel and were off to find ice cream at our favorite local shop. Lying next to the gutter was a child’s sock. A single sock. I wondered, “where’s the other sock?” I didn’t want a prosaic answer like its mate was in the dryer, or a child pulled it off when Daddy wasn’t looking. I wanted it to be a clue dropped by a woman who’d been kidnapped. Or maybe it fell out of a sleeve of a well-dressed man whose wife didn’t iron his shirts. Clue: the sock will appear in a story later this year when the wrong sock is the clue to a missing child.

Then, there was the woman dressed like a gypsy at a Barns at Wolf Trap concert even more years ago than the sock. She sat to the side, lost in her own world,  and shuffled a deck of Tarot cards. Was she going to tell her own fortune? Did she want to tell mine?

My friend, the late Sally Roseveare, could look around a room and find at least three things that would enhance her mysteries. Sometimes it was a mundane item that could be used to kill someone. Picture wire was one of her favorites, yet she never used it in a story. Or she’d wonder why a teaspoon was left on a chair even though no one was eating. Could it have traces of poison in it? And what about that crumpled paper? Did it have a written clue about where to find a murder weapon?

I look at people and wonder what their secrets are. We all have them. Do we wish we had been kinder to an elderly relative? Or to a child? Or do I wish I hadn’t spent our week’s grocery money on a necklace for my mom on Mother’s Day when I was eight? I do, but she was kind enough to hide her anger and worry about our diet for a week. She gave me the necklace years ago. I still have it.

Look around. You never know what you’ll find. Take tons of pictures of things that strike you. You never know when you’ll need that precise image.

What questions do you ask? What makes you curious?

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