Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A to Z Blog Challenge -- Z is for Zany

Welcome to Day 26 of this year's A to Z Blog Challenge where --

Z is for Zany

My attraction to all things silly goes wa-a-a-y-y back, to when I used to sit in my playpen with a bucket on my head making sounds just to hear them reverberate. At a basic level, even as a toddler, I knew it was silly to sit with a bucket on my head.

I do have to say that I come from a long line of silly people. No doubt my penchant for zaniness is genetic.

That's my cousin Charlie on Christmas Eve, 2009 -- an early photobomber.

I remember filling out a questionnaire in my bridal planning book where I had to list the top three things I couldn't live without in a mate.

One guess as to where 'sense of humor' ranked for me.

Even our dog was kooky. That's Xena crammed between the couch cushion and me in the purple shirt.

My sister gets eaten by the rhododendron during the Sisters Christmas Lights Decorating Party, 2012. We don't even try to be serious during lights decorating time.

My cousin-in-law Stephen, at right, can't even be serious at his own film premiere (at last fall's Atlantic Film Festival.)

Sure -- a mutant oversize zucchini is cause for silliness at our house. Why wouldn't it be?

My husband Brad deals with The Damage after a restaurant meal during our Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island vacation last summer.

I will confess to prompting other people to join me in my zaniness. Strangely, my writing group peeps have always been more than ready to flaunt their inner jesters. That's Nikki McIntosh and Kelly Boyce working it before a walk at the 2010 fall retreat.

Hey -- Nikki again at center, still working it at the 2011 retreat. At left, Annette Gallant, at right, Lori Robitaille. are on a rampage of working it. Fall Retreat, 2013.

Maybe if I sit with my writing group's president Taryn Blackthorne, perhaps I'll settle down...


And there you have it, folks! It's a wrap on 2014's A to Z Blog Challenge.

I'll be making my way to all of my commenters in the coming weeks. Thanks Everyone for dropping by A Piece of My Mind. It's been a pleasure to meet you!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A to Z Blog Challenge -- Y is for the Yarmouth Argyle Port Maitland Opera Lovers Society

Welcome to Day 25 of this year's A to Z Blog Challenge where --

Y is for YAPMOLS, or the Yarmouth Argyle Port Maitland Opera Lovers Society

My grandmother grew up in Amirault's Hill just outside of Yarmouth, and after living her married life in Sydney, Nova Scotia and then in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, Gram returned to her hometown when Grandpa retired.

My mom joined them when she and my dad parted ways in 1989. For my Mom, Yarmouth had always been a weekend sort of town, a place where she'd visit her parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, but Mom was used to city living -- and Yarmouth is a working fishing town. What was she going to do, exactly?

During one memorable dinner which Mom attended, along with several couples she'd met as she'd settled into Yarmouth life, it became clear that the opera playing in the background was sparking a brilliant idea.

Yarmouth's summer population always swelled with 'summer people' -- retired professionals who relished the peace of the seaside community but who were also used to city life and all the culture readily available to metropolitan tastes.

Yarmouth boasts a small live theatre venue, and a really accomplished community choir, as well as a vibrant east coast music scene -- but definitely no opera performances. The closest operas could be found four hours away at the Dalhousie University's music program graduations in Halifax.

Why not build a dinner evening out of a particular opera recording, have everyone either dress formally as if heading to the Met, or else dress as the characters in the story would dress? Then they could plan the dinner menu around the country featured in the libretto.

That is how YAPMOLS came to be. The initials stand for the three communities from where the members hailed: Yarmouth, Argyle and Port Maitland. All three communities are close to each other, and the society had a floating host format, whereby the next event would move to another member's home in rotation.

As Mom told me about some of these evenings on the phone when I lived in Toronto, finishing up university and working at the performing arts theatre which was then home to the Canadian Opera Company, they sounded like so much fun, I couldn't wait to experience one myself.

When my sister and I flew to Halifax and drove down to Yarmouth to attend Mom's art show at Th'YARC, luckily for us there was also a YAPMOLS event showcasing Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. This is my sister and me decked out in some of Mom's formal clothes, listening to the opera.

The general program of a YAPMOLS opera night ran like this:

All the guests arrived, looking gorgeous, of course. This is Carolyn and Henry.

Everyone either introduced themselves around, or caught up with old friends. This was my husband's and my second opera night, and our first as newly-arrived residents of Yarmouth in 1999. (We're now in Halifax.) Musical family friends Gail and Ed are second and third from right.

A great time to relax with some wine and appetizers, while feeling the buzz of anticipation for act one of the opera. Mom's good friend Bill, center, chats with Mom's friends Peter and Janet.

When it was time to start, someone would read the act one description of the story -- in this case, it was me.

Everyone would find a seat, and a recording of the opera would play.

At the end of act one, it was time for the main course sit-down dinner.

That's Mom in the center chatting with Peter and Janet during a Madama Butterfly opera night.

Of course, if it was The Girl of the Golden West, opera night became an opera barbeque.

Once the second act description was read and everyone settled in to listen to the opera, dessert was served between acts two and three.

This is the Tosca opera night co-hosted by Mom and me, that being one of my favorite operas. We held it during one of our trips home to Nova Scotia from Toronto after I'd finished my final year and graduated from Ryerson University. L to R: Mom, Dad (who were still close friends, even though divorced,) Brad and me.

Following the conclusion of the opera, often there would be brandy and chocolates, or cigars in the back porch for the men, and the evening would go on until the wee hours of the morning. That's Peter and Janet enjoying a laugh.

Mom and Bill -- is it morning already? Time to go?

Yes, the opera nights of yore spanned the decade of the 90s and were a magical part of life in Yarmouth for everyone who took part. If you can't get to the opera, bring the opera to you.

Tomorrow will be the final day of this year's challenge -- wow!

I can't believe how much fun I've had doing the challenge. Thanks to all who have dropped by. I'll branch out to visit fellow A to Z-ers in the weeks to come, as I know many of you will also be doing. This has been my fourth A to Z Blog Challenge, and I'm already looking forward to the next one.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A to Z Blog Challenge -- X is for our Xanadu Pleasuredome Travelling Sisterhood of Forever Friends

Welcome to Day 24 of this year's A to Z Blog Challenge where --

X is for our Xanadu Pleasuredome Travelling Sisterhood of Forever Friends

In the 13th century, Mongol ruler Kublai Khan held court at a summer palace in Xanadu, the Mongolian name for modern-day Dolon Nor. When Marco Polo wrote about his visit to Xanadu, he mentioned the "Palace built of cane...It is gilt all over, and most elaborately finished inside...The construction of the Palace is so devised that it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity." 

Fast forward six centuries, and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge based his Romantic-era unfinished piece Kubla Khan, or A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment upon Samuel Purchas' account of Xanadu, itself based upon Marco Polo's writings:

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasuredome decree"

In modern-day popular culture, Xanadu is synonymous with Utopian splendour. Knowing that the original palace in Kublai Khan's Xanadu was a temporary construction to house his court brings me to my high school friends Dawn, Maureen and Shelley, and our four-decades-long friendship.

photo by Maureen Kemp

We met in the late 1970s when we all sang in our high school choir. At that time, our student population was large enough to require a row of portable classrooms running alongside the back of the main building, including our beloved music portable where we basically spent all of our time.

This is a shot of a typical gathering of music students enjoying some early summer sunshine just outside the portable, likely during our lunch break. The four of us are in the top right of the shot: In red, Mark, then Alanna, Shelley, Maureen, Dawn and me.

photo by Maureen Kemp

Even the portable is now dismantled. Our creative haven, where we rehearsed for choir performances and musicals, attended music classes and chilled out if the space was free is now an empty spot of asphalt behind the high school.

L to R, above: Dawn, Alanna, Michael (standing,) Mark (seated,) me and Shelley

Yet the bonds we forged during those years held us close, through those initial flying-the-nest university years when we scattered across North America, when our trips home at holiday times meant the first of our travelling pleasuredome constructions.

In picture above: Maureen at left, middle row / Shelley at center, bottom row / me beside Shelley, second from right, bottom row

Just like the Kublai Khan's transportable summer palace, we made our joys whenever we found ourselves together at a crossroads in our various life paths.

Through many moves to many cities between the four of us, now settled into two of us on the east coast (Shelley and myself) and two on the west coast (Dawn and Maureen,) we've nevertheless managed to attend each other's weddings whenever possible, welcome children and celebrate many life milestones together. 

Something that we do every now and then is organize a Girls' Overnight if we all four happen to be in the same place at the same time.

photos by Maureen Kemp

This was one of those overnights at a Halifax hotel. They always begin with a dinner out at a restaurant where we catch up and talk and laugh.

photo by Maureen Kemp

Toasting to our Xanadu with my former dance partner Dawn.

L to R: Dawn, me and Alanna in a can-can performance at the end-of-the-year variety show the music students used to produce ourselves, June 1981

Nowadays, the kids are starting to graduate university. That's me sitting beside Maureen's daughter at one of the get-together dinners, also including Shelley's longtime friend Krista.

photo by Maureen Kemp

This year we've been celebrating 50th birthdays. Happy Birthday, Shelley!

And last year, a 50th anniversary with Dawn's parents.

When I launched my debut novel in 2011, Shelley was there to celebrate with me. It's now been re-launched as Vampires, Saints and Lovers.

In our four decades together, we have sometimes come together in order to bid farewell to departing family members. At those times, it has been a source of strength to sit shoulder to shoulder as we shed our tears.

photo by Maureen Kemp

Most of the time, we set up our pleasuredomes to celebrate those moments when our paths cross and our smiles provide the pillars for the palace.    

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A to Z Blog Challenge -- W is for Writers' Retreat

Welcome to Day 23 of this year's A to Z Blog Challenge where --

W is for my Writers' Retreat

As many of my longtime blog readers know, I belong to my local chapter of Romance Writers of America.

Although north of the border, Canada boasts six RWA chapters, including mine -- Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada.

We represent writers focusing on careers in commercial romantic fiction, from the four Atlantic Provinces:

Nova Scotia (29 writers)
New Brunswick (2 writers)
Prince Edward Island (1 almost-returned-home writer in transition from Nova Scotia)
Newfoundland and Labrador (2 writers)
We also have 1 Nova Scotia-based writer living in the United States, but still part of our chapter.

We meet once a month, with the exception of July and August, first informally for lunch (my favorite part!) and then formally for a business meeting, followed by a workshop on either the craft of writing, the business of writing or the writing life (my second favorite part!)

Once a year, our chapter also holds an event which has become the high point of our year -- the fall writing retreat.

It takes place at a rented cottage about two hours from Halifax along the province's South Shore. We start arriving on the Friday, embark on the retreat and wrap it all up by lunchtime on the Sunday.

So why do we start dreaming of the next year's retreat, the moment we pack up to make the drive home?

Here's a look back at the retreats in which I've taken part, for the past nine years.

photo by Jennie Marsland

As far as I'm concerned, the retreat begins when my friend Kelly Boyce picks me up for the drive to the cottage. We're already detaching ourselves from our regular lives, which is an integral part of any retreat. We chat and catch up during the drive, often discussing what we plan to work on during the weekend.

We normally have the keys, open up the cottage, turn on the heat and wait for the other RWACers to arrive.

That's Kelly to the left, me in the orange Tshirt, Jennie Marsland at center and Lori Robitaille at right, relaxing on the arrival Friday night.

We split out meal prep and clean-up, so that one dinner, two breakfasts and two lunches are taken care of by teams, leaving the other retreaters to chill. Works out great. Enjoying the Friday night dinner, clockwise from lower left: Shawna Romkey, Jennie Marsland, Lori Robitaille, Nikki McIntosh, Michelle Helliwell and Tara MacDonald.

Relaxing, catching up and getting ourselves re-settled into the retreat space is all a part of Day 1.

Sometimes on the Friday night, we play the Whose Muse is Whose? game, where we bring in pictures of inspirational actors or models to represent a character we're writing about, and we have to guess: who brought in the picture, and who does the character seem to be?

We just love this one! Hunting down the right picture is part of the fun, even before the retreat. Guessing who brought which picture correctly hardly ever happens, but guessing what sort of character he represents is often bang-on.

Last year, Michelle Helliwell brought in this amazing storytelling card game.

We played one round of the official rules, then altered it to suit our need to make one giant rambling story out of laying down every card in the deck, as they had been dealt to us. I'm pretty certain this game is now our new tradition.

photo by Lori Robitaille

Saturday starts with breakfast.

L to R: Heidi Hamburg, Stella MacLean, Elaine Skinner, me, Kelly Boyce and Nikki McIntosh

We used to schedule workshops for the Saturday, generally three spread out through the morning and afternoon. This one was a workshop on using color in your scenes, by Lilly Cain.

Clockwise from left: Heidi Hamburg, Kelly Boyce, Tanya Dawson, Renee Field, Pat Thomas, Lilly Cain and Nikki McIntosh

We've gravitated toward using the previous workshop blocks of time for personal writing time. We now come to the retreat with serious writing goals and the head space to focus on them.

On Saturday evening, we head over to the main lodge for dinner -- walking if it's it's nice out, driving over if not.

photo by Pat Thomas

We linger over our delicious dinner with much animated talking and laughing. I swear it can't be easy to be seated near us...

L to R: me, Kelly Boyce and Nikki McIntosh

Saturday generally winds down with a movie -- if you can call it winding down...

L to R: Nikki McIntosh, Lori Robitaille, Kelly Boyce and Heidi Hamburg

photo by Kelly Boyce

One of the biggest highlights of the weekend is our brainstorming sessions. We split off into groups of three or four, often mixing up writers from different genres, and spend about 40 minutes per writer to explain what we're working on, and then taking brainstorming ideas from our group.

These sessions often lead to the following year's writing direction for many of us. It's been enormously popular.

L to R: Elaine Skinner, Annette Gallant and me

Ingredients for a successful retreat:

Copious amounts of wine

A sense of fun

Feather boas and tiaras

A writing project to work on

A good ear and speed in order to add out-of-context quotes to the mirror -- good for all kinds of fun!