Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Writing Nomads of Celebation

I know it probably sounds unbelievable, but I have a love of writing. One of my earliest memories is wandering through the basement of our cookie-cutter Chicago bungalow, telling myself detailed stories starring our cat, Fluffy. My imagination had transformed him into Super Fluffy, a fearless feline superhero. I was probably all of three at the time, since poor Fluffy disappeared by the time I turned four...most likely a road-pizza-ed victim of the crazed Chicago drivers.

I had a set of old-fashioned wooden blocks, and in my mind they transformed into a cast of colorful characters. The yellow triangles were birds, the rectangles with a half-moon cut out were horses. The rounded "sticks" were cats. The rest of the pieces were used to construct elaborate settings for long, rambling tales that I acted out on the living room carpet. Anyone viewing the jumble would have seen precarious and disorderly block stacks; in my mind, they were far-away kingdoms full of dazzling adventure. The plots are lost to antiquity, as I was much too young to be able to write them down.

As I grew older, I realized that people could actually get paid to write. While most little girls played with Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens, I pecked away on a second-hand typewriter, spinning long, fantastic yarns about cats and horses (the birds were dropped from the cast when I switched mediums from blocks to ink).

I sold my first newspaper article while still in high school, and soon I was selling a steady string of horse training pieces to "Horse Illustated" (a journalistic sibling of "Cat Fancy" and "Dog Fancy") and other equestrian publications. I did some news stringing for a Chicago daily, too, and became a reporter, columnist, and eventually editor of a bi-monthly community newspaper.

I put my freelancing on hold when I got a job in corporate communications. That morphed into a career in training and development, and my writing got shoved off to simmer on the back burner. Still, I knew that someday it would return to a place of prominence in my life. The well of words never went dry in my brain; it simply had no spigot for the past decade, but now I was ready to tap in again.

Coincidentally, a fellow Celebration resident decided to start a writers' group. I joined in, figuring that a structured focus on writing would help me gingerly dip my toes back into the stream of creativity. I had some ideas for the horse magazines, so I thought that the club would be a great way for me to make a commitment to complete and submit some articles.

The club has been going strong for two months now, albeit with an interesting challenge. Much like the wandering tribes of Israel, the Celebration Creative Writers' Club wanders the "desert" of our fair town in search of a permanent Promised Land.

We started off at one of the two coffee shops for our first meeting, then tried out the second one for a comparison. While they both offered comfortable quarters, it was hard to read out loud with the constant flow of traffic. Thankfully, we all write in relatively benign genres, but I can just imagine the reaction of the caffeine-seekers in anyone had specialized in something like erotic fiction: "He tore the bodice from her heaving, sweat beaded bosom, cupping the buttery buds in his hands and burying his face in their fullness...." (You get the idea.)

Next up, we met twice in the local bookstore. It worked out well, although we were still reading out loud in public (there was less foot traffic than the coffee shops). But during the second meeting, Mr. and Mrs. Beezlebub came in with their brood of satanic spawn, who proceeded to create aural mayhem for the next half hour. With our ears ringing, we agreed that we'd look for quieter, more private quarters next time.

This Wednesday, our meeting was slated for the Celebration Foundation office. They make it available for community groups, and since it was in the evening, we'd be the only ones there. I met up with a fellow member and we headed off to building by Seito (the Japanese restaurant on Front Street) where both of us believed the Foundation was located. The first scary sign was that the door was locked...hmmmmmmm. The second ominous indication was that the name "Celebration Foundation" had been scratched off the signplate. Apparently the Foundation is just as nomadic as the Celebration Creative Writers.

My friend dialed the Foundation phone number, hoping that they might have a recording with their address. No dice. We walked down to Town Hall, thinking perhaps someone might be around to direct us to the proper location. No dice there, either, but a quick phone call to my husband revealed that the new location was on Sycamore Street. My cell phone lost signal before he could give me the address, but Sycamore was right around the corner. Sure enough, as we rounded the bend, the other members of the group were waiting in the doorway.

We managed to have our meeting, but the leader of our group said that getting the key had been a marathon process. Thus it looks like our traveling gypsy band will be moving on to a new location two weeks hence.

Oh well, writers are adaptable people. It doesn't matter where we meet, as long as we get together somewhere. The group has been very rewarding for me; since we started, I've actually sent out my first query letter in a decade and a half and got an article assignment out of it. But the nice thing about our group is that it is made up of people with all sorts of ambitions, from writing for fun to commercial sales, in a wide variety of genres from mystery to horror to general fiction and, of course, non-fiction. At the meetings, we each share a tip and then read a sample of our writing (new or old) for the rest of the group to critique. It's a fun and supportive atmosphere,

If you live in Celebration (or the surrounding environs) and want to join, we'd be glad to have you as everyone is welcome! Just one little challenge...I can tell you when but not where. Oh well, by this time next week I'm confident that the Writing Nomads will know their next "campsite" and the creativity will continue, no matter where we rest our rumps.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Don't Pee in the Palmettos

There are many wise adages regarding the topic of tinkling. For example:

-Don't whiz on the electric fence

-Don't eat yellow snow

This weekend, I learned another one quite personally and graphically:

-Don't pee in the palmettos

It all started at the Lake Louisa State Park Trail Obstacle Challenge. This bi-annual event consists of ten items to be negotiated by horse and human. They change from year to year; the current course included (in no particular order):

-A pinwheel of railroad ties to step over

-Poles with tennis balls on top, to be woven through without touching a pole

-A tipping teeter-totter to ride over

-Logs to ride over and a ribbon to tie onto a tree

-Barrels to back up between

-A mattress to ride over

-A giant puddle to ride through

-A rope gate to open, ride through, and close

-Giant timbers forming a "bridge" to ride over

-Hanging pool noodles to ride through

Below are photos of Figment and I negotiating the poles and the tree-tie:

Even though Figgie and I ride through the state park nearly every day, I had no idea how he'd react to the various foreign objects that had suddenly invaded his tranquil territory. Last year, I had planned to ride in the October challenge, but Figgie colicked the morning of the event. For those not familiar with equine illness, that means a massive horsey bellyache. In the worst case scenario, it can be fatal so it's nothing to play around with. Fortunately, a dose of Banamine brought him back around, but it was too late to go on the ride.

But the day before the October event, we had moseyed out on the trails for a sneak preview. You can't ride on the obstacles beforehand, but you can take a look at them. Figment didn't give a hoot about the obstacles themselves; no, my big, brave trail horse had melted down at the white plastic chairs that were placed out for the judges! I had to dismount and lead him gingerly to the Seats of Certain Horsey Doom. I sat in one of the chairs, flailed my arms all over it, and even picked it up. Eventually, he realized that it wasn't ripping me from limb to limb, so perhaps it was also safe for apoplectic Appaloosas to approach.

This year, I hoped he'd remember the benign nature of the chairs so he could concentrate on the real obstacles. Actually, the thing that worried me the most was how he would react to the sudden appearance of dozens of trailers, campers, and tents, as well as a hundred strange horses, in the normally tranquil environs of Lake Louisa. Fortunately, I was riding with the barn owner and her unflappable old mare, Queenie. I was hoping that Queenie's calmness would rub off on my excitable young Appy.

I had bathed Figgie the day before with his special fru-fru shampoo; it's a pink concoction called Pampered Pony or some-such silly moniker. Supposedly it's watermelon scented, but the aroma is no match for those old barnyard standards: Sweaty Horse and Eau de Manure. Still, when I was done, his white rump glowed like a big, hairy beacon of equine good grooming. I brushed his mane and tail into a flaxen shine and crossed my fingers, hoping that he wouldn't roll in the muck the moment I set him loose.

By the next morning he had, indeed, rolled, but thankfully the damage wasn't too God-awful. I arrived at the barn early to brush him out; one of our riding group had checked us in already, so we were slated to start the course at 10:45.

Lake Louisa State Park is right across the street from the boarding barn. Figgie approached non-chalantly, still blissfully unaware of the amazing transformation looming just ahead. Suddenly he stopped dead and his eyes bulged as big as two liquid brown balloons. There were tons of trailers and tents! A verticable covey of campers! Hordes and hordes of humans! And, most exciting of all, a huge herd of horses!

Queenie glanced over at him as if to say, "What's wrong with you?" Feeding off her indifference, Figment decided that perhaps it was safe to do some exploring. His ears were forward and his nostrils were flared as we negotiated the crowd, but fortunately he refrained from flipping into a meltdown.

We met the rest of our group, and at 10:45 we set off on the six-mile course. Figment was a little confused at the way in which the trails had been transformed. Soon, however, he was acting like an old pro. Usually he likes to hang behind, but midway through the course he decided that he didn't mind being the leader. His ears were pricked forward in full equine radar mode as he eagerly scouted out each obstacle.

The only one he refused was the innocuous-seeming rope gate. To human eyes, it was simple: Unlatch the rope from one of the poles, ride between them, and relatch it. But in horsey perception, a thick, orange rope bears way too much resemblance to a commonly-used type of electrified fence tape. Figment couldn't figure out why I wanted to maneuver him so close to the Danger Zone. For 90 seconds (the time limit), I tried in vain to convince him that it was safe, while he was apparently equally devoted to protecting me from a shock.

Oh well, nine out of ten wasn't bad, considering that it was our first-ever try. I was especially pleased that Figgie backed up between the barrels; that was the one obstacle that I was firmly convinced we'd blow. Queenie, the barn owner's horse, did so well that she won third place.

But even though the obstacles went smoothly, I ended up making my own adventure. Halfway through the course, I realized that I had to pee. I mean, I really, really had to pee; there was no way I'd make it through five more obstacles without soaking my saddle. But I didn't relish the thought of bluntly announcing my base bodily need to the rest of the group.

Fortunately, as we approached the next challenge (riding your horse over a mattress), I noticed that there was a horse trough and bottled water just beyond. I figured I could do the obstacle first, then rush over to the rest area, pee in the surrounding screen of palmettos, and be done by the time the rest of the group arrived. We'd all be dismounting anyway to get a bottle of water, so I wouldn't be holding them up. With any luck, they might not even realize that I'd been off tinkling among the trees.

Figgie gingerly bounced across the mattress, and I rushed around the corner to complete my dirty deed. I tied him to a tree, then slipped off to pee in the privacy of the palmetto screen. Unfortunately, I didn't factor in two important items: 1) Saw palmettos got their name for a reason; their leaves are as sharp as a freakin' Ginsu knife; and 2) To a horse, the loud rustle of palmetto leaves translates to vicious wild animal!

Apparently, when I disappeared among the loud and all-engulfing shrubbery, Figgie decided that I had been devoured by some stealthy and ravenous creature. The continued rustling convinced him that it was coming for him next. He promptly broke loose and galloped off to the safety of the herd, still gathered at the obstacle.

All eyes were on the palmetto privy as I emerged. So much for a private pee! Now, not only my group knew, but also the judges at the obstacle. I confessed my dirty deed to the group as I reclaimed my horse. Worse yet, the reins had broken, so I had to tie them on precariously to make it through the rest of the ride. After remounting, I noticed that the leaves had sliced my finger as neatly as a knife blade, and it was now dripping with blood. Later in the day, I found a long, gory gash on my leg, too.

The rest of the ride went without incident, other than Figgie keeping a nervous eye on the palmettos that line the trail. My bladder was relieved, but at quite an embarrassing price. I'm already planning to ride in the October trail challenge, but you can rest assured: If I need to tinkle on the trail, it will not be in a palmetto patch!

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