Monday, November 29, 2004

Hiking Sampler

Hiking in Iowa is an uncertain enterprise, not for the easily deterred. There are usually surprises. (Occasionally there are no surprises, but that is rare enough to be surprising.)

I have found no surprises on Eastern Iowa's Heritage Trail, where I go bicycling. It is a straight shot trail rather than a loop, which I consider a disadvantage for a walker, and there's a fee. However, it is quiet and lovely, there are benches and a couple of toilets, and strong animal smells are few and confined to the area between Dyersville and Farley.

Iowa's state parks are free to visit, which is one of the many very cool things about Iowa. Backbone State Park offers a number of excellent trails, particularly the short loop along the Backbone Ridge. Here the surprise came when I sat down to watch the sunset: tiny, ferocious black insects that crawled all over me and bit every area they could access.

Insects are a common problem here. I remember a late summer hike to which a friend showed up wearing shorts. My heart sank because I knew my hike would be cut short. My friend would not last ten minutes before being driven away by mosquitos. That day I had my socks rolled over my lightweight batik pants, and I wore a baseball cap, and my mother asked me, "Do you have to look stupid to go on a hike?" Nonplussed, I eventually gathered myself enough to respond, "Why, yes, it is sort of a prerequisite."

Indian Creek Nature Center has an absolutely wonderful little network of trails with an abundance of wildlife, but hikers should wear long pants, because there is one small place where poison ivy has overgrown the trail and you cannot walk around it. Even though I knew the ivy was there, it was so tall that I accidentally touched it. Whoops!

This past weekend was the last weekend before deer season, so I observed the occasion with a hike. I chose the Sac and Fox Trail, Iowa's oldest national recreational trail. The Sac and Fox is another straight shot trail, but short enough that you can park a car at each end of it and walk the whole 7.2 miles. It is located on the south end of a genuinely charming and likable city with a lot of recreational opportunities, but no area is perfect, and this particular pleasant community bears the unfortunate informal nickname "City of Five Smells." The wind was unfavorable that day (normally it blows the other direction), and one of those five smells, a sewage treatment facility, followed me for half my hike. Surprise!

One place to hike without surprises--unless you include startling visions of people caked head to toe in mud from crawling around in caves--is Maquoketa Caves State Park. I highly recommend it for its clearly marked trails, caves, and plant life.

Effigy Mounds National Monument has only a short trail, but it's a good one, with awesome views of the Mississippi River. The first section is a mildly steep walk up a bluff, and I always find it entertaining to hear people's complaints about the rigors of the climb. They warn me to take it slow. Once my hiking partner asked some kids if they thought he could make it all the way up, and they all hollered "No!"

Okay, it's not Colorado or New Hampshire, but it's not all cornfields, either. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

November in Iowa

Twice this month I have driven 370 miles in the flat part of Iowa, and it is not half as interesting as it is in the summer when everything is green. It is getting chilly in the Tall Corn State, and everyone I have spoken with has cooked a pot of chili within the past two weeks.

I'm going to share my chili recipe today. I got the idea for bulghur from Jeanne Lemlin's tremendously useful book Vegetarian Pleasures, but my chili differs from hers in several key ways, most notably in not being vegetarian.

Soupy Chili for One to Three People

Start out with a medium-sized saucepan, and put about a tablespoon of vegetable oil in it. Chop up a small to medium onion, and saute that until it is translucent. Add the following:

3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1/4-1/3 cup bulghur (or textured vegetable protein if you don't eat wheat, but bulghur is tastier)
1 1/2 t. chili powder
1 t. cumin, ground or seed
1/2 t. oregano
1/8 t. cayenne pepper

Saute all this for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. Then add the following:

2 cups stewed tomatoes, or thereabouts
1 can beef broth (1.5 cups water if you're vegetarian)
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 bay leaf
additional water if you're so inclined

Bring the chili to a simmer, then lower the heat and cook for at least half an hour. Add the following:

1 t. red wine vinegar (balsamic vinegar if you like chili sweeter)
black pepper to taste

At this point I turn the heat off and let the chili sit for about half an hour before I eat it, with cornbread.

Last weekend I got to eat a friend's delicious chili after a University of Iowa football game. Attending a Big Ten game was a lot different from going to Rice games! I am an alum of Rice University in Houston, where our student body was under 5,000 students, yet our football stadium seated 73,000 people. The stadium was never full, and everyone moved about freely. Not so at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium, where there are only 70,000 seats, but 28,000 students and a substantial number of alumni. I was allowed into only the section for which I held a ticket, and I could not enter any other area.

Another way that the Iowa game was a new experience was the incredible crowd noise. One thing about me is that when I do not feel like preserving my dignity, I can scream like a banshee. Never before have I heard anyone over 25 scream like I can. But at the Iowa game, the forty-year-old man in the neighboring seat threatened my hearing. I had to find standing room to preserve what was left of my best ear. When that crowd roared, it felt like I was being levitated. When Iowa scored and I emitted a piercing shriek that probably destroyed part of my friend's eardrum, I could barely hear myself.

Of course it was never 40 degrees at football games in Houston, but attending football games in Iowa's November cold was not new to me. At least I was not wearing a drum major uniform with a short skirt, like I gladly wore in 12th grade no matter how cold it was. And at least there was a hot bowl of chili waiting for me after the game.


Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Won't you come home, Bill Bailey?

When I get to know new people, I tell them stories, not surprisingly. However, the nature of the stories can be surprising because I do not look like a person who would have very many wild stories, and yet, somehow, I do. Sometimes I start with stories from more than ten years ago, because they are by far the oddest, and if I can get through them without causing people to run for the door, I am probably home free. However, even now, when I am cautious and respectable, odd events happen around me, and I plunge right in and do nothing to make the world more normal.

My mother claims that I am the reason why my parents have gray hair. Apparently it has nothing to do with being 60 years old. 95% of the gray hairs came from me, and 5% from my brother when he was 16 and 17.

Here is a story from long after I became a respectable model citizen. I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, and my friends Lara and Steve came to visit me from Washington, D.C. I picked them up at the airport and took them to meet a mutual friend for a drink, but we arrived early and did not immediately find parking, so we swung around through India Point Park, my intent being to turn around and come back to find a parking place.

India Point Park is not a place where one wants to get out of the car after dark, but it is generally safe enough to drive through. However, we ended up getting out of the car. Steve spotted a shape in the darkness, and it proved to be a man dragging a woman by her feet. When he pointed this out to me, I stopped the car. Lara and I got out, and I told Steve to watch the car.

It appeared to me that the woman was unconscious, and the man had chosen an extremely awkward method of transporting her, so, not wanting to be confrontational, I asked him if he needed any help. Lara smiled her utterly irresistible smile of pure, unadulterated charm, and the two of us tried to look as innocuous as possible. The man said he did not need help, but Lara worked her way over to the woman, who was in fact conscious and resisting. The man offered us a brief profane tirade concerning certain women (not us in particular) bearing the same title as female dogs.

I rather stupidly asked the woman directly if she wanted us to call 911, and she said “YES!” which made the man panic. Steve came running over. Luckily, the man did nothing violent, only berated the woman for trying to get him in trouble with the cops, and he drove away in his van.

Meanwhile, I was on the phone with the 911 operator, who did not want to send over a car. I said that the woman needed an ambulance, or at the very least a ride home. The operator said they don’t give rides home. I said okay, in that case she needs an ambulance. The operator wanted to know if she had ASKED me to call 911, as if I was meddling where I did not belong and I had no right to call 911 unless the victim requested it. However, I said yes, she had asked me to call.

The operator asked where I was, and I said India Point Park. The operator said they could not send a car without a street address. I said India Point Park was a major city park. In desperation, I gave street directions for getting there: Go down Gano Street to the very end, then turn left. Okay, the operator accepted this as a street address. Then the operator wanted to know if there was a fire. No, I said, there was a medical problem and possible crime.

Finally we settled it that someone would be sent to the park, and I turned my attention back to the scene. Lara was comforting the woman and finding out her name and other important information. The woman was dirty from head to toe and wearing no shoes or socks. She did have on a pair of bunched-up black underpants under a white dress. Her hair was a mess, and she was crying and shaking. After 10 minutes or so she started to convulse.

After about another 5 minutes a fire truck arrived, but it turned right at the end of the road and vanished. A couple minutes later a police car arrived, making the correct left turn, and soon after that an ambulance, then the fire truck. The police officer questioned Lara and the woman. The woman was able to tell him the name of the man. Let’s say it was Beetle Bailey, because that’s a pretty far cry from his real name, but his real name also belonged to a fictional character. “Oh, I know him," said the officer. "His whole family’s f---ed up.” We confirmed that there was no clear evidence that any crime had been committed, but that this woman obviously needed a doctor.

As the paramedics wrapped the woman on a stretcher and carried her away, another police car arrived. “It was Beetle Bailey,” said the first officer. “Oh, I know him,” quipped the second, “he wears a lot of olive drab...”

Our mystery woman received her medical care, none of us was hurt, we all downed a couple of beers by the hurricane barrier, and we never saw any of our India Point Park acquaintance again. Steve decided that I am the best tour guide ever: “I’m in town for 30 minutes, and already I’m fighting crime! What’s next, a trip to the Margo cave?”

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Ch.4b: Brittany

The next day they repeated their sunbathing ritual. Maggie reluctantly admitted that they had exhausted their beachside shopping opportunities the day before. It wasn’t far to other shopping areas, but Maggie was in an extravagant mood and decided to hail a cab to Coral Gables. “They call it the Magnificent Mile because it’s a whole mile of nothing but shops!”

Fortunately for Cassie, there were cafes as well, and they had a delightful Italian lunch. Maggie missed the foot traffic of South Beach, but Cassie was enraptured by the little round tables and the charming accent of the waitress.

They wandered past tall stone buildings and were frequently enticed in by lovely beaded dresses or handmade jewelry, until suddenly Maggie let out a piercing scream of joy. Cassie looked around for a celebrity, but she only saw a strikingly slender, elegantly dressed woman of about thirty (actually she was thirty-five) and a blonde teenager a little older than herself. The woman emitted more subdued high-pitched noises of joyful recognition and edged forward on her two-inch heels to embrace Maggie, who was still bubbling over with excitement: “Oh my god! It is, like, so good to see you! How long has it been? Aaah!”

“Oh, at least these five, six years since college graduation, ha ha ha...”

“And you don’t look a day over it. You’ll be 28 forever.”

“It’s gracious of you to say that, little sister. And I see you are no stranger to moisturizers either, although you had better watch that sun, or you’ll be needing a peel before you know it! Just looking out for your best interests, darling.”

Maggie’s screaming subsided, and she turned to the teen: “This must be Brittany! Look how you’ve grown! You won’t remember me, but I’m Maggie Fitzwilliam, and I was a sorority sister of your mother’s in college. I see you’re still a blonde. Well, blondes have more fun! You take after your mother. But I have my own little protegee now! This is Cassie; she’s not really mine, she’s my s.o.’s daughter, but we like to think of ourselves as family, don’t we, Cassie?”

“Yeah, Maggie, sure. We do, yes.” Cassie tried very hard to be polite in case Maggie was feeling insecure.

“Cassie, wouldn’t you like to meet Brittany?” She turned back to Marjory. “Cassie’s been wishing she knew somebody in Miami, and now she does!”

Cassie was mortified, but Brittany immediately spoke up. “Cassie, it’s nice to meet you. Where do you live?”

“I’m from Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.”

“Really! I’ve heard of it. That’s near Philadelphia, isn’t it?”

“Yes. You’ve seen ‘To Wong Fu’?”

“Uh, no. What’s that?”

“Never mind. How do you know Bala Cynwyd?”

“Oh, we’re from New Jersey. I just know the area. It’s good to meet someone else from home!”

“Oh, I am so happy to meet someone my own age,” Cassie gushed, then checked herself. “Well, you and your mom probably already know plenty of people.” She eyed Brittany’s glossy hair, long, slim figure, and expensive clothing.

“Sure, we know tons of people. I’m going to be a model, and we have to meet everybody who’s anybody. There are, like, photo shoots and parties and things all the time. But I’m glad to meet a real person. Those industry types are so phony, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” agreed Cassie. “I’ve seen it all on ‘Entertainment Tonight.’”

Brittany laughed musically. “You’re so cute! I just know we’re going to be the best of friends. Tell me, where did you get those adorable flipflops?”

“They’re from Target.”

“I just love lowbrow retail, don’t you? Cassie, before our mothers scratch each other’s eyes out and we have to lead them home like seeing eye dogs, let’s get each other’s phone numbers.”

Cassie obeyed, although she didn’t understand why Brittany thought Maggie and Marjory weren’t getting along. They had been chatting happily during her whole conversation with Brittany. Even now she could hear Marjory enthusing, “An insurance salesman! What a catch for you, darling!”

Brittany took Cassie’s arm, and they window shopped until Maggie and Marjory returned for them, suggesting they all go for cleansing fat-free fruit smoothies with seaweed. They passed another hour or so in each other’s company, the barbs between the adults gradually subsiding as they established a pecking order.

Brittany seemed to know everything about fashion, whether it was displayed in a shop window or on the sidewalk. She could decode the interactions between passersby, letting Cassie know whether people knew each other, whether they interested one another, how likely it was that they would become romantically involved, and the outlook for the relationship. Cassie was so overawed that she would not have dared to pursue a friendship with this older and more sophisticated girl if Brittany had not been so warm and welcoming. Every social faux pas of Cassie’s seemed utterly charming to Brittany. She even invited Cassie to spend part of the day with her tomorrow! Cassie was shocked to realize that tomorrow would be the Fourth of July. She had been so excited about being in Florida that she forgot all about the holiday.

When the four ladies parted company, Cassie surreptitiously watched Brittany and Marjory stroll away. She finally had a friend in Miami, and such a friend! Her own level of coolness must have risen at least tenfold, but it could never come close to Brittany’s beauty and charm. She was the most fascinating and beautiful person who had ever paid attention to Cassie.


Friday, November 12, 2004

Ch.4a: Toby

Cassie entered the bookstore, let the door close behind her, and stood still for a moment to savor the air conditioning. There was no one at the front counter, so she set herself loose in the store. No magazine rack was in sight, but she reasoned that a used bookstore might put the magazines farther back in the store than a regular bookstore would. Pleased with her deductive powers, she made her way slowly through the shop.

Before she had quite reached the back room, the salesclerk emerged and found her perusing the shop’s one shelf of young adult literature. “Hello! Can I help you find anything?”

“Well, actually I was looking for the magazines.”

“Oh! Well, you won’t find them there with the books. Do you want me to show you our glorious collection of historical used magazines?”

What an unusual salesperson, thought Cassie. He was only a little older than she was, a little geeky-looking but not badly so, with very short brown hair and twinkling eyes. Surprisingly, he spoke with a New York accent. Maybe all New Yorkers used weird big words like “glorious.” However, more importantly, he was teasing her! Unsure how to respond, Cassie tried to appear composed: “Yes, please. I would like to see the magazines.”

“Follow me, miss,” he said officiously. He led her into the back room of the store, straight to a cardboard box on the floor. “This is our selection of vintage magazines. Can I interest you in a 1985 Field & Stream, or possibly this classic Better Homes & Gardens from 1978?”

Cassie sneezed. As the cheeky salesclerk pulled out one magazine after another, the dust visibly rose in the air. Then he sneezed too. He laughed and asked, “Do you really want one of these magazines, or should we get out of here before we start choking?” Cassie shook her head and backed out the door. She checked her watch: still twenty minutes before she was due to meet Maggie.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist showing you our magazines. Are you all right? I haven’t, like, given you an asthma attack, have I?”

Cassie shook her head and tried not to cough, but failed.

“Damn. Here, there’s a chair over here. Sit down, and I’ll get you a glass of water.”

Grateful for any excuse to sit, Cassie sank into the comfortable old chair. When the young man arrived with the water, she said, “Thank you. I was really hoping for last September’s Young Miss, but I’m happy just to sit down. I’m all right, really.” She paused, then hurriedly added, “My name’s Cassie.”

“Cassie, I’m Toby. Pleased to meet you,” he replied, and shook her hand firmly and warmly.

“Are all used book sellers like you?”

“I sincerely hope not!” he said in mock horror, then looked a little sheepish. “I haven’t been doing this long. I hope I haven’t scared you away.”

Cassie smiled a little. “No, I don’t think so, yet.”

He brightened. “So, the September issue of Young Miss. We don’t have it, but let me see if I can recreate it for you.” He gave a dramatic pause before continuing. “Back to school 2002! What’s hot, what’s NOT. Celebrity back-to-school wardrobes. Celebrity style for gym shoes. The best hairstyle for your face shape! An interview with someone blonde. Recipes for a healthy lunch box. Ten ways to get boys’ attention. And of course a quiz: Which TV back-to-school girl are you?” He grinned.

Cassie flushed. “I suppose Field & Stream is deeper?”

“Well, those streams can get down to six feet or so. But really, you don’t need some special month of Young Miss any more than I need the August 1985 Field & Stream, or even, you know, a hole in my head. But I’m not trying to insult you, my sister reads stuff like that too, and it’s fine as long as you don’t take it too seriously. I just get bored here, and you’re only, like, the third customer this afternoon.”

“Well, I’m glad I could entertain you and I didn’t choke to death or something on the dust back there. Uh, but I have to go. I’m meeting my dad’s girlfriend. Thanks for the water!”

“You’re welcome. Next time maybe I can help you find something without making you sick.” He walked her to the door. The heat outside smacked her across the body. She looked back, but Toby was already gone.

“What a strange guy,” she thought, but she also thought it was nice to have had a conversation with someone besides Maggie or Brad. Cassie had never been sought after by boys, but there were no mysterious or even cool ones around anyway. Maybe in Miami she would meet someone cool, and they’d go to all the coolest clubs together and have fights and make up. Maybe she’d break up with him and he’d go out with some tramp, but then he’d realize he only ever loved Cassie.

Exactly as she reached the aerobics studio, Maggie emerged, sweating and smiling. They phoned Brad to find out what he wanted for dinner, and they bought take-out and brought it home in the taxi.


Monday, November 08, 2004

Ch.3: Cooler Beaches

All night Cassie dreamed of rhythmic ocean waves and sand between her toes. In the morning Maggie insisted that she take time to shower before they go to the beach. Cassie applied make-up, fixed her hair, and pulled an adorable wraparound skirt over her bikini. Maggie pronounced her purse unfit for a tropical arena, but promised to buy her a more appropriate one.

Brad had taken the Highlander to check in with his firm’s downtown headquarters, so Maggie and Cassie walked to a nearby smoothie shop, then hailed a cab and rode along Ocean Drive to the very southern end of South Beach. Cassie sipped her banana smoothie and gazed, wide-eyed and eager, out the window at every passing sight—-primarily hotels and condos—-nodding at intervals while Maggie lectured her regarding the virtues of antioxidants and the reasons why she was not too young to start putting blackberries and green tea extract in her smoothies to retard the aging process.

At length a greenway appeared to the left, dotted with palm trees and clusters of gnarled Southern grape trees that Cassie thought might be Florida sycamores. Maggie corrected her: “You’re such a silly! Sycamores don’t grow this far south. They’re cypresses.” The driver held his tongue, sensible to having not yet received his tip.

Very soon they hit 5th Street, paid the driver, and crossed over to the beach. Hearing the driver call after them, “Southern grapes!” they were extremely puzzled. They were able to speculate as to why he might have called them grapes, but how could he think they were Southern? “Well, I certainly hope I never see that driver again, calling us grapes, and after I tipped him! Maybe a Northern woman is a Southern grape. I can’t imagine what he was thinking.” However, Maggie quickly forgot this line of thought and turned her mind to the business at hand.

As it was still morning, the first order of business was to sunbathe before the sun grew too strong. Maggie led the way to a pair of lounge chairs with umbrellas, and she rented them for an hour. To be safe, Cassie reapplied her SPF 15 sunscreen that she had just applied an hour earlier, while Maggie relied on the staying power of the SPF 4 that she had applied before leaving the condo. As soon as Maggie had covered Cassie’s back, she lapsed into what appeared to be a deep coma.

Cassie was bored lying perfectly still, although she tried not to show it. She stared at the umbrella, looked around, studied the fanciful, candy-colored lifeguard huts, listened to the indifferent rumble of the surf, counted palm trees, but eventually couldn’t stand it any longer and attempted to engage Maggie in conversation. However, the latter was unresponsive. Finally Maggie whispered softly, “Cassie, honey, if I talk, my chin will move and I’ll get an uneven tan on my neck.”

Cassie regretfully turned over onto her stomach and began examining the fine sand, comparing sizes and colors of individual grains. After about ten minutes of that, she practiced surreptitiously observing the people on the beach. She noticed that many of the passersby were looking around too. A number of men seemed to glance at Maggie and herself with a curious expression that she could not at first place, although it did not seem to be desire or interest. As she had nothing better to do, she thought about it until she remembered that Maggie looked at her that way when her make-up was just right, her hair was reasonably behaved, and she wore well-chosen clothes. It was a businesslike approval: satisfaction at a job well done. The attention implied no further interest, but Cassie fairly glowed from the realization that, as long as she stuck close to Maggie and didn’t talk, she fit in. Still, she hoped she might find someone to talk with later in the day.

Thus engaged in speculation, she no longer noticed the passing of time. Maggie rose promptly at the end of their hour, and Cassie was surprised but pleased to find out it was time to stroll along the beach and find a spot for lunch. Cassie was thirsty, but Maggie promised it would not be long until they reached a cafe, so she waited.

True to her word, after only a short distance over sand, Maggie turned Cassie toward the street and past a sand volleyball court: “Surprise! This was the last place Versace ever ate!” Cassie was duly impressed. They asked for an outside table and settled in to wait. Maggie pulled out a fashion magazine and perused it with Cassie, oohing and aahing over what she liked, and pursing her lips and tsking over what she disliked. They carried on a lively debate over whether short gloves might be worn with minidresses, until their table was ready and they went out to sit at a small round table for two, generously shaded by a green awning, and affording them an equally generous view of the greenway across the street. They could hardly keep their eyes on the menu, so eager were they to see what people were wearing, how they did their hair, and what the latest trends were for fitness: which muscles were lean, and which were bulky this year.

They drank water and tea, and ate salads with grilled chicken. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew some of these people here?” asked Cassie wistfully.

“Yes, I suppose that would be nice.” Maggie paused and smiled slowly, “Do you want me to introduce you to someone?” she teased.

“No!” Cassie looked horrified. “No! I just wish we maybe already knew people in Miami, so we could wave at them and say hello, and maybe, like, join them for lunch.”

“Oh, yes, I suppose that would be nice. If I knew anyone, I’d introduce you right away, of course.”

Cassie returned her attention to her salad, and Maggie went back to examining physiques for areas she could work on. “Just look at that woman’s upper abs! How unusual! I wonder what her secret is.”

When they had finished eating and had drunk refills until they could no longer justify their presence at the table, there were already few people out on the street. They reluctantly left the shade of the umbrellas and ventured tentatively onto the uninviting walkway. Heat rose from the sidewalk in waves. The sun beat down on their bare heads and arms, and they could feel the hot concrete through the thin soles of their sandals.

Maggie grabbed Cassie’s arm and hauled her bodily into a nearby air conditioned shop. They pretended to be interested in the bathing suits, and they tried some on while the bubbly store clerk provided a running commentary:

“Oh, yes, that’s one of our sportier suits, you can swim in it!” (said of a racer-back one-piece, the swimsuit equivalent of two rubber bands strung across one’s front and back)

“Wow, that looks so good on you; you really have a great figure for that one.” (a low-slung black bikini with clear plastic shoulder straps)

“Yes, for you I think it’s better to have a more...interesting suit.” (to Cassie wearing a colorful bikini with elaborate strings all tied into neat little bows)

To the dismay of the perky saleswoman, they left without buying anything, and continued their retreat from the heat at a long succession of shops and cafes. They quickly exhausted the small supply of shops on Ocean Drive, but there were plenty of places located only a block or two from the beach. Maggie would go no farther than that from the oceanfront: “I swear, people grow a full hip size with every block!” Cassie got her new purse, and Maggie acquired some skincare products formulated for hot, humid salt air.

Finally Maggie said, “Cassie, darling, it’s been a long and lovely day, and your old aunt Maggie needs to sit down.” They gratefully plopped down on a bench in the shade, and they sat there for a full thirty seconds before Maggie spotted the aerobics studio across the street. Class started in half an hour. She had just enough time to buy a pair of sneakers and exercise pants. Would Cassie come too?

As much as she wanted to please Maggie, Cassie also wanted to sit down and rest, so she volunteered to take Maggie’s packages and meet her at the studio at the end of class. She waited for Maggie to comment on her health or figure, so she would have to immediately relent and attend the class. However, Maggie handed over her bags and delightedly bounced off down the street without another word. Surprised but relieved, Cassie looked for a quiet place to rest.

Before long she spotted a used bookstore, and she thought, “Where could it be quieter than a bookstore? And they’ll have magazines!”


Thursday, November 04, 2004

Ch.2: Sunny Isles

Cassie’s father’s girlfriend, Maggie, was an energetic woman who was clearly younger than her father by a substantial fraction of his age, but not so young as to raise eyebrows (except those of Cassie’s mother). She was still old enough to be Cassie’s mother, although she was scarcely out of high school at the time of Cassie’s birth.

Maggie had bonded with the 1980s in a way that few others could understand or appreciate. It was the aerobicizer in her. The 80s were the time when aerobic exercise really took off. Jane Fonda led the stampede, but even in dance and film, people bounced and flounced in a way that touched Maggie’s heart. She devoured “Flashdance,” “Footloose,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Fame,” and everything Cyndi Lauper. Then there were Whoopi Goldberg’s colorful sneakers in “Jumping Jack Flash,” a fashion inspiration that stuck with Maggie for life.

Still, Maggie had adjusted to changing times, to the extent that she was no more an embarrassment to a teenager than any other adult. She was merely a bubbly, bouncy woman who did a lot of aerobics, wore colorful (but nevertheless fashionable) clothing, and was known to suddenly and alarmingly scream, “Oo, she-bop!” in the middle of vacuuming.

As a school nurse, Maggie had her summers to herself. When Brad told her about the Miami getaway, she delightedly cancelled her July aerobics enrollment, visited a tanning salon a few times, and pronounced herself ready for South Beach.

The condo, much to her dismay, was a few miles away from South Beach, far away on the north end of Miami Beach, practically outside Miami altogether: Sunny Isles Beach. Brad’s company wanted to furnish its executives with plenty of quiet in which to accomplish great and profitable things while inspired by a sedate beach populated by well-to-do, respectable pillars of society—or, as Maggie preferred to think of them, old people. With much dramatic flinging of arms, she hastily assured Cassie, who honestly didn’t know the difference between one beach and another, that she absolutely promised, cross her heart and hope to die, that they would spend a lot of time seeing and being seen at cooler beaches than Sunny Isles.

For her part, Cassie only wished her brother Paul were coming. He had been invited, but he’d declined. He had a summer research assistantship in Princeton, and a two-bedroom apartment that he shared with three friends. It definitely beat sharing a room with his little sister on one of the most unhip beaches in Miami, although he took care not to explain it to his family that way.

As the month of June drew to a close in Bala Cynwyd, one would assume that Cassie’s mother’s anxiety and jealousness would peak. Cassie would be subjected to hysterical outbursts and sarcastic remarks beginning with “That woman...” There would be tirades about crime in Miami, with admonishments not to get out of the car in a fender-bender until the arrival of police, lest your purse be stolen and you be run over and killed thereafter. There would be attempts to buy Cassie’s loyalty with money and credit cards. Her mother would give her a long talk about being careful with boys she met on the beach, and she would embarrass Cassie with calls to her father to extract promises of faithfully watching everything Cassie did in Miami.

But Cassie’s mother did none of those things. Instead, she waited until the morning of the departure for Florida, and then advised, “Cassie, I know your father always takes good care of you, and Maggie... is Maggie... and she loves you very much in her fashion. Here’s fifty dollars. I know your dad will buy you what you need, but try not to get carried away. Love you, dear.” She kissed Cassie on the forehead and helped her carry her bags outside, then waited with her until Brad and Maggie showed up. They tossed Cassie’s bags into the back of their Highlander and headed south without further ado.

Rather than talking on the cell phone with all of her friends and jamming to music on a headset, Cassie looked out the window, chatted with Brad and Maggie about what they saw on their journey, and only occasionally retreated into her headphones, generally only when Brad was listening to the stock reports. No one threw any tantrums at all. The three of them were about as unlike a TV family as possible, yet there they were, on their way to a vacation adventure in Florida! Shopping, sunbathing, and boys! Cassie could scarcely believe her good fortune.

The journey was uneventful, proceeding with no incidents more alarming than getting cut off on I-95; and after all, it would have been more surprising if they had not been cut off on I-95. Brad never got lost and refused to ask for directions, and they were never once accused of being discourteous SUV drivers who thought they owned the road.

After two days of driving, they arrived in Miami. Cassie had been catching sight of beaches for hours and could hardly contain herself any longer. She prepared herself to leap out of the car without warning as soon as it stopped in the parking lot. She would fly out the door, run full tilt to the beach, dig her toes into the sand, and stay rooted there until Brad had insisted several times that she return for her luggage.

They passed a number of moderate homes, then a bewilderingly tall, dark fantasia of circular turrets thrusting out of a green plot of land like some vigorous, stubborn, overgrown tropical plant. After that hotel there were condos: great gray, white, or even pink buildings dotted with palm trees. Some were new, some were rundown, and others were just skeletons waiting for demolition. Finally, to Cassie’s great disappointment, the Highlander turned and entered a parking garage. The beach would have to wait. Maggie and Cassie loaded up luggage carriers in the cool, closed garage, while Brad picked up their key. The three together took the elevator to the sixth floor and let themselves in.

There was a small corridor inside the door, and they all bumped into one another squeezing inside with the bags and racing to the balcony. Maggie reached the sliding door first, but Cassie managed to slip past and be the first one to see the ocean view. The sea was magnificent, surging in and out, glistening blue, green, and white, blending with the sky in the distance. The pale sand was its perfect accessory, dotted with colorful umbrellas and soporific people dressed in every getup imaginable. Not hearing a thing that Brad or Maggie said, Cassie closed her eyes and listened to the murmur of the sea and the cries of the gulls. She smelled the salt air and the sharp tang of the beach. Every sensory impression was intoxicating. No wonder people worked so hard to become Baywatch lifeguards.

Gradually she realized that someone was talking to her. “Cassie? Do you want to get in your new swimsuit and go down there? It’s a little too late to go anywhere, but with the water reflecting the sun, we might be able to get some sun, especially with accelerator.” Cassie sighed contentedly and helped Maggie get her tanning accelerator on evenly, and she changed into her blue bikini from Maggie’s favorite online retailer. Brad had long since shut himself in a bedroom with his laptop, so Cassie and Maggie ran for the stairs and scampered down to the beach.

Both of them were surprised at the unbearably hot sand, and they shrieked, hopped up and down, and made a dash for the water. There, Cassie chased waves in complete absorption, running out to sea and back in, grinning and giggling. Meanwhile, Maggie slowly and thoroughly took stock of the people on the beach. She stood with her arms folded and eyes narrowed, sternly surveying every umbrella, every towel, every cooler, and every last hairdo and outfit that went with them. At last she made her pronouncement, with the gravity she reserved for fashion: “It’s just as I thought. They’re old, and old fashioned. They don’t even care. Hasn’t anyone here heard of Jane Fonda? Now, that is a woman who knows how to take care of herself. Come on, Cassie, let’s walk.”

Maggie began power walking down the beach, with Cassie splashing through the water to keep up. When people passed going the opposite direction, Cassie would briefly observe them to try to see how they had let themselves go, but instead she always found herself listening in on their conversations. So many of them were in languages she couldn’t understand! She’d had a year of Spanish so far and was signed up for a second year, and sometimes she understood “blah blah si blah...” but other times it was probably not Spanish at all.

When Maggie turned around to go back, Cassie asked eagerly, “Can we go for a swim?”

“A swim? But you’ll ruin your hair!” She paused. “Well, I’ve seen a few people worth looking nice for, but certainly no one your age, and I’m already taken. Oh, what the hell.” She plunged into the ocean with Cassie hot on her heels. They splashed each other, shrieked, and jumped waves until the sun became red and low. At that point they suddenly noticed it was late, and they walked hurriedly back to their condo, just barely managing to locate it before darkness fell. Brad had take-out waiting for them inside, and they warmed it in the microwave.

Cassie was perfectly satisfied. In addition to her pleasure at the ocean, she had even overheard someone complimenting her bathing suit, more than enough for her modest needs. Her evening could scarcely be improved upon. She imagined that she might have seen her hero somewhere along that beach, but not yet known him. They would meet again under different circumstances, dance all night, and embark on numerous adventures in the morning. However, in point of fact, she had not so much as glimpsed a hero anywhere that evening, nor had one spotted her. Indeed, she saw no one at all who would ever play a role in her life.


Monday, November 01, 2004

Ch.1: Cassandra

Today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month. Unfortunately for me, NaNoWriMo insists that all participants begin their novels today, November 1. Writing my novel takes a lot of emotional space, and I only have three weeks free this month to work on it, and I certainly am not going to spend those three weeks writing some other novel than the one I have already started. Still I want to do something in honor of the lovely name National Novel Writing Month, and toward that end I will post the first chapters of my novel. For the sake of having a title, let's call it Golden Beach. It is a modernization of Jane Austen's first novel, Northanger Abbey, loosely inspired by Bridget Jones's Diary, which is a modernization of Pride and Prejudice.

Cassie Morton, our reluctant heroine, was brushing her shoulder-length, dark brown hair, while carefully inspecting every pore on her face for the slightest sign of an encroaching pimple. It was not that she was vain; it was merely that pimples are of the utmost importance. As soon as she had assured herself of her clear skin, she diverted herself by wishing she could grow her hair longer, into a sleek, glossy mane like Joey’s on “Dawson’s Creek.” Unfortunately, the moment her ends grazed her shoulders, they split.

No, Cassie had no particular personal vanity, only a love of media. She anxiously monitored advertisements, magazines, and appropriate television for teenagers, and she understood what was expected of her in terms of personal appearance and demeanor. Cassie had no special desire to be a heroine, but she was convinced that heroism would one day be thrust upon her, like it was thrust upon Liz in “Roswell,” when Liz was just working in a cafe but almost died and was saved by an alien, after which her whole life changed.

Cassie grew up in Pennsylvania with parents who loved each other. After the divorce, they remained in the same city, Bala Cynwyd, so that they could both participate in raising Cassie and her older brother Jim, who was now a freshman at Princeton. Their parents were always there for them--separately.

Now 15, Cassie had for three years been gradually leaving behind the tomboyish ways of youth. She still secretly loved to run through the small wood behind her house and wade in the creek, but now she immediately ran home and bathed afterward. She shaved her legs; she tried whatever hair treatment Seventeen was recommending that month; she wore the latest shades of make-up; and she always smelled like one or another Bath & Body Works scent. However, she was well aware that she was not beautiful or exotic! Her hair resisted every application of honey or hot oil or henna, or even substances not beginning with h, such as olive oil or oatmeal; the smooth hairlessness of her legs could scarcely compensate for their perfectly commonplace shape and length; and her make-up appeared to lean awkwardly against her clear skin in an unnatural fashion, as if it did not belong there.

Still, although she was not striking, and she had never inspired a great passion in anyone, and no famous director would ever accost her in a coffee bar and insist that she audition for his next production, nevertheless, she was not unattractive. She had a pleasant expression reflecting her kind disposition. She often smiled with genuine delight, making her brown eyes squint in a manner that was individual and interesting. There was neither an oversized nor an undersized feature on her face or body. She was simply ordinary in appearance, the sort of girl who would be quite unappealing if she were sour in temperament, but who in this case happily possessed such a good nature that she was almost pretty.

In addition to being unremarkable in appearance, Cassie was not accomplished in any area. She was not stupid or dull, merely undisciplined. Her mother and father had tried to give her opportunities to develop skills, but nothing had come of it. When she was five, her mother offered her piano lessons, and she eagerly accepted, but within a year it was clear that she would never practice unless pressed. Her parents were not the type to press, so the piano lessons were dropped. Her father then took her to voice lessons for half a year, but again, her initial enthusiasm quickly faded, and her parents did not force her to continue. Still, she retained the confidence that she could have sung well. Perhaps some day she will audition for “American Idol” and become a surprise sensation.

At nine she was allowed to try soccer, but she had no natural talent for sports, and no will to acquire an ability. So she continued to ride her bicycle to the park and the pool, to sing to herself in the shower, to cheerfully pluck out “Chopsticks” on the piano with a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, and to watch TV and read magazines for young women.

She cultivated a knowledge of appropriate quotes from popular songs and films, to be dispersed sparingly to display her wisdom and good taste. From Des’ree, she learned,

You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser

and from Britney Spears,

I’m not a girl
Not yet a woman
All I need is time
A moment that is mine
While I’m in between,

and from Avril Lavigne,

Life’s like this
Uh-huh, uh-huh
That’s the way it is.

From her reading and her lively interest in music and television, Cassie knew about all the classes of people she would encounter in life: the jocks, the geeks, the artists, the snobs, sometimes even the dangerous criminals. At least she felt forewarned and prepared.

As she grew older, Cassie did not defy her parents. She did not have a secret life, did not fill notebooks with artwork or heartfelt journal entries. She never went to work at a fast food restaurant, a coffee bar, or indeed anywhere at all.

There was little to recommend Cassie as a heroine. Heroism would have to find her by chance. She would have to be like all those ordinary girls in movies who suddenly meet the right guy, get total makeovers, and become the most beautiful girl at the prom, after a few embarrassing but touching misadventures.

Cassie’s greatest obstacle to heroism was probably Bala Cynwyd. Long lost heirs to thrones reside in San Francisco. Movie moguls find starlets in Los Angeles. Handsome aliens grow up in New Mexico. How would adventure find her in Pennsylvania? Bala Cynwyd had produced a famous drag queen, but as she had been born female, that path was barred from her. Besides, even the drag queen had needed to leave town to find adventure. It was still conceivable that Cassie might catch the eye of a loner basketball player, but it was a long shot. Although she remained convinced that destiny would find her anywhere, the fact remained that an exotic location would greatly improve her chances of becoming a heroine.

As things worked out, a potential story was not far away. Cassie’s father Brad, an insurance executive, had won the acclaim of his firm and the use of a company condominium for the month of July, a month that, in Miami, could be regarded as arguably more desirable than August. Naturally he was not to be on vacation during this month, merely enjoying a more scenic and exotic location while working on his laptop and paying occasional visits to the Miami office of the bureau. He and his girlfriend had invited Cassie to join them, and her mother had graciously consented to let her go. She would have a whole month to find adventure, romance, and with any luck, intrigue.