by Louise Ure
Farewell to all my ‘Rati friends. And fingers crossed for continued murder, mayhem and crime in your life. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.
by Louise Ure
Farewell to all my ‘Rati friends. And fingers crossed for continued murder, mayhem and crime in your life. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.
It’s been an odd and disquieting month.
First, my 96-year old aunt died in Tucson. She was the last of her generation and the matriarch of our clan.
Decades ago, when she and my mother realized that we had too few plots in the family graveyard for all the folks who were dying before their time, they had agreed to be buried in the same plot, stacked one on top of the other like an underground condominium.
“But I get to be on top,” Tita insisted.
It was unlikely. She was the elder sister and long assumed to be the one to die first. But she outlived my mother by more than two years.
The services were there at the family plot, and the gravediggers uncovered my mother’s casket in preparation for this new arrival. But there was no new casket in sight. Instead, they lowered a ladder and scaled down into the grave to place an urn on my mother’s resting place.
“You had her cremated?” I asked.
“She doesn’t weigh much. She won’t be so much of a burden to your mother this way,” my cousin Mary replied.
They threw bright green feathers into the grave from her beloved 50-year old Amazon parrot, Nacho, who had expired only weeks before she did.
I provided the liquor for the wake. It’s one of those things that my family has come to count on me for. I’m good at it.
On an even sadder note, the 16-year old girl across the street killed herself last Thursday. There had been moving vans at the house most of the day. She hung herself just after they left.
The block was ablaze with interested bystanders. Most of us watched from our windows – texting questions to each other as the fire truck was joined by an ambulance, six police cars and a Fire Chief’s truck. One person knew the family’s last name. One teenager said she had skateboarded with the victim.
Ours is a neighborhood where garage doors are opened remotely as the cars pull up. The residents disappear up interior staircases and live their lives behind grand curtains and shutters. There are no front or side yards. The houses bunch together, shoulder to shoulder, like a rugby scrum protecting their little piece of sidewalk.
There’s not much chance of interaction unless you seek it out. But this family – which by all accounts had lived there for over a year – was unknown to most of us.
We watched, safe behind our own glass, as the weakest of our herd was culled out and taken away.
Her name was Isabella, but she called herself Quinn. She was a 10th grader.
The loss to her family and friends is beyond calculation. But the rest of us will probably never know any more about Quinn than this, her last moments of life. And for us, that’s the saddest part of all.
As Pari noted yesterday, we’re going through some changes here at Murderati. Some of us will go on as usual. Some will seek other avenues to refresh between days writing. Like JT, I’m one of those going on hiatus, but for entirely different reasons.
My days are not too busy for Murderati. My life is not so full of commitments and promises that it’s stressing me out.
On the contrary, I need some time away to find that life again.
I’ll be traveling a lot over the next three months – often to places inaccessible to my handy iPad and iPhone – and it seems like a good time to regroup.
In my place, we’ll have Wild Card Tuesdays. Anything goes. You may see book reviews here, round table discussions, guest bloggers, bad jokes, crock pot recipes for tiger, idle threats.
I’m guest blogger #1 today.
Thank you all for such generous and loving support these last Murderati years. And to my fellow ‘Rati, thank you for keeping a place near the fire for me. I’ll see you all in the Spring.
We’ve all talked about eavesdropping before … about how the richest characters and liveliest dialogue can spring from an overheard conversation on the subway, in a diner, in a movie audience before the lights go down.
But I’m here to tell you about another kind of character and conversation, the kind I indulge in on park benches.
It’s not eavesdropping; it’s participating. It’s asking questions I would never be allowed to ask in the normal course of conversation. And it’s about listening to the answers.
The first of these I can remember happened almost thirty years ago. I was returning to my car after a dental appointment that had left my lips as swollen as a Ubangi. Frustrated by work as a young advertising executive that day, and in pain from the dental surgery, I wiped tears from cheeks as I hurried down the sidewalk.
A middle aged black man sitting on a park bench called out as I walked past, “You know, you’d be a lot prettier if you smiled.” He was clean enough-looking, with a bit of gray at his temples, but the filled shopping cart at his side told the real story. I went off on a rant, as only a privileged, overpaid, San Franciscan can do, yelling about how I’d been in a car accident and my Mercedes convertible had a dent in the door, how the swollen lip made it embarrassing to go back to work, how much I had to do at the office when I returned. “There, there,” he said, pulling a sort of white rag from his shopping cart and offering it to me. “Just sit down here and tell me all about it.”
I did. For about twenty minutes. He listened respectfully, sometimes patting my shoulder and continuing the mantra of “There, there.” It was such a cathartic twenty minutes that I felt like I’d just undergone therapy. I got up to leave and handed him a $20 bill in my thanks.
“Don’t go yet. We’re not done.” He got up and bought two cups of coffee with my $20 then sat back down. “Now, what are we going to do to make you feel better?” He sat with me until I’d drafted a plan on how to get the Mercedes fixed, how to handle the most urgent needs at work, and the advice to suck on a tea bag to help the swelling in my mouth go down.
“See? You’ll live through this. And you really are prettier when you smile,” he said, patting my knee. And he never once mentioned his own circumstances, even when I gave him the opportunity to do so.
I’ve never forgotten him, and now new characters have been added to my park bench pantheon.
Recently, I was smoking on a park bench in Seattle, enjoying the perfect sunshine and the view. A bum about twenty years younger than me approached and asked for a cigarette. I gave him one, in hopes that it would make him go away, but he sat down next to me on the bench to enjoy it. He started the conversation by saying how mad he was that his trip across town to this park had been impeded by protestors and it had taken him so long to get here that he couldn’t use the free laundry provided that day. He did not agree with the protestors, and found a couple of gay members of the group to be particularly hateful.
I asked him what he believed in. Religion? The golden rule? Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Do unto others? Live and let live? He waffled a bit and was willing to forego most of his stated positions for another cigarette, but finally said, “Look, I’m not a bad guy. I’ve never killed anybody.”
I recoiled. Was this now the lowest common denominator of “a good person? “Don’t tell me what you haven’t done. Tell me what you have done,” I snarled at him. “Have you loved someone? Have you helped someone when you didn’t have to? Have you grown anything? He you fought for a principal not just for a bottle? “
“I used to,” he said. “Now I just try to stay alive.” I nodded. I had forgotten that I had the luxury of seeking dignity as well as life.
On the way home from that Seattle trip, I stopped at a fast food restaurant on I-5. It was too hot to eat in the car and too busy to eat indoors, so I found a bench in the shade outside. A biker pulled up next to my car and went inside to get food. When he came out, he first tried to sit on his bike and eat, but it was clear that the heat and sloppiness of the meal were getting the best of him. “Mind if I share a bench?” he asked. He had a full beard, hanging longer than his chest. His Hell’s Angels’ club patch was the full four-crested version of a senior member, including the death head logo.
We started talking about the weather, and then the reason for our trips. His was to join the annual Hell’s Angels gathering in Idaho, mine to take care of my newly-sonless father-in-law. We talked about bikes, about family, about Bruce dying.
He went back in for two ice creams for us and when he returned, said, “I’m sixty-one. I’m the same age as your husband. And this will be my last year riding to the gathering. I can’t trust myself on a bike anymore.” He held out his hand to show me the tremors.
“What I want to know is: if I’m not a Hell’s Angel, what the hell am I? Who do I become when I can’t be myself anymore?”
I thought about that question for the next three hundred miles, but I was asking it of myself. “If I’m not a writer anymore … if I’m not a wife anymore, what am I? What can I be when I can’t be myself?”
I answer myself the same way I answered the biker. “You’ll be alive.”
So tell me, ‘Rati, do you get into park bench conversations? Airplane conversations? Or do you think I should stop meeting questionable men on park benches across the country this way?
Here’s a little something to either make you think our promised personal jet packs are right around the corner, or make you so scared that you want to rush home and pull the drapes closed.
Check out this site right here.
It is absolutely stunning. Zero in on any face in that crowd of more than 10,000 people, double click a few times and watch anonymity morph into a virtual line up.
It’s like the reverse of Pointillism, where the father back you stand, the more the picture makes sense.
With Gigapixels, there is no such thing as far enough back.
Gigapixels are the marriage of photography and Google Earth technology. Their photos are a patchwork of panoramic shots which are taken over a 10 or 15 minute period and then strung together to give you both a panoramic effect and a clarity of small detail. Just plug your old SLR or pocket camera into the Gigapan camera base ($499) and it does all the planning and panning for you.
The Gigapixel photo of that Canadian crowd is made up of 216 individual photos, taken over a 15 minute period, and in its final form is 69,394 X 30,420 pixels.
Jeez, it makes me almost want to wear a burka in public. Well, maybe a hoodie and sunglasses anyway.
Sure, it’s a cool technology, but, combined with advances in facial recognition technology, there’s something pretty “1984-ish” about it, too.
On the other hand, it sure does suggest some interesting plot twists.
How about you all? Is this nirvana? Orwellian? Or just great fictional fodder?
By Louise Ure
Hi, all. A very short post from me today, but a good one.
In case you haven’t heard before, there’s a rash of anonymous gift-giving going on. Specifically, some incredibly talented artist is creating paper sculptures out of books, and leaving them as gifts in libraries all across Edinburgh.
Even more specifically, they often feature one of Ian Rankin’s books. One even includes the tiny face of Rankin in a crowd scene.
The notes offer thanks, “in support of libraries, words … ideas.”
I won’t paraphrase the good articles I’ve read about this; they’ve already done a lovely job describing the artwork, the librarians’ reactions, and the deepining mystery behind the gifts. Take a look at this write up from a blogger at Central Station, for the whole story, and lots more great photos.
And when you come back … go ahead, we’ll wait … let me know what kind of tribute you’d leave in a library. Or if you were equally as talented as this paper-craftsman, what author or book would you choose to eulogize?
Last week Gar wrote about Dumb-Ass Titles (DAT) and Kick-Ass Titles (KAT). His premise was that Dumb-Ass Titles must fall into all three of the following categories:
By and large, I agree with him on that definition. In fact, I would add two more criteria to that (as I think Gar did in his discussion points). For me, the authors don’t have to commit all five of these sins at the same time; any one of them would turn me away.
Any title that relies on a pun
I already have my handy all-purpose apology towel out to wave at all the writers whose publishers forced you into cutesy, punning titles as a way to suggest a lighthearted tone in your work. I feel your pain. But it probably worked with most folks.
Any series titles that must subscribe to a series inclusion (alphabet, numbers, elements, the same noun)
I’m looking at you here, Barry Eisler. “Rain Fall,” “Rain Storm,” “Hard Rain”? God, I couldn’t tell you which one I read even after I finished it. I know I bought one book three times. (Hmmm… maybe that’s what the publisher had in mind, after all.)
Later in the post, Gar went on to describe a Kick-Ass Title as one that draws the reader in, but does not rely on any secret or double meaning.
That’s where we part company.
My definition of a Kick-Ass Title is one that:
An unexpected joining of previously unrelated words:
The poster child for these titles is Wallace Stroby’s previously mentioned, “The Barbed-Wire Kiss.” Are there two words in the English language that belong together less? And could there possibly be any other two words you’d like to find out more about? Hats off, Mr. Stroby.
Jeffrey Moore’s “The Extinction Club” falls into that category for me, too. I’ve got to find out more about a book with that title.
As do Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible, ” and David Liss’s’s “The Ethical Assassin.” The key is the conjoining of a usually negative word with a usually positive one: barbed-wire, extinction, poison and assassin versus kiss, club, bible and ethical.
I’d use the example of “Slap Happy,” but together those words have their own connotation. Which brings me to another kind of favorite titles:
Titles with secret or double meanings:
I’ve been warned against these in my own work, but I absolutely adore them, for myself and other writers. “The Fault Tree” is, of course, a literal tree in my book, but is also the engineering term for a diagram to look back at how the failure of a project took place. I like having both of those images in the title.
It’s the linguist side of me that makes me love titles like Duane Swierczynski’s “Expiration Date,” Louise Penny’s “Still Life,” and Christa Fausts’s “Money Shot.” Sure, they’re common phrases, but in the high stakes world of crime fiction, they convey so very much more. Gar might fault those titles for being “ubiquitous” but I think the added frisson of the double meaning makes them truly KATs. (I wonder if “Greenwich Mean Time” would fall into the same category? Or “Past Imperfect”? They sound like good titles, maybe not KAT, but leaning that way.)
Michael Connelly’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” plays on the double meaning of Lincoln, but also falls into my final category of Kick Ass Titles:
Titles that make me go “Hmmm… I wonder what that’s about?”
This is probably the largest collection of books in my house, because, after all, these are the books that got me interested enough in finding out more that I took them off the shelf in the bookstore. And in truth, isn’t that all a title is truly supposed to do?
I give you Toni McGee Causey’s “Bobby Faye’s Very, Very, Very, Very Bad Day.”
Anything by James Lee Burke:
John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
And, as much as I hate to say it, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
With titles like these, I will never be bored in a bookstore. I will be yanking these things off the shelf like they were AA batteries in blackout, sure to keep my interest piqued for another 400 pages.
My own new collection of potential titles includes the following, many of which would probably land on Gar’s DAT list. Alas, that’s just the way I’m drawn.
So, whatcha’ think? And which kick-ass titles come to mind for you guys under this expanded definition added to Gar’s post? Any titles you’d love to see written?
I’ve just returned from another sojourn to Seattle, this time a happy one to celebrate my father-in-law’s 89th birthday. Seattle proved welcoming, with 80 degree days and windless nights. Perfect for short sleeves and dining alfresco.
Ade had regained his strength from an earlier setback and was once again ready to dine out, go shopping, visit the bank and try his hand at the casinos. A fine celebration all the way around.
Until we got the call about Uncle Bob.
Bob was the last remaining of Ade’s wife’s six sisters’ husbands. Did you follow that? He’s my father-in-law’s brother-in-law.
My only exposure to him over this last thirty years has been this image of a dirty old man who greeted me at Christmas with a bear hug and then ground his pelvis into my crotch. I learned to embrace him with my elbows locked and my torso turned sideways.
Every family has an Uncle Bob, right? Mine is Cousin Pete (or Re-Pete) as we call him for his reiteration of his favorite stories and his sometimes breaching of personal space norms. You live with it, right? No family is perfect.
In later years, my contact with Uncle Bob was escorting him to the casino with Ade. He started with martinis at 9:00 a.m. and by noon grew adept at pinching my ass or my breast as I was positioning his walker for him. His language was foul and bigoted, but I cut him some slack as a 90-year old who was having to adapt to a world changing faster than he was.
I didn’t know much about his family, except that the kids never came over for the big family gatherings and his wife was a sweet and exceptionally devout woman for whom the church played a central role in life.
Uncle Bob had been taken to the hospital for an unknown illness that was soon determined to be a fibroid piece of flesh that had wound its way around his intestine. Surgery was successful and they sent him home. But three days later, it was evident that the surgery had taken too much of a toll and his organs and systems were all shutting down.
We spent the day with him on Wednesday, by which time he was no longer conscious or tracking any activity around him. Frail and cadaverous in the bed, I couldn’t even recognize the face that had leered at me across the blackjack table.
One of his daughters was there, stoic and silent, making sure the blankets and air conditioner were correctly positioned, and that she’d dissolved the necessary pills and painkillers in a little water. She wasn’t crying, and neither was her mother.
Strength, I thought. Momentary strength that a caregiver has to find in those last hours, in order to help usher a loved to the exit and to not cause extra grief to the rest of the family and friends.
He died while we had tuna sandwiches and lemonade on the back deck.
Calls were made: to the coroner, the mortuary, the hospice service that had provided the hospital bed, the agency that had sent sweet young men from Nigeria to act as 24-hour caregivers. (I hope they didn’t have to put up with too much racist ranting from Uncle Bob before he lost consciousness.) Cell phone calls reached the rest of his children and the neighbors.
It was only then that the stories started.
“I was worried about how to keep him from driving,” his wife whispered. “But I did not pray for this. I promise you, I did not.”
“After everything he did to you? After he broke your arm? You would have been justified,” the daughter said.
Aunt Phyllis cast her eyes down.
“After he shook Carol so bad when she was one month old that she was unconscious? After he beat up Rick so badly that he hasn’t been home for thirty years?”
The dam was broken, and all the stories came out. Beatings. Violence in language and fists. Controlling his family to the point of enslavement. Children leaving home at fourteen, just to save their lives. Two of his children living within a half-hour drive of the house but would not come by or come to any funeral service.
I’ve known Uncle Bob for thirty years and never knew any of this. Family secrets.
And at that makeshift eulogy on the back deck on the day he died, no one had anything good to say about the man, not even his gambling partner, Ade. “I don’t know why I stayed friends with him,” he said. “I guess I always hoped he’d change.”
Some family secrets shouldn’t be secret at all.
I got a research survey call that other night that stopped me in my tracks.
You know the ones. They only want “a minute of your time.” They promise it’s not a telemarketing call. Sometimes, if the topic interests me and I have the time, I’ll do the survey. Better my voice be heard than some Octamom with a fifth grade education, she says snarkily.
This time the topic was politics and it was a real live person on the other end of the line, not a recording. Those are both good things. Politics is a topic right up my alley these days and you can hurry along a real person, unlike the automated survey calls.
But then he started asking about San Francisco’s interim mayor, appointed six months ago when our previous mayor, Gavin Newsom, became Lieutenant Governor.
I blushed so furiously that I imagine the interviewer’s headset heated up across the wires.
I didn’t know the interim mayor’s name. I didn’t know we had one. Or an interim Chief of Police, since the last one was promoted to San Francisco Attorney General when the previous person in that position was elected Attorney General for California.
Sure, I voted in that election, but then it dropped clear out of my mind. It never occurred to me that my mayor was no longer in that position. That the Attorney General would have been replaced by someone else. That the police chief was also part of that magical game of chairs.
What was I thinking?
Having already committed to it, I bluffed my way through the interview, pretending that I knew the issues and individuals involved. (I hope not all respondents are as duplicitous and dumb as I was in my answers, but I do not hold out much hope.)
I thought I was a person who was voracious about staying au courant. I could debate either side of any argument (Should we build a mosque near Ground Zero? What’s the difference between taxing earned income and non-earned income? How does burka wearing effect French culture? Do CFLs pose a risk to American health or way of life?) because I knew the facts and opinions from both sides. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a point of view. I just think that persuasion is most effective when it is the product of an informed view of both sides of an argument.
But where was I getting most of my news? From national and international online sites. I knew more about Pech Valley in Afghanistan than Hayes Valley across town. More about the Kobe beef and foie gras sandwich at BLT Steakhouse in New York than I knew about where to go to brunch in San Francisco. More about the Casey Anthony trial than I knew about the July shooting by the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police here in July.
For God’s sake, I know more about the State Senators in Wisconsin than I know about my own state representative. Who is that, anyway? (I can tell you my congressional rep, but only because it’s Nancy Pelosi and she’s a pretty big national figure.)
I quit taking the local newspaper after Bruce died, because I could no longer work the crossword puzzles (an aphasia of some sort that has lasted to this day) and the piles of unread papers reproached me every week. I didn’t watch any local TV news in favor of some other, lighter programming that was on at the same time.
Today, I don’t know who represents me in our state legislature or who serves on our city board of supervisors. I don’t know what new restaurants opened in the Bay Area in the last six months or what the ballet program is this year. I know where to shop for clothes in Sydney or Seattle but couldn’t tell you the same thing about San Francisco. I spend more time on the phone with Australians than I do anyone in California. I have more friends online than I have in the neighborhood.
I am a Citizen of the World, but not of San Francisco. I’m getting nothing from – and contributing nothing to – living in this paradise of tolerance and good food.
What ever happened to Think Globally, Act Locally? I know, that slogan was originally intended to mean that global environmental problems could be attacked with sound, local policy, but it should also hold true for other passions, problems and interests.
If I care about women’s reproductive rights, why don’t I get involved locally? If I’m a devotee of the Food Channel, why don’t I seek out those new places here at home? If I send money to foreign countries for literacy or food programs, why don’t I start by doing the same thing here?
I don’t make many pledges these days, because I know that I’m likely not to fulfill them, but here’s a pledge from me. I’m going to be a better San Franciscan in the future. I’m going to know what’s going on in my city and my state and when it’s important to me, I’m going to take action to make sure my voice is heard. I may not get a newspaper subscription again, but I promise to read up on the local goings-on online. I may even leave the house every now and again to enjoy this fair city.
So tell me, ‘Rati, do you still feel like a local resident or more like a national or international one? And either way, what is the one thing about your community that you most like or would most like to enjoy more?
P.S. Oh Lord, while writing this, a second research survey call came in, once again about the San Francisco mayoral race. Ha! Gotcha’! I’ve read up on the candidates now.
By Louise Ure
I turned sixty this weekend and had a lovely time doing it.
My sister and her boyfriend came up from Carmel and we ate and drank our way across the San Francisco summer day. Lots of other friends wrote, called, texted, dropped by during the day or slid improbably wonderful gifts through the mail slot.
All in all, a great way to grow older.
I’ve never worried overmuch about birthdays. In fact, I’ve been saying I’m sixty for several years now, just to encourage compliments. (If you tell someone you’re 56 or 57, you can see the thought bubble above their head: “And you look every inch of it.” If you tell them a few years early that you are sixty, they are more likely to say: “God, you look good for sixty.”) I am shameless in my pursuit of the empty compliment.
In my family, every child got exactly what he wanted to eat on his birthday, and each year I would ask my mother for corned beef and cabbage, followed by strawberry shortcake. It would probably still be my “Last Night Before Execution” meal. It wasn’t so easy to get corned beef in July back in those days. That was a meat offered only around St. Patrick’s Day. She would be brining and corning all day long, just to fulfill my wishes.
In later decades, no mater where I lived, the only other constant on my birthday was a phone call from my brother Jim and his family, singing “Happy Birthday” in four-part harmony into a speaker phone. Whether I was in Singapore or Sydney, Paris or Seattle, they figured out how to find me. And there was no more perfect sound.
Bruce and I never really had a birthday ritual except for the roses. Each year he would carpet the house in red roses. Dozens and dozens, all of the same hue. I could have slept on a mattress of rose petals for a week. This year, my friend Jessie fulfilled that role, and brought the most beautiful long stem roses in a red so lush and deep that I knew she’d been channeling Bruce with the purchase.
One of my favorite birthdays might have been my 30th. I was single. A bit wild. And certainly ready to party. A group of friends from the ad agency took me out to a country and western bar for a night of drinking and dancing. At some point, my friend Tina approached the table where I sat, pulling a sinewy young cowboy by the elbow. Black hat. Plate-sized silver belt buckle. Blue eyes as clear as a madman’s.
“This is Jake. He’s your birthday present.” (I truly don’t remember his name. It was one syllable, and ended with a hard “K” sound. Jake. Mike. Rick.)
Oh Lord. The answer to my newly-30-year old prayer. I wanted to eat him up and blow him out like a birthday cake. Cake. Maybe that was his name. In any case, he was perhaps my best birthday present ever.
So here it is Tuesday. Two days post B-day celebration and I’m still celebrating. My sister is still visiting. Two Aussie buddies are in town. I had a gorgeous evening with my foster kids and their entourages. I’m still throwing the party right between my eyes.
How about you, ‘Rati? What was your favorite birthday of all time? Or your favorite present? Or what would it be if you were creating it for yourself?
By Louise Ure and Sylvia Marino
Hi Ratis. Most of you have seen the notes from “Sylvia” in our comments section, but many of you don’t know the Sylvia behind the keyboard. She’s Sylvia Marino, a SYSOP wizard, wife, mother of three, and part time mystery writer who was in my writers’ group back in 2003 when I was stabbing out my first novel. I was awed by her charm, wit, gumption and great good heart at that time, and nothing has changed since. Back then, because just trying to write your first novel was not challenge enough, Sylvia also learned how to swim for the first time. And the protagonist she wrote about was a woman swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco through the Bay’s choppy, chilly waters.
Last week she successfully swam the English Channel with a five-woman relay team.
Now you know why I think she’s such a wonder.
– Louise Ure
Finding Your Character(s)
By Sylvia Marino
When Louise asked if I would share my write-up on Murderati, my immediate response was, “But there aren’t any dead bodies, will it count?” She assured me that it would and in the short week that has since passed I realized that whether you’re a writer or one who is perpetually on the first chapter, we all think about and are inspired by finding and developing characters. No matter where I am, my favorite characters stay with me.
Sometimes, right in the middle of the English Channel.
In the line – “stranger than fiction” the character and characters found on this trek couldn’t be more apt and any one of them could be the lead character in a developing story.
We had been sitting in Folkestone for four days waiting to get the call that the weather had cleared and we were a go for our English Channel attempt. Five women sitting around obsessing about wind conditions and checking windguru.com multiple times a day and walking to the lookout over the Channel to check the water can drive anyone crazy. We knew no teams had gone out that week due to weather and the first possible day would be Sunday or Monday. After that our one-week window would close as unfavorable tides and weather would take over until the next window opened later in July. Many people train for years and make the trip to swim on their scheduled date only to sit and be turned away due to poor weather and tides. With swims booked years in advance, most cannot uphold the level of training to wait again for another chance to swim. Our call finally came on Saturday evening to report to Dover Marina the next morning at 5:30am.
Wearing the allowed attire of one regular swimsuit a silicone cap and pair of goggles, our first swimmer started off Shakespeare Beach in Dover at 6:12am on Sunday, July 10 – Britain’s Memorial Day. Every 60 minutes thereafter a new swimmer in our fixed rotation would go in. Depending on where you were in the order, we had assigned jobs – watching the swimmer in the water to not lose them to swells, one person warming up the swimmer coming out of the water, one getting ready to swim and a swimmer getting warm from being in the water. We ran pretty much like clockwork. When you have a team of women ages 41-53, what else can you expect? Compared to juggling full-time jobs and families, having only one job to do at a time was a luxury.
The official observer on board was lovely giving us all the rules and regulations from the Channel Swimming Association (http://www.channelswimmingassociation.com/) including one of his own. “You may not use the word ‘awesome‘ at any time. It’s a terrible word and used quite too much. Really, how can a burger be awesome? It’s just a bloody burger!” With this the mood was lightened. We were concerned about transitioning between swimmers as one false move can halt and disqualify the entire swim. He made sure our transitions were flawless.
The pilots of The Viking Princess – a 60 ton fishing boat – were two brothers named Reg and Ray who have been piloting swimmers all their lives. Their father Reg Sr. had piloted swimmers before them. Two men of the sea with matching anchor earrings and who, when urged, could tell stories of past Channel attempts.
We all had a little “boat envy” earlier in the day when other swimmers were meeting their boats at the Dover Marina. We saw some nice boats with padded benches and kitchen galleys. The Viking Princess turned the corner and it was like expecting a limousine and seeing a weathered tow truck instead. On board there was really no place to sit except on the metal floor outside the wheelhouse. All of our gear was in plastic tubs on the deck where the fishing gear (or fish?) were usually kept. What we soon came to appreciate was our shield against the swells. As our Observer pointed out – many swims have been lost due to the boat not being large enough to protect the swimmer on their crossing.
The day before we went swimming in Dover Harbor and met Freda Streeter, mother of Alison Streeter “Queen of the Channel” with 43 English Channel crossings, including a few doubles. Freda was running her Saturday swim clinics for Channel swimmers and chatted with us. “You ladies are from the South End. I’m not worried about you lot.” Jane Murphy, wife of Kevin Murphy “King of the Channel” with 34 crossings including a few doubles and an attempted triple crossing (halted at 52 hours due to weather) was equally encouraging explaining that the men whine and whimper while the women just put their heads down and carry-on.
The conditions throughout the day were Force 3-4 meaning we were in winds up to 17+mph and waves, whitecaps and swells regularly in the 3-6 foot range with sometimes smoother water and in gusts, sometimes a bit rougher. The water temperature was steady at 58-59 degrees, warmer than the San Francisco Bay.
Over the course of the day, we saw and came close to dozens of cargo ships and large ferries. We learned about the various lanes, the separation zone between the lanes and found small celebrations in crossing the lanes, crossing into French waters, over the Channel Tunnel (I had the pleasure of swimming across this) and watching Dover disappear and seeing no coastlines to seeing France begin to appear on the horizon. Our Observer had us charmed with stories of his 23 year-old cat Jessica and rolling with laughter with tales of past swims.
I can say that from my first rotation to my last, each felt natural finding a rhythm in the sea immediately. The rise and fall of the swells, learning quickly how to swim with the boat on your right (watching it rock towards you can be daunting). On my second rotation in the water, the water itself was stunning with jellyfish floating below and plankton that glowed making it look like you were staring into a galaxy. At times I had to remind myself to turn my head to breathe and look to make sure I wasn’t too close to the boat because I just wanted to keep my head down and watch what was happening below. Keeping the song “My Way” in my head helped keep a good rhythm, even when I saw an empty crisps bag floating a few meters below me and hoping the hand of its consumer wasn’t attached to it.
As we went into our third rotation, we began to calculate how far we were from landing. The tide had turned and we were going away from Cap Gris Nez and towards Calais. Soon we could see a truck on a road above the cliffs outside of Calais. With passing strokes I could see the sun setting behind me under my right arm and when sighting forward, the moon rising over the white cliffs. I could then start to count the windows on the houses along the beach. My hour was up, having broken across the tidal line.
Finding ourselves at the top of the swim order, our first swimmer went in and made quick work of the last remaining trek of our nearly 31 miles and in 24 minutes with the moon above we could see her stand on the beach in Sangatte and raise her arms. The horn blew and we were now English Channel relay swimmers. Above the beach a lone silver firework went off. Perhaps a backyard party, perhaps planning for Bastille Day, we will never know. At the moment we simply stared in awe and took it to be for ourselves.
The ride in The Viking Princess back across the Channel lasted three hours and in that time we texted and called family and friends, hooted, hollered, high-fived and then collapsed in exhaustion. Making it back to our hotel rooms by 2am we popped the champagne and toasted our loved ones and an old soul by the name of Trudy DeLorenzo, a German immigrant who had died a few weeks prior. Trudy was one of the original women in the 1970’s who took the South End Rowing Club to court so that women would be allowed to join and train in open water swimming in San Francisco. In an even stranger twist of fate, as we were landing on the beaches of France, the first all-female team from the South End Rowing Club, Trudy’s memorial service was being held in San Francisco.
As is tradition, those who successfully cross the Channel can sign their names on the wall at the White Horse Bar in Dover. The walls are covered in the “who’s who” of open water swimming. We found names of people we knew and finally found a place in a corner where in at least one small place of the world, we have been immortalized.
So ‘Ratis, which character(s) would you choose to develop and hear tales from? The swimmers? Observer? Pilots? Or the Channel itself?
(P.S. from Louise: Or how about from that one particular swimmer; a woman who dared to put both her foot in the water and her butt in the mystery writing chair?)