Lessons from an Off-Season Beach Vacation

We added a day to the already three-day weekend last week and headed down to the Outer Banks, in North Carolina.  A relative owns a gigantic “cottage” there, a beach house that’s intended to sleep around 20.  We’ve found that we love, love, love going down there in the heart of winter, when the vast majority of businesses are boarded up and the beach is deserted as far as the eye can see.  Some lessons learned on this trip:

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  • It really is better to remember the keys to someone else’s house before you’ve driven 1.5 hours.  Through rush-hour traffic. Paying for the use of the toll-based express lanes.  (When you finally remember the keys that are hanging on the hook at home, be grateful that the cottage has a keypad entry system, designed for summer guests who arrive after hours.  Don’t bother driving back for the keys.)
  • The weekend following New Year’s Day really is the weekend when most places shut down for the season. Don’t have your heart set on any favorite restaurant. Don’t hold your breath for any particular store. That’s not why you went to the Outer Banks, anyway.
  • The restaurants (and movie theaters) that are open are going to be crowded.  Very crowded. Plan ahead, if you have time constraints.
  • Heat really does rise.  When you’re staying on the third floor of a huge cottage, with only the heater for that floor turned on, you will shiver when you walk down to the lower floors. Take a jacket when you go to inventory the bed linens in the lower rooms.  Really.
  • Sand is much more firmly packed in cold weather, especially after a day of solid rain, than it is in the summer. Plan on walking a lot farther along the beach. But you probably still won’t get to that pier, the one that seems to move farther away with every step you take.
  • No matter how thoroughly you think you cleaned your shoes, you’re going to track sand into the house. A lot of sand. Really. Even when you thought you’d knocked off every last grain. Just plan on sweeping it up — it’s easier that way.
  • There are few things more enjoyable than curling up on a comfy couch, beneath a warm quilt, sipping from a mug of hot tea, reading a RITA-submission romance novel in the middle of a driving rainstorm.

We had a wonderful break. But it’s oh so hard to get back into the rhythm of working! Of course, with a book release next Tuesday, I don’t have a lot of choice…

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Mission Accomplished (Bed Bug Edition)

About eight years ago, I started a job where I traveled a lot.  I was on the road between ten and fifteen days a month, staying in hotels throughout the U.S.  At the time, there were occasional stories about bed bugs in hotels.  I never took the stated precautions — putting my luggage in the shower until I’d had a chance to strip the beds and check for evidence of bugs, never ever ever using the wooden dressers, studying mattresses, sheets, and pillows for fecal residue of the insects, etc.

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I escaped without any bed bug bites.  In the intervening years, I’ve followed the mainstream press articles about bed bugs, noting how difficult it can be to eradicate them from homes (or hotels.)  I’ve checked out a few potential hotels on the Bed Bug Registry, but I’ve never made plans based on that information.  And I continued to escape without any bed bug bites.

Skip forward to late last year.  I was doing a lot of traveling — conferences, writing retreats, vacation.  And as fate would have it, I came in contact with bed bugs at one of those places — bites on my arms, hands, and feet.  The ones on my hands were severe enough that I couldn’t get my rings off, and my doctor worried that I was cutting off circulation to my fingertips.  She gave me twenty-four hours of treatment with steroids before she ordered the rings cut off.  I responded immediately to the drugs, so I still have my rings.

(I didn’t write about my bites publicly at the time.  The hotel followed up immediately, hiring a remediation service, and they paid for my medical treatment — and a chunk of my hotel bill.  I figured they shouldn’t get a permanent bad mark on the Internet, when they can’t control who brings what into their rooms.)

While the treatment cleared up my bites quickly, I waited for a few days, fearing that I’d brought the critters home with me.  (I’d only know if my husband got bitten; I wouldn’t see new bites, given the drugs in my system.  He took to calling himself the Tethered Goat.)  I laundered all the clothes I’d taken on the trip, using the hottest water.  I froze items that I couldn’t launder, wrapping them in plastic bags and cycling them in and out of my kitchen freezer.

And that left the suitcases.

Some Internet advice says to throw them out, that they can never be salvaged, but I didn’t want to do that because I truly believed I had not brought home any bugs.  (The Tethered Goat remained unbitten.)  Some Internet advice said to leave them in a summer garage where the temperatures reached above 150 degrees.  Um, we don’t have a garage.  And even on our worst summer days, the temperature wouldn’t get that bad.  And some experts said that wasn’t high enough to do in bed bugs.

That left freezing them.  And so, I bagged up my suitcase (and carry-on bag) in two layers of trashbags, taping closed the tops, to make sure no six-legged enemies could climb out.  I left the bags in a corner of my office.  And I waited.

During our first hard freeze, I was out of town, unable to put the bags outside overnight.  Our second hard freeze was New Year’s Eve, and I decided not to put the bagged suitcases out on our porch when there were rowdy parties going on across the courtyard, lest some drunks think it a great idea to start off the New Year with a little theft.

But last night, the temps got down into the upper teens.  Last night, I set out my suitcase and carry-on.  Last night, I let the freezing temps do their worst.

And now, I have luggage again.  Just as well.  Dragging my duffel bag through Costa Rica was a pain in the … palm.

Mission accomplished.

 

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Testing Personal Limits (or, The Great Snorkel Epiphany)

About a dozen years ago, I found myself on vacation in Mexico.  I was traveling with my then-fiance, my parents, and my very active, outdoors-y brother and sister-in-law.  Toward the end of our trip, we went to Cozumel, and I had the option of going snorkeling for the first time.

Now, I love swimming, and I’m fairly confident of myself in water.  At least, that is, in a swimming pool.  I have almost no experience with ocean swimming.  Plus, I wear contact lenses (with which I see 20/20, without which I’m legally blind.)  And I’d never used a snorkel before.  And I was pretty much certain that I wouldn’t be able to do a back-flip into the water; I wasn’t even sure I could climb a ladder on the side of the boat to get back in.

Some of our party knew from the get-go that they weren’t snorkeling.  I debated right up to the minute that I hopped over the side (no back-flip necessary.)  And, reader, I loved snorkeling.  I loved seeing the fish, I loved being in the open water, I loved conquering my fear.  I loved everything about it.

Skip forward twelve years.  Same vacation group, this time with my nephews added in.  (Oh, and the fiance is now my husband.)  We traveled to Costa Rica, and I had the opportunity to go zip-lining.

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Well before the actual trip, I decided I wasn’t going to go.  Zip-lining seemed to require too much athletic ability.  Plus, there was the freak accident (one in many hundreds of thousands if not millions) where a woman cut herself zip-lining and ended up with flesh-eating bacteria.  (Okay, I actually convinced myself I didn’t have to worry about that.)

Nevertheless, as the trip approached, I thought about the Great Snorkel Epiphany.  I began to think that maybe I *would* zip-line.  In fact, I reasoned, I wasn’t likely to be anywhere near a zip-line for the rest of my life, so I *should* zip-line.

The day of the zip-lining, I headed up the mountain with the rest of my party.  Some knew from the get-go that they weren’t zip-lining.  (Sound familiar?)  Not me, though.  I waited in line, and I got suited up in a harness and helmet.  I let very courteous men tug at straps in places no woman likes to be tugged (and I noted the prominent signs stating that the facility complied with Costa Rica’s anti-sexual harassment laws.)  I watched three iterations of the safety training, nodding to indicate that I understood how I needed to spread my legs into a V at the end to slow down, how I needed to “box” with the handlebars to brake.  I sat in the gondola as we traveled through the canopy, feeling my heart beat faster.

At the top, the watchers made themselves comfortable on benches.  I walked over to the practice run, cheering on my still-outdoors-y brother and sister-in-law.  I watched my much more leery nephew take his practice run.

And then I was the only person left on the launch platform.

I decided not to go.  The stairs were frighteningly high, and I needed to climb them to attach my harness to the line.  There were too many things to remember — sit cross-legged for the run, maintaining a perfect “crunch”, keep my arms straight, wait for the tug on the line telling me to brake, spread my legs to a V, box the handlebars.

I told the worker I wasn’t going, and he kindly asked me why not.  I told him I wasn’t strong enough, that I was too heavy.  He promised me it was safe.  I told him there was too much to remember, and he ran me through the instructions.  I told him I was scared, and he said he knew I could do it.  As he reassured me, he helped me up the stairs, and he clipped my harness to the line.

I took the practice run.  I remembered what to do, and I didn’t overshoot the landing pad (Major Fear #1) or slam my shins into the landing pad (Major Fear #2.)  But I found it almost impossible to stand up, to straighten up from the horizontal line position — it was just one thing too many for my brain-on-overdrive to process.

They unclipped me from the line and told me to get in line for the real zip-line (two miles, in eight stages.)  I got in line, just like I was supposed to do.

And then I realized that I didn’t want to go.

I wasn’t afraid that I was going to die.  I didn’t worry that I’d fall from the zip-line into the rain forest below.  I wasn’t even really worried that I’d forget to V, forget to box.

I just didn’t feel like it would be fun — not going that fast, not being that high, not remembering those things, thinking, worrying, all the way down.  I wasn’t going to have a Great Snorkel Epiphany, even if I completed the rest of the course.  I could do it, but I wasn’t going to enjoy it.

At first, I was very disappointed in myself.  I felt ashamed that I hadn’t risen to the occasion, that I hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunity.  I was confident I’d made the right choice for myself, but I was sad that I needed to make that choice. (It turns out, my nephew also decided not to go.)

This morning, I had coffee with a friend — a fit, strong friend who spends her vacations hiking in national parks, kayaking on local lakes and rivers, rock climbing in Middle Eastern ruins.  Somewhat shamefacedly, I told her my zip-lining story.  And she said, “I didn’t go either.  Just the steps up to the launch platform were too much for me.”

And that brought about the Great Zip-Line Epiphany.  Different challenges are too much for different people.  Even though my friend is much more fit than I, the ten feet or so of the launch steps defeated her.  Other people had no trouble with the entire zip-line path, but they might have been defeated by putting their face in Caribbean water.

I put too much weight on the zip-lining (and I don’t mean physical weight!) It became a referendum, and it didn’t need to be. I don’t see a future where I’ll zip-line, and that’s all right.  But I might go snorkeling again…

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Return From Paradise (Costa Rica Edition)

::waving madly::  I’m back!  (Yeah, yeah, with all the holiday craziness, I know you were barely aware I was gone!)

About three years ago, my parents decided that they wanted to take the family on a big extravagant trip to mark their fiftieth anniversary.  My father, who missed a career as a stellar travel agent, did a lot of investigating and a ton of planning and we all intended to meet up in Costa Rica.  Alas, events intervened, and the trip was modified (to an amazing vacation in San Diego, but that’s another story.)

This year, my parents each celebrated major birthdays, and the Costa Rica plans went back on thet able.  My father did a lot of new investigating and began a ton of new planning (with plenty of input from my mother, of course, and a few chimes from my brother, me, and our spouses.)  Costa Rica was back on the table.

And so I’ve just returned from ten days of eco-tourism in perhaps the most friendly country I’ve ever visited.  We flew in and out of the capital, San Jose, but we spent most of our time in nature preserves, all the while staying in luxury resorts.  Our first stop was Si Como No, a hotel carved out of the rain forest near the Manuel Antonio National Park.  The view of the Pacific Ocean from our bed:

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In the park, we saw tons of wildlife — capuchin monkeys and sloths, along with iguanas, sloths, bats, sloths, crab-eating raccoons, sloths, raccoon-targeted crabs, sloths, giant grasshoppers, etc., etc., etc. and a whole host of man-high flora that I’m used to seeing only in tiny four-inch containers at my local nursery, neatly labeled “Tropical: Keep indoors”.

Capuchin  Sloth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took a flat-bottom-boat tour of the mangrove swamps and learned all about the ecosystem there  (and yes, came face to face with more capuchins, including an alpha male that climbed on the roof of the boat to stake his claim to our domain.

Mangrove

We transferred to a resort at the Arenal Volcano, where we suffered through yet another terrible view from a hotel room that was nearly as large as our townhouse.  This place had planted gardens, with walkways and pagodas and swimming pools and spas.  From there, we attempted zip-lining (I bailed after a practice run, but some people in our party did the whole 2-mile course!), and we took a “safari float”, finding howler monkeys, more new-to-us birds, and a GIANT orange iguana that looked like he’d just time-traveled from the Jurassic.

Arenal

We returned to San Jose for Christmas Day and enjoyed a fancy-shmancy dinner at our hotel.  On our last full day in Costa Rica, we went to a coffee plantation and learned all about harvest and production of coffee.  Back at our hotel, we had curbside seats to the Horse Parade (five hours of drinking in the almost-new year :-) ), and we wandered through the Central Market and other downtown streets.

I feel as if I’ve been away for months — a sensation that should last until tomorrow, when I roll up my sleeves and tumble right back into writing.

So?  How about you?  What did I miss in the past ten days?

(All pictures courtesy of my husband, as I haven’t downloaded my photos yet!)

 

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Why Retreat When You Can Write Full Time?

Last week, I drove two hours north to the Pennsylvania woods, where I rented a cabin with Maria V. Snyder for a week-long writing retreat.

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I suspect some of you are wondering why I’d do something crazy like that.  I mean, I have the luxury (and the responsibility) of writing full time.  Why spend a total of four hours in the car to go to a place where I need to carry in bedding and pots and pans and food, all to write, just like I write at home?  (For reference, I’ve written an article about writing retreats — how to set them up and why do do them — here.)

Short answer:  It’s not just like at home.

For one thing, I’ve driven two hours to get there, and I’ll drive two hours to get home, so there’s a time cost to going there.  Far more importantly, there’s a family cost to going there — I’ve left behind my husband and our cats, upsetting human and feline schedules alike.  I’ve turned my world and the world of those I love upside down.

So I damn well better be productive while I’m there.

In an ordinary week, when I’m writing at full speed, I produce 15,000 words of solid first draft.  Those words aren’t perfect, and there will likely be fairly substantial revisions in specific language, but the plot is set and the general sequence of events and the backbone of the writing.

In the four full days of the retreat (Monday through Thursday, plus a few hours on Sunday after I arrived), I drafted almost 30,000 words.  That’s one third of the new Jane Madison novel, JOY OF WITCHCRAFT.  Those words are more likely to survive editing than my usual words because they were written quickly, in close proximity to each other.  (I find that I do my best writing fast.)

In addition to drafting all those words, I also built a Scrivener file that contains all the Jane novels in one large project.  That file makes my writing vastly more efficient — I can search one file to see if I’ve used a name before, or to track down the characteristics of a crystal or an herb,  or to recall the name of a spell.  It took  me a few hours to do the work (see, Sunday evening), but the labor will benefit me for all the Jane novels to come.

Usually, I alternate writing time with breaks — taking long walks in the woods, heading down to the lake, etc.  On this retreat, alas, it rained *buckets* on Monday.  And then on Tuesday, the temperature didn’t get above 25.  (I took a short walk, but I headed back when the wind nearly blew my frozen ear lobes off my head.)  On Wednesday and Thursday, the words were flowing and the temps were still glacial, so I kept my head down and wrote, wrote, wrote.  On Friday, before we left, I did take one relatively long walk, but it was mostly a chance to say goodbye to the site.

Maria, I’ve discovered, is a great retreat-mate.  We keep very different hours.  I wake up relatively early, write a chunk in the morning, break for lunch, write a chunk in the afternoon, break for dinner, write a chunk in the evening, then go to bed around 11:00.  She wakes up much later (around my lunch time) and she works must later (till 3 or 4 in the morning.)  Therefore, we both have “alone time,” the same way that we have “together time.”  It works out well.

I have two other retreats already scheduled in the new year — mini-retreats that last a weekend and take place at the homes of writer-friends.  I’m looking forward to them, to the socializing, to the discussing business, to the short intense bursts of writing.

But I’m also already planning my next retreat in the woods.  Because I’ll have another third of a book to get drafted.  I always do.  :-)

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What a Way to Celebrate!

Well, I’m a year older now.

Okay, technically, I’m a day older than I was yesterday, and three days older than I was on October 12, my official birthday.  But you know what I mean.

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This year, we decided to take advantage of a relative’s kind offer, and we spent my birthday (and a long weekend!) at the beach — Duck, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks.  We typically go down there once or twice a year, usually in the heart of winter.  Duck is a wonderful place off season — nearly deserted, with most businesses closed up tight, with nearly no one on the beach, and with cold, bracing winds that can howl all night in classic nor’easters.

Not so much in mid-October this year!

The temps were in the 80s — I dramatically overpacked for cool weather and just got by with the T-shirts I brought (and I mourned my failure to bring shorts or sandalsl!)  On Saturday, the beach was actually *crowded*, and there were lots of folks on the sand every day.  All the businesses were open (even the Dairy Queen :-) ), and the roads were surprisingly busy.  In short, “our” Duck looked completely different from the Duck we normally encounter.

Of course, it was enjoyable, all the same.  We took walks on the sand (with surprisingly high tides and lots of waves!), and we indulged in meals at our favorite restaurants.  We got a lot of reading done, and we watched a lot of movies — binged the second half of HOMELAND, Season 3, and the BEYOND Linklater movies, and an odd, well-made little film called A SIMPLE PLAN.

All in all, a perfect birthday weekend, brightened by the Facebook posts of many, and emails from even more, and cards and phone calls and, and, and, and…  I feel well and truly spoiled!  (I also feel like I’m never going to eat anything other than salad and lean grilled meats, for the rest of my life :-) )

And that is why it’s time for me to get back to work :-)

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