Santa Barbara By Horse

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Trail rides generally make me nervous.  The horses are usually broken, non-thinkers and the guides know it, even if the riders don’t.  At the Circle Bar B Ranch, this is not the case. Riding through the hills behind Santa Barbara, accompanied by only my guide, my family and our horses, I experienced the rare pleasures of a clever trail horse and a thoughtful cowboy. You don’t believe me, do you?

Our trail guide and thoughtful cowboy, Jonathan, didn’t jangle past in his spurs with a loud voice and a bad attitude.  Instead he approached us, introduced himself and shook hands with everyone.  He made kissy noises to his horse who nuzzled him affectionately. Jonathan then told us all about our own rides as though they were each his children and worthy of special mention.  During the ride, he took special care with my daughter, who was extremely nervous.  He did little riding activities with her; changing rein hands, standing in her stirrups, riding the horse like a motorbike, deliberately curving him from one track to another, until she felt in charge of her horse.  He told her about how good horsemen don’t need to force their horses, they need to work with them, that it takes time for horse and human to get to know each other.  He stopped on the trail to pick up a feather and put it in her hatband.   Then he asked me if I knew about indigo children and if I didn’t think she might be one (forgive me for stereotyping but, not a topic I’d anticipated from a cowboy). All in all, he was the perfect guide.

As if that wasn’t enough, the views were spectacular.  At a height of four thousand feet, the air cools though the sun brightens, and a rider can see clear from the top of a mountain out to the Channel Islands.  There was wildlife everywhere, from quails to bobcats to soaring turkey buzzards and curious squirrels.

So, if you’re like me and love a place where you can enjoy some activities alongside your kids, let me recommend a stay at the Circle Bar B Ranch.  Kids are so welcome at the Circle Bar B, that the farrier will even put them to work pulling nails from old horse shoes while you have a sleep-in.  There are dogs and cats just looking to play with someone, especially kids,  and all the staff seem to be enjoying the sweetness of life in the cool hills of Santa Barbara.  All in all, whether it’s after a busy work life or a hectic holiday, the Circle Bar B Ranch is a great place to take your shoes off and sit a while. When you’re done, you’ll leave to the sound of people calling, “Y’all come back now, y’ hear?”

I reckon I will.

Agave – Succulent In Every Way

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So, it would seem there is life off the Strip.  The Strip in Las Vegas I mean, a name which may actually relate more to the fact that people wear little clothing, than to the ‘strip mall’ nature of the place.  Whatever, two days ago we ventured into real world Las Vegas, where people have jobs, raise kids and occasionally eat out.

When it comes to eating out, let me recommend Agave.  We’ve eaten there twice now, and tonight I read that it’s one of America’s top 25 tequila bars.  The food is amazing, everything from the warm corn chips and trio of fresh dips, to the black bean and cheese soup will leave you making pleasured faces and begging to compliment the chef.  The prawn ceviche is nothing less than amazing and truly, the margaritas will knock you fair off your chair.  If it should happen that the margaritas don’t cheer you right up, ask the hostess to do her Steve Irwin impression.  It’s hilarious and fun.  I love a restaurant where the staff enjoy themselves and Agave is one of those.  At the top of Agave’s drinks list is the Millionaire Margarita.  I’ve yet to taste it but the ingredients include platino platinum cuervo, lime juice, grand marnier 150 and instead of a salt rim, your glass will be dipped in silver dust.  That’s right, silver dust, platinum tequila and gold grand marnier.  Bless me father for I intend on sinning.

Life and food, are better out here and I have to say that Sin City has been well and truly outstripped.

Mount Vernon and the George Washington Mystique

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There is little more daunting to the adult traveller, than arriving at a location to find a convoy of bright yellow school buses arrived earlier.  The mass of students pouring out of those school buses is likely give anyone reason to pause, and pause we did, while getting some breakfast and mustering our courage.

Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington, was well worth the effort and surviving the masses.  I am assured that other people have visited and had the place to themselves, so don’t be dismayed, this could be you.  Either way, it won’t make a difference, you’ll love it.

The tour through the mansion was a step back in time and an insight into the mind of a man who was both practical an intellectual.  Apparently, George Washington considered himself first and foremost, a farmer.  To this end, he organised seven year crop rotations for his fields which ensured a fallow year for each pasture.  He composted with very specific ingredients in order to ensure rich soil for his fields as well as his vegetable gardens and he designed a building especially for threshing, a job previously done outdoors and therefore subject to inclement weather.  The building was original and unique in construction, a perfect monument to the fact that necessity really is the mother of invention.

In a similar vein, when George decided he wanted to extend his house (which was originally very small), he found the price of the original house stone, rather prohibitive.  Rather than breaking the bank or not extending, George used a method of painting broad boards, then adding sand to the wet paint mixture, such that the boards look, even now, just like stone work.

For these reasons, George Washington the farmer, interested me much more than George Washington father of a nation, military strategist and inspiring leader.  When combined though, it’s easy to see that there was a time, when nations truly were lead by their best and their brightest.    These were not types to need party politics or platforms.  They wrote their own speeches, took advice but formed their own opinions and ultimately made their own decisions about where to lead their country. George Washington took up the job of President as though it was a duty and a responsibility not an opportunity for personal gain.  As an individual, he stood for something big enough to inspire masses and bring a nation into its own.  Not bad for a farm boy, really.

Big tips for your visit:

  1. Don’t eat at the cafe.  While it is clean, it’s also loud, expensive and the food isn’t great. If the weather is fine take a picnic and eat in one of the beautiful gardens or down on the shore of    the Potomac. If it’s dismal, take soup and eat in the car, staff will stamp your hand so you can get back in.
  2. Set aside an entire day.  The farm/house tour is informative and the landscape divine, so take your time.
  3. Take time to see the museum which is located on a subterranean level beneath one of the gardens.  It contains a perfect combination of political detail and mementos from household life.
  4. Consider the boat cruise from DC to the dock at Mt Vernon, approaching by water will give the whole place a different perspective.
  5. No matter the weather, walk the gardens.  The farm is a wonder but the gardens are works of art.
  6. Don’t be dismayed by the school buses.  Those teachers are full of interesting information, I consider them free tour guides!

From Castles to Chilli – An Emerging American Affection

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It’s time for me to make a confession; I’ve always had ‘issues’ with America. I’ve been here twice before and never really liked it.  The first time I was appalled by the poverty, the noise and the lack of manners that seemed to proliferate.  The second time I was yelled at by a ticket woman and got to watch a bit of t.v., where I was told that if I thought I was healthy, I was probably deranged.  You can imagine then, my trepidation when I saddled up for another slice of American pie.

This time I landed in Washington DC, which felt like a different country altogether. Perhaps because it’s not a very big city, DC’s population is about 600 000 and most of them are public servants; but whatever the reason, DC is friendly.  People smile there and hold doors open for you.  They welcome you to their establishment and seem to mean it when they say ‘have a nice day’.

It didn’t start well.  After seventeen hours of flight, I landed in a room with no hot water.  Well, that’s not entirely true. There was hot water sometimes, just not the times I wanted a bath.  I wanted a bath right after a seventeen hour flight, when I felt grimy and smelled faintly of pre-packaged food and other people’s sick bags.  I settled for a tepid shower.

But the next morning I walked through Arlington Cemetary where the U.S servicemen and their families are buried.  It’s a beautiful peaceful place.  People who live in Arlington use it for a walking/jogging track.  Somehow, while working up a sweat, they also manage to smile, wave and wish you a ‘good morning’.  I was most impressed.

My walk continued across the Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, where Honest Abe sat, surrounded by his own words for all eternity.  I don’t know if this is a fate I would wish to share.  A little walk beyond him, stands the Washington monument.  A giant, well-lit phallic symbol, but an interesting and thoughtful place to sit nonetheless.

I wasn't lying, it really is a castle.

On that walk, I met a very nice woman who wanted to tell me all about her city.  When we arrived together at the Smithsonian’s Castle of information, she discovered some new things about her own town and made sure to collect brochures for us as well.  That doesn’t happen everywhere.  For those less inclined to walk, there are happy peddy cab people willing to take you all around the centre of DC, but you probably won’t meet as many ‘friendlies’ this way.

The Smithsonian would take weeks to see properly and I only had two days.  My family and I began with the newest of the museums added to the Smithsonian collection, The Museum of the American Indian.  That’s right, a single museum that enables you to discover all American Indian cultures and to explore their various similarities and differences.  At the bottom of the museum, there’s a great cafe called Mitisam where foods from various regions are available for tasting.  The salmon with wild rice salad was a welcome surprise.

Belly’s full, we attacked the Natural History Museum.  Yes the dinosaurs thrilled my eleven-year-old daughter but they’re not as engaging as those who reside the Museum of Natural History in New York.  My favourite part of this museum, was the mineral,

Chilli and jug drinks at Red Hot and Blue on Wilson Blvd, DC

rock and crystal display where visitors can view the Hope Diamond, learn about all your best loved gems, develop some new favourites and line up with buddhist monks to touch a piece of rock from Mars.  I was a very happy nerd indeed.

The American History museum was more of a fly-by than an actual visit.  I saw Abe Lincoln’s hat, the First Lady’s dresses and Julia Child’s kitchen.  I’ll let you guess which I enjoyed most.

That night we sought food because exploring, learning and walking, all require energy.  We landed at Red Hot and Blue, a ‘joint’ that sold delicious chilli, fabulous ribs and drinks by the jug.  That’s right, home-made lemonade, delivered in a jug, with a straw.  Oh happy day!

Filled up with sugar and ideas, we walked back to our hotel completely unmolested by beggars or swaggering teens.  Truly, day one was grand from beginning to end.  Thus begins the emergence of my new affection for America.

Something Different

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The ladies at my writers group today, pointed out that it’s been a long time since last I blogged.  My apologies, I’ve been a bit busy.  In the last few weeks, I’ve done a number of workshops for Logan City Libraries, where I had a great time and learned a few things.

Getting to express my love of books at Logan Central Libray

I’m learning new things everywhere lately, whether it’s from my son who is a walking encyclopedia, new aspects of my daughter or interesting tidbits from my writers group.

At my writers group recently, one of the members explained the process of accessing different ideas,perhaps from a different hemisphere of the brain.  The process for doing this is really simple and I encourage you to try it out, just for something different.

First- Write your name at the top of a page and

Second- Number two columns on the page from one to ten

Third – Using your dominant hand, write a list of personal characteristics in the first column.

Fourth – Cover that column of writing

Fifth – Using your non-dominant hand (in my case my left hand), write a list of personal attributes in the next column

Sixth – Compare the columns

At first I thought this was one of those self-fulfilling things.  People are convinced the columns will be different, therefore they are.  Today, I sat down and tried it out myself.  The column from my left hand was completely different from the column my right hand produced (and I’m not just talking about the handwriting either).

I’m thinking now, that this activity will be particularly useful on Saturday when I present my workshop on Characterisation for the Queensland Writers Centre.  Imagine doing this with a character’s name rather than your own, or even answering character interview questions with both hands.  You could end up with a much more well-rounded character.  I like it.  I think I’ll try it 🙂

By the way, if you’re looking for a workshop on characterisation, I’ll be in the State Library, upstairs at the Writers Centre from ten am on Saturday morning.  Look forward to seeing you there!

Kids & Cafes

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I watched a program last night wherein it was reported that a local council had banned children from drawing in chalk on the footpath outside a local cafe.  The cafe had been providing the kids with chalk in an effort to keep them busy and happy while their parents got their cafe experience.  After the report, a presenter commented, “Would they rather kids happily drawing with chalk or whingeing and whining in the cafe because they don’t want to be there?”

Frankly, I think the council is being ludicrous but that’s not the point.  The point is kids don’t like cafes (hell, in general I don’t like cafes, they’re pretentious, boring and overpriced). You can tell kids don’t like cafes because of the frikkin’ whingeing and whining.  Sooo, here’s an idea; instead of treating your kids like they’re accidental attachments to your formerly kid-free, cafe-hopping existence, consider them beings you brought into the world because you were ready for a change in lifestyle.  Get your coffee to go, walk your kids to the local park (take your friends with you if you like)and set them loose on the playground while you get your caffeine fix.

There will be three advantages to doing this. Firstly,  your kids will get some running around and exercise into their day which will wear them out a little, thus making your life easier when you get home.   Second, the childless people in the cafe will dislike you less.   Lastly, you’ll get brownie points for being a good parent.

Try it out, see how it goes.

No, you are not more talented than everyone else…

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Today my writers group discussed plotting. We  covered everything from noting basic plot points, to graphing points of rising action to circular plots, the heroes journey and how an external journey should be mirrored by an internal journey.   We discussed the way twists of a plot expose characters, how plot gives scenery purpose and movement.  I explained that plot helps keep backstory from becoming the story.  Most importantly we came to the conclusion that eventually, everyone must plot their novel.

Plotting is the beginning of the ‘work’ part of writing.  It’s all very well to collect ideas, cuttings, photos and stimuli.  At some stage all this creative collecting, needs to lead somewhere, preferably to a dynamite ending.  If a plot isn’t linked, clues aren’t dropped and pieces aren’t subtly joined and related, readers feel cheated, deceived and ripped off.

For me (and coincidentally Derek Hansen whom I heard speak at a writers festival one year), the end is the perfect beginning.  I never put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, until I know where the story is going.  The last scene in my manuscript is so clear and beautiful in my mind, that I can describe it in vivid detail long before I know the rest of the plot.  Before I start, I’m longing for that ending.  I don’t know where that ending comes from, I just know it’s my end goal.

So, when I was telling my group today, that I’m currently Jonah in the guts of my whale, in the process of working my way out at about fifteen hundred words a day, they had one main question.  “Do you reread each day, before you start again?”  I replied “No.”  Then they wanted to know how I do that, how I keep on track without back checking.  The answer is simple, “I’m not writing backward, I’m writing my way forward to the end of the story.  I’ve got my plot points, so I know where I’ve been and I know where I’m going.”  Every now and then, while writing, I’ll knock up against a previously plotted moment and have a little celebration.  A mini-milestone moment.  Eventually I’ll hit the last one and type ‘the end’ (maybe it will be all in celebratory , tear smeared capitals).

I am not, however, a natural plotter.  I’m a character driven writer.  As such, I don’t plan minutiae, I just mark the points of rising action, the climax and the end point.  The funny thing is, I don’t think many people actually are natural plotters. Knowing that, I get a chuckle when aspiring writers wriggle and squirm, in an effort to avoid doing something that seems so mundane and boring as a prelude to a creative act (after all, graphs belong with mathematicians not writers).  Without fail, they  make excuses, tell me this is not how they work, explain that it’s all in their head and worst of all, that even though they’re a hundred thousand words in…they’re not sure of the plot yet.  My response is always, “Go home.  Plot your story”.  Because honestly, everyone, everyone, one way or another, at one time or another, has to plot their story…and no…you are not more talented than they are.

P.S.  I promised this video to my writing gang, so here it is: