Sunday, December 28, 2008

Everyone loves a parade... almost

I just can’t let the holidays conclude without sharing this behind-the-scenes look into the world of holiday parades…. for your amusement:

Everybody loves a parade. But making one happen isn’t as easy as you’d think. Take it from the official “coordinator” of the City of Portsmouth’s 2008 Holiday Parade. I spent weeks working on an event that took a grand total of 37 minutes to pass by. Ho, ho, ho.

Now, you’re probably thinking: “What’s the big deal? A bunch of people line up and then they march down a street. "

If only it were so easy. There are news releases to write, applications to process, money to collect from commercial entries, questions to be answered from the public, bands to be recruited, rules to be followed (“no throwing of candy into the crowd or you will be removed), parking to be banned, streets to be closed, prayers to be offered to the weather gods, and numerous meetings with all the city departments with a role in the event.

Yes, it takes all this and more to make a parade. And some of it can really suck the holiday spirit out of you.

This year, there were 65 vehicles, floats, walking units and bands to orchestrate. Part of my job as coordinator is to carefully choreograph the procession to provide a visual treat to the more than 8,000 people lining the 1.1-mile parade route through downtown.

Designing the perfect lineup beforehand is challenging for anyone as numbers-impaired as I am. It’s also complicated by entries pleading to be allowed in after the deadline and others dropping out. The primary goal is to evenly space out the bands, big vehicles, walking units and this year – the beauty contestants. “But only mine can compete for Miss America,” harrumphed one pageant sponsor.

Fearing a beauty brawl, I had to figure out how to separate Mrs. Senior New Hampshire, Miss Strafford County, the Miss New Hampshire-Massachusetts Teenager Scholarship group, and the “Iron Brides” competing for a bridal package in a regional reality show. I agonized over who to place at the front. In the end, I respected my elders and chose Mrs. Senior New Hampshire. If anyone was disappointed, you couldn’t tell it from their perfect smiles and beauty queen waves.

There also were philosophical issues to consider, such as how close should the peace group be to the Veterans of Foreign Wars color guard? Should all religious walking units and floats be lined up together? And, would anyone appreciate the irony in having the NH Bureau of Liquor Enforcement vehicle following a float with fans of Jimmy Buffet of “Margaritaville” fame?

Imagine the pressure.

Then there’s the music. Not which kind – it’s all holiday stuff – but how much is heard beyond the marching bands. Floats and walking units want to be accompanied by boom boxes or other musical devices. If they’re not properly spaced, the result is one big jumble of holiday tunes.

There’s also the issue of where to stage people. There isn't an area large enough to line up all the entries beforehand. A vacant property along the route becomes "Float World" while everyone else feeds in from narrow side streets to form the procession I design. It takes great precision – and lots of hard-working people with walkie-talkies – to pull it off without incident.

Parade incidents, you ask? Sure. For example, someone marching out of order can cause problems for the parade announcer, who reads from the script I've prepared beforehand. This year, we taped the parade for broadcast later, though our plan nearly was thwarted when the cameraman briefly knocked out the power at the reviewing stand 10 minutes before the start of the parade. Ho, ho, ho.

This was also the year I faced down the illegal vendors – out-of-state guys wearing fake licenses and pushing around grocery carts filled with cheap plastic items or selling food without Health Department permits (and taking business away from the local restaurants). “You have 15 minutes to pack up your stuff and get out of here,” I said with my best holiday spirit -- and a police officer standing behind me. It wasn't nearly as fulfilling, though, as calling in the tow trucks last year to remove cars whose drivers had ignored the humongous “No Parking” signs I'd made. I never anticipated how much towing could back up traffic. But I digress.

This year’s biggest unexpected wrinkle came in the form of parade crashers – people who jumped in the parade in progress. The first was a guy in holiday attire weaving his decorated bicycle in and out of the parade near the somber Police Honor Guard. “You’re not in this parade,” I said when I caught up to him. “Yes, I am,” he replied. “Not anymore,” said I, motioning for a nearby police officer.

A short time later, the announcer and I were flabbergasted to see a 7-foot yellow chicken marching down the street accompanied by five young women wearing shirts advertising a local chicken wings restaurant. It was an illegal entry that hadn’t paid the requisite $30 commercial fee. The quick-thinking announcer shrugged and said, "Here comes a big chicken from .... "

I was paralyzed by indecision. Should I leap off the reviewing stand and tackle him in front of thousands of people, beating him senseless with a cell phone and walkie-talkie? Call in police reinforcements? Grab the microphone and scream, “Get out of my parade you low-life piece of fowl”?

None of those choices seemed very holiday-ish. In the end, I opted for a phone call afterward. “Have the check on my desk Tuesday,” I said firmly. Two days later a guy with “big chicken” on his business card delivered it with a bigger smile. All was forgiven.

So next time you’re enjoying a big parade, I hope you'll consider the amount of work – and heavy-handed enforcement -- it took to bring it to you. Ho, ho, ho.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A mother's lament

As I write this, my firstborn is beginning a new life 500 miles away.

I blame myself. If I’d allowed him to have a toy gun as a child, maybe he wouldn’t be reporting to the DC Metropolitan Police Academy in the predawn darkness three days before Christmas.

But this also is the child who skirted the gun ban by making weapons out of everything: sticks, rulers, even processed cheese. He’s also the son who loved to dress up in uniforms as a child. Although this made it easier when it came time to begin Catholic school, I had hoped the astronaut getup would be the one following him into adulthood.

Instead, he's thrilled to be starting a career in law enforcement in the nation’s capital, which is ironically the same “big city” life we escaped 13 years ago and where his younger brother now attends college.

I awoke unusually early this morning, worrying as his 7 a.m. report time neared. Did he wake up on time? Were his shoes polished? Did traffic delay him? The weather report says it was 16 degrees and clear so there was no snow or ice to make him late. But maybe he’s cold: he doesn’t own a dress coat to wear over his suit.

It took every ounce of restraint I possess not to call his cell phone. But I think of him with every mile he drives and every step he takes to the front door of the academy where he will spend the next 28 weeks.

I know he has to do this alone. And yes, I know this is part of life. We want our children to be independent and chart their own courses in life. But it does not prevent my tears at 7 a.m. There’s no turning back now. He’s truly left us.

How strange this all feels. As Husband No. 1 observes, we’ve been with this child through 23 years of school, sports, activities, etc. I remember his first day of preschool, elementary school, high school and college – and his last ones, too. Now he’s beginning the most exciting phase of his life and we aren’t with him. Nobody warned us about this part of parenting.

Some say this experience is not unlike what happens when you sell a novel. After being totally immersed in its development, day and night, sometimes for years, your progeny leaves your control and takes on its own life. If you’re lucky, it reappears in a polished form you recognize.

Will my son become a man I no longer recognize? I pray not. But there’s no doubt he will have experiences I could never imagine. I am proud that he's taking a huge leap into his future. But the Mom part of me is a little sad about how far that leap is taking him away from me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A bad-hair, ice storm kind of day

Women understand that while it’s OK to delay some appointments, a date with the hairdresser isn’t one of them.

When I awoke last Friday to a frigid house surrounded by large trees downed in the worst ice storm in New Hampshire history, there was no heat, electricity or phone service. But I still intended to keep my 12:30 p.m. salon appointment.

Scheduled for color “enhancement,” there was no need to wash my hair – leaving precious gallons of hot water in the tank for others. It was my day off and the lights were out. Who’d care that my hair wasn’t squeaky clean?

Heading out in search of caffeine, I found restaurants and coffee shops as dark as their coffee. With no working traffic signals to impede my progress, I quickly reached downtown and spotted a coffee oasis beckoning from the darkness. The shivering masses seeking comfort inside included two colleagues. I confided to one that I’d dressed without light and probably looked terrible. He seemed too preoccupied with scoring hot coffee to care. Later I discovered he’d also been too preoccupied to notice the large, red Velcro hair curler stuck to my black shirt – or was too nice to say anything.

“You wear such weird jewelry he probably thought it was supposed to be there,” observed No. 1 son.

With daylight now filtering into the cold, quiet house, I caught a glimpse of my hair in the mirror. Comparing it to a bird’s nest would have been a compliment.

My cell phone rang. “How are you?” my boss asked politely. “Cold,” I replied. “It’s warm at City Hall. Why don’t you come down and help with the media?” he said.

I looked at my watch. There was enough time to write news releases and still be in Sheila's chair on schedule. Everyone would be too busy answering the calls coming into the Emergency Operations Center to notice my hair. I forced a brush through it anyway.

Dodging fallen tree branches along the route, I spotted a downed tree and power lines in the street near my hairdresser’s home. My mind raced. In just a few days I was scheduled to receive a municipal award that would be televised on the local cable channel. My hair required “enhancement” and soon. Surely the debris could be cleared in time for my appointment.

The Emergency Operations Center was humming with lights, heat, coffee and working phones, courtesy of a big, honking generator. Hours later, it set the roof on fire, forcing its own "emergency operations."

We were evacuated and I panicked -- not because of the fire, but because my work wasn’t done, I had no idea when we’d be allowed back inside and “Hair Time” was imminent. Yes, 75 percent of my city and half of the residents of New Hampshire lacked power, but I had an appointment to keep. From the look on his face, I suspect the Fire Chief realized my repeated inquiries about his firefighters’ progress went beyond simple curiosity – or he was mesmerized by my stringy hairdo.

It was looking bad for keeping my sacrosanct meeting with the one person who could cure what ailed my hair. I visit Sheila more frequently than my personal physician. We know a delay in treatment can widen a thin line of gray hair roots into a boulevard.

I telephoned the salon. No response. I telephoned Sheila’s home. Miraculously, there was an answer, but it wasn’t good. Her route remained blocked and even if she could get to the salon, it had no power. I wouldn't be able to even try to bribe her to walk to City Hall to do my hair in a bathroom. My hair would not be rescued that day.

It wouldn’t be easy to get another appointment during her busiest season. But finding a big, fancy hat to hide my gray would be impossible in the aftermath of an ice storm. I began to hope that the fire knocked out the TV cameras scheduled to record my award a few nights later.

Partial salvation came with the news the power was back on at home and at least I could wash my hair. Hundreds of thousands of others weren’t so lucky. My neighbors went without power for over 63 hours. Even with fireplaces, temperatures dropped to 39 degrees inside their homes. Basements flooded without electricity to power sump pumps. Roofs and vehicles were impaled by pine trees. Yards resembled war zones.

There was no TV or Internet to get weather updates. Phone service was intermittent. Area hotels were full. The unlucky became so desperate to shower that they paid rare visits to fitness center locker rooms or the bathrooms of neighbors with heat. Some drove around in their cars to keep warm and recharge cell phones. Others cursed themselves for not buying generators months earlier. Thousands are still in the dark today.

Some say this experience has given them new sympathy for the homeless. And there's been little talk about the inconvenience of a devastating ice storm so close to holidays. I no longer care about advancing lines of gray roots. Like so many others, I’m just grateful to be safe and warm.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The glamorous life of an author

I want to tell you that being an author is extremely glamorous. But that would be a lie.

For example, just last week I accompanied a fellow short story writer to a literacy fund-raising event in a city about an hour away at the suggestion of one of the publishers of the new mystery anthology containing our latest short stories.

We were to be among “a select group of authors” selling the products of our creativity to admiring readers who’d pay $10 for the privilege of being with us while enjoying “light refreshments.” Our presence would support literacy efforts, allow us to sell books and provide an opportunity to network with readers and other writers.

The fact that one member of our “select group” was identified as “The Icky Bug Man” should have been a sign of things to come.

Chronic lateness, traffic interruptions from a major auto accident and less-than-precise directions caused us to arrive minutes after the scheduled start of the four-hour event. We walked in to find over 30 authors and illustrators smiling hopefully behind long tables lining two small meeting rooms at the back of the restaurant.

The authors and illustrators far outnumbered the customers. And they occupied every square inch of table space. When the event organizer gently urged several of them to make room for us and our book, no one moved.

Eventually, a book distributor took pity and offered a table from her car. Due to space limitations, we found ourselves huddled at one end of the table with “Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers” displayed at the other. We searched for chairs. No one would surrender even an empty seat.

When we looked around the room, we saw that nearly every other author and illustrator was selling material for children. There were dozens of sweet and beautiful children’s books. I wondered if some were written by people who poured all of their sweetness onto the page.

“Don’t they know we write murder mysteries?” my companion whispered. “You’d think they’d be nicer out of fear, if nothing else.”

As the evening progressed, it became painfully clear that the crowd was much smaller than anticipated. It also appeared to be primarily comprised of elementary school teachers. They weren’t even buying many kids’ books. It was beginning to look like “Crime Stories by New England Writers” wouldn't end up in their classrooms, either.

Nonetheless, a few people picked up "Deadfall" and then put it back down. Some even made polite conversation first. One woman said she'd like to buy the book but couldn't because she’d used all the checks she’d brought.

“That’s OK,” I said in desperation. “We’ll even autograph it for you. Just send us the check later.”

It was the only book we “sold.” I was relieved when the woman’s check arrived a few days later. Even so, our meager profit didn’t cover the cost of gas, the peppermints we offered at our table or the copy of “Deadfall” we'd donated to the silent auction.

But we did get something out of the evening: A reality check on the glamorous life of being an author. We also learned that people don’t have to be nice to write nice books. And, in the spirit of life experiences providing “novel material,” I must confess that we came home with some fabulous murder mystery plots involving children’s book authors.