We interrupt this blog's normal programming for some random observations and comments about Hurricane Irene, which hovered over the Turks & Caicos Islands for nearly two days. I spent the storm in Aloe House with two friends: Aggie, who is visiting me from Nassau; and Addison, a neighbor and my unofficial brother. Together we drank (a lot), watched the whipping of the palm trees, investigated any banging noises, mopped up leaks at windows and doors and, until the power went off, watched DVDs. Other details, in no particular order:
The restless routine. Tromp upstairs and go window to window, looking for leaks. Grab binoculars and look out to sea. Do the window-to-window thing downstairs and looks out to check the trees and plants. Make a drink. Repeat as necessary.
All the cellphone calls! Mark and Lynn check in regularly. Aggie's in touch with the Bahamas. Homeowners who are in the U.S. call. "Are you all right?" "How's the house?" "What's happening?" My Internet service stayed up long enough that I was doing the same thing via Facebook and e-mail.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., my husband Tom is experiencing an earthquake. What?!
Three people, 1 1/2 bottles of vodka, 3/4 bottle of rum.
Movies for a hurricane: "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mrs. Henderson Presents."
Early on, a walk up to the ocean. Very impressive. A neighbor's seawall is taking a beating. "That sucker's gone," we agree. Seawalls mess with Mother Nature, and you don't mess with Mother Nature.
After one power outage, we take advantage of the juice to flush toilets, make more ice and start dinner. Aggie makes a huge amount of spaghetti Bolognese.
Power really goes out halfway through "Mrs. Henderson." Flashlights, the oil lamp, and we might as well try to sleep.
Restlessness and poor sleep, fully clothed. What is that bang? What was that? I swore I could hear individual shingles detaching themselves from the roof.
The day after isn't yet the day after. Irene is still blowing. She won't go away. Tom's flight to the islands is canceled and there's still no power or Internet. OK, I'm ready for this to be over. Between the bands of wind and rain, we try to do some mopping, call people and take a look at damages.
Restless and tired of it, we make small journeys. I get out water shoes and we wade through the moat that used to be a lane to look at the sea again. Yes, the wall is gone. We take the truck I am "sitting" for friends who went to the U.S. on vacation and make our way past and over downed wires to check on their farmette. Islandwide, damages don't seem as bad as they could have been.
People are good. There are calls as everyone checks on everyone. Agnes sends over a pot of hot water for tea. Lynn Rae leaves a cooler of ice and food while we're out.
Aggie, seeing my worry at whether Tom will get here, starts singing, "Every little thing's gonna be alright."
Finally, the power comes on and we try to reassemble life as it was before.
There's more to the story. On Thursday, two days after Irene arrived, Tom is still trying to get here and I am trying to get to Provo to meet him. Since Provo took a heavier hit than North Caicos, services are spotty and everything is iffy. But the airport finally reopens, I manage to get there, and although we have to spend the night on Provo we are together ... watching the hurricane on TV make its way toward other homes, other coasts and other lives. More people to be left singing, with hope, "Goodnight Irene."
Funny how things sometimes come together and form themes or motifs. This trip is a prime example.
What I'm currently reading is Simon Winchester's Outposts, a book that describes visits to the last vestiges of the British Empire. Winchester pops in on places such as Tristan de Cunha, Gibraltar and Ascension Island to view both the pretty and ugly remains of empire. I brought it along because there's a chapter on the Turks and Caicos Islands, which I've not yet reached.
However, a phrase in his chapter on St. Helena, Napoleon's place of exile, has already made a connection: one-crop island. He is referring to that old British habit of turning a colony's interest toward one commodity: flax in St. Helena, sugar in Barbados. The results, he notes, are always ruinous.
So I'm reading this while sitting in an island chain that includes Salt Cay, once a major salt producer and now the kind of place where children leave as soon as they are of age; South Caicos, still a conch producer but barely holding on; and Providenciales, developed as a high-end tourist destination without regard to the flightiness of high-end tourists. ("Oh, don't go there. It's not cool anymore. The new hot island is --.")
Yup, Mr. Winchester, yup.
The odd thing is, until recently the islanders themsleves always understood the need for diversification. When Tom and I first came here in 1990, we laughed at the store that sold "plumbing and beauty supplies," but we quickly learned that such a juxtaposition was the norm. Our hotel cook also taught school. The hotel owner also ran an air taxi. Life here was a little of this and a little of that.
Then came the go-go "oughts," when everyone pushed for development and tourism. Foreign companies putting up resorts brought in foreign workers to build them, and those people needed places to live. I don't remember who was the first local to build a small apartment complex, but soon everyone was building apartments. The island went from having two people who rented cars, both hard to track down, to the current eight car rental businesses. More restaurants opened.
And that was only North Caicos! On Provo, there were casinos, golf courses, a movie theatre and even miniature golf.
I admit that I was a skeptic. I read the prospectus for one condo development and laughed to learn they were planning a delicatessen. "Yeah, right. Fresh pastrami on North," I snorted. This was when Susie was still calling and asking me to bring all my eggs to the hotel so that her guests could have breakfast.
I learned that it's horrible to be right. The whole thing did collapse with the U.S. economy in 2007-08.
People hereon North are still complaining of no jobs, but the island is slowly coming back and returning to its roots. People are growing food again, tourism is small-scale and the businesses that endure are those that serve all: locals, white expatriates, Haitian and Dominican immigrants. I think it's going to be all right.
OK, so the general title of my blog is "An island life/a writing life." I hear my followers (all five or so of you) wondering, "And how does this relate to writing?"
Easy. It's the simplest and oldest advice ever, still valid and still so oft-ignored: Don't quit your day job.
A recent article in The New Yorker by Alec Wilkinson discussed a "tiny house" trend in which some people are building homes as small as 100 to 130 square feet. Those living in such homes are often dedicated to conservation and ecological responsibility, living on a smaller scale.
I read the article admiringly, and then came to my three-story, double-porch, big-on-storage place on North Caicos. It's not the largest house on the island, but it's plenty big. To add to the irony, one of my chores this trip is to clean out the garage/storage space on the lower level. I'm renting a truck for the trips to the dump.
Now, I'm no hoarder, but you know how things just accumulate in our lives. We seem to collect enough stuff to fill up whatever space we occupy. (Didn't George Carlin do a routine about that?) And we don't weed through the collections until it's necessary.
So there's a lot of talk about downsizing and doing with less. I'm certainly all for that, as I'm as guilty as the next person of having too much stuff.
Take the kitchen, for example. Over the years I ended up with a complete set of Revere ware, plus Teflon skillets of various sizes, several soup pots and the Crock Pot, rice cooker, sandwich grill and gadgets galore. It's all here at Aloe House.
When we went into the Richmond apartment, I bought only those items I use on a regular basis. And you know what? It works. I don't need a wok to make stir-fry, I can do a grilled cheese sandwich in my skillet, and the Dutch oven suffices for soup. The only hard part about such downsizing is avoiding the impulse to buy the specialty item just because you can, and it's cool.
The downsizing thing works with the writing, too. No, let's make that: Downsizing works with writing, too. Writers love words, sometimes to a fault. We obsess over accurate descriptions and end up writing, "He seemed to fancy himself a child of the '70s, with his striped Speedos, chunky watch and gold chairs mingling with black chest hair," when any intelligent reader would get the picture well enough with, "He was Mr. 1975: big watch, tiny swimsuit and a chestful of chains." That's one of the reasons why we all need editors.
How many times have you watched a movie that was about 15 minutes too long, eaten a whole sundae that would have pleased you in five bites, told the one-more joke that offended, paid more for the phone feature you never use or planted too much zucchini?
It's a lesson for all of us: Don't fall in love with your stuff.
*If beaches were women, the one in front of my Turks and Caicos house would not be Miss America or Miss TCI. She's much more like Sandra Bullock in "Miss Congeniality" before Michael Caine sets to work - basically beautiful, but a little uncombed and unpolished. Looking like she doesn't care.
Despite her name, Hollywood Beach isn't a glam type. This is a natural beach, with bits of shell and coral, scuttling crabs and the washed-up remains of human activities. Some tides bring up huge clumps of dead sea grass; the locals call them "ground tides." Others take away sand, revealing the gorgeous shells left by generations of conch fishermen. Once the beach was littered by shoes; I turned the event into a short story.
Hollywood Beach does not have a Michael Caine fussing over it and trying to make it ready for its closeup. Here on North Caicos, we don't go in for daily rakings or trucking in sand when too many rocks are showing. OK, well ... there is one property owner who does those things, but the rest of us think he's some kind of nut. For the most part, sand comes and goes according to the ocean's will, and while one day the beach will look junky, the next it's perfectly scoured and looks ready for an ad company photo shoot.
Because it changes daily, I find Hollywood Beach more interesting than those glossy-mag scenes. There's always something new to discover, more to look at than lined-up beach chairs (a different color for each resort). I prefer this beach to those unnaturally prettified ones.
You might think this odd, given that I write fiction. As a writer I am the Michael Caine character, rearranging bits and pieces of life to create a certain look, a certain effect. So why do I look down on those things when it comes to beaches?
I suppose it all comes down to a matter of degree. If I've written a character who is a little like my friend J- and a little like my friend H-, plus some bits of this guy P- who blew through the islands one season ... well, that's one thing. But I can go too far and ruin his believability in a desire to move the plot or make a point. Would my retired beach-bum drug runner ever say something like, "The importance and usefulness of fear of punishment and desire for reward is a controversial issue here"? Hardly. And if I "make" him say it, I've just dumped a load of dredged sand on my natural beach.
Fiction is not all artifice. There is a reality and a truth to it. Rearrangement is OK, but only if it doesn't hide that basic truth.
I like the truth of a natural beach. It reminds me that we humans aren't the center of the universe and we're certainly not in charge. A trumped-up photo-shoot beach is only hubris and arrogance.
This blog by Jody Rathgeb has changed several times over the years and currently focuses on island living. It is also posted on Facebook as Beyond the Parrot Paradise.