Robert E.L. Trowbridge is an insurance executive who, with his wife Judy, divides his time between Foxglove Farm near Vancouver and their Yorkville brownstone in Toronto. His self-published autobiography entitled Foxglove is focussed upon their acquisition of a seventeen-acre equestrian estate in Langley in the Fraser Valley, bought in 2002 in the aftermath of a series of successful real estate deals. "With its ballroom, chapel, courtyard and gardens the property has been a magnet for Hollywood for a couple of decades. Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland and Diane Lane are just a few of the thespians who have toiled under hot lights at Foxglove Farm." Humour-laden and boastful, Foxglove is a lively exploration of a natural writing ability that has been yearning to be released. It is most charming as a portrait of a marriage but it can also be dismissed by ungenerous readers as a mere advertisement for the author's apparent success. The guy has the trophy wife and the trophy house; and he has been on lots of nice trips. Why do we have to know about it?
Foxglove (Trafford Publishing, 2006). 141208019-3
from Robert E.L. Trowbridge
(How Air Canada Turned Me into a Writer)
By Robert E.L. Trowbridge
It would have been the third time in a fortnight that I’d met the Fockers.
My Air Miles were soaring during those two weeks; Vancouver to Toronto to Vancouver ad nauseum; this queasiness exacerbated by Air Canada’s executive class cuisine. The tedium of the in-flight Ben Stiller flick was only exceeded by the prospect of another chewy feed of teriyaki chicken, or malodorous vegetarian pasta.
Shifting two paradigms at 37,000 feet; I started with lunch. No, I wouldn’t be having the chicken or the pasta, and certainly not the curried salmon (not in spite of, but because of my fondness for curries). “I’ll have a cup o’ noodles from economy and a barbeque beef bun,” was my request to the young hostess who showed no surprise. “We’re all sick of those entrees too,” she confessed, crinkling her nose, while refueling my gin and tonic.
Then I removed my headphones, rendering the Fockers mute. Raucous chortles from my cabin mates indicated that either they had not, until this flight, met the Fockers, or couldn’t get enough of them. Forgetting their headphones, they laughed too loud.
Extracting my 2.9 pound Sony Vaio notebook from its case, I typed:
“Foxglove Farm in the sevens!” screamed the pink slip.
My receptionist, long a candidate for a pink slip of her own, had scrawled this message from Judy. It occupied my worn, leather swivel-chair upon my return from lunch. As a rule I get voice mails or emails; seldom written directives to call my wife; even less often in my chair. Clearly this was a communiqué not to be overlooked; nor to be sat upon.
Just like that, I had become a writer.
The Sony was on fire. The story, bottled up for fifty-four years, was pouring onto the screen, racing along, jostling my one-finger typing out of its path. I was a grinning fool, whitewater rafting my tale, soaking in its spray, laughing out loud, jerking nods of approval.
I wasn’t ready for the descent to Pearson International; four hours never went so fast.
Chapter I had a title now and “THE PINK SLIP” was put to bed. By the time we were over the lights of Owen Sound, Chapter 2 had one paragraph kicking with life, howling to be fed, aching to grow. I resented the instruction to stow my computer for landing, just as I had rolled my eyes at the weak bladder of my burly, Focker-loving seat-mate who disturbed me over Moose Jaw.
Hemingway would have told him to pee his pants.
Chapter 1 had dealt with my wife Judy and me finding Foxglove Farm near Vancouver, in 2002, colliding headlong with a dream that we shared for the past thirty years. Judy had been smitten by the property in a Victoria Magazine pictorial in 1995. An historic estate in the lush Fraser Valley, ivy-covered Foxglove Farm is a swath of old Provence in a modern west coast world. With its ballroom, chapel, courtyard and gardens the property has been a magnet for Hollywood for a couple of decades. Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland and Diane Lane are just a few of the thespians who have toiled under hot lights at Foxglove Farm.
Chapter 2 was “THE GAP” and began:
My wife is better looking than me. We’ve always had this gap. This was marginally true when we met in 1972 at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Through a sweet, smoky haze, and the din of Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and Humble Pie, the gap was apparent to me. But in early ’72, when I was twenty-one and Judy was eighteen, no one assumed I was her father, a shocking conclusion to which one or two people have jumped in recent years, as the gap widened.
Brilliant. Get the old lady onside. My sense was that book writing was lonely; we authors need all the friends we can get. Sure there was a gap, but at the same time I was building my team.
When I poked that paragraph into my Sony I was still airborne with no idea that it would be two years and thirty-six more chapters before I typed “ THE END”, two words that were soon deleted out of respect for the intelligence of my readers. There would be no statements of the obvious; bookworms seeking dumbing down need not apply.
“Foxglove was its third and final title, “Foxglove Follies” and then “Middle Aged Spread” peaking too soon like baby names in the early months of a pregnancy.
I’d hired an editor for seven hundred dollars for just punctuation and grammar,
who then convinced me to pay a higher amount for “substantive editing”.
Comparing the handy stores near our farm to their more distant counterparts in The Caledon Hills (where we’d checked out horse farms in the nineties), the text reads “by contrast, the convenience stores in Langley really were.” “Really were what?” was her red query on my page. God help the fledgling writer who has to dumb things down for his editor.
“Dear Ellen,” I wrote, after she had sent me an invoice and a starchy refusal to confine her editing (and her bill) to my original request.
“I have enclosed my cheque in the amount of $1,698 as payment for the substantive editing of my book, Foxglove. I do so as an unsatisfied client. Whether it was the humour, the pop culture, or the subtlety, you just didn’t get it. I would have done as well to send my manuscript to one of the Lennon Sisters, a trio of very pleasant ladies who graced The Lawrence Welk Show forty years ago.”
Ironically, perhaps my most encouraging feedback prior to publishing, outside of my family, came from another Ellen. This Ellen is the elegant, dignified wife of my golfing buddy; a no nonsense businessman in his seventies who makes a ton of money and ploughs much of it, along with his energy, back into the Vancouver community. Ken’s all about raising money for causes like the arts and palliative care. He’s an insurance and annuity client of mine and I was a little concerned that he might feel that writing a quirky, personal story like Foxglove was frivolous, perhaps reflecting bad judgment. I worried about keeping his respect. Also, I had wanted Foxglove’s voice to be both savage and tender, as much Bill Maher as Peter Mayle. Five F-words survived the final draft.
It was Judy who gave me courage to offer a draft to Ellen. “Don’t forget that she’s an amazing artist,” she said, referring to Ellen’s stature as an accomplished professional painter, primarily in oils. “She’ll probably love your book.”
Two weeks later, a card arrived at Foxglove Farm, emblazoned with Ellen’s monogram.
“I laughed out loud, and I cried.” was part of what she wrote.
Chapter 12, titled “GREAT SCOTT” left the farm for a flashback to 1973, our second year at Brock, this time as newlyweds. Our dramatic media Professor, Maurice Yacowar, had shared his amusement with the class at our choice of essay topics. “Here’s a husband and wife team,” he announced. “He’s written on Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask; she’s analyzed King Kong!”
A few weeks later Yacowar had lugged our graded papers onto the stage of the lecture hall, sat and waited for the class to file in. He had crossed his legs and the arch of his boot housed a fresh wad of canine excrement. “Professor Yacowar,” I called out from our front row seats, “you have dog shit on your boot.” “Great Scott, I must have stepped on your essay,” was his measured response. He’d given me a “D”; Judy scored an “A” for King Kong.
Still team building after roughing out twenty chapters, I emailed Yacowar, having tracked him down on Yahoo. He’d left Brock and had served as Dean of Emily Carr School of Fine Art in Vancouver and was now Dean of the University of Calgary. He was the author of a novel and numerous publications of film analysis. I made contact to let him know that I, one of his students, was writing a book, and sought permission to use his name. “Otherwise I’ll have to call you Professor Boris Mackinaw when I tell the dog shit story.” Thirty-two years had taxed his memory but he returned my email in five minutes. “I don’t recall your faces or my quip,” he admitted, “but your names are vaguely familiar.”
I asked if I could email the “Great Scott!” chapter, apologizing that it was embodied in the “entire manuscript”. At the time, that was only about 150 pages. He said that was okay but must have expected a tome of some heft that would monopolize his printer, thick as a Hawthorne or Tolstoy, or a work of one of my wordier undead contemporaries like Tom Wolfe.
Three hours later he had emailed back. “I read it,” he wrote, “all of it.” It’s a fun read; quite a lot of fun, actually,” he had typed, “and, at times, quite moving.” His words detonated a seltzer tablet in my gut, dispatching tight beads of joy to my fingers and toes, burning the edges of my ear lobes. “Great Scott! Yacowar likes it!” I bawled out to Judy from my den at Foxglove Farm.
Chapter twelve’s description of Judy’s outfit on the bitter, winter day of his “Great Scott” comment had jogged his memory.
“Normally she’d throw on a pair of jeans for class, but that day she’d worn a very tiny McKinnon tartan kilt. She topped it with a soft oatmeal sweater and pulled it all together with matching over-the-knee socks. For perspective, if her chunky heeled loafers were in Baton Rouge, and her cable knit knees were in Kansas City, the hemline of that flirty kilt was just south of Saginaw, Michigan. A lot of slim, bare getaway stick was glowing pink, fresh from a righteous nipping by the February air.”
“Oh, that Judy Radford!” was how he began his response.
Foxglove is available at www.trafford.com , www.chapters.ca , and www.amazon.ca.