Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Moon Baths and Sea Turtles

Today I am the guest blogger on the blog:  Polliwog on Safari!  It's a piece about watching sea turtles lay their eggs in Costa Rica in the moonlight and you can read it at:  http://michellecusolito.blogspot.com/  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Dear Kelly

Right.  So it has been a couple of months since I last posted a blog.  Grab a cup of coffee and a comfy chair because this will be long.  Been busy moving back onto Mohawk Drive where, after four years of renters, everything I touched needed either cleaning or repairing or both.  Fortunately for me, the military moved all of our tenants stuff except their cleaning products.  So, I have a random sample of the cleaning products preferred by three American military families, which is almost interesting.  And even though it seems questionable whether or not they ever actually used any of them while they lived here, I now have a nice selection of scents with which to clean the toilet.

As the dust has settled anew, the other thing I’ve been preoccupied with is my writing.  I have, as you may or may not know, been trying to realize my dream of being a writer, a published, paid author that is for I have, indeed, always written something, whether it be emails or blogs or notes to teachers. (Or to myself.)  I have had some considerable ass-in-chair time over the past five years and, yes, my ass is distinctively more chair-shaped than it used to be as proof.  I’ve written and revised my manuscript countless times, queried 200 agents, pitched 20 agents in person, attended writing workshops and conferences, worked with five editors, started one writing group, joined another, and have had a couple handfuls of people read various iterations of my manuscript.  Because that is what it is called—a manuscript.  A manuscript dreams of being a book when it grows up.

And in my spare time?  I have been working on “The Platform.”  No writer these days can simply write.  Or drink and write. Or eat opium and write. Or move to Paris and be bisexual and smoke Gauloises and commiserate with starving painters who will be famous once they’re dead and live a bohemian rhapsody lifestyle.  And write. Not, that is, if you want to reach the hallowed halls of publishing before you, too, are dead.  This busy little platform is so important that many writers are actually out there, right now, studying engineering and constructing little toothpick projects even before they have written one single word of their book.  The modern day writer can not simply sit in front of a keyboard and create.  We must also be both businessman and architect, ever mindful of building our venerable platforms or risk writing ourselves straight into obscurity. 

We cannot simply stand, or sit, on the hallowed ground which we inhabit.  We must constantly grow our social networks, tweeting and blogging ourselves above the crowd.  We must become experts in our field or our genre or otherwise.  We must build our mailing lists.  We must win the Miss Congeniality award of the writing pageant to which we all aspire.  Our names must be known.  We must be, as Glinda so aptly sang to Elpheba in Wicked, “Popular.”  (Or Poppa-LEE-ur, as Bella used to say.)  And we must be verbal yoginis.  We must not only write our book as a book, we must flex our fingers and twist our prose into pretzel-like positions, telling our story in one perfect word.  Or one sentence.  Or three.  Or in a paragraph.  Or in a one page synopsis.  Or a three-page synopsis.  Or a five-page synopsis.  Or in a chapter outline.  A scene summary.  A proposal.  A song.  A poem.  An essay.  An excerpt.  A Modern Love column.  I am not kidding.  Except for maybe the song and poem part, but I’m sure some agent out there right now is thinking, “A song? Hmmm…” 

And so, in addition to “just” writing a book, I have also been bending my book into all these shapes in my quest to be not only popular, but published.  Because, just as everyone—including my soon-to-be-98-years-old-mother-in-law—who has ever said, “Someday I’m going to write a book,” will learn, writing the damned thing is actually the “easy” part.  And what you probably don’t know until you’ve fulfilled your threats and finally written that book is that behind every manuscript lurks a literal Mt. Everest.  When you’ve scribbled “The End” and looked up from your laptop screen for the first time in years, you’ll suddenly notice that a) your kids are gone and b) you are sitting on a literal false peak.  For there, looming before you, lies the real challenge—the snow-capped mountain of publishing.  Strapping on your sunglasses and tightening your boot laces, you must rise from your chair and set out anew, clutching your precious manuscript with hope in one hand and determination in the other. 

You will find the path ahead littered with the corpses of writers who’ve come before you, those who succumbed to the obstacles of rejection and the elements of dejection, those who had thin skin or got cold feet.  Some will have left their footprints as they slogged back to their day jobs, burning the pages of their dreams alongside the trail for warmth and choking on the ashes.  But if you can persevere on this path, paving the way for those who follow with the scattered breadcrumbs of your own essays and rejection letters, you might actually, eventually arrive at the tippy top of that snowy peak. 

And there, just beyond Hillary’s Step, you will find a tiny, little, teeny-weeny sign post.  And if you can manage to crawl through the final 3,000 feet of elevation affectionately known as “the death zone” and up, up, up to the 29,029th foot peak, heaving yourself up with your last bit of energy as your brain begins to eat itself, you will see that the sign says, “Unless!” No, that’s a different story.  Instead, what you will find nailed to that piece of weather-beaten wood is a clipboard.  And attached to that clipboard will be a flimsy piece of paper flapping in the jet stream whose infernal triple-digit winds will threaten to blow it, and you, clear off the mountain any minute now. 

But. IF you can manage to cling to that rickety sign and clutch that piece of paper, squinting through your snow blindness to decipher the words inscribed in some ancient Himalayan language known only to the Dalai Lama and a few others that looks something like this, सगरमाथा, every other word of which sounds suspiciously like the F-bomb, THEN you will see that it is a contract!  From a major publishing house!  And it has YOUR name on it followed by a bunch of legal stuff you wouldn’t understand even without the fog of altitude sickness.  And there, at the bottom, is a blank line that says, “Sign here.”  In English.  Now, you are way above the tree-line and there is no stick or pencil to be found.  Will that stop you?  I certainly hope not.  Because after all you’ve been through, this, you see, is the final test. 

If you are a real writer, one worthy of the quest, you will leap this hurdle by gnawing off the end of your fingertip, just as you have done every single day for all these many, many years as you struggled to recall Mrs. Petersen’s seventh grade grammar rules, eating your nails for lunch and wearing your fingertips thin as you erased all traces of letters on your keyboard, your fingers flying across its smooth plastic surface until they melted together like the grilled cheese sandwich you wish you had time to make.  Yes you, and only you, are equipped to pass this final test.  Bite your brittle skin, sign that contract with your own blood, and receive the holy grail.  For then, and only then, will your manuscript realize its dream, magically transforming before your very eyes into a book.  And, then, and only then, will you, yourself, undergo the final metamorphosis from writer of “Dear Diary” entries to Author! 

Yes, folks, the path from chair to peak is paved with disappointment.  Which you may want to remember the next time you bite the head off your book group selection.  And part of preparing the venerable platform is submitting essays to various magazines and contests so you can say that you have been published somewhere, even if it’s only in an anthology called “Moose on the Loose.”  And so it was that I awoke this morning to read the first email on my Crackberry before the sun had even thought about shining:

Dear Kelly,

Thanks for sending "Dam It" (yes, the real name) to Osprey Magazine (no, not the real name) -- and forgive me for the amount of time that has passed since your submission. (four months) All of us at Osprey Magazine were happy to have the chance to consider the piece, but I must take credit for the delayed reply. (um, okay, and ?!)

Though we admired many things about the piece, (that’s nice) we unfortunately must pass. (that’s not)  As you know, Osprey Magazine only publishes six issues a year, (even though you get an email from us weekly) which means decision-making is always quite difficult.

Thanks again, Kelly (at least he didn’t call me Kitty), for considering Osprey Magazine as a home for your writing. (but sorry, you’re still homeless)  Best wishes for a peaceful and productive fall.

James Audubon (not his real name)
On behalf of Osprey Magazine's editorial staff

Yes, folks, this is the kind of love letter we “writers” receive all too often.  Or at least I do.  And we’re never supposed to complain, especially not in a blog we are using to build our platform and can be read on the World Wide Web.  Which I’m not.  I’m simply sharing, as in show and tell.  This is the kind of thing that we are supposed to celebrate as one more “no” on our way to “yes!”  In lieu of gnashing my teeth or kicking the proverbial dog, I graciously poured myself a cup of coffee and beat someone at Words With Friends instead.  And then, drowning in caffeine-laced disappointment, I decided to give you all a little taste of what it takes to be an aspiring author.  Now I think I'll go clean a toilet.

The End

Sunday, July 22, 2012

It it's Sunday, we are Smiling!

Sunday.  The day of rest.  We could smell Maine in the sunrise and it was time to get moving.  Again, we snuck out in the wee hours without waking our hosts.  We hit our first Dunkin Donuts and headed for the ferry.  I wish we could have put our car on a ferry back in Waldport and traveled the whole way on the water.  We were the first ones in line and it wasn’t long before we were wheeling on the water to Vermont.  We took photos and laughed and ate donuts on the too-short ride to the other shore. 

You know you’re in Vermont when folk music is playing on the radio.  “What would Woody do?” was a new song for me, but since the trip began with me humming Woody’s “Roll on Columbia,” somehow it made sense and soon I was singing along.  I recently submitted an essay about Woody and salmon and dams.  “He had songs written on the soles of his shoes,” they said.  Indeed, he did.

Recently in Oregon after months of passionate debate about tolerance and tradition, the Board of Education voted to crack down on racism by banning the use of Native American lingo in high schools, leading the nation by flexing the biggest muscles against school mascots, nicknames and logos.  Critics say Indian mascots are racist, reinforcing stereotypes and promoting the bullying of Native students. Supporters say the mascots are intended as tributes and a way to honor Native American history by evoking values of strength and bravery. Eight high schools and an unknown number of elementary and middle schools have five years to use their dwindling funds change their names and logos, some of which have been used for almost 100 years now.  If they don’t comply, they risk losing their state funding.  But at the rate that is declining, some might want to do a little cost:benefit analysis on that one.  

So, just who are these bully promoters and what are their politically incorrect names?  Banks and Reedsport, “we are the Braves, the mighty, mighty, Braves.”  Mohawk, Molalla, Roseburg, and Scappoose, “we are the Indians.”  The Rogue River Chieftains and the Dalles-Wahtonka High Eagle Indians.  That’s it.  The Braves, the Indians, the Chieftains, and the Eagle Indians.  These eight will just have to find a more peaceful, PC name.  Like the squirrels.  Or the turtles.  Or the Warriors?

Because, believe it or not, the board in its infinite wisdom saw fit to determine that the name “Warriors,” which is used by seven other high schools in the Beaver State, is NOT racist and does NOT reinforce stereotypes or promote bullying.  Amity, Lebanon, North Douglas, Oakridge, Philomath, Siletz, and Warrenton all dodged the bullet and will be allowed to remain “the mighty, mighty Warriors,” except they must change their logos and mascots if they depict Native Americans.  I was personally relieved to see Siletz on this list, since they are our neighbors back home in Waldport.  Waldport, incidentally, is the home of the Fighting Irish until someone named Paddy gets a wild hair about that one.  Siletz High School is actually located on a Native American reservation and my kids and I have attended powwows in their gym where everyone simply danced together.  As a soverign nation, I think they should be allowed to judge for themselves whether or not their mascot incited any bullying of, well, themselves.  

So, we can all rest a bit easier thanks to the Oregon Board of Education.  No longer will Banks High School be singing its own local twist of the national anthem at its school sporting events, signing off with “Land of the free, and home of the Braves!”  Somehow Lake Monsters just doesn’t have the same ring.  And this would be a likely spot for me to sing you the high school cheer that Andy’s Mom, aged 97, used to sing which began, “Niggah, niggah, hoe potato,” and ended, “Golva High School, rah, rah, rah.”  But I won’t.

We continued along back country roads all the way across the Green Mountains into the White Mountains, passing places like the InjunJoe Inn and the Mooselook Restaurant.  Lucky for them, these places are tucked way away in the mountains, beyond the reach of the Oregon Board of Education, which I like to visualize like the Eye of Sauron.  Speaking of which, I’ve been looking for a moose for 50 years now and even though we passed countless signs promising, “Moose Crossing,” they failed to do so.  In East Concord, NH we passed Oregon Road.  Which reminded me of the Cape Cod Cottages back home in Oregon.  It seems we Americans take our places along with us for the ride.

As we neared Gorham, NH, I recognized many of the trailheads and peaks I’d climbed over the years and it began to look like home.  We passed through the Shelburne White Birch forest and from there I was on autopilot.  I knew these roads.  We sped along until the white spire of the Wayne church pointed into the blue sky, the church where we were married and our sons were buried.  Turning down Lord Road, the tree branches bent their welcome.  After 3,000 miles, the familiar faces of family and friends waited to greet us.  We’d arrived.  We were home. 

Here I’ll swim across the lake waters I was born in.  I’ll cook fresh peas and corn.  We’ll take the boat to the General Store for candy or to Tubby’s for ice cream.  And then I’ll fly back to Oregon, load up a moving van with Andy, and in another month I’ll do it all over again.  Because we’re moving back to Rhode Island, to our house on Mohawk Drive.  Or at least that’s what it was when we left it.  Perhaps they’ve changed it to Warrior Way.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

If it's Saturday, we're swimming with Champ!

When we awoke on Saturday, we discovered we were right on a river with an indoor/outdoor pool and Jacuzzi out our window and wished we had more time to linger.  The routine of getting up and at ‘em for the sixth day in a row was growing old.  It was actually raining!  Tim Horton’s was right across the street and we began our day by causing yet another debacle by procuring our inferior American dollars.  “Sorry, sorry,” I apologized to the hungry Canadians lining up behind us while the cashier learned how to calculate for our crappy currency.  We issued our profuse thanks for our doughnuts and breakfast sandwiches like they’d been donated, beating a hasty retreat.  

Then we headed down the street to the gas station where we nearly caused an international incident.  This time I actually attempted to use my credit card without first informing my Oregon Coast bank that I was leaving the country.  Denied.  American Express?  Denied.  Sigh.  Okay, in with the US dollars once again.  The cashier had to call the store owner who was possibly still in bed and who, in turn, instructed his employee two or three times how to convince the computer to accept the bills once commonly known as “double sawbucks,” but probably not in Detroit.  I had $80 dollars so I pumped $70, figuring I’d need a margin of error.  When all was said and done in that half hour of my life I’ll never get back, it was determined that I owed $78.12.  I accepted my change and left.

Crossing back into America at Ogdensburg proved to be no problem either.  We were the only ones there and both me and my wallet exhaled with relief, feeling a tiny bit fatter.  The toll was something like $20.  “Should I pay in US or Canadian dollars?” I asked the lonely border guy.  “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “they’re both about the same.”  I wanted to say, “not where I came from,” and maybe even have a teeny, tiny argument based on my recent experiences but handed him the $20 US with a smile and drove off into New York instead.  The first thing we passed as we entered America was a prison, the St. Lawrence Correctional Facility, which “uses innovation and technology in many ways, such as offering a credit card bail system to inmates.”  Nice.  I wondered how they dealt with the whole currency thing.

Next point of interest, Louisville, home of the turtles.  I kid you not.  “I wonder how their track team is,” said Bella.  Then came Ellenburg, NY, home of the World’s Best Pizza, in case you’re on a quest.  Somewhere back in Mountain time zone Isaiah had started texting family and interested third parties whenever we crossed into a new state.  When we’d entered Ontario, however, Hannah had texted back that each text cost .50 so we’d refrained for a day.  Now back on the free texting plan, Isaiah struck up a text volley with his cousin, Ava.  Periodically I’d ask him to read what folks were writing and somewhere in NY he said, “Ava just called me a snazzy piece of butterscotch.”  “Really?” I said, thinking we may have another writer on our hands.

The last things I expected to see in the Empire State were horse and buggies and straw hats and bonnets.  But it seems the Amish have been busy in the past few years hitching their wagons and heading north for the “productive and underpriced land, weather, growing season and congenial neighbors and local officials.”  Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear the words New and York, the last thing that comes to mind are cheap land, great weather, and friendly folks.  Which, I guess, is a result of the general extrapolation of Manhattan to the rest of the state.  “If you want to get away from the suburbs and the high-tech world, there are more places to hide in New York,” I read online.  And sure enough, around several bends in the road we found the Amish, hiding right there in New York in plain sight with their plain clothes.  

GPS pulled her usual stunt as we neared our destination in Plattsburgh and we got just a little lost but soon the smiling faces of Brian and Amy were within reach.  And within the hour we were onboard their comfy red and white boat cruising around the craggy islands of Lake Champlain, which is huge, as in 125 miles long and over 400 feet deep.  Amy was raised on the lake and is one of the hundreds of people who have actually seen Champ, the American cousin to the Loch Ness critter.  “But that was in the southern end of the lake,” she assured.  Still, one couldn’t help scanning the surface for the mascot of Vermont's lone Minor League Baseball team (we are the monsters, the mighty, mighty lake monsters…)  In keeping with our theme of domination, it should be noted that both the Iroquois and the Abenaki tribes called this creature who may or may not be a Plesiosaur but is definitely not a Brontosaurus by the perfectly fine name of "Tatoskok."  Which doesn’t exactly roll right off your tongue but you could get used to it.  And also which may or may not mean “log,” “fish,” or “eel,” which is what some folks think the monster actually is.

We pulled the boat up to the town beach and nestled in amongst the other Saturday boaters outside the roped-off swimming area.  The water was shallow and cool and we all got out to play.  I decided I’d take a swim and wrestled my cap and goggles on.  “Just swim along the buoys,” Amy suggested.  So I marked a course just beyond the swimming area and began stroking down the line from white buoy to white buoy.  I was doing my best not to think about Champ and, like Steinbeck’s “most Americans,” was really enjoying moving after sitting for so long.  When I swim I can’t hear well because of my cap and the water which inevitably fills my ears.  And try as I might, my goggles usually fog up too.  So there I was, stroking along in my own little watery world, blind and deaf, when I spotted something red a few feet in front of me.  No Champ sighting had ever mentioned red so I knew it wasn’t him.  I stopped and lifted my goggles to find a very young lifeguard in a red kayak, instead. 

“Wah, wahh, wah, wah,” he said. 

“What?” I said, lifting my cap to clear my ears. 

“I said you can’t swim here.” 

“Oh,” I said, although swimming was exactly what I’d thought I’d been doing. 

“Well, where can I swim?” I asked, looking around. 

“In there,” he said, indicating the swimming area with his paddle.  We both looked over at the throngs of people packed within the ropes, all “swimming” in water not much past their knees.

“That doesn’t look very possible,” I said, “how ‘bout I just swim back to the boat?”

“No, you can’t do that,” he said with his best 14-year-old imitation of authority.  I refrained from asking him how he could possibly work while missing the Disney Channel and resigned myself to swimming a few strokes toward shore, then stood up and hiked out. 

“I got kicked out of Lake Champlain,” I told Amy who was at the snack stand with Bella. 

We had a great time anyway.  Later, we took a glass of wine down to the lakeside beach in front of their townhouse and chatted.  Vermont glowed in the setting sun way across the water on the eastern shore.  The wind died down, the water calmed, and Brian paddled Bella around on his board.  That night we could see fireworks, again, on the lakeshores of both Vermont and New York. 

Christiana called to say she’d had a run-in with a rattlesnake in Caliente!  Seems she’d gone behind a bush and looked back to see if her team could see her and when she turned around, a 4-foot rattler was stretched out in front of her giving her the hairy eyeball.  It rattled, she screamed and ran, and her team heard both.  I asked if they carried antivenin and she said no, they relied on air evacuation.  The next week I picked up a Field and Stream magazine which happened to have an article on snake bite treatment.  It said in Montana, treatment costs $75,000 to $100,000.  Apparently antivenin is expensive, avoidance is free.


Friday, July 20, 2012

If it's Friday, we're heading for Canada!

Friday we awoke early and tip-toed out of the beach house while the ladies slumbered, Mike having left much earlier to get in a day’s work in the city so he could return before sunset.  We had an international travel day ahead of us and another hot one to boot.  I stopped at Bella tires to get my air pressure checked, thinking I might need more air in them, but was surprised when the guy actually let air out.  I dutifully had a check-up at Les Schwab before leaving, but that was back in the 60’s and it was already approaching 100, that whole hot air expands thing.  I’d never seen Detroit outside of the airport and, as it turns out, that might be the best part of the city known for poverty, crime, and fallen businesses, according to Lonely Planet, or maybe I made that up. 

I’d heard that gas prices were higher in Canada so turned down a street just before the international bridge and found a corner station within a few blocks to fill up.  Suddenly, we were immersed in another culture and I was definitely the only white woman in the hood as I stepped out of my minivan with Oregon salmon license plates and a bumper sticker that reads, "Certified American Tree Farmer."  I pumped my gas as coolly as possible, silently cursing my lack of preparation in not dressing like my favorite rap star (possibly because I don’t have one), while trying to avoid the obvious stares I was eliciting.  Drawing on my automatic Peace Corps cross-cultural survival response in a further effort to appear casual, I hummed the only tune that surfaced from my rock library—Detroit Rock City.  Really?  Kiss?  Ghostface Killa might have been more appropriate but I didn’t even know he existed until I just googled Top Rap Artists.  Which is when I also “remembered” that Eminem got his start in the Motor City.  But it’s questionable whether or not a blonde, white lady wearing sunglasses and flip flops humming “Lose Yourself” would have made the right impression.  And even though my bladder was as full as my gas tank, I opted not to step inside to inquire about public facilities.    

The Ambassador Bridge lived up to its name: the Americans took our money ($25 US/$22.50 CA) and the Canadians read our passports and we were international, eh?  First stop, McDonalds, where we began our lesson in shame, producing our crap American dollars as payment with an apologetic shoulder shrug.  And used the facilities.  As I drove towards Toronto, I admired the Canadian road signs.  Somehow they seemed so much more genteel than our own, like they’d issued from the proper lips of a Canadian Grandma with a slight British accent.  “Seatbelts compulsory,” she reminded us with a slight wag of her finger.  Can you even read the word compulsory without a lilt?  “Fatigue kills, take a break,” she reminded, sipping on her afternoon tea and somehow you simply wanted to pull over at the next exit and join her.  “Tailgating kills, leave some space,” she suggested.  They really could use her in Chicago.  

At last, we pulled into our friend’s driveway in Peterborough where we took a picnic to a park on Chamong Lake and the kids swam while Cath and I visited.  If you only have one evening together, you make the most of it.  And we did.  We’d met on the Christmas sands of Costa Rica in 2010 where Bella and Annika became amigas and we all picked right up where we left off on the summer sands of Canada, eh?  When darkness threatened and we realized we were the only ones at the park, we called the kids off the swing set and headed into town, arriving at the downtown Holiday Inn for the night.   


Thursday, July 19, 2012

If it's Thursday, this must be Michigan...

The next morning, Thursday, I awoke at 5 and checked my cell phone, no messages, no texts.  Unable to sleep for worrying about Christiana and with high heat warnings ahead of us, we made some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the lobby and hit the road early.  It was, as predicted, hot already.  I found an NPR station from Madison and learned that two fireworks shows had been halted the night before after they’d set the grass on fire.  And the highway pavement had buckled in three places from the heat, but fortunately that was all behind us.  All was well traffic-wise as we travelled past Madison on this day-after-the-confusing-holiday-being-on-a-Wednesday-and-all.  As Pacific Time awoke, Andy called to say he’d finally talked to Christiana and that she was okay.  Seems she’d had a stomach flu, perhaps from the MRE’s they were eating.  I called her a little later and she said she was on fire watch recovering.  They’d contained the “small, 4,000-acre” fire and were moving on to Caliente.  Which sounded hot. 

Lake Michigan was calling, but Chicago loomed large in our shimmering future.  GPS, in her infinite wisdom, decided to take me on a tour of back roads between Wisconsin and Chicago, for which I cursed her soundly.  Then she decided I should drive right through the city ahead.  I called my friend, Mike, and asked for better directions.  Then I proceeded to ignore her for the rest of the morning, making her search endlessly for alternate routes to the city then disregarding her every command to exit like a distracted parent.  “Hmm? Did you say something?”  So there.  You know you’ve been traveling a bit too long when you start talking to your GPS.

Even though Fargo is the halfway point on the map, Chicago marks the place where the nation divides between relaxed road trip and road rage.  Suddenly, the east coast population density was upon us and my shoulders begin to rise with the tension of drivers cutting in and out and the way too many exits.  After three days of cruising the freeway virtually alone at 80 mph with hundreds of miles to think about exiting, the theme from Survivor suddenly popped up on my personal playlist.  We cruised past Chicago at a safe distance, paid our first tolls of the trip, and happily rounded the bottom of Lake Michigan, passing through a tiny bit of Indiana and up into Michigan.  Suddenly, we were on Eastern time!  One more exit and we were dropped by GPS once again, suspending route guidance, so there, but soon we were pulling into Beachwood, our friend’s beach house on the shores of the lake, and shifting to park for the day.  Lovely. 

Suddenly, for us, it was summer.  Oregon hadn’t seen over 64 degrees and we’d just soaked up the second rainiest June on record.  We dug out bathing suits still smelling of last year’s sunscreen, packed a lunch, loaded up Mike’s bike cart, and strolled along a lovely wooded path to the lake.  Did I mention it was hot?  My flip-flopped feet were still soft from a year encased in rain boots and once we descended the stairs to the beach, each flip of mid-day sand burned the bottoms as we ran across the boiling gauntlet to the water’s edge for relief crying “ouch, ouch, ouch, ahhh.”  The beach stretched endlessly in each direction and the blue-green lake as well. 

We set up chairs and an umbrella, slathered sunscreen on our glowing rainforest skin, and hit the water.  It was calm, clear and warm.  We were in Lake Michigan!  I swam down the shore while Mike played with the kids.  Happy when wet, I was in Heaven.  We spent the entire afternoon enjoying every minute.  The kids played for hours in the water while Mike and I relived our Peace Corps days, reminding me of the saying, “Old people like the olden days best because they were younger then.”  We immersed ourselves in Jamaica so thoroughly we were surprised whenever the kids interrupted.  “What?  Where did you come from?” we asked, feeling like we were 24 and sipping a Red Stripe on Doctors Cave Beach.

Towards dinner time, we dragged ourselves away but left our chairs as a promise of later.  Catherine and Ella were on their way back from play practice in the city.  This lovely beach retreat is only an hour or so from their home in Chicago and an essential part of living in a city—the escape.  Oddly enough, Beachwood is on Eastern time while their city house is on Central so I guess that must somehow impact their viewing of Americas Got Talent but I can’t figure out what.  We showered and dressed and met them for burgers and fries and onion rings at Redamaks, a local institution since 1946.  I wondered if Steinbeck had eaten there and, if so, if the sign back then had also said, "Bite into a Legend."  Then we packed up some Red Stripe Lite (who knew, posse?) and headed back to the beach for sunset and fireworks.  The kids swam and the night was warm and summer had begun.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

If it's Wednesday, we're heading for Wisconsin...

On Wednesday morning after coffee and Finneman rolls with Ant Weenie, we hit the holiday roads along with, well, ourselves.  Happy Birthday America!  Everyone else must have been chilling in a lake.  Driving North Dakota is endless but easy, one straight highway, speed limit 75, just you and your fracking dinosaur fuel.  Another day, another time zone.  The radio searched and searched, yielding only news from Saskatoon, which immediately reminded me of one of Micah’s favorite movie lines:  “Hey, you American ladies ever been up to Saskatchatoon, eh?”

The kids were lost in the land of Mordor so I began listening to Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” in which he set off in 1960 from Maine to rediscover America.  It was interesting to hear his observations from the year just before my birth (yes, Bella, they actually had cars when I was born) while observing this fair land for myself some 50 years later.  And on its birthday.  “Nearly every American hungers to move,” he informed.  No kidding, I said to myself, shifting in my seat.  We met in Fargo which, as I learned from John, is the halfway point of our land, east to west.  Sure enough, we folded Bella’s map and there on the edge sat Far-go.  Steinbeck’s Fargo had a population of 40K but three times as many folks had flocked to the state’s largest city in the interim, along with the four white pelicans I spotted circling in the ND sky.  “The only good writer is a dead writer.  Then he couldn’t surprise anyone any more, couldn’t hurt anyone any more,” Steinbeck reminded me.  Hmmm.

But before I leave the state whose official language is English and official drink is milk, I should mention that while Andy’s Mom, who is 97 years old, hails from the western border, his Dad was from Casselton on the eastern line.  Besides Andy’s Dad and its population of red squirrels (yep, “We are the squirrels, the mighty, mighty squirrels!”), Casselton is known for its can pile.  As we neared the exit, I therefore began scanning the roadside for this landmark which I have seen before in my travels at one speed or another.  I secretly admit I was rather looking forward to seeing the silver cone-shaped structure as I’d driven the unremarkable-save-for-the-badlands-300-or-so miles from Beach.  Made entirely from thousands of oil cans and named by somebody most decidedly not Captain Clark (and not engraved by him neither), it is known simply as “The Casselton Can Pile.”

At 45-feet, the Casselton Can Pile is actually the world's largest pile of, yes, cans.  It was created in 1933 by Max Taubert at what was then a Sinclair gas station.  Max, who I like to think of as a frustrated artist stuck pumping gas in the squirrel capital of North Dakota, began tossing oil cans in a pile around an old windmill tower, perhaps as an act of rebellion, perhaps simply because recycling wasn’t an option.  Until one day when he finished yet one more oil change and had an epiphany.  A glint of sunlight shone straight down from the heavens and Max began to visualize his life’s purpose.  Most of the cans, naturally, were Sinclair oil cans whose logo is the dinosaur-formerly-known-as-Brontosaurus, which is now called Apatosaurus or by the more technical name of “long-necks,” thanks to the Land Before Time series.

Fun fact.  Maybe you already know this, but the Brontosaurus “mix-up” goes back to 1879, when a paleontologist who shall remain nameless (hint: a male who was also clearly terrible at jigsaw puzzles) stuck the wrong head on an Apatosaurus body and called it a Brontosaurus.  Sticking with the less-controversial Land Before Time nomenclature, this “plant eater” was displayed at Yale for almost a century until scientists discovered the mismatch.  Woopsy!  But instead of politely playing along like the Native Americans at Pompey’s Pillar, they struck Brontosaurus from their books.  And when the US Postal Service tried to issue a stamp in 1989 with the Brontosaurus on it?  Well, it’s been all downhill ever since for them.  Even though the incorrect name still lingers in people’s minds, like my own.  But I still struggle to say sea star too.

Anyhoo, in 1932, a lengthy campaign was begun by Sinclair to choose their mascot, the squirrel already being taken.  They discarded the more frightening T-Rex and Dino was born out of a desire to express the fact that Sinclair oil came from Pennsylvania crude oil, which was millions of years old, and had been around since the age of the dinosaurs.  The company believed that the oldest crude oils make the best refined oils, and they felt that a dinosaur would get this point across to the public.  The peaceful plant eater, whatever his name was, appealed to the public and garnered the most interest.  According to the internet, like most of this, people thought that the Brontosaurus represented power, endurance, and stamina, which are the qualities that Sinclair Oil Corporation wanted people to associate with their products.  But in spite of how much brain energy Sinclair credited us with dedicating to oil, be it crude or refined, the truth is I rarely, if ever, think about it.  Although unlike what I dare to say are “most” Americans these days, I did actually know that oil and gas are fossil fuels which means they may or may not include the remains of dinosaurs, a subject of much healthy debate, it seems.

Meanwhile, back at Exit 331, search as I did, I couldn’t spot the leaning tower of cans.  And the kids were still trying to get to Mt. Doom with Frodo.  So I carried on.  I wondered if perhaps a tree had grown up in the way or a tornado had ravaged the silver pile as I headed for Fargo, only to learn today that the Casselton Can Pile faced demolition in 2008 but was rescued and relocated, of all things.  I also learned that a Sinclair Dino Oil Can sells for anywhere from $10 to $250 on E-Bay, which just goes to prove to the happy company who bought the world’s largest can pile that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Which may bring unintended encouragement to all the can tossers and other “collectors” on the Oregon coast.

We sped through Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes although we didn’t even see one, scurrying around Minneapolis with the ones still smelling of sunscreen who had.  Minnesota means “sky-tinted water” in Dakota Sioux, which makes you want to say it again, right?  Perhaps even with a feather in your hair or in a sentence including the stereotypical word, “how.”  Dakota, incidentally, is the Sioux word for either “friend” or “pasty white guys,” depending on which website you believe.  And North, well, you already get that one, right?  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t inform that Minnesota’s state motto is “L’Etoile du Nord” which, if you say it in the official state language of North Dakota means “The Star of the North.”  I don’t think this necessarily means that the official state language of Minnesota is French or the official drink wine, however.  I think they might simply be a bit confused.  I blame Canada. 

I-94 cuts across the twelfth largest state at its waist like a slightly crooked belt, reminding me of the joke Hannah tells: “Q: What did the 0 say to the 8?  A: Nice belt!”  Breathing a sigh of relief to be done with the twin cities and fresh out of Minnesota jokes, we crossed over the border river of St. Croix, a tributary of the Mississippi, and promptly entered Wisconsin where we got as far as Eau Claire before stopping for the night at the AmericInn. 

Too tired to drive down to the park for fireworks, Bella and I headed for the hot tub and pool, then watched them from our window under a rising moon instead.  Andy called to say that Christiana was in the hospital.  Seriously?  Two weeks prior she had started her summer job working for the US Forest Service as a Timber Tech, which is supposed to entail relatively safe tasks such as surveying timber sales with the caveat that they are called into firefighting duty as needed.  She was only out of training for one short day when duty called.  As we embarked for the east, she headed south with her crew to fight wildfires in Ely, Nevada.  Andy had received a call from the Forest Service saying she was sick and they’d taken her in for bloodwork.  I tried calling and texting her.  Nothing.  So while we watched the bombs bursting in air and fell asleep, I worried about my second-born, the fainter, under my cool, white AmericInn sheets.  


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

If it's Tuesday, this must still be Montana!

Tuesday we tackled Montana.  Did I mention it was hot?  Windy and 110 in Billings when I got out to get more Coke and gas, felt like a heater was blowing full blast on my legs.  Montana is, well, large.  Which makes sense because it is the fourth largest state!  Who knew?  “They always focus on the top three,” sighed Montana.  It took us all day to cross but the terrain is never boring with Superfund Butte, Rocky Mt. highs, gateway to Yellowstone, and all.  Wishing to see a grizzly bounding up a hillside or a moose dining in a river, all I saw were three white pelicans.  Pelicans?  Apparently they like to change things up, salt water Costa Rica in winter, fresh water Montana in summer where they seek out protected islands in the vast western prairies to give birth to their helpless babes.

Our book on tape for the day was “Witches,” a good Roald Dahl selection which kept us entertained from Butte to Bozeman to Billings.  After 450 miles on I-90, we’d traversed 13 counties, all bigger than the state of Rhode Island with or without the water (http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/how-big-is-rhode-island-anyway-214) and switched to I-94 at Billings for the last little 250-mile stretch to North Dakota.  (Fun fact: you can fit 95 Rhode Islands in Montana.)  As you probably already know but I only just now discovered on Wikipedia, I-94 is the only purely east–west interstate to form a direct connection into a foreign country, namely Canada.  Facinating.  Here, the Rocky Mountain high receded in my rear-view mirror like a John Denver song as the landscape changed from the majestic peaks the state was named for (Montana is Spanish for, you guessed it, mountains!) to simpler sandstone buttes which appear to be the inspiration for those layered candles we used to make as Girl Scouts at the beach. As depicted by these photos which are not from Wikipedia. Although they could be.
Totally engrossed in the dramatic development of “Witches,” we sped right past Exit 23 for Pompey’s Pillar National Monument which, as you also probably already know but I just learned, is a 150-ft high, 2-acre sandstone butte.  Because it’s the only sandstone outcrop on the south side of the Yellowstone River for several miles in either direction, PP has been a landmark for centuries and is one of the most famous sandstone buttes in America.  Can you name another one?  I didn't think so.  The butte (long u) was named by Clark of “Lewis and…” in honor of Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.  Get it?  Of course not.  Clark, apparently the Official Nicknamer of the dynamic duo, fulfilled his duties by calling little Jean “Pomp.”  “I hereby declare this to be called Pompey’s Tower,” Clark declared.  And so it was.  At least, that is, until the official editor of the expedition decided to exercise his artistic license by renaming it Pompey’s Pillar.  All of which is way more information than any of us needed to know about this place we passed right on by.

But before we move on, the reeeallly interesting thing about PP is that the monument bears the only remaining physical evidence of the entire Corps of Discovery Expedition, appearing today on the sands of time exactly as it did 200 years ago, as far as we can tell.  For it was right here on July 25, 1806 that Captain Clark, perhaps not realizing that some day this would be illegal, saw fit to carve his name on the face of the butte.  By then, he was on the second half of his two-year stroll across the country so perhaps was feeling a bit nostalgic and wanted to leave his mark as a momento, fearing he’d never return.  It was, indeed, the trip of a lifetime before I-94 and cars and all. 

Now, mind you, the Native Americans had already given this big butte the perfectly fine name of "the place where the mountain lion lies," which I actually prefer.  I like to imagine the possibilities of how the story might have ended if, say, a mountain lion had jumped on Clark as he was busy defacing our national monument, perhaps even breaking his carving tool.  I know kids who’ve been kicked out of school for doing the same thing, after all.  (Yet another reminder not to try this at home.)  But, as usual, the Native Americans were too cool to correct Clark’s ambition. Or perhaps they were all preoccupied with party planning for Custer’s welcome hoopla which was coming right up just south on I-90 in another 70 years or so, a mere blip on their calendar.

Had we been driving at the end of July on or around the 25th, we might have enjoyed “Clark Days” with the PP Historical Association.  Then we could have “reenacted” Clark’s canoe voyage by floating down the Yellowstone, arriving in the afternoon at the Pillar-formerly-known-as-the-place-where-the-mountain-lion-lies to stroll along the boardwalk where we could view the defacing signature and then enjoy a traditional buffalo barbeque complete with entertainment.  Most of which didn’t actually happen after Clark sharpened his stick in 1806.  But it was only July 3.  We were too early and all this was lost on us anyway as we sped on. 

Seven more large counties later, we arrived at last in the final Montana outpost of Glendive, home of the Dinosaurs.  (We are the dinosaurs, the mighty, mighty dinosaurs?)  In addition to waxing nostalgic about past craft projects as one drives along this striped landscape, one also half expects to see a T-Rex come bounding across the freeway any minute like a Montana-sized deer.   

We kissed the shivering pavement of The Big Sky State goodbye and arrived in the unlikely town of Beach, North Dakota, home of Andy’s maternal Finneman family line and severe thunderstorm warnings.  It was still hot, dry, and windy, which meant that there would be no celebratory pyrotechnics allowed in that entire nineteenth largest state.  Long ago I realized my kids automatically called their east coast aunts “aunts” and their west coast aunts “ants.”  And if you haven’t read “Truman’s Ant Farm” you should.  We found Andy’s Ant Weenie on First Street watching America’s Got Talent at 7 p.m.  Ready for a fun time zone fact?  Apparently it is cheaper for Central Zone time folks to broadcast shows live from Eastern time so they are on an hour earlier and even though these Mountain time folks have to tape them, they chose to follow Central timing.  When Jay Leno came on at 10:30, I assumed it was because these workers of the land are early to bed and early to rise.  (Which, as you know, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.)  But it was this zany time zone thing. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the world is flocking to the fracking just north of Beach in Williston in a modern-day oil rush where vehicles sporting every license plate from North America are being slept in.  Which is what we would have been doing if it weren’t for our Ant Weenie because there are, indeed, no rooms at the inns.


Monday, July 16, 2012

If it's Monday, this must be Montana . . .

Last week we drove across America.  Which means I am currently in the throes of Coke withdrawals as I kick the caffeine habit which kept me running while my van consumed $500 worth of fossil fuels. (cheapest gas = Montana)  Instead of giving you the whole week at once, I figured I'd post each day separately to give you a break.  (My Unintended Motto: Why say less when you can say more?)  Originally this trip would have been taken last week but we had to move it up a week when my Mom stood up from reading in her chair and broke her femur.  (Yet another example of how reading can be hazardous to your health.)  I come from a long line of weak Mayflower chicas with skinny white ladies disease, aka osteoporosis.  And being the oldest female in this generation, I'm next.  Some day I, too, will set aside my reading glasses, stand up from my Lazy Girl to do something innocuous like answer the phone, and my leg will fall off.  Like Barbie. Like the whole pile of Barbies with missing extremities which Bella recently declared unwanted.  So if you're feeling antsy and need an armchair adventure across America, read on.

Waking with the Monday loggers, we kissed a sleeping Waldport farewell in the wee half hour of 4:30 and headed east over Mary’s Peak to Corvallis to drop off Christiana’s rent, then north up the Willamette valley to Portland to drop Micah off at work, then pointed the GPS east again towards the Atlantic and squeezed through the Columbia Gorge into the rising sun.  Hood River was just waking up when we passed and I spotted the stern wheeler rolling out in the middle of the river, the same boat I’ve ridden on two Labor Days across to the WA shore singing "Roll On Columbia, Roll On," before jumping off and swimming back to Oregon, eyeballing Mt. Hood for guidance.  Carved by water, the gorge is splendid and I regaled the kids with tales of Lake Missoula which burst through its ice dam in events as difficult in magnitude to comprehend as Noah’s flood.  Next up, Celilo, where we can now only imagine the falls which once raged next to the oldest gathering place in America when Lewis and Clark stumbled in, calling it the Wall Street of the West. You know you’re out of the National Scenic Area when the wind turbines are spinning on every hilltop, their white blades bringing form to invisible wind currents in sharp relief against a blue sky.  Driving along the Columbia brings to mind the poem I will write some day about the towns in Oregon, places with names like Dufur, Ione, Deadwood, and Irrigon. 

Washington in June means one thing.  Cherries.  Rainiers, Bings, Royal Annes, and Chinooks, to name a few.  Cherries also worthy of poetry.  Cherries brought to you courtesy of the WPA and the likes of Grand Coulee Dam which transformed a high desert into one of our nation’s bread baskets thanks to irrigation water from the mighty Columbia.  So when we stopped for gas somewhere in the Evergreen State, we sidled on over to the typical fruit stand set up under a tent in a corner of the parking lot where I popped a pea pod and enjoyed the sweet green balls while perusing the cherry selection.  A rather bored senorita sat in front of the Bings and Rainiers while I sampled them both, deciding which was sweeter.  Her Papa, looking freshly pressed in spite of the heat, slid our way and spoke to her in Spanish.  So we chatted a little in his native tongue, a little being as far as I can usually get.  He asked Bella her name and she responded in between bites of her strawberry shortcake ice cream bar with proper pronunciation, which always amazes me when it spills from her lips.   I decided on the Bings and the chica listlessly bagged them for me while her Papa smiled and asked me if Bella was my granddaughter.  My fond Latino feelings evaporated with my smile like a drop of water on the sizzling pavement just beyond the shade of the tent.  “No hable Espanol,” I said.  We took our cherries and left.

Crossing Idaho at the panhandle, I gazed longingly at the sparkling waters of Lake Couer D’Alene, vowing to return some day and swim in them.  We traversed two mountain passes in the Bitterroots of the Rockies.  There was snow on the Fourth of July pass but the kids were sound asleep so I didn’t stop for a quick snowball fight, although now that sounds like fun.  My goal was to be in Missoula at the Jamaican Posse rum bar by around 6 and I was making good time when Andy called and reminded me I’d be crossing into Mountain Time.  Sure enough, the sign appeared around the next bend as we crossed the border at Lookout Pass and I lost an hour just like that.  The hills in Montana, known as mountains elsewhere, were blanketed in purple wildflowers which would have made a lovely photo if I’d stopped to take one.  But I didn’t.  I sped along the Clark Fork River, renewing my admiration for its Caribbean-colored waters.  The kids woke up and we finished listening to the adventures of “Ribsy,” our daily book on tape.   

At long last, our destination dropped from 14 hours on the GPS to less than one.  I could almost hear the Red Stripe caps popping and Gregory Isaacs singing "Night Nurse."  As were exiting the freeway, the phone rang. It was Hannah.  Calling from the hospital.  Biking home from Target in DC she'd had a bike accident and broke her hand.  I tried to pay attention to the rather alarming conversation while navigating my way to Steve and Heidi’s house where I hadn’t been in four years or so.  Naturally, GPS chose that moment to announce that she was suspending her route guidance, unable to find the local landmarks or too tired or sick of leading us or whatever.  Which happened again and again just as we neared our destinations each evening.  We’d follow GPS all day and then she’d drop us at the end like a hot potato with a “no hable Espanol.”  Sigh.  So Hannah, who is scheduled to swim across the bay with me in two weeks, is now wearing a pink cast.



Saturday, June 9, 2012

Meth is Death

A few weeks ago I was in the checkout line at Rays, one of the two grocery stores in our tiny town where really one would suffice.  You can’t throw a rock without hitting a bank in our town but if you spotted the average Waldportian, you’d probably elect them “least likely to be found making a deposit.”  Unless it’s in the can and bottle recycling machines outside of Rays, that is.  Which do, indeed, boast the longest lines in town.  If you want to eat out here we have Vicki’s Burger Bar, The Flounder Inn (which is really a watering hole), The Salty Dog (also a watering hole but with decent grub to soak it up), or the proverbial Pizza, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants.  And that’s all folks.  Except for fried chicken and Jojos at Rays.  If you want to window shop along main street, windows are mostly what you’ll find.  There are a few occupied stores with names like Knives and More but mostly there are just windows.  Windows with signs that say “for rent” or “for sale” or “Meth is Death.” 

I stood in line, ice cream in hand, waiting for the two scruffy guys ahead of me to buy their groceries.  Being a compulsive reader, I scanned the tabloid headlines for the latest weight loss accomplishments of airbrushed women and the news of all things Hollywood while I waited my turn.  I was distracted by all that life-altering information until I realized the normally hyper checkout guy at Rays was huffing and puffing and talking to himself a bit more vociferously than usual.  Looking up from People, I switched to the real life drama unfolding in front of me and caught the gist of the plot, which was that the scruffy guys ahead of me didn’t have enough money for their already bagged items.  Mr. Huff and Puff was getting ready to unbag their few items and they were turning to go make a deposit outside or something by the time I tuned in. 

When I was a young lass grocery shopping with my mother at Starr Market in Middletown, Rhode Island, I dreaded the checkout line. I never saw a credit card or check book emerge from the depths of my mother’s purse in monetary emergencies so I have to assume they were nonexistent for the average housewife of the 1970’s.  Cash was king.  And my mom was not a gal for numbers.  Or calculators, also not standard 70’s pocketbook stuffers.  Until we hit adolescence, it was our lot to remain parked in the station wagon with our grandma, Mimi, playing the color game or Quaker meeting while Mom ran into the store for “I’ll be right back, I just need a couple of things.”  Mom would emerge an hour later with a full cart while we whined and poor Mimi searched her mental closet for another game from her career as a PE teacher. 

But once we hit double digits, we weren’t falling for that trick anymore.  We hit the aisles with Mom, pushing the cart while she planned her weekly meals, starting with the meat and ending at the ice cream with a trail of “no’s” scattered in our wake like breadcrumbs from our every request for whatever new cereal we’d been brainwashed to want in between Speed Racer and H.R.Pufnstuf.  When not uttering monosyllabic responses, Mom was occupied with keeping a running total in her head, muttering with each new addition to the cart like Mr. Pufnstuf at Rays.  By the time it was our turn at the checkout line, Mom was trapped in a whirling dervish of numbers.  She bravely stepped ahead to monitor the cash register, facing her demons while we emptied the cart onto the black belt.  Inevitably, by the time we got to the meat section of our cart, Mom was in a panic. 

Time slowed down. 

These were the days before my brother’s college friend invented some UPC scanner something or other at his work-study job and retired as a bazillionaire before his cap and gown had gathered a layer of dust but I forget exactly how the prices were entered.  I do remember the nifty conveyor belt which transported our groceries through a doggy door for curbside pick-up, however, and as our already approved groceries filled the bins which were destined for the belt, Mom began her ritual of selecting from the stragglers.  She asked the cashier to add one packet of meat at a time, checking the total with each new addition and comparing it against the bundle of bills clutched tightly in her fist, sometimes searching the depths of her purse for more volunteers.  And this was right about the time I started wishing I was out in the car with Mimi playing, “I’m thinking of something . . . green.”      

While Mom struggled to reconcile the cashier’s total with the bills in hand and the cashier struggled to maintain her calm, I struggled to maintain my persona of adolescent cool.  “Okay, subtract the steak and add the chicken,” was something Mom might say while the line of impatient shoppers huffed and puffed behind us and I enlisted my peripheral vision to see if I knew any of them.  We lived on an island.  So usually I did. 

Mom’s checkout game continued until she’d completely revised our weekly menu including a yellow and green vegetable for every night right there at the register and I was left with the rejected pile of meat in front of me which we suddenly weren’t having. 

“Kelly, go put those back,” Mom would say, completely oblivious to the fact that Doris Nally, the gum-snapping-most-intimidating-“colored” girl in middle school was in line right behind us and now also knew what I’d be eating all week.  And what I wouldn’t.  I didn’t yet know about Harry Potter and his invisibility cloak, but I sure wished I had one anyway right about then.

“Excuse me,” I mumbled, clutching packets of meat the color of my shame and squeezing past the impatient islanders behind us, avoiding eye contact with Doris, only too aware that I was the sole fish swimming upstream. 

As a result of all this drama, to this day I have what I call “checkout line anxiety.”  I stuff my purse with checkbooks and credit cards and some amount of cash and still I have a small moment of panic when faced with a cashier.  And so it was with great empathy for my fellow scruffy shoppers that I stepped up to Mr. Huff and Puff at Rays and started to say, “Oh, I would have paid for . . .,” indicating the items he was reaching in to remove from the bag in front of him.  Like Santa, H&P spoke not a word but went straight to his work, removing the groceries and placing them next to him to be reshelved.  I was feeling bad that I’d been distracted by the magazine rack and was about to finish my sentence when I had my first gander at the items he was removing.  Little Debbie Strawberry Shortcake bars, generic Strawberry soda, Swiss something or other that was definitely not from Switzerland, and a few other food-ish things whose first and last ingredients were sugar.  “. . . those,” died right there on my Good Samaritan lips while I secretly murmured my thanks to Jessica Simpson for her baby fat.  There was no way I’d buy any of those things for those guys or myself or anyone else.  Meth heads, I realized. 

Meth is Death, like the sign in our empty store windows say.  Ours is a community that has been poisoned by meth.  One in four kids at Bella’s school are homeless.  Many are being raised by their grandparents, who are questionably good candidates since they also reared the previous failed generation.  Too many folks on the coast here are like barnacles, clinging to the edge of the continent in serious danger of being washed out with the next turn of the economic tide.  Kids come and go with such alarming regularity in Bella’s school that they really should install a revolving door.  Two kids in Bella’s class moved last week, which was two weeks before school gets out.  Just today Isaiah’s friend mentioned a boy whose name I didn’t recognize.  “Is he new?” I asked.  “No,” he said, “he’s been here since April.” 

On Friday, Bella brought home her weekly packet with a notice that free camp will be held all summer for all kids with free breakfast and lunch included.  The notice read, “Over half of Lincoln County students qualify for free or reduced lunch and over 80% of Waldport’s grade school students are considered economically disadvantaged.  About 400 students in the district are considered homeless.”  Lincoln County is 1000 square miles, which is the same size as Rhode Island.  Lincoln County has 5200 students and Rhode Island has 14,000.  Yet they both have roughly the same number of homeless students: 400, 420. 

The school notice also read, “Oregon has higher than national average rates for hunger and food insecurity.”  Food insecurity?  I thought.  A new term for me.  But then I remembered my Starr market days.  And I got it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Field Trip with Grandma

On Monday I chaperoned Bella’s class field trip to Yaquina Head, a point of land jutting into the Pacific featuring a lighthouse and tide pools.  It used to be an easy diversion for whale watching or tide pooling and we stopped there many times but now it’s an outstanding natural area run by the BLM which translates to $25 per car if you want to find some sea stars in your spare time.  Sigh.

Normally I drive my own car on these school trips given my aversion to that timeless classic—99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall—but with the price of gas, I relented.  Bella was thrilled and we settled into a seat near the front of the bus like good girls with Logan, the three of us enjoying the freedom from seat belts and car seats that school buses afford, since they are so automatically safe or whatever.  Not to mention the unlimited texting.  As our bus plus another filled up with the three classes of first and second graders, I turned around and noticed another chaperone sitting by himself right behind us.  He had long scraggly gray hair and looked like Uncle Sam fallen on hard times.

“Morning,” he said with a snaggle-toothed smile. 

“Hi,” I managed, trying not to betray my shock at his appearance and quickly turning back around in my seat as the teacher began her lecture about bus etiquette—back to back, seat to seat.  Welcome to Waldport, I thought, repeating the mantra which often comes to mind around here and settling into my seat to seat with Uncle Sam a few feet behind me.  Even with my cold, I could smell the stale cigarette smoke drifting across the aisle from the clothing of the little boy sitting there.  Ah, the smell of the coast, I mused, stale booze and cigarettes.  I’d actually contemplated canceling my commitment to attend this trip, coughing as I was into week two and thinking perhaps I should be going to the doctor instead.  But Bella’s teacher had asked me more than once if I was sure I could chaperone because they are always desperately in need of parent volunteers for these trips and were cancelling it if they didn’t find enough.  So, there I sat.

Back in Portsmouth, RI, the Stepford Moms all jockey for position like thoroughbreds at the starting line when the field trip permission slips hit the backpack express and there were always many more eager volunteers than were needed.  Out here on the left coast, the problem is the exact opposite due in large part to the pesky criminal background check and Safe Schools training course required for volunteers which a) you need to complete and b) you need to pass.  I suspect it’s this latter part which is largely responsible for dearth of volunteers.  So, even though Uncle Sam was not exactly a perfectly turned out Stepford Mom, at least he had passed the test. 

The half hour trip north was uneventful and soon we filed off the bus, bundling up for yet another typical cold, windy, foggy spring day at the Oregon Coast.  I could feel my chest tightening up and patted my Kleenex stash like an addict.  This was our second field trip to Yaquina Head this year as part of a marine education program and these kids know their sea stars.  The mighty Pacific was having a minus low tide and we were the first lucky group who got to climb down the hundred plus stairs to explore the extremely exposed tide pool critters.  My group consisted of Bella and her friend Jersey, both easy, Josiah, who is very smart but never stops talking in a very high, whiny voice, Sam who is disadvantaged but adorable with a speech impediment which caused me to ask him to repeat everything he said at least three times, which he did without complaint, and Gabby, the smallest girl in the class and the only first grader in our group. 

Clutching our laminated color charts, we slipped and slided over the sea weed and rocks, trying not to step on muscles, barnacles, and anemones, seeking out the purple urchins and sculpins pictured for our scavenger hunt.  The instructions for the trip stated that we’d be doing a LOT of walking and to wear comfortable walking shoes.  This made no sense to me as I knew we were going to the tide pools which equals water which equals hundreds of little wet feet.  Why on earth they didn’t say to wear boots is still beyond me. And as a result, I held Gabby’s hand while her sneakers slipped and slid on all that exposed slick seaweed, rescuing her from falling for a wet conclusion over and over again.  Sam had informed me three times while we descended the stairs until I finally understood that his shoes were a size one and too big for him and so he fell in a pool and was wet up to almost his knees, his too-big shoes squeaking with water for the rest of the day.  We found everything on our charts except a lemon nudibranch, including a huge purple sunflower sea star with white polka-dots at least two feet across and a gigantic gumboot chiton the size of, well, a boot before they called us to change stations. 

Then we sloshed back up the hundred plus stairs to a platform overlooking the tide pools and had a snack before walking to the lighthouse where we realized that there were thousands of sea birds, mostly common murres, dotting the water and colonies of them crowding the tops of the rocks while mating and nesting.  We watched them in the cold wind while the sun tried to burn through the eternal sea fog and then we had our turn in the lighthouse, climbing another hundred plus stairs up and down again to learn about the life of a lighthouse keeper and the lens and light pattern unique to this lighthouse.  The view was spectacular and we could see the tide creeping back in to cover the places where we’d been standing earlier.

We spent another half hour or more at the restroom while over a hundred kids went potty, leading me to conclude that field trips are all about leaving school, going potty and washing your hands in a variety of restrooms, doing some other things in between potty trips, and then heading back to school where the first thing you will probably do is go potty again.   

Climbing back onto the bus, Gabby begged me to sit with her so I moved a few seats back and across the aisle to sit with her and Morgan.  Gabby was definitely my number one fan by then and I attributed this to my excellent navigational skills which prevented her from bringing home the tide pool in her shoes.  Before we could depart, the teacher had to mediate a critical bus seat dispute behind us, which inspired Gabby to say, “You’re a teacher,” insinuating that I could have handled the situation myself. 

“No,” I said, “I’m not a teacher.” 

“You’re a mom.” 

“Yes,” I agreed, “I’m just a Mom.” 

Mediating bus seat disputes was clearly best left to the trained professionals, I was thinking, when she piped up again, “An old mom,” she said.  “Or a Grandma.” 

“I’m not a Grandma,” I said, feeling suddenly feeble and also quite defensive, even though most women my age around here are, indeed, Grandmas already and I am the exception, not the rule. 

“But you probably will be one,” Gabby said sweetly then added with great certainty, “Soon.” 

She began happily singing Jingle Bells, showing me the lyrics which she had written down on a piece of paper.  Fingering my wrinkles and cursing that worthless Retin A creme, I willed Bella to need me for something, anything, that would rescue me from the innocent torment of Gabby, who had now moved on to chirping the ABC song.  So it wasn’t my excellent navigational skills she’d admired after all, it was my grandmotherly image.  Probably her own Grandma was 50 too.  Welcome to Waldport, I started to chant again when Morgan intruded.

“That’s my uncle,” she said with a second-grade sneer, pointing diagonally across the aisle ahead of us at Uncle Sam, who definitely looked like he could be her Grandpa. 

“Well, why don’t you sit with him?” I asked, still looking for a graceful grandmotherly exit.

“Because I don’t like him,” she said matter-of-factly. 

“But it’s so nice that he came today on your field trip,” I said in my best milk and cookies imitation.  She looked back at me like a teenager.  I shut up. 

The bus doors closed and we were finally on our way to the lunch stop.  Above the general clamor, I detected music.  Without turning around, I realized it was coming from the seat right behind us where another chaperone was listening to Christian rock music on her I-phone.  As the bus accelerated so, too, did her excitement and she became increasingly moved, singing and thumping the back of my seat for emphasis.  I willed that bus to move faster with a sudden impatience I’d never before known for the Cheetos and Uncrustable that Bella had packed for my lunch. 

Finally we came to Rock Creek Park and disgorged again to eat lunch near the porta-potty.  One of the other classes had reared steelhead from eggs to smolts and they were ready to be released so after lunch the hundred plus kids got in line by the creek, ready to do their part for the fish.  The teacher began scooping them out of a water-filled bucket and I watched while the first student accepted the clear plastic cup containing a 2 inch smolt, stepped up to the edge of the bank, and unceremoniously dumped it into the creek from a height of about 6 feet.  This did not seem right.  And I am a fish biologist.  So I propped myself up in the creek with one foot in the water and one foot out, helping each student navigate the short but increasingly slippery muddy embankment to the water’s edge, telling each and every one of them the same thing, “Now, put the cup INTO the water and let the fish swim out.”  I said that same sentence with minor experimental modifications for clarity over a hundred times and still some smolts were dumped in from a grand height, some were poured in from a few inches, and one or two were spilled into the mud.  It was a fascinating exercise in following directions, which maybe 10% managed to do.  The last girl, Opal, slid right down the embankment, flinging her entire cup of water up into my face. 

“Can I please sit with you?” I begged Bella as we loaded back onto the bus for our journey back to the school restrooms.

“Sure, Mom,” she said.  I snuggled up to my eight-year-old and searched through my purse for Opal’s smolt.  Some day I’ll be a Grandma, I thought, but hopefully not soon.


PS  Happy Birthday Hannah Amelia!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Some days chicken . . .

. . . some days feathers, as my Mom is fond of saying. And that is how I found myself cursing both the electric company and my husband this morning.

The hardest thing I have to do each day is get up. I am not a morning person. I abhor alarm clocks. And I am not fit for conversation until at least one sip of coffee has burned my tired lips. But each morning as a single parent with a husband, I make myself get out of bed, hit the cold floor, struggle to pull my UGGS on, shuffle to the stove, turn on the flame beneath the kettle by giving it a little blow to connect the gas with the pilot light (a tiny idiosyncrasy which takes morning breath to a new level), wake up the kids, skip to the loo, and crumple up school papers and AARP bulletins to start the fire in the wood stove. By then, the kettle is screaming at me and I commence the ritual of making Tico coffee--pouring hot water in the opening of a sock stretched around a wire frame into which I have already scooped what remains of my Costa Rican coffee stash, then witnessing with delight the miracle of clear water going in the top and coffee pouring out the bottom into the waiting pot below which used to belong to my Gringo coffeemaker until it broke.

In the meantime, I heat the milk and slice bread for toast or throw a couple waffles in the toaster for the kiddies. By the time they emerge from their yurt, their breakfast is ready and I am savoring the first sip from my bowl of coffee in lieu of an IV and greet them, pretending to function, while the caffeine infuses my bloodstream. I gulp down as much as I can before we rush off to catch Isaiah’s car pool, drop Bella at school and I drive back home, slowing to admire one or two elk herds along the way, where the mudroom is now warm and the yurts are all mine. I heat up another cup of kindercoffee, stuff more wood in the stove, fire up my computer, and savor the caffeine and silence while the world wide web warms up at my fingertips. The morning is mine, usually. The afternoons are not. Nor are the evenings.

And so it was this morning. As usual, I perused my email for things that needed doing, searched the web for issues from my morning NPR fix, opened Facebook and checked my Words with Friends, scanning posts for need-to-know items like what my FB friends are making for dinner (which is always better than anything I’ve planned, like Top Ramen) opened my latest book project, and began to multi-task for the morning between all these things and more.

By 9:30 I had already looked up the author of a book like mine (except that his is published) as well as opening an email message box to him while pondering whether or not I should actually write to him and, if so, what I should say as well as checking the submission requirements of his publisher. I was in the middle of six games of Words with Friends and was actively playing with two of them on and off. I’d read the morning email trail which included a potential afternoon field trip I might want to go on today. I was in the middle of writing a press release and had my book project open and had jotted down some ideas for that. I’d noted that there was an earthquake in Alaska but no tsunami was expected. Good. And noted that there was an office depot order tracking email in my inbox for a Kelly Kittel-Roby on an order I definitely did not place under an alias I've never used for something called Premium Protection and Optimization, $77 and, of all things, Internet Security Service at an additional $12.50.

I had a row or two of documents open on the bottom of my screen, effectively in the middle of at least eight different things and just getting started on all of them, really, when the power went off. The computer screen went black. The yurt became silent except for the crackling of the wood in the stove. Just like that.

“What the *&%^?,” I said out loud.

Now, the last time I checked, the Oregon coast was not considered a part of the third world. But this was our third power outage in two months and the last one was just last Tuesday. I looked out the window even tho I already knew it was an unusually stellar day because they’d been talking about it all week like they were expecting the second coming—sunny, no wind, warming to the ‘60’s no less. After snow and temps in the 30’s the past few mornings, it was rather like a miracle. Clearly, the weather was not to be blamed. But perhaps that solar storm I'd heard about on NPR? I double-checked, but no, I had not somehow forgotten that I'd moved to Costa Rica either.

So I ran around the yurt unplugging all major power cords with fun solar storm NPR facts running thru my head like "a solar Katrina traveling at 2.7 million mph" and "interplanetary magnetic field" and, my personal favorite, "coronal mass ejection." And besides all these fun phrases, when the power came back on after the first outage in January, it came on with a vengeance that blew out two different power outlets and we don’t have many to begin with here in the "simple" life.

Then I plugged in the old-fashioned dial phone we got after the January outage when we went with no phone or power for three days.

Then I found my colorful cheater glasses and looked up the power company number in one of our 50 phone books which are all slightly different but with equally tiny text and arrive weekly in our mailbox like some kind of collusion between the phone company(-ies) and postal service to justify their outdated existence in a changing world. "See? You still need both of us to deliver these weekly updated phone books!"

Then I proceeded to call the wrong company (because here in the third world we have three electric power providers for this great service, don't ask me why), calling and pressing one three times as well as entering my phone number and whatever else the recorded voices asked with no success, possibly because I was calling Central Lincoln PUD and later I found out our provider is Consumers Power. Who knew? (More on that later.) So, I called the local number and left a scathing message asking the likes of why on earth on a sunny day I had no service and had I forgotten to pay my bill or was it the solar storm and this was the third time this year and on and on until I ran out of breath and hung up.

Then I did what I should have done in the first place. I called Andy. Except that I didn’t call him first because I knew if I did he’d ask if I’d called the power company to report the outage and I knew this because that was what he'd said last Tuesday when I called him first and had to admit that, “no,” I had not, conditioned as I was to living in the tropics with regular outages and simply waiting it out. This time I could reply, “why, yes." In fact, of course I had. (Later I would receive a nice message from Terri at Central Lincoln PUD saying that I must have dialed the wrong number. Andy, of course, as usual, being the guy "who knew.")

“Good morning, honey,” he said unsuspectingly.

Do you know why we don’t have any power? Again?” I asked. (I might have said "hi," first, I forget.)

“Oh, ah, yeah, they scheduled an outage for this morning from 9 to 11, they called last night and left a message on my cell phone and I got it this morning,” he said.

Do I really need to describe to you my reaction upon hearing this “news” from my husband of 23 years who asked me 8 years ago why I couldn’t read his mind yet and who was happily going about his power-filled day three hours away in Portland? What did he think I did all morning anyway? What if I wanted a piece of toast?

“Yeah, well,” I began, “why on earth didn’t you call and tell me? This is the third time the computer has had a hard shut-down,” I began, the lecture I’d received from our computer guy about the perils of a “hard shut-down” beginning to scroll through my head.

“Oh, the computer . . .,” he said, after which I began to unleash the torrent of my fury on him and he said, “I have to go,” and hung up.

That was helpful. I hoped he could read my mind right about then.

And so that is also how I came to be sitting in my car at the Waldport Laundromat wasting my sunny day waiting for our clothes to wash while listening to NPR who was finished with solar storms apparently and had moved on, informing me that today is International Women’s Day which is celebrated in a variety of lovely ways around the world and that, for example, in Italy, right then, men were giving the women they love bouquets of flowers. And I was sitting there eating a maple bar. Which I could barely taste because I have the second of what will hopefully be only two colds in succession but I was eating it anyway because I could recall how it tasted and because I am just plain sick of soup. Plus I wanted to chew on something sweet to pair with my salty frustration.

The only thing that might have made me feel even less celebrated (besides having selected the bavarian creme-filled maple bar) would have been if I’d glanced down at my lap and realized, not for the first time, that I was still wearing my Grinch pajama bottoms. As it was, I sat there licking maple frosting from my fingers in what was rapidly becoming way-too-warm black fleece pants and an equally unflattering thermal shirt while picturing the signoras of Italy flouncing about in lovely floral print designer dresses and equally colorful shoes, happily receiving matching spring bouquets, Grazie!, while lunching at outdoor cafes overlooking ancient fountains, sipping chilled wine and sharing forkfuls of fresh pasta and arugula with their adoring lovers. Who may or may not have been their husbands. Probably not, I thought, crumpling up my donut bag.