Chain saws roar in my back yard. Usually occupied by birds, newts, and the occasional rabbit, today it’s filled with people. Five workers from Oregon Coast Tree Company, four men and a woman, have trimmed the wild laurel off my fences and woodshed, opening up a six-foot-wide stretch to the sun. They’re cleaning up now, cutting last chunks of wood, raking leaves and scraps, feeding branches into the wood chipper. Kip Everitt is up in my giant Sitka spruce, cutting dead branches.
They did most of the work yesterday, leaving stark cuts all
along the fence. Amputations. It’s not that I didn’t like the laurels. Their
leaves were beautiful, with pretty flowers in the spring. They were home to
birds, bees, and squirrels. I feel bad for what we had to do. But in the
rain-soaked ground beyond the fence, their roots let loose, and the trees fell
against the fence and the woodshed. Soon their weight would push these
The laurels had been leaning for a long time, some of the
branches bent nearly to the ground but beyond my ability to trim with my
loppers and my pole saw. I’m terrified of chain saws, of anything with blades.
I have a bad back and funky knees. My arthritic wrists hurt just sitting here
typing. These workers are young and strong. They pick up giant hunks of wood
like sticks. They’re also fearless. They stand on roofs and fences and perch in
trees, their chainsaws like extensions of their arms. Plus, they have the gear
to deal with what they cut. It would take me years to dispose of that much
And Lord, they are fast. In about four hours, they have
transformed my yard. They have to be fast. They are booked two months in
advance, interspersing painting, power-washing and other jobs between tree gigs.
Things will not slow down when the winter storms start knocking down more
I hear a “Woohoo!” as Kip drops a big branch off the spruce. It bounces on the lawn.
I love having this drama to watch out my office window. Soon the crew will be gone, and quiet will return. Annie and I will walk around the yard, absorbing its new look. For years, the area under the laurels has been covered with leaves. I gave up raking, declaring it a newt habitat. But now I’m thinking about planting something in the newly open space, a hedge perhaps, maybe rhododendrons. The newts have plenty of habitat outside the fence.
I don’t want to compete with nature, but sometimes I have to
defend my space. Trees still surround my home like tall, wise guardians. With
luck, they will remain standing when the big winds come again, and the robins
will build new nests in the spring.
It’s 5 p.m., and the Portland Book Festival is winding down. Where once one couldn’t move for the crowds, now there’s space between the bodies. Formerly known as Wordstock, the festival has once again drawn thousands of book lovers to the Portland Art Museum and surrounding venues. Everywhere you turn, someone is giving a talk, reading from his or her books, offering services for writers, or selling books. People bring their babies and their kids, hoping to turn them into readers. Food carts line up selling tamales, pizza, donuts, and other goodies.
In a world where half the people say they never read books, it’s wonderful to see so many celebrating the written word, even if they wander around in a word-stoned daze, making it hard to move. We stand in line for the readings and talks, for food, for coffee, to buy books, and to use the restroom.
Now, with the festival ending in one hour, it’s getting easier to breathe, but it doesn’t bode well for sales. With several other Willamette Writers authors, I have drawn the last shift for selling and signing my books. My book bag is heavy coming in, but I hope it will be much lighter going out.
We stand behind the table, behind our piles of vastly different books and exercise our best selling techniques. Debby Dodds flashes her technicolor smile and plays her connections with seemingly everyone in Portland to sell her young adult novel, Amish Boys Don’t Call.
Jack Estes, whose wonderful books are about soldiers, shouts out, “Do you know any veterans?” because, well, who doesn’t, and tomorrow is Veterans Day. Sometimes the question backfires. People are like “What? Why?” Plus, people don’t give Veterans Day gifts. Maybe they should.
John Dover, creator of the “jazz noir” Johnny Scotch series, plies his local connections and offers readers a good time with his books and stories. Kerry Blaisdell hands out free calendars to lure people to her urban fantasy novel, Debriefing the Dead.
Me, I pass out postcards with the cover photo from Up Beaver Creek. “Would you like a pretty picture, something to look at and de-stress?” Mostly women accept it. A few turn it over, read my pitch and come back to take a look at the book. Success.
Since our table sits under the Willamette Writers banner, we give out information about the organization, about the various branches, our program for young writers, and our literary magazine the Timberline Review.
But it’s a tired crowd, with going home on their minds. It’s getting dark outside. Their bags of books are already too heavy. Many don’t even glance in our direction. Some dart in to grab the leftover Halloween candy set between the books. And some stop to chat. And chat. And chat. I want to scream, “Move on. You’re blocking my books. I don’t want to carry these damned things home.” Just as I wanted to scream when I was on the other side perusing the booths, “Pass on the right!” and, “If you’re going to stand still, get out of the way.” But I don’t scream any of those things. I smile and offer up pretty pictures.
My photo technique works. I sell a book. The buyer hands me a credit card. It’s the first time I’ve used the credit card app on my phone. Will it really work? It did when I practiced at home, but . . . Look! It works! I hand her my phone. “Finger sign here, please.” How crazy is that? In a minute, I get an email saying $15.00 has been deposited into my account. Magic. Somebody else buy a book. Let’s do it again!
Up until this year, I have not accepted credit cards. Cash or checks only. But that’s old-fashioned. Now we all have our little card readers on our phones. Zip, zoop, sold.
That one sale is it for the night, which is as good as any of us except Debby does, but as John Dover notes, this is not about sales. It’s about shaking hands and making connections. It’s about getting people to take our cards and our swag so that they might go home and order our books or at least remember our names.
It’s also about being with other authors after the solitary process of writing our books. We compare notes. Best and worst selling experiences. Bookstores that treat authors well or treat them badly. Places we might give talks. Favorite flavor of Ghirardelli chocolate squares. (Mine is mint.)
And it’s fun. I think of myself as shy, but I have spent the day talking to strangers, putting myself “out there.” “Hey, you need another book!” I hear myself shouting. I’ve turned into a huckster.
Afterward, walking the six blocks to the parking garage, my bag is no lighter than it was coming in. I couldn’t resist purchasing one more book from a Facebook-only friend I finally met in person. I don’t mind. My feet hurt, but my heart feels good.
It has been a long day, which started with standing in line with approximately 2,000 people for over an hour in 36-degree weather outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to see and hear Tom Hanks talk about Uncommon Type, his new book of short stories. The ticket price included a copy of his book. We grab our books from the thousands piled on tables in the theater lobby and cuddle them like kittens. Tom Hanks does not have to stand behind a table with postcards and chocolate bars trying to get people’s attention. It helps if you’re an Academy Award winning actor.
Tom Hanks’ hour-long talk was fabulous. It was funny, sweet, loving, and wise. I’m in love. We all are. Last night, I dreamed about Tom and his big gray dog walking up my driveway. I greeted them like old friends, casual, not star-struck at all—until my sweet Annie dog turned into Cujo and attacked his dog.
I’m so sorry, Tom. Would you like a pretty picture of Beaver Creek?
Fun fact: Back in the early 90s, Tom Hanks spent a night camping in an Airstream trailer on my grandfather’s property at Seacliff Beach, California. Or so says my father, who is not impressed with all this book nonsense, but thought it was pretty nifty that I got to see Tom Hanks.
The Coast branch of Willamette Writers meets this coming Sunday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Newport Library. Rachel Barton will lead a free poetry workshop. Everyone is invited to join us for lunch at the Chowder Bowl at 11:30 that day where we can chat and fill up on chowder. PM me or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re coming to lunch so we can save you a seat.
I just discovered this is my 500th post! That’s a lot of blogging.
Last night I realized I have been writing and submitting my work for publication for 50 years. At least. I wrote my first poem when I was seven. By eighth grade I was writing a novel. (It was about a little girl named Emily whose house burns down, killing both her parents. She hits the road by herself and embarks on a series of adventures.) My first non-school publication was a short poem I sold to a magazine when I was a junior in high school. There was never any question I was going to be a writer.
My Grandma Rachel, who wrote poetry herself, gave me my first copies of Writer’s Digest. I followed the instructions given there for submitting my work to magazines and newspapers. I got plenty of rejections in the mail on little slips of colored paper, but I also won some prizes and got some things published. I still have copies of those early publications.
I would have stuck with poetry and fiction, but a girl needs to earn a living, so I majored in journalism and went to work for a series of newspapers in the Bay Area, starting with the Milpitas Post in 1973. Name a South Bay newspaper, and I probably wrote for it, either as a staff writer or freelancer. Most of those papers have now either folded or merged into one big company owned by Bay Area News Group, but I had a good time back then. Before and after work, I was still doing my own writing and sending stuff out because I was a writer.
After Fred and I moved to Oregon and I wore out all the Oregon Coast papers, I went back to school, earning my master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction through Antioch University Los Angeles’ low-residency program. Today I’m still writing, seeking markets, and sending stuff out. My God, the reams of paper I have sullied.
I have no idea how many articles I have published. Lots. Plus eight books and numerous poems, essays, and stories. (See my book page. Buy one or two.)
A lot has changed. Instead of rejection slips that come in the mail, we get emails offering the same message: “Sorry, we can’t use this. Good luck with your writing.” Some publications exist only online, living in cyberspace only as long as we have electricity, WiFi and compatible formats. I like the way people all over the world can read them immediately, but I still treasure the smell of paper and ink, the heft of a book in my hand, and a page that has my name and my words on it.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the pay. Literary magazines pay mostly in copies of the magazine. Some pay a few dollars, but not much more than they paid 50 years ago. Journalism paid better until the Internet ate the newspaper business. If you need lots of money, become a plumber.
In the end, none of that matters. It’s the writing, capturing the moments and the ideas that would otherwise slip away, writing things that make readers stay up all night to find out what happens or that make them nod their heads and say, “Yeah.”
I’m still submitting my work. My odds have improved, although I still get rejections. I belong to a Facebook group of poets trying to get 100 rejections in a year. As of this moment, I’m up to 71. But it’s not all rejections. You can see some of my recent publications on my website, and I’ve got a couple other things coming out soon. It’s a gamble. I tell people I don’t need to go to casinos or play the lottery; I’m a writer.
Fifty years. Wow. I thought of this while reading an interview with the new editor of The Paris Review. She wasn’t even born 50 years ago, but I remember sending my baby poems to The Paris Review way back in the early days. Rejected, of course.
Rejected or not, I’m still scribbling. I was always going to be a writer—except for that one year in high school when I decided to become a home economist because writing was too hard. But then I published that poem . . .
Thank you for reading what I write. Forgive my absence last week. I was back in San Jose visiting my dad, but was writing in my notebook the whole time. The ideas kept coming.
Here’s what it’s like to be a writer: I was on my way to the hot tub last night when I saw that article in Poets and Writers about The Paris Review and got this idea. I grabbed my journal. Four pages and 45 minutes later, I was still on the floor by the pellet stove wearing nothing but a terrycloth robe, writing as fast as I could.
Sometimes people ask me if I’m still writing. Silly question. Fifty years, and I’m just getting started.
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant is the title of the book I just finished reading. It’s a collection of essays about eating alone. The writers describe the meals they eat at home by themselves when no one’s looking, as well as their experiences dining alone in restaurants. Many of them are excellent cooks, but when they’re on their own, they may not bother to cook at all. Picture writer Ann Patchett standing in her kitchen eating saltine crackers or Nora Ephron in bed with a bowl of mashed potatoes. On the other hand, Holly Hughes daydreams about salmon dinners eaten without her husband and three kids interrupting with complaints that they would rather have macaroni and cheese. Then there’s Laurie Colwin, who thrived on eggplant, fried or stewed, hot or cold. MFK Fisher, known for her food writing, found that her friends were reluctant to feed her because they couldn’t meet her standards, so she’d wind up at home eating a can of soup. It’s a delicious book, beautifully written, often funny in that way of bittersweet truth. It also includes recipes.
Since I lost my husband, I have thought a lot about eating alone. (See my essay “Learning to Feed Myself,” published in Voicecatcher.) To be honest, I love cooking for myself. It has its challenges. Produce sometimes rots before I can eat it all, and every time I buy salsa, it grows fur in the jar. How do I buy enough but not too much?
I usually end up eating the same entree for three or four days because it’s difficult to cook just one portion. For some people, this is a bad thing. My father, for example, doesn’t do leftovers. He will actually throw away food if his caregivers make too much. Not me. I like what I cook, and having leftovers means less work the next day. I often announce out loud to the dog and the air, “This restaurant serves great grub.”
I believe in eating three good meals a day. I would never be happy with a few crackers eaten on the run. Nor am I likely to be skinny as long as I stay healthy. My tastes run to ordinary comfort food, although I experiment occasionally. When I got divorced ages ago and moved into my own apartment, I couldn’t wait to make myself a tuna noodle casserole. Somehow over the years, the men in my life have never loved this conglomeration of canned tuna, mushroom soup, noodles, peas, Swiss cheese, and slivered almonds, but I could eat a bucket of it by myself. Add a salad, and there’s dinner.
I avoid packaged foods. I eat a lot of chicken, pork and fish. I’ll make myself a meatloaf and eat meatloaf sandwiches all week. Last night, I tried a recipe I saw on Facebook for Sausage and Apple Stuffed Acorn Squash (thanks, Wiley). I didn’t even know acorn squash was edible, but I tried it. If I failed, there was no one around to complain. But it was wonderful. I’ll be eating it for days. I served it with leftover broccoli into which I had thrown some leftover boiled potatoes, which sounds weird, but it tastes fine.
I like throwing things together. On nights when I’m out of meat, dinner might be just a big bowl of rice cooked with leftover vegetables, a handful of mixed nuts, and some cheese. I might wrap it all in a tortilla for fun. Or I might mix everything together in a salad. I can do whatever I want because I have no one else to please.
I bake for myself. Breakfast today was half a grapefruit and a big oatmeal-blackberry muffin. I have homemade peanut butter chocolate chip cookies in the cookie jar. Who does that? I do. I like my own cooking, I prefer to have control over the ingredients, and I don’t need to deprive myself just because there are no other humans on the premises.
I serve my meals on my blue and white Currier and Ives dishes at my dining room table, complete with a tablecloth and a cloth napkin. This week, I bought myself a dozen roses at the grocery store to decorate the table. Why not?
Some people hate to eat alone, but eating alone can be a treat. You can eat anything you want, however and whenever you want.
How about you? How often do you eat alone? What do you feed yourself? I’d love to read about it in the comments. And do check out this book. It’s delicious.
I recently went through at least 50 VHS tapes as part of a massive clean-and-sort operation inspired by my friends and across-the-street neighbors who have been overwhelmed by stuff as they prepare to move to the East Coast. (Good luck, Carol and Wayne.)
I’m not planning to move anytime soon, but things could change and I have too much stuff.
It was raining that weekend. With advice from a British guy on YouTube, I built a bad-ass fire in the woodstove and settled in to watch movies. I had to at least see if the tapes were still good, right?
Most of the tapes were homemade, bootlegged off TV shows by my mother-in-law, my husband or me back in the ’80s or ’90s. Do I need the first “Sex and the City” movie when it’s on TV every other day? Am I finally over my “Northern Exposure” obsession? Do I need movies that I never cared about? No. But do I need to keep the three-part “Beatles Anthology?” Absolutely.
Considering that almost any TV show or movie can be viewed online these days, I probably don’t need to keep them. But there are some tapes I may never let go of. One is the video of my 40th-birthday party. I cried a lot watching that one. Everyone was there, including so many loved ones who have died. There’s Fred and my mom and my uncles and aunts, alive and talking just the way I remember them. There are my niece and nephew as little kids. Oh look, I still wear that flowered jacket. I remember buying it at Sears.
Videos from my 20-year and 25-year Blackford High School reunions also went into the keeper pile after I watched them all the way through. The sound is terrible, the picture not great, but look at all those young, eager graduates in their 30s. God, the memories. I wonder where those people are now.
I also kept the video from Fred’s 40-year John Burrough’s High School reunion in Burbank, California, the first one I attended, when people kept saying, “And this is Annette.” We had to inform them that no, Fred and Annette got divorced. This is Sue, who is 15 years younger than all of you. Anyway. The tape contained a lot of palaver from old guys who were full of themselves, but then the camera focused on Fred and me slow dancing. My polka-dotted blue dress and red jacket, seen in the picture, didn’t look as swell as I thought they did then. (You can’t see the ruffles on the short skirt.) I don’t know about that pageboy hairdo, either. I was a terrible dancer. Still am. But we were so happy, singing to each other, kissing now and then.
Another tape was one Fred’s mother had made from a 1948 home movie of Fred and his little brothers Don and Conde playing on the beach and in the yard. Fred, the oldest, was the tall skinny guy with glasses, his hair blond in those days. Conde was chubby with wild curly hair. Don was the adorable one, also blond then. The pictures are faded, but I treasure this bit of history I wasn’t around to see in real life. Both Fred and Don are gone now. Keeping that one.
I also reluctantly saved the video my aunt Suzanne shot of my “spotlight concert” at a coffeehouse in Campbell in 1994. I had been sick for days before that, probably from nerves. There was a weird vibrato in my lower notes, and the upper notes were on pitch but thin. The worst thing: I looked fat in my purple Hawaiian sundress. I mean seriously fat. I had no idea. I still had that pageboy hairdo and the huge glasses. And my piano playing, oy, not that good. Twenty-four years later, I hope I’m better at it. Why did I choose those songs? What was I thinking? Why did I shift from “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to “Have Mercy on Me”? Pick a genre, Sue! My voice sounded too operatic for most of what I did. I should have pitched the songs lower. It may be a blessing that the background noise was really loud. On the video, it sounds as if nobody was listening. The crazy part is that I’m still doing a lot of the same songs in the same way. Thank God I got rid of that dress.
I considered throwing that tape out, but I decided it was my history, and I should save it.
By the end of the day, I had thrown away a lot of videotapes. I am quite aware that VHS technology is passé. But I still have two machines that play them. When they die, I will thin out my collection again, maybe getting the Fred tapes converted to the latest technology.
What do you do with used VHS tapes? I can’t sell the bootlegged ones or give them to Goodwill. I’m not even supposed to have them. Besides, nobody wants tapes anymore. Even DVDs are fading away. I hate to throw them in the landfill, but that’s what I did. When I thought I was all done, I found another whole box hidden away in a cabinet. Most of those went into the trash, too. I still have a box of blank tapes. What should I do with them?
The clean-a-thon continues. I have approximately 50 books to sell or give away, got rid of lots of CDs and audio cassette tapes, and I have started on the closet. Anybody want a pair of giant Peavy speakers and an amplifier I don’t need anymore? Contact me.
You can’t take it with you, the priest stressed at Mass yesterday. True whether you’re going to heaven or a smaller home. I’d rather sort my junk now than have somebody else do it later.
How about you? Are you drowning in your possessions, too? Got any VHS tapes left? What are you absolutely unwilling to let go of?
In my novel Up Beaver Creek, the main character, P.D. finds something in the sand at Ona Beach State Park. Can you guess what it is and what she does with it? Bonus points if you know what she saw in the trees up above the beach. For answers, read the passage excerpted at the Up Beaver Creek web page. Meanwhile, between rain showers this weekend, I snapped some photos for you to enjoy. P.D. is imaginary, but Ona Beach, on Highway 101 between South Beach and Seal Rock, Oregon, is very real. It’s open year-round, and admission is free. Picture yourself kayaking up Beaver Creek in the last photo. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
After listening all day Thursday to the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony about sexual abuse, I needed a getaway day. So on Friday I ran away to Mary’s Peak.
It was so foggy on the coast I wondered if this would be another opportunity to drive for two hours to see nothing, but by the time I stopped in Alsea, population 164, about 30 miles up narrow, winding Highway 34, it was clear and hot. Since I hadn’t planned ahead, I was worried about running out of gas. How far was this dang mountain? When I saw the big GAS sign at a no-name station with one line of pumps, I pulled in. Honk or walk across to John Boy’s Mercantile to fetch the attendant, said a sign. I honked. Two people resting on a bench out front of the store looked up, and I suppose they alerted the lanky white-haired man who ambled across to fill my tank. We chatted about the weather—yep, warm here–and the need for a runaway day. He agreed it was a good idea. He reminded me of the handsome actor Sam Elliott. I wondered whether he was John Boy and whether he was single. Probably not.
$3.60 a gallon? Whatever. I was off on my adventure. Just before Milepost 48, I turned left at the Mary’s Peak sign and drove an even narrower, windier road for about nine miles. At the top, just past a campground, I turned into the parking lot, my jaw dropping in amazement. No, not at the view, at the cars. The parking lot was full, including two busloads of kids. So much for sitting quietly staring into the distance.
At 4,097 feet, Mary’s Peak is the highest point in Oregon’s Coast Range and the most prominent peak to the west of Corvallis. On a clear day, you can see both the Pacific Ocean to the west and many of the Cascade peaks to the east across the Willamette Valley. Unfortunately, on Friday, the view to the west was all foggy goo, and the rest was a bit hazy, but it was much better than the one time I came up with Fred and couldn’t see anything.
There’s not much up there at the top. No real shelter from heat or rain, no food or water, a couple picnic tables, a self-pay fee station ($5), pit toilets, and several trails.
I picked one of the shorter, shadier trails clinging to the steep mountainside. Man, it was a long way down from there. The trail went up and up, merging with a switchback trail that emerged into dry grass and looped back to the parking lot. My legs got a workout after two months of slow easy walks with Annie, who is still recovering from knee surgery. I saw crickets and yellow jackets, dusty little birds, deciduous trees coming into full fall color, and hikers in couples, groups, and packs. Many sported fancy walking poles, which might have been helpful. A hat would have been good, too. By the time I saw the yellow buses in the distance, I was hot, and my own gimpy knee ordered me to sit down. So I did.
I considered eating the healthy snacks I had brought, then decided I would rather sit in an air-conditioned restaurant sipping iced tea, eating French fries, and reading my library book. So I did. Taphouse, Philomath, good grub. Close to Highway 20, which offered a much easier ride home into the cool fog and a suspicious dog who sniffed me all over, wondering where I went without her.
The upper road to Mary’s Peak is closed during the winter, although the park is still open to cross country skiing and other non-motorized sports. For more information about trails, camping, etc., visit the website.