If You Give Us the Tools, We Can Do It

43947533 - red tool drawerKitchens are for girls, garages are for boys. Girls sew, boys saw. That’s the way it was when I grew up. While I was in the home economics class learning how to poach eggs and set a proper table, the boys were in the classroom next door learning how to take apart an engine and make small wooden shelves. While Mom helped me with my knitting, Dad showed my brother how to change the oil on the Buick.

That’s the way it was back in the ’50s and ’60s when I was growing up. Girls needn’t worry their pretty little heads about so-called men’s work. The man of the house would do it.

Bull pucky. What if there is no man? Or what if a woman wants to do it herself? All she needs is the skills. God, I wish there was a shop class I could take now.

Last week, I installed a new toilet seat. I took apart my sink to unclog it. My pellet stove requires constant attention. With my husband gone, no kids, and no money to pay someone, who else is going to do these things?

It has been a week for mechanical difficulties. On Wednesday, seven days after I came home from my trip to San Jose, I realized my “landline” phone had not rung in ages. I don’t get a lot of calls, but this seemed strange. I tried calling myself with the cell phone. My phone started to ring then cut off. Being me, I did this about seven times before I decided I had to call the phone company.

Yesterday, a nice man spent two hours here checking all my phones and wires. He had to get at all five phone jacks, which meant moving my dresser, crawling under my desk, and getting right in the middle of my mess, while I watched, helpless and embarrassed. I could have done most of what he did.

In the end, he fixed a short in the wires and determined that two of my five phones were dead. I sang “Taps” and put them out for the garbage, then pulled ancient “princess” phones out of a drawer and watched him plug them in. I put “buy phones” on my to-do list. Why does one person have five phones? Part of it is that with my fading hearing I can’t hear the phone ring if I’m not nearby. Part of it is just that once upon a time there were more people here.

The phone guy was observant. He asked about my guitars. He commented on the giant Styrofoam image of Fred from his retirement party. He talked about his own retirement plans. I kept talking about “we.” “We” had two businesses, “we” moved the phone jacks. I never mentioned that “we” is just me now. He might have figured it out from the shrine in the bedroom.

After he left, I set out to work on the lawnmower. Last Friday it worked fine while I mowed the front lawn. Since then, it huffs and it puffs, but it won’t start. I tried adding gas, checked the oil, turned it upside down and shook it, unscrewed the top and stared inside, and watched a video on YouTube. Okay,  the problem could be fuel, compression or spark plug. I decided the spark plug was the culprit. Apparently you’re supposed to change them once in a while. Timidly, I pulled off the rubber do-hickey and exposed the white end of the spark plug. Now, how does a body get that thing out of there? And what is this business about “gapping?”

Too much. I walked across the street to ask my neighbor. He wasn’t home, but the dog was overjoyed to see me. Unfortunately, the dog does not have hands.

Hey, YouTube.

A YouTube guy with a long beard and southern accent described the process. You get your 3/8 ratchet and your 13/16 socket and pull out the plug and . . .

Wait. What?

Somewhere in the garage were sockets and ratchets. I opened drawers till I found them lined up in their little boxes like my crochet hooks in different sizes. But which one is for spark plugs?

Later. It was almost time to start making dinner. It was going to rain soon. I still had a section of jungle I needed to weed-whack. I pulled out the weed trimmer. It hummed, but it didn’t cut. I checked the string. How different is it from thread in a bobbin? Not very. I straightened that sucker out, pushed the switch, and shouted in jubilation as the weed parts flew. No wonder guys like power tools. I cut and cut, even when the rain started pelting my hair and darkening Fred’s old green shirt. I finished the job and went in to make dinner.

I pulled a package of rolls out of the freezer. The bag broke. Bread and sesame seeds littered the floor. Seriously? My language scared the dog.

Yesterday, I conquered the weed-whacker. Today I will conquer the spark plug. If I can change a guitar string, I can do this.

Men, share your tools with your wives and daughters. We’ll show you how to bake a cake and run the vacuum cleaner. Women, go out to the garage and refuse to leave until the guys show you how to do what they do. Don’t just bring them a beer and go back to the kitchen. You need to know this stuff.

I welcome your comments.

Photo copyright: peeranat / 123RF Stock Photo

***

My new novel Up Beaver Creek is coming soon. The interior pages are complete, and the cover is in progress. It will be available next month. Meanwhile, check out my Amazon page for other books you might want to read. I’ll be outside working on the lawnmower.

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Look up from that screen; it’s amazing

I stood at the threshold of Gate B1 at the Portland airport and looked down the line of passengers. Every single one was staring at a cell phone. Around the room, people stared at phones, tablets or laptop computers. As I joined the row, I itched to look at my own “electronic devices,” but I pulled out my notebook and my pen instead.

I had over an hour to kill. Flying these days is a matter of hurry up and wait. Having made it through security, I was now free to eat, drink, and stare at my phone. Or surreptitiously watch other passengers.

Across the room in a square of sunlight by the window, a little girl about 5 sat on the floor with her mother. I assume it was her mother. What happened later made me wonder.

The girl stared at a tablet while the mom combed her long blonde hair. I could hear a cartoon voice coming from the machine. Look up, I thought. Look around. Each stroke of the mother’s comb seemed like a devotion. Outside, planes warmed up on the tarmac. The Portland sky was a mass of clouds forever changing shape. Soon we would be flying above those clouds. Look up, little girl.

At least the mother wasn’t staring at a screen. As I watched, she divided her daughter’s hair into sections and braided it into a long thin braid that hung nearly to the girl’s waist.

I looked down at my notebook for a minute. When I looked up, the mother had put the comb away and was staring at her phone. Mother and daughter sat in perfect parallel, both cross-legged on the floor, all attention on the devices in their hands.

No! I don’t have children or grandchildren, but I imagine if I were the grandmother, I’d be arguing with my daughter about taking away the screens. My daughter would probably respond, “Oh Mom, she’s fine.”

Maybe it’s not so bad. After all, I grew up always staring at a book. I still don’t go anywhere without something to read. Maybe it’s just a different form of distraction. Sometimes reality is just too hard. But I worry about what all these screens are doing to our minds.

Just before we were called to board, the mother and daughter got up, approached the gate, and talked to the attendant. To my surprise, the girl ran toward the jetway onto the plane by herself. The mother gathered her things and walked away. The child was going to fly alone. Off to see her divorced dad? Visiting the grandparents? My youngest stepson traveled on his own between parents when he was young. It’s a sad thing. The flight attendants take good care of the unaccompanied children, but he was always sick with stress when he arrived.

At the end of the trip, as I got off the plane, I saw the girl again. The plane-cleaning staff were already at work as she waited for her escort off the plane. She looked so alone in her pink leggings, white top, and braid coming undone in front.

Four days later, at Gate 29 in San Jose, I waited with people of all nationalities and races. Plenty stared at their phones, but this time I noticed the man across from me was reading a book while his wife typed on her laptop. Two teens nearby carried fat paperback books. Two Asian boys huddled over what I assumed was a phone or tablet. But no, it was a Rubik’s cube.

Here and there among the gates, I saw tables and play areas set up for kids with books, games, and coloring supplies. That gave me hope. Kids get bored and cranky. Hell, I get bored and cranky. But let’s all look up. There’s so much to see.

***

My dad turned 96 on Tuesday. I had to be there. It was a quick trip boxed in by my church job obligations. My father and I sat in the sun watching the squirrels and robins. We talked and talked, and we ate so much cake—five times in three days. We also ate tamales, raviolis, and Yankee pot roast. Hand me my stretchy pants and my stomach pills. I felt my heart rip open as I climbed into the taxi to go back to the airport, leaving Dad watching from the door. But it was worth it for the time we had together.

I realize if you’re reading this, you’re looking at an electronic device. When you finish, put that device down. Look around. If there’s someone else nearby, give them a hug. Who knows when you’ll get another chance?

Fred Lick, RIP Seven Years Ago Today

We lost Fred A. Lick, seven years ago today. 5:15 a.m. Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. He was my husband, father to Michael, Ted and Gretchen, friend to all he met. Smart, funny, optimistic, and musical, he changed my life in so many wonderful ways. His death is hitting me especially hard this year. But we were all blessed to have him in our lives for as long as we did. Let’s remember him today. We miss you, Fred.

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New novel coming, buy it, pass the word

PD is coming.

What? No, not the police department. PD is what the protagonist in my new novel Up Beaver Creek is calling herself these days. It’s her initials, and she’s not saying what they stand for. Back in Missoula, people called her Cissy, her nickname, but she does not want to be Cissy anymore. Widowed at 42, she is determined to start over with a new name, a new look, and a new home on the Oregon coast, where she will pursue her career as a musician–if things ever stop going wrong.

Eight wonderful, brilliant, generous beta readers have given the book a careful going-over, finding numerous typos and a few discrepancies I need to clean up. Next steps: Finalizing the cover and formatting the inside pages. I’m starting to get nervous. I want everyone to buy the book. I want to do readings here, there, and everywhere. I want everyone to say they love my book. I want to show the IRS and my father that I do actually write and sell books.

I want . . . what every writer wants.

For Oprah to love it.

Why am I telling you all this? Because these days, whether you’re published by one of the big New York publishers, a small indie press, or doing it yourself, authors are required to build “buzz.” We need to become salespeople drumming up interest and doing everything possible to make sure everybody knows about their books and can’t wait to read them.

That’s Up Beaver Creek, coming in June from Blue Hydrangea Productions.

This sales business is tough for writers who prefer to sit quietly at their computers and get lost in the worlds they’re creating. We prefer art over commerce, readers over buyers. Once upon a time, publishers did all the marketing while urging writers to hurry up and write the next book. Not anymore. Promote, tour, build that audience high and wide.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

Our Willamette Writers Coast Chapter meeting yesterday was all about building buzz. Jennie Komp of Myth Machine talked about building one’s “fandom.” Cultivate one loyal fan who loves everything you write, and that fan will attract others who attract more. Pretty soon you’ll have thousands. At least that’s the plan.

It can work. I got an email on Saturday from a writer who has a new book coming out. I ordered it immediately. I haven’t read a word of it, haven’t seen the cover, and I don’t usually pay that much for a book, but with this author, I’m buying it. I buy everything he writes. I’m part of his fandom.

Up Beaver Creek, coming in June, read an excerpt here.

Komp used J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books as an example of maximum merchandising. Fans don’t just buy the books and see the movies; they buy the tee shirts, the little cauldrons, the round glasses, and all the other swag. The books have turned into an industry.

We can look at our own books for things we can promote: songs that appear in the book and might be used in the movie, merchandise that could be sold in conjunction with the book, real-life locations to which we can direct our readers, articles we can write that will direct people to our books, outtakes we could sell, and quotes we can combine with images to create “memes” that we post on social media several times a day. We can create YouTube videos about something in the book, invite our fans to post testimonials, and set up “meet-ups” for our fans to get together. In other words, sell everything you can from the world you have created for your book.

I thought I was doing well to write blogs and list my books in my email signature. I feel old and slightly nauseated. Would Mark Twain have done this? When does a body have time to write? Of course, we can hire Myth Machine or another publicity company to do it all for us.

Up Beaver Creek, coming in June. Meet PD and her friends. Did I mention the tsunami?

Buzz, buzz, buzz

My twenty-five favorite rest stop walks

Palm_Springs_rest_stop_3918B[1]I spend a lot of time at rest stops. Those blue road signs promise relief and a break from driving. It’s really nice when they add “Next rest xx miles” so I can plan ahead. Can I hold it? Yes. No. Maybe. Can I stay awake that long? I hope so. But will the rest stop be open? On my recent trip to Tucson, half the rest stops in Arizona and California were closed. Come on road guys. Don’t promise relief and not deliver, especially when there’s no visible reason why it’s closed. I can’t tell you how many times I have scanned the roadside thinking maybe I’ll have to find a secluded tree or bush.

Most of the rest stops I have seen look pretty much alike: parking lots, buildings with Men and Women signs on the sides, picnic tables, dog walk area, maybe maps and soft drink machines, maybe a coffee concession. Sometimes people camp out front with backpacks, bedrolls, dogs, guitars and signs begging for money.

People walking around rest stops often have that disoriented look we all have coming out of movie theaters, a kind of wow-where-are-we-everything’s-so-bright-what-just-happened look. I have come up with a list of walking styles I have seen—and done—at rest stops throughout the American west. Perhaps you have seen them too. I welcome your additions in the comments.

(I know where the hyphens go, but I’m too lazy to add them. Consider them implied.)

  1. The oh my god I forgot how to walk walk
  2. The hunched over it’s freezing here walk
  3. The oh shit it’s raining walk
  4. The ah, sunshine leisure walk
  5. The I really don’t know where I am walk
  6. The hey, wait wait wait dog walk
  7. The don’t judge just let me smoke walk
  8. The I’m on the phone don’t anybody talk to me walk
  9. The oh my god I have to go so bad walk
  10. The I don’t want anybody to see me in my pajama bottoms walk
  11. The shuffling in my flip-flops walk
  12. The toilet paper stuck to my shoe walk
  13. The I see you with your need-money-for-gas sign but I’m not going to look at you walk
  14. The you scare me so I’m going to walk really fast walk
  15. The I’m so late hurry hurry hurry walk
  16. The shaking my hands because the blow dryer doesn’t work walk
  17. The slow can’t I just live here walk
  18. The I’m looking at the river because I don’t want to get back in the car with you walk
  19. The watching the ground for snakes in the desert walk
  20. The coffee coffee coffee walk
  21. The I can still feel the car moving walk
  22. The I meant to trip like that walk
  23. The swatting mosquitoes dance walk
  24. The where did I put my car walk
  25. The it’s my turn to drive get out of the way walk

BTW, the rest stop above is on I-5 near Palm Springs, California. Bet you couldn’t tell by looking. Happy travels.

Why mess with poetry when it doesn’t pay?

In her book Poetry Will Save Your Life, Jill Bialosky takes an unusual approach to memoir. She pairs short passages about her life with poems that she connects with those times. She begins with nursery rhymes and Robert Frost poems and moves through the poetic cannon to the more challenging poems of Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, and others. After each poem, she offers information and interpretation of the poet and the poem. In many cases, these are poets to which I never paid much attention, but the poems take on new meaning here. The snippets of Bialosky’s life are intense. She has gone through some hard stuff, but she doesn’t wallow in it. Instead, she reaches for a poem. As she writes on the last page, “[poetry] gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”

For Bialosky, life and poetry have always been intertwined. She reads it, she writes it, and she layers it into her memoir to enhance the memories and sometimes to say what she could not say in ordinary prose.

April is National Poetry Month, a time when poets become more vocal about reading and writing these nuggets of thought crafted into lines with metaphors and juxtapositions that infuse them with meaning. We also compete in numerous poem-a-day challenges. I’ve got two new poems so far.

I credit my Grandma Rachel Fagalde for hooking me on poems. She showered me with books of famous poetry from the time I was a little girl. She wrote poems herself and read them aloud when we visited. It drove my parents nuts; they were not poetry people. They did not understand why I was always scribbling in my little notebooks.

But I was a poetry person. I wrote my first poem at 7, something about the joys of Thanksgiving. I often turned in poems for my homework at school. The teachers weren’t thrilled. They weren’t poetry people either. A wooden plaque with Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” sat on my desk throughout my childhood. Written in rhyme with a sing-song rhythm, it sticks to me even now. “I know that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree . . .” A good poem, like a good song, stays with you.

Most of the people I know are not poetry people. Few have read a poem since they were forced to do it in school. They can’t imagine voluntarily reading poetry. And writing it? Anything beyond “roses are red, violets are blue” seems impossible and pointless. But look at the Bible. Look at the book of Psalms. Those are poems, too, and we revere them.

The statistics about poetry reading are staggering. We who cling to it seem like a small community of weirdos. But we keep at it.

Because so few people read poetry, poets don’t make much money writing and publishing it. Agents won’t represent poetry books. Mainline publishers won’t publish your poetry books unless you’re Bob Dylan or Maya Angelou. Or Bono. You publish it yourself or get published by small independent publishers that do it for the love of poetry. You send your poems to literary magazines edited by college students or volunteers who edit on nights and weekends, supporting their work by grants, donations, and contest submission fees.

Yet there are thousands of us poets writing and sending out our work in the hope of getting it published. I’ve been doing it off and on, mostly on, since I was in high school. Rejections still outnumber acceptances. In fact, I’m participating in an online group that strives to get 100 rejections in a year. The theory is that if you submit enough to get 100 rejections, you will also get some acceptances. And I have. So far, three poems have been published this year. You can read “An Ordinary Afternoon” in the Winter 2018 issue of The MacGuffin. Read “Widow’s Rags” and “Smoke Signals” in the spring 2018 issue of the online journal Willawa. 

But still, why bother? The chances for acceptance and profit in poetry are so slim they make the music business look like a sure thing. I can make more money standing on a street corner singing for tips. At least someone will hear me and toss a dollar or two into my guitar case. And yet, because poems are freed from commercial considerations, I feel freer with poetry than with any other type of writing. I can focus on writing the poem instead of wondering who will buy it.

Why poetry? It’s magic. In a few lines, you can say so much. You can paint a picture, share an idea, express a feeling that you can’t express any other way. You can say things you wouldn’t dare tell anybody in plain English.

Poetry today is not the poetry of nursery rhymes or Shakespeare. It doesn’t need to be silly or incomprehensible—although it can. It definitely does not have to rhyme. It just has to say something.

I just drove all the way to Tucson for a poetry master workshop. Why would anybody spend the time and money to do that? Shouldn’t I be studying something useful? Ah, but to me poetry is useful. It keeps me sane. Besides, I turned 66 March 9. I’m not retired. I’m always writing, and I’m still doing the music thing at Sacred Heart, but I have enough retirement-type income to go write poetry in the desert if I want to.

Looking at the poets in Bialosky’s book, I find myself compulsively checking their birth and death dates. So many died before they got to my age. John Keats, Percy Shelley, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath didn’t live to age 40. I see the young faces featured in Poets & Writers magazine. Just kids. I worry that I might be too old. But it’s also encouraging to see a new generation embracing poetry.

We older folks keep going. It’s never too late. Billy Collins is 76, Donald Hall is in his late 80s, Mary Oliver is 82. Robert Frost was 88, Carl Sandburg was 89, Maya Angelou was 86,and Lucille Clifton was 74.

These days, you can read poetry online any time you want. Check out The Poetry Foundation,  Famous Poetry Online, or Poetry Daily. If you lean toward politics, especially in the era of Trump, try New Verse News. Or try one of the sites listed here: http://coloradoreview.colostate.edu/10-places-for-daily-poetry/

It’s like guacamole or quinoa. Just try a little. Maybe you’ll like it.

If you’re a poet looking for prompts, there are plenty online. Here are a few:

Megan Falley’s “Dirty Thirty” Writing prompts

NapoWriMo.net

Robert Lee Brewer’s poem-a-day challenge

Take a chance. Read a poem or write one. I welcome your comments.

Don’t call me sweetheart if you don’t know my name

The young Irish waiter called all the women at Thursday’s church ladies luncheon “dear.” On my trip last week, the waitress at Denny’s called me “hon.” The young black man taking away my used plate at Sizzler asked, “Would you like to keep your knife, sweetheart?” I got sweethearted at another Denny’s farther north and at a Black Bear Diner just south of Bakersfield.

The waitress at the Black Bear called the young adult male in the booth behind me “young man,” which I suspect is insulting to any male over age 10. I know I have always hated being called “young lady.”

I also got called “sweetheart” at a gas station where I had trouble with a malfunctioning pump. The woman clearly thought I was an idiot.

I’m a 66-year-old woman. Why are strangers calling me sweetheart? I can’t help but think of the nursing home employees who call everyone honey, sweetie, darling, etc., or use their first names even though the residents are elderly adults deserving more respect even if their minds have turned to melted Jell-O.

But let’s get back to restaurants. I ate out approximately 20 times on my recent trip, so I got a pretty good survey of low-budget sit-down eateries, the kinds of places with sticky menus and tables wiped down with dirty wet rags. The servers, mostly in their 20s, mostly Mexican south of San Francisco, gave out the “sweeties” and “hons” freely. (They were also prone to rate my orders as in “awesome” or “perfect.”) I don’t expect them to know my name. I know I’m just the “club sandwich at table 12.” Even at my favorite local restaurant, they don’t know my name, just that I’m the solo diner who wants iced tea–no lemon, lots of ice.

I know the words trip out automatically. The servers don’t mean anything by it. But why not call me “ma’am?” I know some women bristle at that term because it makes them feel old, but I’m okay with my age. If I were dining in a Spanish-speaking country, I’d like to be called “Señora,” because that’s what I am. For me, the terms of endearment should be reserved for one’s lover, spouse or child, not for a stranger eating a waffle at Denny’s.

We in the U.S. are casual people, probably more so on the West Coast. Earlier generations were taught to address adults as “sir” and “ma’am.” When did it degenerate to “sweetie,” “hon,” and “dear?”

Then there’s the waitress at the truck stop in Corning, California, who probably should have retired a few years ago. I remember her from eating there with Fred back when he was alive and healthy. She walked as if she might fall over any second. She was already confused, and it didn’t help that it was a Friday in Lent, so I couldn’t eat meat. I was craving a tuna sandwich, but the menu was a meat-lovers dream, not so good for even seasonal vegetarians. She recommended the buffet. I served myself a hard piece of mystery fish, salad and a brownie, wishing I’d gone to my sixth Denny’s instead.

One of the great things about this truck stop restaurant is that they give you a whole pitcher of iced tea. I watched my waitress walk toward me with a glass and a pitcher. She gave me the glass but walked away with the pitcher. Then she got busy with other parties. I ate and waited. She wandered around, sort of serving the group of six men nearby. I waited some more. Eventually she brought my tea in a to-go cup that was already leaking.

“You should have thrown something at me,” she said.

I considered what I would have thrown. My book? My phone? My pen? She looked like she would bruise easily.

She walked away and came back. “Did you have the buffet?” Yes, yes, I did. She handed me my bill. She did not give me my senior discount.

But bless her heart, she didn’t call me “sweetheart,” “honey,” “dear,” or anything else, at least not where I could hear it.

So, darlings, what are your experiences with strangers calling you by terms of endearment? If you have waited tables, I’d love to read your comments on the subject.