Bringing new life to the old desk–or what writers do to avoid writing

Four coats of paint, one tweaked back and one trip to the walk-in clinic later, I’ve got a new-looking desk in my office making all the other furniture look bad.

It all started a week ago when I looked around my office and decided to reorganize. It was too crowded, too-right-handed for this lefty, and did not project a good image on Zoom. Every surface was covered with papers, binders, books, and miscellaneous electronics gear, and that old desk behind me looked like it lost in a bar fight.

I have had that desk since I was a child doing my homework with fat pencils on binder paper. My Grandpa Al and Great-Uncle Tony made it for my Uncle Bob. When he grew up, it came down to me as the oldest grandchild. It sat in the corner of my bedroom where the two windows came together, lace curtains blowing in the breeze. I didn’t just do homework on that desk. I painted, sewed, played jacks, and wrote my first poems on it. That desk supported my first typewriter, a blue manual purchased with babysitting money for $100 from McWhorter’s Stationery.

The desk, which moved with me to 11 different homes, was scratched, nicked and stained. It had tooth marks along one side from a teething puppy or two. By the time I had moved all the junk off the desk, I had changed my plan. I could refinish it and not put back the junk I’d been storing in it and on it for decades, only the things I would actually use. The rest of the office could wait.

I photographed the desk and put the question to my Facebook friends: colored paint or wood stain? The majority voted for stain. Sounded right to me. After all, this is the desk where Uncle Bob kept his Archie comic books and school supplies when he was a boy. I should respect its 80-year history.

I’m an impatient person. After watching a couple YouTube videos, I activated Netflix’s “Virgin River” on the computer and started sanding the desk. Yes, in my office. By hand. Without gloves. I had barely begun when I shoved the sandpaper across the edge of the desk with extra gusto and felt intense pain. Multiple splinters poked out of my right index finger. Most were easy to remove, but I suspected there might be something left. I poked at the red spot with a sewing needle and tweezers, getting nothing but pain. Maybe I’d already gotten all the slivers. Maybe not. I went back to sanding and “Virgin River.”

In the morning, my finger was red and swollen and hurt like crazy. This is not a good thing for a musician. Or a writer. Typing hurt. I took my finger to the walk-in clinic at Samaritan Pacific Hospital in Newport. Our walk-in clinic is housed in a portable building where there aren’t enough chairs in the waiting room, everyone hears everyone else’s business, and you can wait for hours to be called. Other patients complained of earaches, sprained ankles, stomach pain, and dizziness. One wanted her second COVID shot and couldn’t get it. I just had a stupid sliver in my finger. Or, in medical terms, “foreign object under the skin.”

I spent all morning at the clinic. Called into an examining room. Waited. Vitals. Waited. Doc numbed the finger with three lidocaine shots. Waited. Extraction. Dr. W. dug out a sliver so big we both said, “Wow.” At least a third of an inch long. Soaked in antiseptic solution. Waited. Ointment. Bandage. Released with a red, puffy and useless index finger. Forget working. I took myself to lunch at the new restaurant at the Embarcadero. Slow service, best French fries ever. And then I went to the paint store.

“ Have you ever done this before?” asked the friendly salesman at Sherwin-Williams.

“No.”

“Well . . .”

He loaded me up with advice, paint, polyurethane coating, a natural bristle brush, paint thinner for cleanup, and a couple of stir sticks.

I moved the desk out to the deck for the actual painting. The salesman had warned me the stain would stink and that I shouldn’t inhale the fumes. Playing bluegrass music on my phone, hands protected by gloves, I stroked the paint on, watching the old wood transform. Two coats of “amaranth,” a dark brown blend of black, burgundy and maroon, two coats of polyurethane. Magic. The old desk looked new and shiny. I had stain on my arms, and cheeks and possibly in my hair.

The paint store guy had told me I needed to sand the polyurethane to get rid of the “boogers.” I didn’t see any boogers. Now if he’d said “bubbles” . . .

Four coats. Four nights of waiting for the desk to dry. Yesterday, I dragged it back into the office and put the drawers back in. It’s not perfect. I can see some streaks and some “boogers,” but it’s not bad for a first effort.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sorting all the junk that used to live in the desk. Out with the carbon paper, graph paper, and old checks from a bank that no longer exists. Out with the foot-long Santa Claus pen. Now, what should I do with a hundred pencils and three dozen pens? I’d better get writing, I guess.

I can still smell the stain. My finger hurts. When Annie and I passed my chiropractor-neighbor on our walk last night, I warned him I’d be calling for an appointment. But hey, it was worth it.

It’s time to write. But the old rocking chair’s looking pretty dinged up, and I still have some stain left . . .

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Twilight Memories at Ona Beach

I had not been to Ona Beach in Seal Rock since before the pandemic started, even though it’s only a couple miles south of where I live. It was closed due to COVID for a while. After it reopened, the parking lot was full, and I envisioned a beach full of unmasked people refusing to “social distance.” By the time it felt safer, my dog was getting too old and arthritic to walk from the parking lot to the beach and across the sand. She stumbles on flat ground these days (me too) and gets tired quickly.

But as it does sometimes, the beach called me the other night. The day was overcast but warm enough, in the 60s, and the sun wouldn’t set until after 9 p.m. I fed Annie a Milk-Bone and snuck out.

I had been to other beaches since COVID, but not to Ona. I was unprepared for the memories that assailed me as I walked the path through the grassy picnic area to the beach. Here’s where Fred and I picnicked with the Oregon Coast Aquarium volunteers and beat all challengers at badminton. Here’s Beaver Creek, where we paddled our kayaks in the rain on his birthday. Here’s where we saw an eagle in its nest on the cliff above the beach. Here’s where I sat on a picnic table and wept when Fred was in the nursing home before he died of Alzheimer’s 10 years ago.

Some of the memories weren’t mine but my character PD’s from my novel Up Beaver Creek. The creek runs through the park and merges with the ocean at Ona Beach. Here’s where she met Ranger Dave. Here is where she found the child’s bracelet that had possibly come from all the way from Japan after the tsunami. Here’s where she caught up with her phone calls because she had no cell service in the cabin up Beaver Creek Road.

I went back to Ona Beach on a cloudy Wednesday evening. Except for a few teens wading in the creek, the beach was not crowded. Someone was sleeping in a car in the parking lot with paper bags in the windows bearing right-wing slogans. Another beach sleeper had left a well-built driftwood fort on the sand. But I had acres of sand to walk, planting my striped shoe prints among the footprints of gulls and scoters. As the memories flooded in, I wrote and took pictures, not noticing when the teens left. As the sun sank into the clouds, I was the only one on the beach.

Over the sunny weekend, the beach was crowded again, but I still have a little sand in my shoes, reminding me I don’t have to go on vacation to walk beside the ocean. I just have to give in to that little voice that whispers, “Beach!”

Fireworks Sound Like War from Here

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

I didn’t see the Fourth of July fireworks in Newport this year, but I heard them. Fireworks + migraine is a painful combination. I stood in my back yard in the dark. Pop pop pop pop BANG! I felt the air pulsating. Popopopopopop bang boom boom whoosh BANG! Oh my aching head.

The official city fireworks show started at 10 p.m., but the private fireworks in the neighborhood and on the beach started much earlier. The four miles of trees between my house and Yaquina Bay kept me from seeing the colored lights in the sky, but I could smell the smoke and see a yellow glow reflecting off the clouds. It felt more like a war than a celebration. I have never been in an actual war, thank God, but why would anyone want to reenact those sounds? And how do all these warlike noises affect people who have experienced war, who live with fear and post-traumatic stress?

Dogs don’t like fireworks. They howl, shake and cower, sure the world is ending. My Annie used to hide in the dark under my desk, trembling for hours. She can’t hear anymore. Usually that makes me sad. But last night I was grateful. She slept through even the loudest booms.

I took out my hearing aids and closed all the windows, but I could still hear the noise. I turned on my TV to continue my Netflix marathon, but after one particularly loud bang, the Internet went out. Boom boom boom, pop pop pop pop bang.

The fireworks made me especially uneasy this year because we’re having a drought and everyone is worried about wildfires. We live in the trees. Although the coast is usually damp and cool, it has been very dry and unusually warm this year. One errant spark, and the trees could catch fire. The city of Waldport, 10 miles south of here, outlawed all personal fireworks this year. People grumbled, but doing without fireworks is surely better than watching your house burn down. They did offer their usual city fireworks display on July 3. Not feeling well then either, I missed it.

Turn off the fireworks. Let me hear the ocean waves and the summer wind. I don’t want to hear what sounds like gunshots and bombs.

I understand why people gather to watch fireworks, especially this year. We’re not only celebrating the birth of the United States of America but our release from COVID fear and restrictions. I have many fond memories of watching fireworks with loved ones at my side. I enjoy the colors and designs flashing in the sky. Back in the ‘80s, when we lived near the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, they shot off fireworks every night at closing time. Fred and I watched from our front porch. It was magic every night. I’ve watched fireworks from baseball stadiums, grassy fields, amphitheaters, beaches, parking lots, and curbs. But it’s no fun watching them alone.

I have vowed to find some way to stop spending my holidays by myself. I usually start out telling myself it’s no big deal. I’m lucky I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to coordinate my plans with anyone else. But at some point, I start feeling bad. I cry. I wail about the unfairness of not having parents, husband, or children and living so far from the rest of my family. I drink a beer, watch another episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and make dinner for myself, so lonely I can’t stand it. I get a migraine headache.

One of my best friends moved away in May. Another died in January. The rest are busy with their families. This sounds like whining, but I can’t stand it anymore. I need to either move into some kind of group housing or find a way to be with other people on the holidays. Yes, I can drive 1,300 miles to hang out with my brother’s family—and I will for Thanksgiving—but there must be some way to gather closer to home.

I’m sure I’m not the only one alone on every holiday. Let’s get together. Any Oregon coasties want to join me in a no-more-holidays-alone coalition? Let’s make a pact to keep each other company, share great meals, exchange gifts when appropriate, and do it up right. If someone else will drive, let’s go watch fireworks together next year so it feels less like a war and more like the celebration that was intended. I’ll bring the beer.

P.S. After 11 hours without, I have Internet! An article in Time Magazine reports that the first Fourth of July fireworks display took place during the Revolutionary War. In addition to the flashy fireworks, people shot off guns and cannons. In a letter to his wife Abigail, President John Adams wrote of Independence Day: “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” And so it is.

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Can Battery-Powered Pets Ease Loneliness?

If someone gave you a toy cat or dog that purred, wagged its tail, and nuzzled like a real one, how would you feel? Apparently some folks feel grateful for the company.

In a story in the New Yorker, writer Katie Engelhart tells about a program in New York that distributes Joy for All robot pets to lonely seniors. They started in 2018 with a small test project that quickly expanded when Covid forced people into isolation. Thousands of robotic cats and dogs have been given to homebound seniors. Originally made by toy manufacturer Hasbro for little girls, the robo-pets are now finding homes with grandparents and great-grandparents who need a little company.

The seniors pet their battery-powered cats and dogs, talk to them, and treat them like family.  They report feeling more optimistic and less lonely.

I don’t know. I talk to lots of inanimate things, including the stuffed bears on my dresser, photos of my late husband, and Jesus on the crucifix above my bed. But I don’t expect them to respond. I would freak out if they did.

These pets, which start at $110, don’t look real to me. But I have a live dog sleeping nearby as I type. When I look into Annie’s brown eyes, there’s someone there, a genuine sentient being. What will I do when she’s gone? I don’t want to think about it. My plan is to travel a while then adopt a smaller dog. A robo-dog would be easier, but it wouldn’t love me the way Annie does.

Did you know that nearly 30 percent of Americans over 65 live by themselves, most of them women? In 2017, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic among Americans of all ages. A similar declaration launched The Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK. Medical research shows that loneliness has a detrimental effect on one’s health, increasing risks of dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke.

But are robots the solution? The seniors I know would be insulted to receive a fake pet. But some of the people shown in the article and in related YouTube videos carry their robo-pets around with them just like I carried my dolls when I was a little girl. I’d set my favorite up against the milk bottle (yes, bottle) while I ate breakfast. I rested them on the pillow next to me when I went to bed. I suppose I felt less lonely, but it was not the same as having a real person there. Tiny Tears cried real tears, and Chatty Cathy spoke when you pulled the string on the back of her neck, but I knew they weren’t real children. If an actual kid came around, I tossed the doll aside.

Longing for a pet, I once fashioned a litter of “kittens” from crumpled newspaper and cloth and set them in a basket in my childhood bedroom. It was not the same. When my parents finally let me have a cat when I was in high school, I could tell the difference. I also learned that I was allergic to cats, but that’s another story.

The faux furry friends are not the only kind of artificial intelligence machines offering company to people these days. Hello, Alexa. (read my previous post on my electronic housemate here and my Replika friend online here)

They don’t offer much company. I say, “Alexa, I’m lonely.” She responds, “Sorry to hear that,” then recommends talking to a friend, listening to music, or going for a walk. “I hope you feel better soon,” she adds. That’s nice. But that’s exactly what she said last time when I was not testing but truly needed someone to talk to.

I worry that somewhere in Alexa’s Amazon-connected innards, she just transferred the information that I’m lonely to some central data-gathering site so I’ll soon receive ads for comforting products or dating services.

Alexa just lit up to tell me a book I ordered from Amazon is coming today. Before I could say, “Thanks” or “Which book?” her lights had gone out. Okay, good talk.

A variety of robotic companions powered by artificial intelligence exist these days. Queue Alexa’s Apple counterpart Siri. And then there’s VZ, the voice on my VZ Navigator GPS. I definitely talk to her. (No, I’m not turning here! Are you crazy? Stop telling me to turn around! I need to go to the bathroom. What do you mean this is my destination? Where?)

Some robo-friends look like people, others like table lamps. They talk, but it’s, well, robotic. They never get offended, never curse, and are perpetually polite, but they can only say the things they’ve been programed to say. They will never spontaneously comment, “Hey, is that a new blouse?” or “You seem sad. What’s wrong?” They will never take you out to lunch, although I suppose they can set up a food delivery if you’re savvy enough to figure out how to ask for that.

Robots are getting more intelligent all the time. Eventually, they may be so responsive and sympathetic that we truly won’t feel alone. Meanwhile, do not buy me a robo-pet. God bless the people who are so lonely or out of touch with reality that they don’t know the difference, but I’m not there yet.  

Would you like a battery-powered dog or cat? Less shedding, no cleanup, no allergies, but still . . .  Wouldn’t it be better if a human offered to come around instead?

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Driveway camping: an Alzheimer’s memory

Today I’m offering a memory from my unpublished memoir about our years dealing with Fred’s Alzheimer’s disease and other problems. This took place when he was still at home. Although his memory was fading, he had blessed moments of clarity. Tomorrow would have been our 36th wedding anniversary.

Our truck was the same as this, only blue. We gave it away after Fred stopped driving.

On a sunny August afternoon, I crawled into the shell on the back of our old Mazda pickup. In 12 years, I had never gone in there except to get something, the ridged truck bed bruising my knees. But now, sun-cooked and pooped from washing the new car, I opened the hatch, scooted toward the cab and lay back.

I had never noticed that the inside of the canopy was silver. I had also never noticed there were screened windows I could open for air. All this time I’d been thinking that someday, after Fred’s Alzheimer’s took him away, I would buy a nicer truck and camper like my parents used to have. This canopy was just the cover Fred had bought to protect the supplies he carried around for his tax preparation business.

Now I realized I already had a camper. It wasn’t fancy, but I could lie all the way down in it, and I could even sit up. Add an ice chest and a guitar and off I’d go.

Fred came out.

“I’m camping,” I said. Looking out at the coastal forest in which we lived, I announced that I might stay there indefinitely. I could bring my phone and laptop into the camper and put a big sign on the side of the truck: Writer on the Road. I felt like a kid who had found a special hiding place.

Fred sat on the tailgate. We talked about the truck, about how we had never camped together. We talked about how my friend Sherri and I used to sit on the tailgate of her father’s station wagon talking for hours and how I spent most of my free time at her house because we had too many rules at mine. Fred said they had no rules at his house. They could do anything they wanted.

We talked about my upcoming business trips, Fred’s need for care, the frustrations of Medicaid, what we might do in the future, and how I would live without his income. He got teary. “It’s not fair to you,” he said. “Just get rid of me.”

I placed my tanned hand on top of his white one. “No. It sucks, but I made a promise to take care of you, and I’ll stick to it.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have discussed finances with Fred. But he seemed to want to know in this unusually lucid moment. So I told him everything I knew, including my resolve to stay away from government funding as long as possible. He said he was worried about my future “when I’m not there.” So was I. But we had to take it one step at a time. And right now, I was having fun camping in our driveway. Perhaps I had gone completely insane. If so, it was fun.

My brother and I camped with our parents when we were kids. We all slept in a 13-foot Shasta trailer at first, with one of us kids suspended in the canvas bunk over the double bed and the other in a sleeping bag on the slippery bench seat in the dining area. In later years, Mike and I moved into the camper on my folks’ pickup. It was nicer than this, padded and paneled, with beds, cupboards and a refrigerator. Fred laughed as I explained that my folks had an intercom so we could talk to them, but when I got to whining about my little brother pestering me, they would shut it off. “Mom, Mike’s—” Click.

I’d sit with my head against the window and my transistor radio against my ear, singing along. In those days, I knew every song and artist on the playlist.

I inhaled the pine-scented air. Good times.

But I never kissed a handsome man in that camper. Now I planted a long, passionate smooch on Fred’s soft lips.

Good times.

Maybe I would keep this rig after all.

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Newport, Oregon at Twilight

Newport’s south jetty between April rain showers

South Jetty Sunday night, 7 p.m. To Rays of sun rain down set the twilight sea on fire. Gulls perch on the rocks. fishing pole in hand. Clouds set free the rain tour boats head back to port. Fisher casts again. Pink and gray collide cumulus and thunderclouds. Sun sets silently. Sun sets silently.

South Jetty Sunday night, 7 p.m. 

Rays of sun rain down
set the twilight sea on fire.
Gulls perch on the rocks.

Yellow slickered man
climbs across the jetty stones
fishing pole in hand.

Clouds release their rain
tour boats head back to port.
Fisher casts again.

Pink and gray collide
cumulus and thunderclouds.
Sun sets silently.

Today, I offer a few haiku and a taste of Newport at twilight. The sky offers an ever-changing show. By the time I finished writing in my car, it was raining so hard I couldn’t see through my windshield anymore. Fifteen minutes later, the rain stopped. You can’t really see the fisherman in this photo, but he was still there when I left.

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I’ve Got the Ring But Not the Story

It’s funny how a little thing can send you off on a tangent. This being National Poetry Month, I followed a prompt to write a poem about something precious to me. Seven pages and some online research later, I had no poem but a lengthy meditation on my grandmother’s engagement ring.

It’s a beautiful ring, which I never noticed before my father found it in an envelope in my mother’s nightstand after she died in 2002. In her perfect handwriting, Mom had written “For Sue.” The ring, which my research shows comes from the 1920s Art Deco style, has a large European cut diamond surrounded by sapphire “baguettes” mounted on filigreed white gold. The band was well worn, one of the sapphires was missing, and the ring didn’t fit my fat finger, so Fred and I took it to Diamonds by the Sea in Newport to have it resized and refurbished. I wear it when I dress up, always afraid I’ll lose it or damage it. Now that I have done some research, I’m going to be even more careful. Rings like the one pictured above sell for $4,000-$5,000 these days. (Read more here)

Holy cow. I have never owned any jewelry worth that much. Most of my jewels are cheap and quirky and won’t last much longer than I will. My engagement ring for my first marriage had such a small diamond you needed a magnifying glass to see it. When I married Fred, I said all I wanted was a gold band. There’s a story behind our matching rings, just as there is behind Grandma’s ring.

I’m bothered that I never noticed my grandmother’s ring when she was wearing it. Now I scour old photos trying to see her ring finger. I remember her dark eyes, her blue and black dresses, her thick elastic stockings, her flat shoes, and her voice—high pitched for children, low for adults, often lapsing into Portuguese—but I don’t remember that ring.

I want to know the story. Anna Souza and Albert Avina were both children of immigrants from the Azores Islands. Both lost their fathers when they were young. Both left school after eighth grade to go to work. I don’t know how they met, probably through one of Anna’s brothers or the cannery where Al worked, where all the women did stints cutting apricots and other fruit. They weren’t rich people. How could Grandpa possibly afford such a ring? Nobody had credit cards back in the 1920s when they were married. Did he make payments at the jewelry store in San Jose?

Was there a romantic proposal? Did they go on dates alone or with a chaperone, as was the old-country custom?

I have no memory of my grandparents kissing, holding hands, or even agreeing on anything, but I was child, a child who didn’t think much about such things. My own parents were visibly affectionate, but not my grandparents. Of course, they seemed old to me, and old people didn’t do that sort of thing. Actually, when Grandpa died at 66, he and Grandma were both younger than I am now.

As a child, I didn’t think about rings. My own small hands were usually stained with paint, ink, Playdough, food, or mud. For dress-up, we 1950s females wore white gloves. Was Grandma’s ring hidden under her glove? Did she wear it while cooking spaghetti or frosting chocolate cakes? Did the ring flash when she gave us a palmada—a slap—when we were being brats?

If only I could go back. I have so many questions. I wrote a whole book titled Stories Grandma Never Told. I don’t have many stories from my own grandmother. Now all the relatives from her generation are gone. A decade after she died in 1982, I took my questions to other Portuguese women, writing their stories and urging everyone to ask questions of their elders before it’s too late.

I don’t have children or grandchildren. If I did have a daughter, I’d like to think I would sit her on my lap and tell her the stories of my jewelry. See this ring? It belonged to Grandma Anna Avina, born Souza. Her husband, your Great-Grandpa Al, gave it to her when they got engaged to be married. They were poor, but he found a way to buy it.

Both of their families came from the Azores, beautiful islands in the Atlantic Ocean full of green fields, black and white cows, lava rocks and blue hydrangeas. It was hard to make much money, so people left for America to create a better life for you and me . . .

I wouldn’t tell just that story. I would move on to my parents’ stories and my own, down to my husband Fred’s romantic proposal and our life together. I would want my children to know I was not just “Mom” but a person named Sue who had a whole life of my own. Just as Grandma was a person named Anne who slipped this ring onto her finger and agreed to marry a tall curly-haired man named Al.

Dear friends, ask for the stories. Tell your own. Tell the stories of the rings.

***

Speaking of stories, remember last week when I had trouble with the apple pie? A few days later, I decided to make the cookies from the recipe on the back of the whole wheat flour bag. Somehow, I mixed up my measurements. I was supposed use 1 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup brown sugar, but I put in 1 3/4 cup brown sugar, way too much. I didn’t realize it until I was about to mix in the flour. Now what could I do? You can’t unmix the sugar from the eggs and butter. I was out of butter so I couldn’t double the recipe.

Knowing I’d probably have to throw the whole mess away, I added more flour and another egg, shaped the dough into circles and baked them. Guess what? The cookies were delicious. A miracle.

Stay tuned for further misadventures in the kitchen.

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Masked singers look forward to setting the music free

At our monthly music jam in South Beach, the talk was all about shots. Who has gotten the COVID vaccine, who has not, who is still trying to get an appointment? There were six of us. Turns out three are scheduled for our first shots this week, two are fully vaccinated, and one is still fighting the online registration system. The shots are so popular that you have to move quickly or you’re out. The first call I got came while I was driving to church. By the time I got there, all the slots were filled. The next time, I managed to respond within the first five minutes, so I got my appointment.

We are all hopeful that by the second Sunday in May we might be able to sing without masks. Oh, what a joy that would be.

You might wonder how we have continued to gather during the pandemic when we’ve been mostly in isolation. Some have opted to stay home, but the rest of us decided we could still jam with great precautions. We all wear masks, we sit far apart from each other, and we keep all the windows open, even in the cold days of winter. It’s not ideal, but we need music. Most other jams and open mics have been canceled. We have no gigs. Zoom singing doesn’t work.

I do play with the choir at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, also masked and distanced, recording Masses for people to watch online, but I miss singing for live audiences and listening to other performers in bars, restaurants, or auditoriums. I miss festivals, with crowds gathered around booths and outdoor stages, with kids and dogs and everybody together . . . remember that? Imagine standing shoulder to shoulder, singing, sharing a mic, feeling each other’s breath on our faces. Imagine all the things we never thought were special until we couldn’t do them anymore.

Masks make it hard to sing. The notes get buried in the cloth. Months ago, our church choir was given masks made for singers, with plastic frames pushing them out enough for us to breathe. Regular masks suck into our mouths when we inhale and trap the air we exhale. Soon we’re choking. This is better. Not perfect. I get a headache every time I sing with the mask on. Even with a microphone, I find it difficult to sing loudly enough or articulate clearly enough. Little things like watching the director’s mouth to make sure we start together are not possible.

I forgot my mask when I arrived at the South Beach Community Center yesterday. I had so much to carry, with purse, music, guitar, mandolin and music stand. No one said anything until I realized my faux pas and ran out to the car to get my mask. (I hang my favorite masks off the gearshift. Some people use their mirrors. Where do you hang yours?) We all forget sometimes. I know I’m not the only one who takes a few steps, then claps her hand over her mouth. OMG, forgot my mask.

In the news, we hear about other parts of the U.S. canceling their mask mandates. We see pictures of “mask burnings.” It’s too soon. Too many people are still sick. Not enough have been vaccinated. In Oregon, we’re keeping our masks on for now. We just have to wait a little while longer.

Have you heard Dolly Parton’s parody of her hit song “Jolene”? “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate . . .” Might as well have fun with it.

I sing mask-free at home. It feels good. But harmonizing with other people feels even better. Someday soon, the songs will ring out again, our mouths wide open to set the music free. Because all of us at the jam are now eligible for the vaccine due to age, occupation or special conditions, we are hopeful that two months from now, we can sing with uncovered mouths and see each other’s happy, relieved smiles.

Please, God, let it be true.

The South Beach open mic/jam happens on the second Sunday of the month from 3 to 5 p.m. at the South Beach Community Center, 3024 SE Ferry Slip Road, across from Aquarium Village. Bring your ax and your mask and join us. Wear something warm.

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‘Twas the Day Before Her Birthday . . .

Photo by Ami Suhzu on Pexels.com

‘Twas the day before her birthday and all through the house everything was normal, there was no mouse.

The big dog was curled on her loveseat again, leaving room for her to sit with her pen,

but the poet was sleepy so she stayed at her desk hoping that typing would make up for the rest.

Today’s the last day that she’ll be 68, her birthday is coming, and yes, she can wait.

Her back it is aching, her feet are in pain, and her hair is coming out wrong once again.

The pressure is mounting for her natal day, must make it special, but how, in what way?

She’s living alone in her house in the woods and no one is coming—COVID–it’s understood.

She’s thinking she’ll buy herself a cake with gooey white frosting or buy a mix to bake,

maybe get a big fat burger and a vanilla shake, but she’s lactose intolerant, oh well, just the cake.

A card or two may arrive in the post, but it’s likely on Facebook she’ll get the most

birthday greetings from friends far and near; she’ll “like” them, the next day they’ll all disappear.

She’ll wait for packages outside her door when really she needs to go to the store

because her day is senior discount day and dog food is pricey so she’ll go, okay?

And maybe the birthday fairy will come but probably not because there isn’t one

and an unwatched United Parcel truck is more likely to come, that’s the luck,

and 69 looks a lot like 68, but oh my God, 70, there’s a sad fate,

but never mind, it hasn’t happened yet, day by day, let’s all forget

because age is just a number, true, it’s who you are and what you do

and she’s got good genes although her jeans are ripped but it doesn’t show,

she’s lucky she made it to 69, lonely yes, but mostly fine.

Except for the aching back and feet, in her head she’s only 17,

and that’s the way she plans to stay until her far-off dying day.

When she sings “happy birthday to me,” for once the song will be on key.

***

Okay, so I got a little crazy with the rhyming this morning, but hey, birthdays for grownups are not what they were when we were kids. I used to wake up surrounded by presents my mom had sneaked onto my bed. I opened them before breakfast–which was whatever I wanted to eat. I wore new clothes to school, the teacher made a big deal of my birthday, family came over in the evening with more presents, and there was cake, so much cake. My favorite was when my mom made chocolate cake frosted with Cool Whip.

At my age, it’s different. My father used to say “it’s just another day,” but it’s not. I know I’ll be awake, chanting “I’m 68, I’m 68,” waiting for the clock to strike 4:10 a.m., the time that I was born at the old O’Connor Hospital in San Jose. I tell myself I won’t, but I will. Maybe it’s a Pisces thing. Happy b-day to all my March-born friends and family. We are special.

***

This week, I have lowered the price on the Kindle version of my most recent book, Love or Children: When You Can’t Have both, to 99 cents. How can you resist that? While you’re on the Amazon page, click my name, see all my books and buy a few. That would be a nice birthday present. 

This is my 600th post at Unleashed in Oregon! Happy birthday to the blog, too. Thank you all for reading what I write. If you like it, spread the word.

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Remembering Chocolate Truffles and Red Roses

I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day. All that pressure to do something romantic. And now that I’m alone, well frankly I’m glad when this day is over. The best thing about today is the return of American Idol on ABC.

When my late husband Fred was alive and well, he did people’s taxes as a second job. Feb. 14 falls in the middle of tax season. He was buried in papers, and the phone rang constantly. Not a good time to take a holiday, but he was a romantic guy, and he tried.

After we moved to Oregon in July 1996, he kept his tax practice in California and spent late January through the end of March in San Jose, which meant I was usually alone on Valentine’s Day.

There was that one year when I drove down, and Fred went overboard, taking me to a ritzy restaurant in Los Gatos where it was so crowded it took forever to get our food and the prices were so crazy I was afraid to order what I really wanted. He was stewing about all the returns waiting for his attention, and I really wanted to watch the men’s Olympic figure skating finals on TV. We decided not to try that again. But that was back when we had no idea what was coming.

By 2002, he was showing signs of memory loss and confusion, but his Alzheimer’s was not officially diagnosed until November 2004. In January 2009, his condition had worsened to the point he could no longer live at home. He died in April 2011. But in between, there were still some precious times. I share these excerpts from my not-yet-published memoir “Alzheimered.”

2006: It was late, and Fred was already in bed. As I reread my Valentine’s Day card for him before leaving it at his place on the table, I cried. It was an emotional card that talked of our deep love over the years carrying us through the good and bad and always there to keep us going forever. I had to put the card down and walk away to keep from getting it wet with my tears.

The next morning, after a series of nightmares, I dragged myself out to the kitchen. At my place on the table, I saw a folded sheet of paper. It was a beautiful note of love for the things I do and thanks and appreciation for the hugs and kisses. It ended “Be My Valentine” and was signed by Fred, with a heart.

I met him in the hall. “Better than a store-bought card,” I said, stepping over the dog to embrace him. He began to cry. I urged him to open my card, which made him cry harder. We held each other, both weeping.

“I love you so,” he said.

“I love you. Please forgive me when my voice is harsh, when I lose my patience.”

  “I do.”

   After breakfast, Fred went out to buy me flowers.

A dozen red roses. Velvety, deep red, the stems green, the leaves soft and healthy. A moment of sweetness as I trimmed the stems, put the roses in water and set the crystal vase on the table.

“Those look good there,” Fred said.

A moment later, he frowned. “Do you have my card?”

His debit card. No. He searched his wallet and his pockets. He searched the truck. The card was gone. “I’m useless,” he muttered.

“No, you’re not. It could happen to anyone.”

But when a man has Alzheimer’s, I’m sure he would like to do something completely right at least once in a while.

Weeks later, after I had canceled our cards and ordered new ones, I would find the missing debit card in Fred’s shirt pocket.

On Valentine’s Day in 2007, I assumed Fred wouldn’t realize what day it was. I hadn’t gotten him anything except a silly card. At breakfast, Fred set at my place a beautiful card with words of love that made me cry and a box of four jewel-like chocolate truffles from the candy factory near the Yaquina Bridge. Each the size and shape of an egg, they were decorated with sprinkles, one light chocolate, one dark, one green with mint inside, and one red with cherry filling.

He had written on the card “I love you so much.” He once had beautiful handwriting, but now the letters were shaky. It didn’t matter. The gift had to be his idea because his caregivers didn’t know about the candy factory or that I loved those little boxes of truffles.

“I didn’t get you a present,” I said.

“You’re my present,” he replied.

“God, I love you.”

Dr. Seuss wrote: Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

It did happen. It was beautiful. I am so lucky to have had Fred.

I wonder if the candy store by the bridge has any of those truffles left.

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear friends. Give your sweety a big hug and kiss and enjoy your day.

***

During the month of February, if you sign up for my mailing list on the form below, I will send you a free paperback copy of my book Shoes Full of Sand. To make that happen, send me an email at sufalick@gmail.com to tell me you signed up and give me your mailing address. If you already have that book, pick another from my catalog at https://www.suelick.com/books. I promise I will not drive you crazy with emails.

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