Why Would Candidates Want to Do This?

Today I'm sharing a poem I wrote a while back inspired by the Democratic
presidential debates back when there were a dozen people on the stage. Last
night's debates had fewer candidates but a lot more heat. Now I have no idea
who to vote for.  

They all want to be president.
I don’t understand these men
in their presidential suits and their
presidential ties, these women
in presidential dresses and heels
lined up behind presidential podiums
as if they weren’t all Democrats
clutching identical lists of talking points:
abortion, health care, taxes,
economy, immigration, peace.

They joust with veiled insults
to be played on CNN for days.
This one’s too old, this one too young,
this one voted for war back then.
This one wobbled on birth control.
Yeah well, that one lied about his job.
Time’s up, but no one stops.
Asked to be silent, the audience
cheers. Moderators fight for control.
I change the channel to “Jeopardy.”

They all want to be president,
to spend their days in presidential suits,
no cash or keys in their pockets,
followed by security men with guns, 
can’t even go to the presidential john
without someone taking note, every
utterance a presidential quote,
a stubbed toe a major incident.
Anybody worth the presidential job
wouldn’t stand in line for this.

 

The Photo I Won’t Be Sharing on Instagram

Car driver license womanDoes anybody like their driver’s license photo? It’s like they purposely catch you when you’re making a goofy face, and then you’re stuck with it for years. Right?

I did like one of mine. Back in California, the day I turned 40, I got all dolled up—hair, makeup, a flattering outfit, contact lenses—and my picture came out great. I not only aced the test, but I looked beautiful. If only I could have kept that license forever. No such luck.

Friday, getting squirrelly from too many rainy days in the house, I decided to get my license renewed. It was going to expire in a month, so why not get it done?

The Department of Motor Vehicles in Newport is different from big city DMVs. You don’t wait long, and the workers are relatively friendly. Also, everything is in English, and all the people are white. I’m about as brown as we get.

I walked in, saw they had a new take-a-number machine. This one was like they have in parking lots. Push the button, it spits out a ticket. Uh-oh, I got #13.

Before I could sit down, the shaggy-haired worker at the middle window called #13. It was all very quick. Still this height? Actually not quite. Weight? Unfortunately yes. Still need glasses? I pointed to the spectacles on my face. I answered a few more questions on paper: Vision corrected? Yes. Driver’s license suspended? No. Do I use drugs or alcohol to the extent that it would impair my driving? What fool would answer yes to that? Sign here, take the eye test. Read this line, see this flashing light, done. Pay $40.

Next step, the photo: I thought I was ready. Good hair day, check. Makeup, check. Flattering outfit, check. Sign here, take off your glasses, look here, snap. Wait, was I making a face?

Oh, yes I was. He typed a while and printed out my temporary license, handing it to me without comment. What the heck was I doing with my mouth? I was definitely making a weird face. Did I want to live with this for four more years? Not any more than I want to live with a certain president for that much longer.

“Can we try the photo again?” I asked. It’s not like anybody else was waiting.

He said it would cost another $26. He did not seem eager to do it. I’ll live with it, I said, and slunk out to my car. I sat there a while staring at my temporary license. I had nothing but time on my hands. I had $26. I went back in.

I took another number, 16, went up to a new guy, bald with a goatee and pictures of his nine (!) daughters taped all around his cubicle. He handed me a new license application. I had to start over, except for the eye test. Sign here. Pay here. Back to the camera. Not a word of sympathy, instruction or encouragement. I took off my coat, sat in the chair, looked at the lens, started to smile. Click.

Again, I was handed the temporary license without comment. Well, I didn’t look ridiculous. But my smile was only half-formed, and the circles under my eyes stood out. Oh well. I could see this guy had no patience for prima donnas. At least my hair looked good, and the colors will be nice on the permanent license. It’s me, just not my favorite version of me.

All of this took less than a half hour.

Oregon has some strange rules. I remember my dad sweating out the written test every time he renewed his license. They made him do it quite often once he passed 70. But here, I have only taken the “knowledge” test once, a month after Fred and I moved to Oregon in 1996. We sat side by side with our paper tests and #2 pencils. I had been so busy unpacking I hadn’t studied much. The laws, speed limits for example, were just different enough from the laws in California that I got confused. People sitting outside the testing area teased us as if this were a contest.

Well, Fred won. Perfect score. I passed by one point. That was 23 years ago. Why would they assume I still remember the rules? Never mind. I brought home the rulebook, and I’ll read it one of these days. The photo was challenge enough. That, and figuring out what my hair color was now that the white hairs have come out in force. I decided they wouldn’t go for “tweed.” I wrote down black, being optimistic.

Going back for another picture was embarrassing, but at least people won’t laugh whenever I show them my license. Although everyone needs a good laugh.

Ah, Oregon.

Tell me about your DMV photo experiences. Have you ever asked for a do-over?

Money’s not the only measure of success

Where have I been, you wonder. Me too. So much has changed in the last few months that I hardly know where to start. My father died. My childhood home was sold. My first book of poems was published, and another is coming soon. I got my ears pierced and changed my hairdo. I left my job at Sacred Heart Church and joined a new church where, instead of piano, I’m playing mandolin and I don’t get paid (but it’s a lot more fun).

The pellet stove that used to heat my house is gone, replaced by a gas fireplace and a propane tank in the yard. I just got a new phone last week to replace the one that couldn’t hold a charge anymore. Even the laptop on which I am typing this is new.

So many evenings, I still think: gotta call Dad. Then I remember: I can’t do that anymore.

What isn’t new is that I still get up, feed the dog, say my prayers, shower, eat breakfast, and report to work in my home office, where I write, rewrite, send work out to publishers, and manage my book promotion activities. What do I do? I’m a writer. Yes, I’m also a musician, but forced to choose one vocation, it’s writing. How long have I been doing it? Since I could grip a pencil and make squiggles on a page.

The new chapbook coming in March will be my 10th book. I have long ago lost track of how many articles, essays, and poems I have published. That means I’m a success, right? Well, it depends on how you measure success.

My dad left me a little money, enough that I’m talking to the bank’s investment people and I’m not doing my own taxes this year. Adios, Turbotax. I wish Dad had spent the money on himself, but here it is. The first investment guy I talked to—who quit soon after—dismissed my writing as a hobby. He said since it wasn’t bringing in much income, I don’t have to do it anymore. Say what?

When I met with the second investment person, I led with the news that I am professional writer and it’s important to me, and money isn’t the only measure of success. She was like, “Yes ma’am. Noted. Now, what other income do you have . . . . ?”

My father thought it was a hobby, too. Like Mom’s knitting. For him, money was the only measure of success.

The third investment advisor, a friendly guy young enough to be my grandson, was impressed by my achievements and by how long I’d been doing the writing thing for pay—1973!—but he repeated that the numbers were too small to affect my “portfolio.” Considering that I left my church job and am not looking for another paying job, he asked, “Can we say you’re retired?”

“Yikes. I guess so.” I have always said I am not retiring until I die, but whatever. You can’t argue with numbers, and I’m too busy with my writing and music to get a job.

When I met with my new tax person, a woman named Sharon, stylish and in her 70s, she did not mince words. When was the last year you made a profit on your writing, she asked, staring at my 2018 Schedule C (profit and loss for sole proprietor business). Um . . . not in recent history, not since I traded journalism for “creative writing.” She proceeded to tell me what I already knew, that the IRS would consider my writing a hobby and would not allow me to deduct my expenses. Looking more closely, she said I could use some of it as “volunteer” expenses and “volunteer” miles. What about those spreadsheets on which I so diligently record my income and expenses? Oh, keep it up; it’s a good thing to do. But forget the Schedule C. My writing income will now be listed under “miscellaneous income.”

She was a lot more excited about the dribs and drabs I give to charity. Oh yeah, make a list of those.

When it comes to being a writer, the whole money question is irrelevant. You can write your heart out and not earn much money, whether your work is published extensively or not at all. There’s always a chance that your book will become a best-seller and money will come pouring in, but most of the writers I admire have day jobs teaching or coaching or editing. Remember, William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Agatha Christie was a pharmacist. Wallace Stevens sold insurance. Kurt Vonnegut worked in PR, sold cars, and taught English.

In “Making a Living as a Writer,” Jennifer Ellis tells the hard financial truths of the writing biz. Fewer than 1,000 fiction writers in North America make a living at it, she says. The odds are better than they are for winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning, but not much. It’s worse for poets.

If I weren’t as old as I am, and if I didn’t have Social Security and a portion of my late husband’s pension, I would still be churning out newspaper articles–if I could find a job–or, God forbid, working as a secretary somewhere and resenting every minute it took away from my writing.

I don’t write for the money. Otherwise, I’d do something else, something that pays. Nor do I sing and play for the money. It doesn’t matter to me, as long as I have enough to pay my bills. But I live in a world where money is supposed to matter. So I meet with the money people, do what they say, and then show up for work in my office every morning except Sunday because that’s what I intend to do until I can’t do it anymore.

So there.

For information about my books, visit https://www.suelick.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Hereby Reject Their Rejections

In the first 17 days of this year, 12 different publishers rejected my poems and essays. That’s a lot, more than I have ever received in a bunch before. I belong to an online group that tries to get 100 rejections a year, reasoning that the more we send out, the better our chances of getting published. So far, I’m winning, but it’s a dubious honor, a contest I’d rather lose. Last year, I made it to 68 rejections, but I also had several individual poems, two essays, and two chapbooks accepted for publication. I thought I was on a roll.

Twelve rejections. After number 10, I prayed to God to not send anymore. Number 11 arrived that day. The next day looked like it would be rejection-free, but when I checked my email at bedtime, there was number 12. I cried.

In the olden days, rejections came in the mail. The “rejection slips” came in all different sizes and colors, and writers told each other that if the editor added a handwritten note, that meant they were on the verge of success. Now, most rejections come by email and they look pretty much the same. Thank you for letting us see your work. We regret to inform you that we will not be able to use it. Good luck with your writing. The chart on Submittable, the online app that most publishers use for submissions these days, changes the listing for your piece from “in progress” to “declined.” There’s nothing to hang on the wall and no break from rejection between mail deliveries.

It’s hard not to doubt your ability in the face of so much rejection. About half of my current rejections came from contests in which I did not win or place, including one I thought was a sure thing. I was a finalist in that one twice before. Ah, humility, one of the virtues. Practically speaking, I’m aware that the editors have just come back from the holidays and are clearing their desks for new rounds of submissions. It’s just a matter of timing.

It’s tempting to say my writing sucks and give up, in spite of the people who have told me they like my writing. My essay in Creative Nonfiction last year was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My writing does not suck, and I am not quitting. I know all the reasons for rejections, including the sheer volume of submissions that make the odds very tough. Sometimes it’s just not the right flavor. They want lemon and I sent strawberry. Sometimes they just have way too much strawberry already. Sometimes they prefer rhubarb.

We like to think of our stories and poems as art, but once we start submitting them to editors, they become products. We know from our own shopping experiences that we don’t buy everything presented to us. I once published an article comparing this writing biz to shoe shopping. Sometimes the customer doesn’t really need shoes; they’re just looking. Sometimes they want shoes but not that style or that color or that size. The shoe salesman doesn’t take it personally when they walk out without buying anything. Thus it is with our writing. If one customer says no, we try another.

Think about selling vacuum cleaners door to door. If the first person says no, we knock on another door. Sometimes we have to knock on an awful lot of doors before someone says yes. But sometimes that one person who says yes tells all her friends, who also want to buy what you’re selling. Suddenly you’re selling lots and lots of vacuum cleaners. That’s what we want.

An article in the current issue of Poets and Writers magazine suggests that rejection is a good thing. It forces us to present our very best work and to keep trying harder. And I do. After decades of writing and publishing, I know the drill. Record the rejection and find somewhere else to send the work. Take another look to make sure it’s still as good as you thought it was. Tweak as needed to fit the new market, and send it out again. Meanwhile, keep the word factory going because the writing is more important than the selling.

There will be days you wish you took up a different trade. Plumbing, for example. Who would reject a plumber?

On the happy side of the biz, I have a poetry chapbook, Gravel Road Ahead, out now. You can order it at Amazon or through your favorite local bookseller, as well as at the publisher, Finishing Line Press. My next chapbook, due out March 15, is The Widow at the Piano: Confessions of a Distracted Catholic. You can preorder it now from The Poetry Box.

Whatever God has given you to do, keep at it. If you haven’t earned 100 rejections, keep trying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distracted Catholic confesses via poems

Cover-Front-WidowPiano(web) 2Happy new Year! That greeting falls a little flat this week in view of events in the Middle East and the wildfires in Australia. The parties are over, and the weather is wet, windy and dark. Bleh, right? What’s left to look forward to?

I have something: a new book! The Widow at the Piano is another poetry chapbook, following fast on the heels of Gravel Road Ahead, which came out in October. The two are quite different. Gravel Road Ahead follows my Alzheimer’s journey with my late husband. Readers say they have found it comforting and inspiring.

The Widow at the Piano, subtitled Confessions of a Distracted Catholic, is bound to get me in trouble, although early readers have pronounced it smart, sassy, touching and funny. You see, it’s about being Catholic and playing the piano at church. Any time you get into politics, money or religion, folks are bound to get their dander up, and I’m expecting there will be those who don’t love this book.

That scares me, but I don’t think I have ever published anything that is so “me.” In my years in journalism, we could hide behind our allegedly impartial reporting. In my novels, I could say, “That’s not me.” This book is absolutely me, and I’m bound to take criticism personally.  Oh well, that’s what happens when you’re a writer.

I know I’m not a perfect Catholic. This book lays it out there for the world to see, how sometimes when I pray, I wonder if anyone is listening; how sometimes when I look like I’m praying, I’m analyzing the flower arrangements or wondering what the priest is wearing under his vestments; how sometimes I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch when I’m supposed to be thinking about the body and blood of Christ. Distracted! That woman at the piano is the same woman who goes into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea, finds three other things to do and returns to her desk fifteen minutes later without having started the tea.

And yet, it’s a love story, too. God knows, I love doing music at church. As a widow coming to Mass alone, it gives me a place among all those couples and families. The liturgy is magic, and so is the music. I don’t work anymore at the church I wrote about. I’m at another church playing and singing for free and loving it. I’m considerably less distracted. But one of the virtues of the Catholic Church is that the Mass is the same all over the world, so in a way it doesn’t matter which specific parish I’m writing about.

The Widow at the Piano is available for discounted pre-orders now and is scheduled for publication on March 15. If I were you, I’d order a copy just for the gorgeous cover publisher Shawn Aveningo-Sanders of The Poetry Box has selected. It’s piano porn for those of us who love images of musical instruments.

I will be looking for opportunities to do readings and talks as much as possible in the coming months for both the Widow book and Gravel Road Ahead. Contact me at sufalick@gmail.com if you’re interested. I will be at the Author’s Fair being held next Saturday, Jan. 11 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Newport Public Library.

I started writing poetry as a little girl. I remember carrying around a little spiral notebook that fit in my pocket, writing sing-songy rhymes with a fat pencil with a big eraser. My skills have matured a little since then. Although I have published poetry in various journals and won some prizes, it has taken 60 years for my poems to appear in book form. Suddenly I have two poetry books within six months. So exciting.

I was sitting by my father’s hospital bed when I got the email that Finishing Line Press wanted to publish Gravel Road Ahead. “Dad, they want to publish my book,” I said, my head spinning a little with shock and surprise. Very ill and not a literary guy, he probably said something like “Good” and changed the subject, but it was a big deal for me. Dad is gone now, but I am grateful that in a year of tremendous loss, God sent me these two gifts.

And now I offer them to you. Here’s a teaser from The Widow at the Piano:

IF JESUS CAME TO MY DOOR

I’d say, “Excuse the mess”
He would. He might even
share the couch with the pit bull
and rub her balding belly
as she lies on her back, submissive,
which I probably ought to do, too,
but no, I’d be fixing my hair,
putting my laundry away,
offering Him coffee or tea,
and wondering if He was really He
or if I just let a bad guy in,
someone who would rape, rob, kill
or whip out a Kirby vacuum to sell.
But no, the guard dog’s upside down,
wide open to His blessed hands,
and she knows. She knows.

As we pray for peace and safety, I hope my words can offer some comfort or at least a few minutes of distraction. Just don’t forget the tea kettle.

 

 

Santa Brings the Gift of Easy Heat

IMG_20191224_150027746[1]

It was a Christmas miracle.

I had little hope. I had been waiting since September when I first got the idea and made the the initial call to replace the evil pellet stove fireplace insert with a gas fireplace insert. My father had been urging me for years to convert to gas. I always told him I couldn’t afford it. Now, in the wake of his death, I realized one day that now I could.

I had been fighting the pellet stove for 21 years, almost a third of my life. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have witnessed my struggles. For example, check out https://unleashedinoregon.com/2018/01/16/ding-dong-the-pellet-stove-is-dead. It was not just buying and hauling the 40-pound bags of pressed wood pellets, using a bag a day during the winter. Every couple weeks I’d show up at Copeland’s Lumber in Newport, surrounded by male contractors and home renovators, and ask for 15 bags. $84.75. It never changed. A couple of muscular men would load them in the back of the “Toaster,” sometimes two bags at a time, but those men didn’t come home with me. It was pretty good exercise moving 600 pounds of pellets into the garage and then bag by bag into the living room.

The original Quadrafire insert required frequent cleaning, as ash and sawdust piled up. It was a messy job. Annie fled as soon as I brought the shop vac in. It also required frequent repairs. Igniters died. The ceramic pot cracked. Because this was our main source of heat, we spent weeks in a cold house waiting for parts and repairmen. Yes, we had portable heaters, but they never got the house warm enough. Finally the 25-year-old pellet stove died for good. I called Airrow Heating in January 2018, thinking maybe I could get some kind of electric heat installed.

Airrow is all about ductless heating systems. I couldn’t afford it. I opted to buy another pellet stove. The evil I knew and thought I could afford. The Napoleon model from Canada, which the Airrow guys–not pellet stove specialists–ordered for me, got terrible reviews online with good reason.

Within the first week, the faux bricks behind the fire cracked. WitPellet stove 12518Dhin the first year, the igniter had to be replaced three times. The buildup of ash and rock-hard clinkers was extraordinary. When I tried to vacuum it out, ash spread through the room. It’s still in the crevices of my piano. I breathed it in, and my hands, arms and clothes were blackened.

Toward the end, the pot kept filling up with half-burned ash. Then it overflowed like a volcano, creating little fires where there was not supposed to be fire. One night I was reading on the love seat nearby when a spark landed on my arm. Sparks were flying everywhere. In a panic, I unplugged the beast and beat out all the sparks, leaving black burn marks on my carpet and a rapidly cooling house. Not fun.

IMG_20191031_104811320_HDR[1]That pellet stove cost $6,000, almost as much as the ductless system I could have had. I should have just left the fireplace open and used electric heaters. Or burned wood, like many of my neighbors. One of the hazards of living alone is that you have no one to counter your possibly bad decisions. I regretted every day with that pellet stove.

When the pellet stove died yet again soon after Dad’s funeral, I said, basta, enough. It was less than two years old, barely off the warranty. I didn’t care. I called Coast Hearth and Home. The owner came out to measure and suggest options. Soon I was signing a contract for gas fireplace insert. The insert itself was not as expensive as I feared, but I knew it would be a big deal. We do not have natural gas in this part of the woods. One must buy or rent a propane tank and keep it full. One must also run a gas line under the house from the appliance to the tank.

This turned out to be a long process of multiple visits by the gas company, the Coast Hearth guys and the county inspector. You need permits for all these things. I quickly learned the meaning of “green-tagged” and “red-tagged.” Green tag good, red tag bad.

The Coast Hearth guys, the only such company in the area, are super busy this time of year. The propane company, Ferrellgas, is based in the Willamette Valley, and its workers only come here one or two days a week. They book two to four weeks ahead. I needed to get a ditch dug. I needed to get inspections. The gas guys delivered the tank, but I had to wait two more weeks for a different guy to put propane in it. At last, my set-up was green-tagged. But then, when everything was finally assembled, there was a gas leak. Red tag. Back and forth. Fireplace guys. Gas guys. I got to know them quite well. 

On Christmas Eve, Roger from the gas company came. I told him the leak had been fixed. He said, no it’s still leaking. I will not cry, I told myself, envisioning the process going on until at least New Year’s. But then Roger went out to the truck, got his toolbox, and set to work. I was his only coastal customer that day, and he was not going to leave without getting the fireplace going, even though he said according to company rules he was not supposed to do this.

And it worked. Green tag! The portable heater that kept knocking out circuit number 13 is now unplugged, and we are warm. The fireplace glows with blue and gold flames. There’s no crackling of real wood, no burning wood smell. The flames always look the same, but it is beautiful, and when I go out, I will not come home to a cold house because the stove is out of pellets. No more coal-miner face and hands from cleaning the pellet beast.

I gave away my last seven bags of pellets to a grateful neighbor who gave me a bottle of champagne in exchange.

I’m writing this on Christmas Day. It has taken four months to reach this point. Last night Annie was stretched out by the fireplace, soaking in the warmth. Thanks, Dad. You’re right. This is better.

Merry Christmas, one and all. Be warm and happy.

Musical Instruments, Big and Small

Sue and Harmonica

Our father left my brother and me money. He left us his house. He left an enormous quantity of photos without names on them. He left a pile of paperwork that dates back well into the last century. I filled my car twice with things I wanted to keep: the St. Francis statue I gave him eons ago, my grandmother’s tea set, some of Mom’s jewelry, the crucifixes from the walls, books, movies on VHS tape and DVD, the wooden bears and the howling wolf that I gave him for Christmases past, new sheets that had never been unwrapped, Christmas ornaments, an unopened carton of oatmeal—so much. But there was a lot more to be tossed or given away. Imagine if you were taken out of your home by ambulance and never returned. After 97 years of life and 70 years in that house, Dad left a lot of material things, as well as a lifetime of memories and experiences.

Two items were of particular interest to this musicaholic: Grandpa Fagalde’s accordion and Dad’s harmonica. One is a huge beast, and the other can fit in my purse. I don’t know the history of either instrument, but they live with me in Oregon now.

We had never seen the accordion, weren’t even sure if Dad had it anymore, but my brother found it in the back of the middle bedroom closet in a black case. Since I traveled to the funeral by plane and couldn’t take it home then, Mike stored it at his house, where I claimed it at Thanksgiving. Inside that black pressboard case sat a marvel of engineering and music. It made noise as soon as I touched it, getting me in trouble because Mike’s grandchildren were napping. But I knew nothing about playing accordion, including how to keep it quiet when you weren’t playing it. I thought it just stayed mute until you did something.

IMG_20191216_083728640[1]What can I compare to putting on that accordion? An iron lung? A divers’ air tank? I don’t know. It’s awkward, and it’s heavy. I remember an old friend who had played accordion all his life. His chest and arm muscles were massive. Now I can see why. But I got it on—once I figured out which way was up. Keyboard on the right, buttons on the left.

The 2 ½-octave piano-style keyboard was familiar. I couldn’t see it very well, but once I found Middle C, I could play a tune. But what about the bellows and all those buttons, dozens of buttons? And why did just a few of them have dimples on them? Were they damaged, or were they supposed to be that way?

What kind of accordion was this anyway? Hello, Google. It was a Hohner Tango IM,  worth about $800 today. Grandpa, a frugal wheeler-dealer, probably got it at some secondhand shop. He would not have paid that much. Or maybe he inherited it from someone. Although he told lots of stories, he never told that one, nor did he ever play it when we were around.

Oh, my shoulders. It took me four tries to get the accordion back into the case. Later, I ordered a “how to play the accordion book” from Amazon. Okay, so you play the piano notes, pump the bellows in and out, and push the buttons for the bass notes. They are lined up by key–bass note, major chord, minor chord–but you can’t see them, so it’s all by feel.

I managed to oom-pah, badly, in C, doing two-line songs like the ones on which I learned piano 60 years ago. Musicians know the kind of song, one note at a time, with titles like “Trapeze Waltz” and “Country Picnic.” It went: bellows OUT, C note, C bass, C chord twice, bellows IN, F note, F bass note, F chord, OUT, C note . . . I could feel the power of the bellows, like big lungs breathing in and out, but oh my shoulders, my back, my neck. Not having an in-house chiropractor, I couldn’t play it for long.

Suddenly the piano seems so easy, and the guitar feels blessedly light

My brother poo-pooed the idea, but I really think the accordion was made for a man-sized person with bigger shoulders and a longer torso. Me, it filled from chin to hips. But I’m interested. If I could master this beast, I could take it where I don’t have a piano to play. I would never need to amplify it because it’s naturally loud, a party in a box.

Dad’s harmonica weighs almost nothing. It’s a Marine Band 14-hole model, key of G, a few notes longer than the 10-hole harmonicas that I bought for myself. I don’t know where he got it, although I suspect he bought it during WWII. Did he while away his few spare hours playing it in his tent in Australia or the Philippines? I like to think so. He rarely played it at home. When he did, we kids came running, excited. A harmonica can sound like a party, too. He never played long, but those minutes of music were magic.

Now I have that harmonica in its well-scuffed original red cardboard box, which says Marine Band No. 365, made by M Hohner Germany. It was in the dresser drawer with Dad’s tiny black-and-white photos from the war years.

This instrument I can play. I have had one live lesson and gone through several harmonica books. Instead of the three things you have to do at once on the accordion, you do two on the harp, blow and suck (or draw), and not at the exact same time. Each harmonica is set for a different key, so you can’t go far astray no matter what note you play.

On Thanksgiving, after the grandkids went home, I played my greatest hits on Dad’s harmonica:”O Susanna,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Silent Night.” I can also do “Jingle Bells.” I never practice, and I generally don’t use sheet music for the harmonica. I just breathe in and out and see where the music goes.

I like the idea of playing an instrument I can keep in my pocket. It’s no coincidence that in my novel Up Beaver Creek, someone gives my protagonist PD a green harmonica and she carries it in her pocket after the disaster. I got one just like it in the church choir gift exchange the year I was writing the book. We were at Lee’s Wok. It’s surprising how few people in a restaurant want to hear me play “Jingle Bells” on the harmonica. But to me, it’s magic. Harmonicas don’t even go out of tune. Dad’s must be at least 75 years old, and it sounds fine.

Playing the harmonica is a very intimate thing. It’s in your mouth, right? That’s why that one group lesson I took at California Coast Music Camp was frustrating. The teacher couldn’t see what we were doing with our lips, teeth and tongues. He could only go by the sounds that came out. I spent the whole class trying to “bend” notes, that wah-wah sound you hear when people play the blues. It’s not easy, especially if you’re not playing a “blues harp,” which has thinner reeds that bend more easily. Oh yes, there’s a lot of engineering goes into this little thing.

This website with lots of info about harmonicas warns people to NEVER accept a harmonica that someone else has played because it will harbor whatever diseases they had. But this one came from my father, flesh of my flesh and all that, and whatever germs were in there died long before he did.

I have also learned the hard way that you need to play it with fresh breath and no lipstick.

Harmonicatunes.com gives some history of the harmonica. I would not have guessed that it started in China thousands of years ago. In the 1800s, it moved into Europe, especially Germany, and from there it migrated to the U.S. The Marine Band model, like this one, was introduced in 1896, the year my grandfather was born.

As the site notes, those who think this is just a fun instrument for people who can’t play real instruments are wrong. Check out the recording on the site. It sounds like a fast-moving fiddle, but it’s a harmonica. I’m not quite up to that level yet. Want to hear my “Jingle Bells?” What do you mean, not again?

Can I take it to church? Has anyone heard of liturgical harmonica? Why not?

I have been storing my harmonicas, all 10-holers, in a tin rectangular Campbell’s soup can, but now I need something bigger and softer. I will be looking to buy or make one soon.

And maybe I need to get a Sherpa to hold the accordion while I play it. Imagine the fun a body could have playing both at once: keys, buttons, in and out, blow and suck all at the same time! Hey, Grandpa and Dad both lived into their late 90s. It’s worth a try.

Years ago, when I was flying to Los Angeles for grad school, I had tucked a harmonica into my carry-on. The TSA agent, who hailed from another country, pulled me aside and took out the harmonica. “What is this?” she asked.

“A harmonica.”

She showed no recognition.

“A musical instrument. Do you want me to play it?”

She didn’t want to hear “Jingle Bells either. I suppose on the X-ray, it looked like two flat blades. It took a while to convince her it was not some kind of weapon, although I suppose, in a pinch, you could disable people with those high-high notes. She let me take it on board, but I have not carried a harmonica on a plane since.

I have carried my “harps” in my car. On those long stretches of I-5 between Newport and San Jose, I play a tune now and then. It only takes one hand, and I can still watch the road. Is that distracted driving? I hope I never have to explain it to the Highway Patrol. They really wouldn’t want to hear “Jingle Bells.”

I definitely won’t be playing an accordion and driving at the same time. I promise.

Thanks, Dad, for some very cool Christmas presents. I’ll miss you this year.