Emergency time-out

Dear friends,
My husband fell and has been in the hospital this week. He will not be coming home for a while if ever, due to a long-term illness that has gotten much worse. I have been looking at nursing homes. So I have not been able to post anything new this week, but I will as soon as possible. The newsletter will also be delayed. Thanks for your understanding. Please feel free to post your own questions, comments and ideas while I’m doing the hospital shuffle.

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The ghost of William Stafford was there

Last night, nobody came to our Happy Birthday William Stafford poetry reading and that was fine with us. We three women watched the clock tick past 7, realized we were the only people coming, kicked off our shoes and gathered around the boom box to listen to a CD of the former Oregon poet laureate at his last public reading before he died in 1993.

Host Marianne Klekacz, who had optimistically set about 30 chairs in a circle in the Newport Library meeting room, couldn’t understand why all those folks who had said they’d be there weren’t. Their loss. Marianne, Dorothy Mack and I, co-coordinators of the Oregon Coast Branch of Willamette Writers, munched cookies and listened to this down-to-earth poet read and talk about his work as if he were right there in the room. His voice and style reminded me of Woody Guthrie.

Most Oregon poets are crazy about Stafford, whom I had never heard of before I moved here from California. He was American Poet Laureate in 1970 and Oregon Poet Laureate from 1975 to 1993. He published 67 books, including Traveling through Dark, which won the National Book Award, and Stories That Could Be True: New & Collected Poems. For all the Stafford facts, visit the Friends of William Stafford site.

What impresses me most about Stafford is his work ethic. He got up before dawn to write a poem every day, including the day he died. Considering he lived almost 80 years, that’s a lot of poetry.

Last year we had a big crowd at the Stafford reading, including people who had known him in life. This year, we were competing with a big literary event in Lincoln City, plus the inauguration of President Barack Obama. So we sipped our tea and ate our cookies and listened to Stafford. Weary of the hard blue chairs and tired of staring at the “state flowers” quilt on the wall, I slipped to the floor and did some yoga stretches on the turquoise carpet, keeping my body busy while my brain followed the poet’s words. I have a feeling he would have approved, saying, “Go ahead. Make yourself comfortable.” It was a well-spent evening.

***
Our Willamette Writers chapter usually meets on the first Tuesday of the Month. On Feb. 3, we will welcome Samantha Ducloux Waltz, who has written essays for many magazines, newspapers and anthologies, including A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s, which has one of my stories, too. She’s going to share how to write and sell personal essays. The program is at the Newport Library, 7 p.m., free as always. Snacks will be provided, but no ghosts.

The Tide Goes Out at Sea Towne

Sea Towne, a maze of bleached-board ramps and stairways, with a lifelike wooden sailor sitting in the courtyard, and soft music playing from hidden speakers, is Newport’s only so-called mall, but like the wood it’s made out of it, this charming sea of shops on Highway 101 between Subway and Sears has been fading for a long time.

Before my twice-monthly meetings in one of the offices there, I often stop at the Sea Towne bookstore. Owner Bill Terry has been a great supporter of local authors, hosting book-signings, displaying our works prominently, welcoming us like old friends. Since he first heard about Stories Grandma Never Told, my book about Portuguese women, he always says the same thing: Did I tell you my ex-wife was Portuguese? Yes, I say, you did.

In November, I did a signing there to promote A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s. The handful of sales I made that day were the only sales, he said. As I sat at my little table with my books spread before me, I noticed some of the shelves were bare. The faltering economy, plus the growing trend to buy books from the big online outlets, has hit independent bookstores hard. Why drive all the way to Sea Towne, where you probably won’t find the book you’re looking for, when you can order it from Amazon with a few keystrokes?

So yesterday, I was sad but not surprised to find Bill’s old store empty. A sign on the window noted that the future occupants had applied for a liquor license. Another sign, handwritten in black felt pen, noted that the bookstore had moved “around the corner.”

I followed the signs until I discovered Bill’s new store. It’s much smaller, the walls inside a startling shade of yellow. There was Bill, leaning on the counter. He had planned to go out of business at the end of last year, he said. Nobody was buying, and with the snow that smacked Oregon during the holidays, the Christmas rush never happened. He’s still trying to figure out how to fit his books into the reduced space. Four banks of magazines have been reduced to one, and the children’s section, once a sizable nook, is just one wall now. Right away Bill started apologizing for not having my books in a prominent display. No, no, no, I said. It’s still here; that’s all that matters.

I’ll be honest. I buy most of my books from Amazon.com. It’s just easier, but I ordered three from Bill in December and another one yesterday. If nobody shops at the bookstores, they’ll disappear.

The bookstore isn’t the only Sea Towne shop experiencing a sea change. The dog boutique is gone. Charisma Gifts has moved out. Several offices upstairs are vacant. As usual, I saw no one at the restaurant where the owners valiantly put up mouth-watering menus every day, serving a handful of customers at most.

Sea Towne still has a clothing shop, a home decorating business, a dance studio and numerous psychiatrists’ and counselors’ offices. I believe the key shop, a tiny cubbyhole opposite the elevator, is still going but it’s only open sporadically.

Sea Towne is becoming a ghost town, haunted by that wooden sailor who looks so real I always feel as if I need to say hello. My footsteps echo on the wooden planks. It feels as if everyone else has jumped ship.

Off Highway 20

BURNT WOODS, OR.–Out in the middle of nowhere, you park on the gravel amid the pickup trucks, step past a nodding chicken and a dog sleeping on the porch, and walk into a cafe that smells of pancake syrup and old wood. Four guys in baseball caps sit at the next table. An old fellow in overalls leans on the counter talking to the middle-aged woman in the kitchen.

Open the stained menus. The food is hearty, biscuits and gravy, cheeseburgers and fries, chicken fried steak and hash browns, all served with giant unmatched cups of strong coffee. Vegetarians have one choice: grilled cheese sandwiches.

Before you know it,you’re involved in a conversation with the other customers, whether it be the Beavers and the Ducks, the snow up the road or the price of gas. The four guys are working on the clearcut up the hill you can see through the dusty windows. The last of the loggers, regulars at the cafe, will soon head back to work.

A teenage daughter in torn jeans wanders through, clearing sticky plates. The cook’s husband stops at the four-top, pulling up a chair, leaning his thick arms on the table.

After all these years, we still feel a little like outsiders, Californians in disguise, but we’re getting the hang of it, the denim, fleece and flannel wardrobe, the lack of boundaries, mud on our shoes, and the warm, comfortable diners like the Burnt Woods Cafe that serve as country living rooms where we all get warm and fed and catch up with the news.

Lozenge on my teeth

As I crawl into bed, the wind huffs and puffs against the walls and windows. Outside, the trees bend and dip. Patio furniture scatters like Lego toys. Pine needles turn the street orange. When I turned the TV off, the news was all about snow in Portland. Again. Here on the coast, we have had precipitation in the form of snow, hail, and rain. It has come down in puffs, rocks, needles, sheets, drizzles and gully-washers. The extended forecast? More of the same. It’s enough to make a born-again Oregonian scream, “I want to go home!” I want to make like the Canada Geese and fly south in the fall. But of course, no one can afford to buy a house these days, especially in the Bay Area. So we put on our slickers and waffle-stompers and go on.

***
One of my jobs is assistant director of the contemporary choir at Sacred Heart Church, over the bridge in Newport. It’s a wonderful brick edifice opened the year I was born, very old-fashioned inside with creaky blond-wood pews, lots of statues and a giant dying Jesus on the cross up front, much like the church I grew up in before it got modernized. The choir sits in chairs on a plywood platform to the right of the altar.

Our director’s husband had open heart surgery last month. I was in charge the whole month of December. However, she was coming back yesterday and wanted to pick out the music, as well as play the piano. Fine. I needed a break. However, she didn’t actually pick out the music until late Saturday night and she was going to be very late on Sunday. She e-mailed the list of songs to the choir, but I was the only one who was online at that point. I had hoped to get to church early and organize the music, but somehow when my alarm rang, I shut it off and went back to sleep, waking up an hour later. It was a miracle that I managed to shower, eat breakfast, dress and be in the car at 9:15.

When I arrived, the choir was in a dither. Although she didn’t have the list of songs, another choir member had already started trying to do the music. There were papers everywhere, and nobody knew what was going on. I was singing the psalm and had not practiced it. Meanwhile there were microphones and music stands to set up. We were still figuring things out as we tumbled out of the chapel into the sanctuary. Father Brian stopped us early in verse two of “We Three Kings”. I thought he had paused to welcome our director back. But no, the number on the board was wrong. He asked us to start the song over from the top so the congregation could sing along. Lord, Lord.

When I went up to the lectern for my solo, I was still sucking a throat lozenge, trying to chase off the gunk in my throat. I had to either get rid of it or sing with this chunk of yellow stuff in my mouth. So there I stood on the altar, biting down, feeling as if the crunching sound was so loud the reader could surely hear it. In fact, it might be going out over the microphone across the whole church. Crunch. Crunch. Swallow. I had pieces of lozenge stuck to my teeth. Picture me clutching my choir book, gazing the over the lector’s shoulder at the sacred words, and trying like crazy to push the sticky lozenge remainders off my teeth with my tongue. There’s a period right after sucking a lozenge when your throat is still adapting to it not being there, and that’s when I took my place at the microphone, nodding at Mary Lee to play the introduction. I had no idea what would come out.

It could have been worse. We got through Mass and even received some applause. After Mass, for the first time since I woke up and saw what time it was, I could finally breathe. I thought my voice had sounded a little raspy, plus this was the psalm with all the place names, like Tarshish and Sheba, but a couple I met during coffee and donuts after Mass gushed over my beautiful voice. “What a gift,” the woman said.

Naturally I decided to ditch everything to become a world-famous singer. Again. But at this point in life, I’ll settle for famous in Newport. That and a maple bar washed down with Ruby Mist tea.

Rain? What rain? Ah, the artist’s ego.

BLTA and Fries

DEC. 30, SOUTH BEACH, OR–After yoga class, feeling fit and flexible, I cruise over to Flashbacks for a thoroughly un-yogic lunch. I can hear the music as I get out of the cars. Beatles. The Rubber Soul album.Through the windows I see two middle-aged women, their brown hair in upswept dos. There’s nothing left in their red baskets except grease and salt.

I push through the door, pass the grab-a-toy game, and gaze at the much-erased and rewritten specials board: Cheeseburger, fries and medium drink, $5.95. Shake of the day? Pumpkin. Soup? Chicken noodle. Pie? Apple.

A waitress clad in a red Flashbacks tee shirt approaches, menu in hand. Before she can lead me to window area, I ask if I can sit in one of the corner booths by the ice cream counter.

Ah, my table. It’s warm, private, and the red vinyl seat isn’t torn yet. “I Love Lucy” posters hang over my head as I take off my coat, open my book and settle in.

I remember when this place was new. About 10 years ago, I interviewed the original owners for the News-Times. They had a vision of an old-time 1950s diner where all the kids would hang out. The juke box played more Elvis than ’60s music in those days. Yellowed copies of Popular Science graced every table for pre-dinner reading. The waitresses wore poodle skirts, and every now and then they’d stop everything to do a dance number.

Ah, those were the days. But the owners had another restaurant, The Chalet, at the other end of town, and running both was too much. Plus Flashbacks soon gained a reputation for miserably slow service. It was a great place for meetings because you had plenty of time to talk, but if you just wanted to eat and go, not so good.

The new owners have dropped some of the 50s kitsch and speeded up the service. They also added pizzas to the menu, but it’s the burgers and ice cream dishes that make it worth the trip. As the only place open for dinner every night in South Beach and located within walking distance of two hotels, Flashbacks is well situated to survive in this tourist-based economy. With the new college opening up the hill next year, things will only get better.

Today, it’s Christmas vacation. I watch as skinny young girls peruse the ice cream tubs. “I want some of that and that and. . . ” Lilly, a tiny efficient waitress, dishes up ice cream, tosses on sprinkles, sprays whipped cream from a can. She mixes trays full of milkshakes, served in big glasses with the leftovers in tall tin cups like the old days. In between, she runs the cash register and waits on regulars like me.

I order my usual, the BLTA. That’s a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with avocado. It comes with a ton of crispy fries that I wash down with iced tea. I read my book and spy on the other customers.

A father tells his little boy, “I hear they have a game where you can drive a car.” I nod to myself. They do. Three of them in the next room, which is set up so the tables face a mural of a drive-in theater like the one that used to sit across the highway. Beyond that is a glassed-in room full of video games.

I’m not doing a commercial here. Some of the dinner items aren’t so good, and there’s something odd about the pizza sauce, but Flashbacks is a great place for boomers to take their kids and grandkids. Mom-types like me sit there singing with the jukebox while their embarrassed offspring play games until the food is ready. The kids don’t care about the Three Stooges or the Beatles or Elvis, whose pictures cover the walls, nor are they excited by the life-size cutouts of John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe on the way to the restrooms, but the folks enjoy the memories.

My BLTA tastes especially delicious today. Mayonnaise oozes out the sides, and thick slices of bacon hang over the edges of the bread. Soon my hands are covered with mayo and avocado. And the fries, oh the fries, crisp on the outside, soft and hot on the inside. I read and eat and observe.

At the table across the way, two kids drive the cardboard Corvette convertibles their food came in across the red-and-chrome Formica table. A fat guy wearing pajama bottoms pays at the register. An attractive woman with hard-soled boots and tight jeans clomps up behind him. A mother and daughter study the ice cream. Bubble gum or mint chocolate chip? The owner rushes out of the pizza kitchen, wearing an apron, a black scarf tied pirate-style around his head. “How ya doin’?” he says, not stopping on his way to the grill.

The phone rings, muffled video games jingle from the back room, conversation murmurs like the nearby ocean, and I sing “Under the Boardwalk” with the jukebox as I read, sated and content.

It’s going to take a lot of sun salutes to work this off, but I don’t care. Live in the moment. Ommmm.

Christmas at Georgie’s

We ate Christmas dinner sitting side by side at a table overlooking the ocean at Georgie’s Beachside Grill in Newport, OR. After days of snow and ice, the air had warmed up enough that we just had rain. The sky offered an ever-changing show of white, blue and thunder-gray, and the sea, a froth of white and aquamarine, covered the entire beach. Living here, we often forget to look at the ocean so near our home, but we had plenty of time on Christmas. Until the food came, it was that or look at ourselves in the mirror on the far wall.

One might expect most people to be at home with their loved ones, opening presents, eating monstrous meals, everyone talking at once, but it was just the two of us, plus many other couples and family groups who decided not to cook. Our one expected guest, our son Michael, was still snowed in and couldn’t get here from Portland, and I decided it was not a holiday for me if I had to spend the day in the kitchen.

The “Grill” part of Georgie’s name is a misnomer. Located next to the Hallmark Hotel, it is an elegant restaurant with white tablecloths, crystal glasses, candles, staff in white shirts and black pants, soft music, the whole bit. For Christmas, one could have anything on the regular menu, but the specials were the best deal. For $18.95, we got plates loaded with turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy,sweet potatoes and green beans almondine, followed by our choice of a four-berry cobbler covered with vanilla bean ice cream or a chocolate lava cake. We walked out of there so full it hurt. We didn’t need another meal that day. We just nibbled on some of the many cookies and candies sent by loved ones.

While we were filling up on actual food, our dog Annie was eating half of her brother Chico’s red collar. We’re talking thick, heavy-duty stuff. Upon arriving home, we realized Chico was naked. I soon spotted half of his collar on the grass. Luckily it was the half with the buckle and tags. Poop-scooping over the next three days showed us where the other half went. Annie. It didn’t seem to bother her.

Enjoy the rest of the holidays, and, as I keep telling the dogs, “If it ain’t food, don’t eat it.”