Look up from that screen; it’s amazing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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In search of heat in South Beach

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I have turned into one of those women who is always freezing, whose fingers are icy when you shake hands, who wear three times as many layers of clothing as seems logical. It’s not my age, and I certainly haven’t gotten skinny. No, the pellet stove, the main source of heat at my house in the woods, is defunct again. On the Thursday before Christmas, it developed this habit of starting to light a little fire in the pot and then moaning to a stop. No more fire. No heat.

I cleaned it, scraping out a layer of pellets burned into  rock. Surely that would fix it. Nope. Little fire, moan, darkness. I hit reset 10 times that day. No go. I called the stove guy. Got the machine because a hundred other people are having stove problems around here.

The poor stove had been working overtime for weeks, with temperatures staying in the 30s much of the time. Threats of snow and ice had not materialized here yet but Portland and places not far inland were going crazy, with cars sliding all over in the big freeze. Schools and businesses were closed. A friend in Eugene had no power for six days. Not a good time for a dead pellet stove.

I love small towns for their lack of traffic and crowds and the way everybody knows everybody. I love that I can walk into the post office and Valerie grabs my package from the stack because she knows who I am. I can walk into my favorite restaurant and they know I want iced tea with no lemon. I can park my car by the pallets of pellets at Copeland Lumber, and a guy will start loading them into the Element before I even go in to pay. They know I’m getting 15 bags, 600 pounds of processed wood. It’s all good.

But this no-heat business stinks. You see, we have no gas out here in South Beach, unless you install a big expensive tank, and most of the houses were built without electric heating systems. We have baseboard heaters in some rooms, little “Cadet” heaters installed in some walls, but mostly we heat our homes with wood in the form of logs or pellets. Chimneys sprout from every roof, most with metal caps that swing around in the wind.

We used to have two woodstove shops in town. One went out of business. The other is trying to take up the slack, but there are too many stoves out here, and one must wait for an opening to get service. I was lucky the guy made it out here last Wednesday, after only six days and a chilly Christmas. He took one look and declared that I need a new thermocouple, a little piece that sticks out above the burn pot and enables the stove to light and stay lit. He would have to order one. It would not be here before New Year’s. Looking around at my assortment of plug-in heaters, he sympathized. “Well, you have some heat.”

Yes, enough to stay alive but not enough to be comfortable. Plus I have knocked out the circuit breaker six times so far. My electrical system cannot take the added stress of a plug-in heater plus almost anything else in the kitchen. If I want to use the microwave or toaster oven, I need to go without heat for a while. At least now I know exactly what to do when suddenly everything goes dark and silent. It’s number thirteen on the circuit board. My electrician dad says I can’t keep doing this; it’s dangerous. He says you get 20 amps on most circuits. The heater takes 12.5. That doesn’t leave much for extras, and if the refrigerator cycles on, it’s over. Maybe I don’t need the microwave.

The picture above was taken at 10:21 a.m. The sun was shining outside, and the three-foot-tall electric heater I bought with Christmas money two years ago had been on full blast all night. It wasn’t going to get much warmer.

People who live in snow country are thinking I’m a wimp. It’s not like it’s 30 below. I do have sources of heat. Remember the bedroom I moved out of a couple months ago? I have moved back in because that bed has an electric blanket, and I can’t afford to buy one for the other, larger bed. It also has a baseboard heater that I use reluctantly because it’s too close to the sheets. In addition, it has space on the floor for Annie, who can no longer jump up onto the bed and has decided she is not going to freeze alone.

The master bedroom, pretty though it is, is just too cold. In fact, when I was cleaning out Fred’s clothes after he died, most of his neckties had mold on them. It’s that cold and damp back there.

I have a baseboard heater in my office, too, but I only feel it if I’m sitting right here typing and only on my legs. My hands feel like iced bones with a thin covering of skin.

This morning, the frost-crisped lawn and leaves are edged in white. The sidewalk and driveway sparkle with flecks of ice. My phone weather app claims it’s 35 degrees now but feels like 26. I know it’s worse elsewhere. On the radio, the guy said it was below zero in Bend, Oregon. I’m not going to Bend or anywhere east. I’m from San Jose. I don’t do snow and ice.

Next time I go house-hunting, my first question will be: What kind of heat does it have?

Meanwhile, my neighbor across the street walks around his house in shorts as smoke billows out his chimney. It’s actually hot in his double-wide. Maybe it’s time to go borrow a cup of sugar.

May you be warm and healthy in the new year, and may the world come to its senses.

Book nerds gather at Wordstock

img_20161105_134332574_hdr1You know all those socially-challenged people who would rather read a book—or write a book—than anything? Well, about 8,000 of them gathered in Portland, Oregon Saturday for the mega-event known as Wordstock. Unlike at the famous rock concert with the similar name, folks at Wordstock were stoned on books instead of drugs. The stage performances were all about words instead of music, and the only naked people were the sculptures at the art museum. Still, it was pretty mind-boggling. Alice Hoffman over here, Sherman Alexie over there, Richard Russo across the street, workshops all day, books to buy everywhere, oh my God.

img_20161105_122427661_hdr1Wordstock’s hub was the Portland Art Museum, but within easy walking distance, other events happened at seven other venues on the South Park blocks, including the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall, the glorious First Congregational United Church of Christ, and the Oregon Historical Society. Red Wordstock signs appeared everywhere. The people I met leaving the parking garage were also going to Wordstock. Of course. Everyone was going to Wordstock. Well, there was that guy yelling in Spanish at a mannequin in a store window. But everybody else.

I was a Wordstock virgin, compelled to go this year not only because I always wanted to but because I’m now co-coordinator of our Willamette Writers chapter in Newport. We had a table at the Wordstock book fair. If I volunteered a couple hours, I could sell my books.

Portland is a long drive from here. Three hours each way if I’m lucky. Much of it was in the dark, and it was raining the whole time. Blinded by the deluge, I prayed my way home and still can’t believe I survived. I also can’t believe the guys in pickups who passed me going 75 mph on Highway 20. God watch over the people in their path.

So, as a newbie, I had a lot to learn about Wordstock. For example:

* Once you pay your $15 (do it in advance online) and get your red wristband, you can attend any of the talks in any of the many buildings. Just walk in. This blows my mind. I thought you needed to pay more for an extra ticket. Nope.

* Get the program online at Literary Arts or in the Willamette Week newspaper and plan ahead. There is way too much to see and do. Picture a massive buffet at which everything looks delicious, but you can only choose one plate-full. Which do you want more, the lobster or the raviolis?

* Don’t open that door to the stage balcony between shows. I decided I wanted to sneak a peek at one of the theaters and got locked in. Locked double doors on each end of a concrete-floored hallway. Luckily there were stairs. Eventually I wound up in an alley. As the doors shut behind me—locked—I gazed at the wrought iron gates that separated me from the street. What if they’re locked, too? I pictured myself gripping the bars like a prisoner and hollering for help. But they opened.

* Expect to get wet. It’s November in Oregon. You will get wet walking between buildings. You will get wet acquiring food from the food carts. You will get wet trying to find a place to eat that food. Wear your raincoat; think about bringing an umbrella. And don’t even think about complaining about the rain.

* It will be crowded. Did I mention there were 8,000 people there? That’s almost the whole population of Newport. Most of these people are too busy gazing at books, authors, their programs or their phones to watch where they’re going. If you try to take an alternate route, a red-shirted volunteer will herd you back into the stampede. Note that many of the attendees are kids, who get in free.

* If you live far away, stay overnight so you can start Wordstocking the minute it opens and stay to the end. None of this sneaking out to beat the traffic and the darkness, neither of which is actually possible.

* You’re in an art museum. Take time to enjoy the art, too. Featured this year was the work of pop artist Andy Warhol, famous for his Campbell’s Soup Cans and prints of famous people. Wild and colorful stuff.

It’s all pretty amazing and a little daunting for this small-town author who skipped her church bazaar to attend Wordstock (which my phone keeps autocorrecting to Woodstock). Of course I spent more money than I made selling books. I thought I was going to die on the road. But will I go next year? As long as Literary Arts keeps putting it on, I plan to be there. Unless it’s snowing. Maybe even then.

If We’re Going to Sit This Close Together, We Ought to at Least Say Hello

The man next to me in Row 28 of the Alaska Airlines 737 was handsome and tall, nicely dressed in a white shirt and brown slacks. The lady squashed into the window seat was thin, her red hair sparse. None of us spoke to each other the entire two hours we were in those seats. Window woman knitted. Handsome man worked on charts on his laptop. I read on my Kindle. His leg was touching mine for most of the trip, but we did not say a word, not until we landed and I asked him if he was leaving or going home. He was visiting friends in San Jose. I said I used to live in San Jose. I didn’t mention I was here for my cousin’s funeral. Then we got off the plane and rolled our rolly bags away.

Across the aisle, a man with huge headphones watched a movie on his iPad. The guys next to him dozed. In front of him, an Anglo man with equally huge headphones seemed to be reading Chinese on his laptop. Directly in front of me, all I could see was the beige back of the Row 27 seats with menus and the airline magazine in the pocket. I could barely see the window past people’s heads and the wing blocked our view anyway. Might as well read my book.

It’s crazy how people don’t talk to each other anymore. When I got to the gate in Portland, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone already seated at Gate C2 was staring at a phone or laptop. So I got my phone out, too.

On the return trip, where I had the middle seat in Row 29 of 32, the woman on my left had her sunglasses on and read off her tablet from beginning to end. She switched to games on her phone as we landed. My efforts to talk got nowhere. The woman on my right was a little younger and clearly a regular on these flights. She knew the menu and knew the flight attendants. She plugged in her headphones and had her eyes closed or focused on a magazine the whole trip. The whole vibe was “don’t talk to me.”

Everyone seems to want to be alone. We’re all staring at our phones, tablets, computers, and books. We seem to want to become invisible. People used to talk on planes. I remember a trip long ago where I almost had sex with the handsome guy sitting next to me. We talked the whole trip. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore. Aside from a few couples whispering to each other or a baby screeching at takeoff and landing, I hear only the roar of the plane and an occasional garbled announcement from the captain. With WiFi in the plane now, why talk? Right?

I couldn’t help thinking how much more fun it would be with a friend or a mate. We could talk. Also, we could go to the bathroom at the airport without having to take all our stuff. We could share a table at the restaurant with a person instead of a suitcase. We could make wisecracks about all the people staring at their screens.

I think we’re all nervous about flying, about going through security, about the possibility of the plane crashing, about being late. We’re uncomfortable being so close to strangers. I know I’m a bundle of anxiety when I fly. So much so on the return trip Friday that I handed the TSA agent my debit card instead of my ID. That got me a trip to the possible terrorist line. But they let me through.

These days, with no husband or kids, I always travel alone. Flying solo, you have to ask all the questions, do all the planning, and do all the heavy lifting of luggage. And you have no one with whom to share the memories, the laughs and the experiences. I miss that part the most. That and having someone to greet me when I stagger off the airplane at the end of the journey. But you’d think when you’re sharing an armrest, you’d be able to strike up a conversation. And hey guys, we’re 30,000 feet in the air traveling at a ridiculously fast speed. At least look out the window.

In spite of all that, it was a good trip. Lots of hugs, lots of sunshine, lots of quality time with family, one of whom gave me their cold. Rest in peace, cousin Jerry. I’m going to miss you. Thanks for bringing us together.

 

It was all writing all the time

On normal days, I juggle several lives at once. I’m a writer with new writing to write, old writing to sell, and published books to market. I produce three blogs that require my responses to a steady stream of comments, especially my Childless by Marriage blog. I seem to have become the Dear Abby of the childless set. But I’m also a musician with a “day job” as a church choir co-director, plus numerous solo gigs, jams and open mics, and a constant need to practice on the piano and guitar. I also have a massive house and yard to maintain in addition to taking care of myself and my dog—and she’s not much help. Bills, laundry, groceries, doctor appointments, walking the dog, worrying long-distance about my elderly father, trying to find time for my friends . . . you know, real life. Sometimes I get all tied up in knots trying to do it all.

But sometimes I get to run away. Sometimes I get to focus on just one life. That’s what I did last weekend when I drove to Portland for the Willamette Writers conference. I have been part of Willamette Writers since shortly after we moved to Oregon. I co-founded the Oregon coast branch with my friend Dorothy Blackcrow Mack. This year, as part of the new Timberline Review staff, I was there to represent the magazine and celebrate our first issue, to teach a poetry class, and to pitch my unpublished books to editors and agents. I helped judge the Saturday night open mic, too. In between, I participated in workshops that got me inspired, educated and anxious to write, write, write. Tom Robbins was there. I got to study with Jennifer Lauck. I hobnobbed with Bryan Doyle. As equals! Well, almost. I also ate, ate, ate. Those cookies with peanut butter in the middle? OMG!

It was all writing all the time. I could forget everything beyond the Doubletree Hotel. Yes, I kept getting text messages about church choir, and yes, I had to play a funeral Monday morning, and yes, I needed to call the vet, take the car to the shop and a dozen other things, but for three days, all I had to do was eat, sleep, write and talk about writing.

It’s amazing and a bit alarming how many people want to be writers. Hundreds of writers attended this conference, most paying a big chunk of money in the hope of getting that nugget of information or that successful meeting that would rocket their manuscript onto the bestseller list. It happens. Every year, we have success stories, people whose careers were launched at the Willamette Writers Conference. That’s why people keep coming.

It’s a weird conglomeration of folks. Writers are not necessarily social people. They’re more comfortable alone with their books and their computers. The conference setting forces them to “network” and we don’t all do it well, but we do our best. We sit down next to another writer and ask, “What do you write?” Thus the conversation begins.

A central activity all weekend is “pitching” our books to agents and editors. People walk around looking like they might throw up or faint because they’re so nervous as they approach the “pitch marketplace,” a room full of “buyers” sitting at little tables waiting to hear their pitch. This year, we had eight minutes. We were herded in one door and escorted out the other when the organizer shouted “Time!” Handed an evaluation sheet on the way out, we staggered down the hall, some euphoric, some suicidal, most somewhere in the middle. Three out of four agents wanted to see my work. But this is not my first conference. It’s just like speed dating. Maybe there’s a spark, but it might fizzle the next time you meet.

Eventually the conference ended with a last speaker who urged us to “never give up.” Then it was time to take off my lanyard with the card that identified me as part of Timberline Review, as teacher, editor, author. I felt so naked without that identity when I finally walked to my car and left the hotel. I immediately took a wrong turn because I couldn’t read the street sign until I got too close to turn back, then ran into a five-mile backup behind an accident on I-5. Ah, reality.

Yes, I got weary of lining up at buffets and in the ladies room. Yes, I was sick of taking the elevator up and down. Yes, my body was starting to whine about sitting too much. But oh it was nice to live just one life at a time.