December 12, 2014

One Day in Summer...


Summer, 1984. I got my first real paying job. It was in a hardware store and I knew pretty much nothing about working in a hardware store.  I was 17 and pretty much new nothing about anything.

That summer I learned a lot.  I learned that a 2x4 isn't actually two inches thick.  I learned the names of 10 different types of nails and what is the appropriate job for each nail.  I learned about the mistake of falling in love with someone you can't have.  And falling out of love with someone you can have, but maybe shouldn't.

But the most important lesson I learned was about earning respect and how important it is to fight for the things you deserve.

They started me off by dusting. The least domestic girl in the universe started at the southeast corner of the building and worked her way to the northwest corner. The manager said, "This will help you learn what we have in inventory and where everything is. By the time you are done, you'll be familiar with the lay of the land."

It was hard to argue with that reasoning.  It seemed reasonable.  At least until about two weeks in and I was somewhere in the flood-mud encrusted electrical supplies that had been salvaged two years ago when our town was under eight or ten feet of water for days. My hands were dry and cracked and the smell of Murphy's Oil Soap made me want to vomit.  Two weeks in I was ready to quit my first real job.

I was too young to know then what I could do or what I was capable of, but the Boss could see. He was an astute observer of people, a salesman, he was a seasoned employer.  One day I stood up from wiping the bottom shelf in the middle of the fastener section and there he stood.

"Follow me," he said and walked to his office.

When I got there he handed me a huge binder. "Read this. If you study this and you pass the test, I will give you a five cent raise per hour.  We have a bunch of these.  You can do as many as you want.  I don't mind paying extra for an employee who is willing to learn and better herself. The more you know, the more money you'll make me. In the meantime, keep dusting."

As I dusted, I looked at everything. If I didn't know what something was, I read the package. I remembered where everything was. I could find anything in the store. At night I read the binder.  It was all about electricity and electrical parts. I passed the test and got my first raise.

The store was in the middle of a country town, a tiny town where time had stopped about fifty years prior. Ours was the only hardware store in town.  A coffee machine was in the back and men would come and hang out, spin windys, spit tobacco juice into old styrofoam cups. They'd eyeball me as they came in the door, then headed to the back to buy their supplies. They always asked for Dave who would write up their ticket, then tell them what bay to pull around to for loading. "The boys will load you up. Good day, Sir."

Dave was the master of every construction problem known to mankind.  And I'm pretty sure Dave hated me. Now and again I'd ask him a question and he never wanted to answer it.  He always wanted to take the problem from me and fix it. He never wanted to teach me. Dave had no time for a silly 17-year-old girl.

I'd glance to the back of the office, past the bookkeeper and I'd see Boss lurking in the dark passage between his office and the employee bathroom watching us. He knew Dave and I were not good. We made eye contact and he'd nod a single time, sharply, then turn away and go back into his office. He the Emperor, we the gladiators.

For weeks, I owned the binders. Nobody else was using them. I burned through electrical, hardware, plumbing. I became intrigued by how houses were built, that you could take basically sticks and metal spikes and fasteners and create a dwelling that could last hundreds of years if you did it right. At the back of the building was a sample of tiny cut up pieces of wood molding.  I memorized those, too, even without the promise of a raise.

I watched Dave wait on customers. I peeked over the displays I was dusting and eyeballed him when he wasn't looking. Periodically, I'd see Boss squinting at me through the picture window of his office and I'd duck down and dust some more. I got brave enough to start asking customers who came in, "Can I help you, Sir?"

Without fail their answer was always, "Yeah, get me one of the men."

Without fail I always did. For weeks and weeks. Until the day I didn't.

"Can I help you, Sir?"

"Yeah, get me one of the men."

"No, sir. I won't get you one of the men."

He jerked his head back as if I'd slapped him.  "What?"

"I can help you."

He laughed.  I smiled good-naturedly, expecting him to insist I get him one of the men, but secretly hoping he'd give me a chance.  He looked around me to the back and couldn't see anyone he could call out for.  There was nobody to rescue him from the girl who thought she knew about hardware.

"Listen... I'll make a deal with you."

"What's that?"

"You tell me what you need.  I'll help you and if turns out I can't help you, I'll get you one of the men.  I think you'll find I'm just as smart as them and a whole lot better looking."

He laughed again as if this were a game and shrugged.  "Alright, missy. Here's what I need..."

We ran through his list. I found everything.  I solved one problem and on the way to the check-out counter I sold him a flashlight he didn't actually need.

I turned to go back to dusting and saw Boss standing in the shadows. I'm pretty sure he smiled, the first one I'd ever seen on his face.

The next day I was fired from dusting duty and put in charge of the electrical department. And soon enough I was taking orders and solving problems just like Dave. I stopped hearing "get me one of the men."  The next time I heard it was when it was said to a new girl, Patty, who had taken over the dusting where I had left off.

And Dave still hated me, but he hated me more now because I wasn't a silly 17-year-old girl. I was the girl who one day had to explain to Dave where something was because he couldn't find it himself.

It was a good summer, the first of many spent learning about coming into my own. And that you only get the amount of respect you earn. And you earn it because you fight for it, sometimes by doing hard things, bold things.

And I learned that often the fruits on the highest part of the tree are the ones that taste the very best.

November 25, 2014

The Glory of Behaving Badly

I have to wear reading glasses a lot now.  I'm not in the habit of always carrying them with me, because this problem of defective eyesight is a new one.  So I squint a lot or ask people to read things for me.  I remember always being frustrated with my mother when she asked me to do this for her, as if somehow she should be completely in control of how the muscles and lenses in her eyes work.  It's the arrogance of youth and I'm paying for it with newly-acquired remorse.

Along with said remorse, I also seem to have a higher level of "curmudgeonliness."  Either that or people are getting more obnoxious.  Or they are the same level of obnoxious and are embracing it more.

Take the guy who developed an addiction to rummaging through John Updike's trash. I suppose on one hand it's John Updike's own fault for hauling his garbage to the curb.  But to me it seems really tacky for this stranger who starts off by semi-stalking Updike at church to then forage in Updike's trash for things he could sell for significant amounts of money because the trash used to belong to a well-known writer.

And even that isn't the worst part.  The worst part is he goes on to describe in detail the entire process, how bad he felt about it, speculating that perhaps it was wrong and then leverages the article for publication.

This comes on the heels of the author who didn't like a poor review she got for her book. She subsequently stalked the woman who wrote the review, then wrote a long article describing how she probably made a bad decision, but wow, wasn't it interesting enough to get the story published in The Guardian?

My son just came in and asked what I was writing and I read him the title of the post.  He snickered and said, "Oh, I wonder where you got THAT idea."  He assumed it was about him and his brother and their antics. He's eleven and his brother is eight.  Unfortunately, no, I'm writing about grown adults who feel perfectly fine bragging about their bad behavior and capitalizing on it.  (And probably acting surprised when people react negatively.)

But in a way it does remind me of my boys. We have a "no burping at the table" rule and periodically when one of them wants to be outlandish they will let a giant belch rip -- one loud enough to vibrate the silverware against the plates. And then they snicker when I make the "mom face" because they think it is hilarious. They act up because they like the reaction. We do this when we are 11.  We should probably stop doing that somewhere around puberty.

Anyone who has a small grasp of history understands that the pendulum of social culture swings across the decades. I love free speech, freedom in general.  I love the wild permissiveness that fosters creativity.  I hate that we mistake bad manners and an inability to control our human weakness for freedom of action.  I can't wait for the pendulum to swing back to the place where civility is the norm and tacky behavior is not applauded as fine entertainment.

It's probably just the beginning of the end for me.  Not only do I have the glasses perched on the end of my nose, but I have the pursed mouth below and the glaring stink-eye of old-lady judgmentalness peering out over the top.

It's the trifecta of cranky grandma-face.

July 9, 2014

Embracing the Hard

There is a funny mystique about writing.  When I think about writers I imagine the life as romantic -- a quiet place, a contemplative author, a message spilling forth from the abundant fountain of words the writer carries within.

I do it all the time even knowing, from personal experience, that it's a big bunch of hooey.

Writing is no easier, or beautiful, or magical than any other creative task.  And some days it's not any more romantic or wonderful than laying bricks.  Some days that's what it feels like, including getting hot and sweaty as you lay the words down in a line with kids in the background fighting over whose turn it is for the game station.

And if it's hard for me, I assume it's just ME.  There is something wrong with ME, because I'm certain that JK Rowling and Stephen King are just sitting around with umbrella drinks or fancy coffee typing 180wpm while listening to classical music and being caressed by a perfect spring breeze through open windows facing the beach or a mountain view.  Oh, and their first drafts are ALWAYS perfect.

I'm certain this is how it is for every writer except me.

And so every morning in the shower I whine pathetically to myself about how hard writing is because I have trouble plotting.  Plotting is my nemesis.  There are writers out there who could plot while disarming a nuclear bomb under heavy fire without breaking a sweat.  I'm not one of those.  For me, it's an uphill battle constantly.  I am in love with the imagery of writing, of building characters and animating them.  These are my strengths and these tasks come easy for me.  And probably because they do I get angry because the rest doesn't come easy. In my weak moments it smacks of unfairness and, yes, I complain.  (Although I generally try not to do it out loud. Sort of like what I'm doing at this very moment.)

Lately I have been reading The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman.)  And it's fascinating because the entire plot is "a big group of boys walk down the road as an endurance competition that only one can win and survive." That's it -- the entire book is a group of boys walking down a road. If you came up to me and told me to write a story about boys walking down the road, I'd assume you'd left out part of the instructions.  But King manages to create a grim, robust miracle out of that single idea.

This book made me think of other stories like it, with plots that are spare but stories that are fat, juicy.  Doris Lessing wrote a wonderful story ("Through the Tunnel") about a boy's efforts to swim through an underwater tunnel.  There is little more action to it than that and yet I read this story when I was a teenager and never forgot it.  Same with Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (spoiler alert) about a man's visions while dying. Then there is the fascinating and unforgettable "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien -- stories revealed by what Vietnam soldiers carried in action.

I'm sure there are more, but those ran through my mind as I pondered how such a big story can come from a small seed and how easy it is to make an excuse out of what you consider a shortcoming.  George R.R. Martin's Thrones series is amazing in scope, but it is no more wondrous than making a memorable, expansive story about boys walking down a road.

So what, plotting is uncomfortable for me.  So is being a runner with one leg and yet how many marathoners overcome that "little inconvenience."  The romance is not the writer sitting in a quiet, bookshelf lined study.  The romance is the sweaty writer who overcomes the challenge and gets the job done, who makes an amazing story out of nothing.  That's the magic.

Under the rain of the shower as I leaned my head against the cold tile I thought of Steinbeck and Atwood and King and Jackson and O. Henry and all the other authors I love and how they are allowed to be called writers because they didn't let "the hard" get in the way of revealing the story.  The statue doesn't come out of the stone unless you whack it with a hammer and reveal what's underneath.

But you have to keep whacking or else all you have is just a hunk of rock.

May 16, 2014

The Peripatetic Goat

Yesterday I was driving down the road and saw a guy on a four-wheeler with two baby goats in his lap.

I thought to myself, "Awww, how cute... a guy on a four-wheeler with two baby goats in his lap!"

Then I realized my first thought was not that there was anything at all strange about this sight.

* * *

Once I had a client who needed to sell her 2nd home.  I went there to show it to a buyer and when I walked through the privacy fence gate I was greeted by several goats.  I called her from my cell phone.

"You know there are goats at the house?"

"Yes," she said, nonchalantly.  "We've run out of weeds and trees for them to eat over here, so we moved them. The buyers don't have to take them.  They are negotiable."

* * *

A colleague of mine has had some surgery and his health is not the best. He is short on stamina and his wife worries about him taking care of the many acres of land they have.  He walked into my office recently and said, "We bought two goats. Baby goats."


"Well, I was thinking maybe they would eat all the weeds and stuff and that would be less mowing for me."


"And when the season is over I think I can sell them to some Mexicans.  They eat a lot of goats."

* * *

There is an article on the Internet about why you should eat goats.  At this time in my life I am verging slowly toward going meatless.  It has nothing to do with anything you've read so far.

* * *

One of my favorite places to drive used to be way down Highway 16 West in the hard left-hand curve that is intersected by Eagle Road.  On the left side of the highway is a big open field that eventually rolls gently down to a no-undergrowth mini-forest that provides shade for hundreds and hundreds of tiny white goats.  In the field is a large herding dog sitting upright, surveying his charges.

The goats have a distinct personal space.  When one goat moves, the others around it move an equal distance in order to maintain a uniform open perimeter around themselves.  When I noticed this I pulled over to the side of the road to watch.  The behavior persisted, so it must be a goat thing.  Goats have a bubble.  Like me.

I asked someone why the man who owns this field has so many goats.  I was told it was because of Cinco de Mayo.  I drove over there last week and, coincidentally, there were no goats to be found.

May 11, 2014

Adventures in Straw Bale Gardening

I'm not a gardener by any means. Even in the most loose sense of the word.  I don't like the sun.  I don't like the heat.  My mother used to make me help her pull weeds as a teenager.  I don't know which I hated more at the time... her or the weeds.  The first experience I had planting a garden was helping my mother when I was 9.  She let me plant the zinnia seeds.  I sprinkled them in a line and then she yelled at me for doing it wrong.  Clearly, gardening was not intuitive.  Or a great child-rearing activity.

So, fast forward 8,000 years and I've matured.  I have kids of my own.  I am starting to care about what I eat.  I get the idea a few years ago that I should know how to grow my own food, but I'm a busy mom with a jillian jobs and a back that aches all the time.  Gardening?  Bah.

Heirloom Cucumbers
Fast forward three more years and I'm reading about square foot gardening and straw bale gardening and I cannot set aside the persistent drive to grow some of my own food.  But I'm also realistic about taking on too much.  I've learned my lesson dozens of times over.  My passion and confidence dictate that I must DO IT BIG.  Reality leaves a wake of half-finished projects set aside because someone needs help with homework or housework or clients need things or I just want to finish that really good book before my library expiration date.

This year I gave myself permission to do something small.  Straw bales.  Six of them.  I fell in love with the look of straw bale gardens.  It seemed so manageable, and cheap.  About $22 for the bales and I already had soil and fertilizer.  Another $15 for organic heirloom seeds.  No tilling.  No weeding.  No kneeling and bending.  It seems like an adventure that was fairly risk-free.

I set the bales up with space all around them so I could get to the plants from all sides.  I thought maybe they would need the room.  Or I would need the room.  Honestly, I have no idea what I'm doing.  I'm just doing it.  I needed to finally just DO something about gardening to break the ice.  Hello, gardening, nice to meet you.

The buckets and ice chest are for water collection.  We catch rain water from the gutters and when we run out of that we fill the buckets from the hose and let the chlorine from the water outgas before putting it on the plants.  I don't know if it makes a difference but chemicals are chemicals and less is better.

Ants. Ants. More ants. And more ants. And still more.
We have a ton of ants.  Everywhere.  There are mounds and mounds and mounds of ants.  Ants are in the bales.  I think that's okay, but I have no idea.  "Ants are aeration," sayeth my mother.  Today I saw an ant carrying something red that I hoped was a chigger.  Maybe ants are removing chiggers from my yard.  One can hope.

I read somewhere that you are supposed to plant your tomatoes deep, like halfway bury them.  I have no idea if this is true, but in the parking lot of the grocery store I mentioned this to an old-timer who nodded and said it was definitely true.  It's hard to know what is true.  People make things up.  The Internet lies. But also people are wise.  And also the Internet knows everything.

My mother likes to quote Deuteronomy 19:15 which says, "on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established."   So I ask her, I ask the Internet, I ask the old guy in the parking lot.  They all three think tomatoes should be planted deep, so that is what I do.

They seem happy, the tomatoes, and already have blooms.

Everything else I planted as seeds. The lettuce came up first.  I planted an heirloom mix.  I love all types of lettuce and it will be a surprise what comes up.

I have pangs when the seed package tells me to thin the seedlings.  I know it must be done for the health of the ones I don't pluck but it seems wasteful and cruel in a way.  The neighbor busted me cheating.  I plucked a tiny seedling and instead of throwing it on the ground I tucked it into the side of the straw bale.  He squinted his eyes at me and asked what I was doing.  I told him I was thinning the lettuce and he looked at me sneaking the seedling into the side of the bale and said, "Hmph."

Okay, I know it's ridiculous.  I know it's going to die, but I'm giving it every chance to survive.  And, strangely, today both the seedlings I stuck in the side of the bale are growing.  So, take that neighbor.  He's an entomologist anyway.  What does he know about lettuce?

When the carrots first came up they looked like weeds, but now they have crinkly tops that look like carrots are supposed to look.  Not that we ever see that in the local grocery store where everything is bagged in plastic.

Lemon Thyme
I read you can plant things in the side of the bales so I bought a plant called lemon thyme.  I broke it into two pieces and planted one in each bale.  The bales are very difficult to dig into and I didn't do a very good job planting these.  One half made it; one half did not.  Every day I look at it and think "that thing is going to fall right out of the side of that bale."  But it hasn't yet.  Which proves that even when people do things half-assed it can sometimes turn out okay.  Not that I recommend that method.  Do your best, really.  It's better than later bragging that you did it half-assed and it worked out by accident.

The only really alarming thing is the mold I found today.  Some kind of mildew or mold.  The Internet says I shouldn't worry about it.  The Internet also says I should be VERY worried about it.  My mother doesn't know.  I re-read the passage in Deuteronomy again just to make sure it said "testimony of three" and not "testimony of two, none of whom seem to agree."

So in the meantime, I sprayed it with a mixture of baking soda and oil mixed with water because that didn't seem like it would hurt anything.  And I'm waiting for additional testimony.

In the meantime, feet up.  It's Mother's Day.