Saturday, October 27, 2007

A day of surprises

After the furor of controversy this week, it was nice to get an unexpected surprise.

Beanie told me Uncle Bob (Mom's younger brother) called her yesterday and was going on and on about the birthday card and letter I sent him last week. I'm sad to say I didn't remember his birthday until Mom mentioned it, but I'm not certain I ever knew when it was. It was October 16th and he is now 75 years old. Uncle Bob told Beanie, "That Pearl can really write." He has copies of a couple of anthologies with my stories in them because I signed and sent him and Aunt Lois copies at Mom's request, but I guess he didn't really know how much I've written -- other than the articles my mother has kept and made sure all the Mays read. (It's a years' long competition of sorts about whose children are the most accomplished and talented.)

At any rate, I was deep in the latest book for review (another thriller) and had the ringer turned off on the phone. It was still on the bed because I used it earlier to make some calls (yes, I'm cocooning). I happened to glance at the phone when the light on the Caller ID lit up. The call was from an Ohio number and something seemed familiar about it so I picked it up. Lo and behold, my uncle's exuberant voice answered my hello. "Do you have time to talk to your old uncle?" he asked.

"Of course I do. I always have time to talk to you," I said.

He started right in about the lovely card I sent, and the letter, and how much he liked them. "You really know how to write." He gushed and went on about the letter, telling me he had to call Mom to get my phone number so he could call and thank me. And then we just talked: books, J.K. Rowling, reviewing, writing, and Lee Iacocca. Uncle Bob prefers nonfiction, especially autobiographies of successful people, just like Mom who has a thing for royalty and castles and a raging case of obsession with the Biography Channel on cable. He asked me how much Rowling was worth and I told him, "One billion American."

"Imagine that. Well, Pearl, when you get rich and famous I hope you'll remember your poor old uncle."

My poor old uncle owns several properties in Ohio and Florida. Poor, my foot. I should be so poor. But he worked hard for the money and bought and fixed up old houses that sold for tens of thousands more than he paid. He's worked hard all his life and he earned every penny the hard way.

He wanted to know if I skim books I have to review and how I get through books I don't like, and how I remember everything the way I do. "It's my job and I'm a professional," I told him. "I couldn't write a review if I didn't read every word, although I've been tempted to stop at the first or second chapter of a book that is sucking the very life out of me and damaging brain cells as I read." He laughed.

When we said goodbye I called my mother to tell her about the call and the first thing she said was that he had called her wanting my phone number and going on and on about my writing and how good I was. I should hire him as my publicist. He's good advertising. When Mom reminded him I have several books coming out next year, he said he was going to buy them all. Too bad I don't get paid royalties for anthologies.

Mom suggested I send him some of my stories. I can do that. I never considered it before because, like all families these days, we have grown apart and gone our separate ways. That wasn't always the case. I used to spend a month every summer in the country with them growing up and holidays and celebrations, and a lot of Sunday dinners, were shared in our home, theirs, or at Grandma and Grandpa's. We were close and, except for twice in my whole life, Uncle Bob has always called me Pearl (Pearl Bailey or Pearly Mae). It was Grandpa's nickname for me. Grandpa never called me anything but Pearl. He gave me the nickname when I was a baby because he said when my teeth came in they were like tiny perfect pearls. Grandma said it was because I was the precious pearl in Grandpa's oyster. I miss seeing Uncle Bob and being close with my cousins.

I won't move from Colorado because this is my home, but I have a reason to go back and visit again -- my uncle -- who was so knocked out by a simple card written to tell him happy birthday and a short one page letter to tell him how much I enjoyed talking with him last week.

It's unfortunate but true that people don't take the time to say thank you any more or to acknowledge cards and gifts. I was brought up in a time when it was unbelievably rude not to acknowledge even a small gift or card. It's a small sign of respect and kindness and it doesn't cost very much, but it certainly leaves a smile on my face and a warm glow in my heart to know that sometimes people do remember and appreciate the thought.

Step aside

I can't believe it's nearly 8 a.m. The sky is just beginning to lighten and the morning breeze finally woke after a stuffy night. It's going to be a thin autumn day.

Want to know what people think of your work? Tell them you're considering stepping aside and letting someone else do your job. That's what I did yesterday after a week of defending two years as editor of the ham club's newsletter. During the past two years I have had very few comments about what I did -- right or wrong -- and even fewer questions about what to put between the pages. I have been grilled and cross questioned, checked up on, and asked the same questions again and again as though I were suspected of wrong doing or just not doing my job. That's what happens when a new administration comes on board, especially when there's new blood on the field. I'm tired of it being mine.

The only thing that's funny about this situation is having one of the board members email me privately to say he felt I was a little upset. What is there to be upset about? Not a day passes (at least this past week) that I'm on the hot seat and none of my answers are taken as truth but have to be checked out and verified, which is unnecessary considering the questions wouldn't have been asked if he'd taken the time to read back issues of the newsletter. It's in there. (I told him that on one occasion.) He in turn chastised me for telling him to do his research and read what's available before asking his questions and that I should have been forthcoming when he asked his questions. I did answer his questions, several times in fact, but he evidently didn't read my answers or didn't believe what I wrote. Upset? Me? Why would I be upset after being treated like an idiot child who has been caught stealing?

I can't believe all of this started because I didn't want to be singled out during the Xmas party and have the club pay the $6 or $8 for my dinner as thanks for the job I do and have done for two years. Honestly, if they want to honor me, all they need do is tell me what they like and don't like about the newsletter I've put out. Feedback, I want feedback. I don't want a coffee cup or a piece of paper that says I did the job. I want to know what people think, even if it's negative, because that way I can make the newsletter better.

I mentioned stepping down to my inquisitor and he promptly backed off and said I had a "talent" for the newsletter then told me he's the kind of person who jumps in and gets things done and that's why he's been hounding me all week, but someone else started it. I also mentioned stepping aside in January to one of the people who has promised me a series of articles since he approached me in March. He said he doesn't understand why because the newsletter is so much better than it was pre-Jackie. Pretty high praise coming from someone I have dogged for months to write the article he asked me about. And it's the first time I have heard what people (other than the two guys who keep telling me how much they like the newsletter) think about what I've done. One guy told me he didn't read the newsletter much before I took over as editor but now he reads it every month. I'm not sure if it's because he likes what I've done and how I've changed things or because he started reading because he knows me.

I still haven't decided whether or not to step aside, but it would certainly simplify my life. I do the job as a volunteer so I don't get paid. They couldn't afford me anyway. Even at a base rate of $500 a month (and I put in 20-30 hours a month), they're getting a bargain, since they only pay for printing ($70-90) and stamps ($8-9). At my regular rate, the newsletter would cost them at least $1300 a month for the hours I work, and that time doesn't even include picking up the newsletter, putting on stamps, labels, and mailing disks, and sending it out, or the time I spend culling addresses from a database of local hams to send extra copies of the newsletter in hopes they will become members. I'm a professional writer and editor -- the first the ham club has ever had as newsletter editor -- and I had to audition and provide a resume of qualifications for a job no one wanted and the previous editor could give away. He got stuck with it because the editor before him just up and quit.

The road has been rocky and full of pot holes and I have put a lot of hard work into making the newsletter something people look forward to reading. Am I upset? Yes -- and no. But I do keep wondering why I want to hang onto something so unappreciated and taken for granted when I could use the time to do my own writing, writing that pays. Guess I have to think about that one before I make the final decision to step aside.

That is all. Disperse.

Monday, October 22, 2007

First snow

There's something special about the first snow of autumn with the soft fall of crystals glinting when the sun peeks down from the leaden sky, the flakes getting bigger and bigger until it looks like a celestial pillow fight with the sky full of downy feathers. I don't know if it's the cold air rushing through the open windows or the watery sunshine or just the smell of freshness in the air that makes my synapses fire faster and with more creative force, but whatever the reason I have been on a writing roll the past few days. I'm not getting much reading done, but the writing is going so well words invade my sleep in a tangled, twisted heap and wake me with a nearly finished article or story I can't wait to fire up the laptop and write. Makes it a little tough getting any rest, but the flurry of words will die down just like the rain that turned to snow and then to big downy clumps yesterday and I will be able to huddle beneath my blanket, warm and snug and breathing snow-freshened air while surrealistic dreams whisk me away into fantasy lands.

This morning, a metaphor about the electricity going out and the people who keep the lights on kept swirling through my mind until I had to write it down. I've been thinking about writing an editorial in the ham club newsletter about the people in the PPRAA who keep the lights on -- so to speak. These people have suffered two major defections by past members who took a big chunk of the membership with them and the remaining core of hard-working people kept things ticking along -- and no one noticed the lights flickered and almost went out. And all of this rumination started because the retiring treasurer wrote a message to the board members about paying for my dinner at the Christmas party because of all the work I do to get the newsletter out every month, a task I have done for nearly two years. Then he said they should also pay for the membership committee head's dinner, too, because no one notices what we do or how much time and effort it takes to do our jobs.

Let's face it. Buying me dinner is a nice gesture -- as far as it goes -- but it's not really that big a gesture, and there are other people who have been keeping the lights on for years that go unnoticed and unrecognized, people who step up to the plate every year and do the work. I do one small task; I edit and put out the newsletter. It's not the same. I suggested the club spring for plaques (really nice plaques like the ones they gave away for the recent nationwide contest) for the retiring club officers: president, VP, secretary, and treasurer. A cold wet fish in the face would have been received better. The counter proposal came that we could give them coffee mugs or a certificate -- and then the debate started. Coffee mugs were useful and didn't cost much, paper certificates even less. (Did I mention these people tend to go for the cheap?) I said coffee mugs were nice, even with a little printing on the side (about $5.99 in bulk), dinners would be eaten and forgotten, and certificates (even framed by the recipient) didn't really say how much a person's efforts were appreciated, and I don't drink coffee and already have a very nice mug for tea. Yes, but you can't take a plaque or certificate to work and hang on your wall because it would be showing off (what's all that wall space for?) and a coffee mug used every day at the office might excite a little curiosity and offer a chance to talk about the club. Yeah, right! Like a plaque or certificate wouldn't get more attention and even more questions. It always comes down to dollars and cents. No wonder no one wants to help out.

And that's the thing, people don't volunteer because they expect a reward; they do it because it's in the nature. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be rewarded in a significant way. A coffee cup or piece of paper isn't all that significant, but it sure says (at least to me), "Thanks for your help. It means so little." Even with a person's name and call sign or "thank you" on the side, it still screams, "Oh, yeah, thanks," in the same tone a cashier or salesperson says, "Have a nice day." It's insincere.

Things did get a little out of hand when it was suggested we thank everyone who does anything with something. That would cost too much. I countered by saying only those people who went above and beyond the call of duty (like the club officers) should be honored and a simple thank you was enough for the rest of the people. At least they embraced that idea quickly (it's much cheaper to thank four or five people than it is to thank ten or more).

My idea was to get the focus off me, but that didn't last long. One person thought a plaque for marking five years of service as newsletter editor was too long (no one has lasted that long yet) and then he went on to talk about all the things the editor does quietly behind the scenes (I prefer the quiet) and that more should be done. There I was back in the spotlight again -- not that I mind the spotlight (I've done many a turn on stage and love the spotlight), but that made me uncomfortable. If I say nothing, they'll do something stupid -- like buy my dinner at the annual Xmas party -- or, worse yet, they'll force me to go to a meeting and miss work, just to give me a coffee cup. I guess they don't understand what it's like to be a single woman with no support other than what I make (and I could certainly use a raise). I really hate that idea. The club will give everyone a chance to win a gift card from Wal-Mart, so if they really want to honor me, give me a $100 gift card or pay for my time. If I had a choice, they could pay me for my time. At $65 and hour (even at $55/hour), that would cost them a whole lot more than the gift card or a plaque, and I don't see them going for that, but that would say, "THANK YOU," in a meaningful way. I could afford to take time off work to go to the Xmas dinner or the membership meeting for that kind of recognition and that would let me know how much they really appreciate me helping keep the lights on.

After all, when the electricity goes out, the electric company pays their workers very well for venturing out in the middle of the night or in the teeth of the storm that dumped the first (and every subsequent) snow to makes sure the lights get back on, and they get noticed for every five years of service.

The first snow of autumn made me anxious to start writing, but I wonder how anxious the members will be to thank me when they read what I wrote with all that fresh air blowing through the galleries and halls of my mind.

That is all. Disperse.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hard times

And I don't mean by Dickens either, I mean by me. Okay, so I didn't write a story about hard times, but I did have hard times writing a story. What can you say that is positive about Alzheimer's? That your mother/father/brother/wife/fill in the blank no longer nags or yells or screams or jumps down your throat? That you enjoy changing adult diapers and taking care of bed sores when they become bed bound? That you don't mind waking up in the middle of the night scared out of your mind because the door is open and they're gone? That isn't not difficult and embarrassing and sad when you find them naked in the middle of the street?

It's hard remembering the good things when they come so few and far between and make them not only positive but uplifting and worth reading when you need something good to cling to in the midst of the hard times. It's even harder writing about them and not making them sound like Pollyanna on fairy dust and just as believable. I've thought about it, chased around ideas and images, and scribbled two or three thousand words without coming up with anything that moved me enough to write. I know, I should just keep writing until something finally gels, but it doesn't work like that for me. I read and research and play with images and words and ideas like puzzle pieces until I figure out how they go together. No wonder people think I'm odd when I talk to myself. They probably think I'm either someone with multiple personalities or used to live in a mental hospital before I was dumped on the streets. I don't care. It works -- or rather lately hasn't worked -- for me . . . until today.

I had a few hours left before the deadline and I really wanted to see this story published, so I started writing, using my notes and scribbles, arranging and rearranging sections, adding bits I had forgotten and some that still stand out clearly in my mind. I already had the title, The Bed; all I needed was to pull it all together, and writing like this isn't as easy as putting together an article from interviews and research and a ton of reading when all I need to do is pull the right thread so it all falls into place. I was still editing and rearranging and spell checking right up to the deadline, then I held my breath -- for two hours, figuratively no literally. I'm good, but not that good.

The word just came. I made it just in time and a decision would be made by November 1st. Suddenly, it's not such a long time to wait, almost two weeks. I have things to do in the meantime, but this story is written and off my list. I have another story to write for Chicken Soup for the Runner's Soul and I know what I want to say but not quite how to say it. I'll get there. I usually do. Then there are stories about suicide and relationships and monsters and so many others, some of which are already giving me trouble. Like, what can you write about monsters that hasn't already been done to death and doesn't involve romanticizing?

I sat down last night and listed all the things that scare me, but it's a really short list. My life has been full of things that one time frightened me but have been faced and I'm no longer scared. Most anything can be -- and has been -- dealt with and I'm still here. They've lost their power over my imagination and my life. I can imagine a lot but when you've faced what I have, nebulous fears seem so . . . nebulous. One thing that doesn't scare me is running out of words or ideas, and I am not really afraid of not being able to write or even capturing them in some way. Some may never see the light of day beyond my journals and others . . . well, that's what blogs are for.

One thing I know for sure is that we make our own hard times and we can unmake them, shine the light into the closet and under the bed, face down the bullies, and heal from nearly fatal wounds. Nothing is impossible, not even finding something positive in living with Alzheimer's disease.

That is all. Disperse.