Saturday, March 07, 2009

Easy come, quickly gone

I had plans for the tax refund. They didn't include handing it over to the guys at Peak Auto Service to fix my car. Scotty had warned me he'd gouge me later. He was true to his word.

I had planned to get a tune-up and maybe a new battery, both of which would put a small dent in my windfall, but I didn't plan on handing over the whole amount, and yet that is what I did yesterday. Now my car fires as soon as I turn the key and I don't have to crank and hope the battery will last long enough and have enough power for the engine to fire. I'm looking on the bright side. I'll save gas and might not have to fill up for six months instead of every four. Then again, maybe not, since Scotty warned me that I have to start the car and let it run for a few minutes at least twice a week to keep the battery in good condition. Like Beanie said when I told her how much it would cost, "At least you had the money." There is that.

I walked over to Peak Auto after I finished work and drove the car home to pick up my wallet (I didn't want to carry a purse), got back into the car and drove over to Mountain Mama's to pick up a few things. I had originally planned to treat myself with a Subway sandwich, but thought better of it. Healthy organic food is what I needed, if not what I wanted. I really need to make a list before I go so I'm not so overwhelmed by all the choices. I wandered around the aisles, picked up some incense (no more rose-scented incense because it's a bit too cloying and sweet and makes me sneeze), some almonds and a piece of vegan black bottom banana cream pie. On the way home, I marveled at the smooth sound of the engine and the way the car started with the first turn of the key in the ignition. I still have a few dollars left and I get paid next week. Since I've already paid the rent and most of the bills, the outlook isn't too bleak and I can go back to Mountain Mama's with my list in hand and get the tahini I forgot last night to go with the garbanzo beans simmering on the stove this morning. I already have lemons and some roasted red peppers and garlic, but I should stock up on olive oil. The bottle on top of the refrigerator is almost gone. There's plenty of celery in the crisper and some homemade pita bread would just about hit the spot. Maybe I should get some oil cured olives and some walnuts and more garlic to make tapenade for a real Mediterranean feast. There were some lovely eggplants cooling under the lights in the produce section, smooth purple skins humped together next to the leeks and mushrooms.

Time to get showered and dressed. I'm hungry.

Apple pie memories

My grandmother was a great cook. She made egg noodles by hand and made the best peach cobbler with a double crust in a cast iron skillet. My brother does a good imitation, but it doesn't have the same warm sweet taste that my grandmother's did. He learned as I did, standing side by side with Gram, rolling out leftover spirals of dough, spreading on jam or jelly, rolling the dough into fat loafs and sprinkling the top with sugar before placing them carefully on the pan Gram placed in the oven alongside her pies and cobblers before hugging us and helping us clean the table where we worked.

After my divorce, I moved back to Ohio from Utah with my three young boys to live with my parents (joy, joy). There were some wrinkled apples in the refrigerator and I decided to make an apple pie. I felt adrift on a stormy sea of working two jobs, seeing little of my children and having no home of my own. Baking was my drug of choice.

Like my grandmother had taught me, I cut Crisco into a bowl of flour, added some ice water and turned the dough onto the floured surface of the counter, rolling the dough into a rough circle and fitting it into an old glass pie plate Gram had given Mom when she got married. Mom never baked pies, but Dad did. As the dough rested, I peeled and cored the apples, sliced them, added a little flour, salt, cinnamon and lemon juice to the apples, mixing slowly until they were all covered. I wished I had had a little red wine and some raisins, but that wouldn't have been welcome in my mother's house. After spooning the apples into the crust and draping the other circle of dough on top, crimping the edges and slashing the crust in four places, I brushed the top with milk and sprinkled sugar over it and popped it in the oven.

While I cleaned up the kitchen, the air filled with the sweet and comforting scent of baking apples and spices. Dad drifted through the kitchen, sniffing the air and nodding appreciatively. The boys, sweaty and red-faced from playing in the yard, descended en masse. "Will it be done soon?" For the first time in weeks, they seemed to feel more at home. Mom plopped her shopping bags down on the counter. "I hope you washed your hands." She rifled through the bags, eyeing the counter. "Give me the dish rag. This counter doesn't look clean." She wiped down the clean counter and threw the dishrag in the sink. "You didn't need to make such a mess." She grabbed her bags and went into the dining room to sort through her booty while I checked on the pie.

The pie crust was golden and cinnamon laced juices bubbled through the slits, filling the kitchen with the aroma of apples and cinnamon. I placed the pie on the counter just as the boys, drawn by the aroma, crowded around me. Eddie reached a finger toward the pie. "It's still hot," I said as I caught his grubby hand, "You'll get burned."

"When can we have some?"

"Later. Now go wash your hands and get ready for dinner."

Gram had promised to bring beef hash for dinner and she arrived shortly after. "Smells good," she said.

The boys were like tightly coiled springs held in place by crumbling rust all through dinner, barely tasting the food they shoveled into their usually chatty mouths, silent as the air before a storm. Quiet. Waiting. Barely held in check. Holding their breath, uncertain of the future.

I sliced the pie, serving my parents and Gram before I served the boys. Their forks pricked the edges, gathering up glittering crystals of sugar and placing them delicately on their tongues, their eyes closed as they focused on the taste, lingering over the first bit of crust, licking the tines of their fork of apple and cinammon-laced juices, making each morsel last as long as possible.

When dinner was over and I rinsed the dishes and put them into the dishwasher, Gram sat down at the counter and handed me the empty pie plate. "Your crust is better than mine," she said. I held the words carefully, afraid they would break and vanish, tears glittering in my eyes.

"Thank you, Gram."

Friday, March 06, 2009

Legislating poverty

"You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is about the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it."

~~~~~ Dr. Adrian Rogers, 1931

First impressions

A novice writer answered a message I sent her last month and asked me a question. She wanted to know how long a novel should be. She had looked for the answer but couldn't find anything concrete because there is no concrete answer. A novel is as long as it needs to be. There are some conventions, however. About 40-45K words is considered a novella (little novel), 50K words is an average novel and 60-75K is the usual length, while 75K and above are longer novels (super sized). Some publisher list their preferred length.

She had picked out a title for her novel and knew what the story was about but she was stuck. She had been told that the first sentence must be the best and brightest sentence of the novel if it is to have any chance getting out of the slush pile. Yes, a first sentence draws the reader in, but if the rest of the writing isn't just as good editors, publishers and readers will throw the book in the trash. Getting the story down, letting the characters live and breath and take on flesh and blood and bones is more important than not writing because you don't have the perfect, bright and glorious first sentence. It's an excuse for not moving forward.

The best thing about writing a story or a novel or novella is that when you're finished getting it all down on paper you can go back and polish the first sentence. You had better polish the rest of the novel while you're at it. Writing a novel is half the job. The rest of the job is editing, tightening plot points, tying up all the loose ends, clarifying, rewriting and polishing. You don't have to have the perfect first sentence until you send it out the door or out on the cyberwaves.

First impressions are important. People never forget first impressions. They do, however, remember what people do after that and there is always room for change. It is the one constant in the universe. People -- and impressions -- change.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Decadence, physics, walkabout

Getting hooked on Lost was not my idea, but I caved out of curiosity. I'm glad I did. It's a great show with a lot of subtle threads woven into its fabric that is just now becoming clearer, but I was hooked the moment the show opened with a shot of Jack's eyes opening. I've hung on through thick and thin and remain utterly entranced, which doesn't happen often. I usually figure out the killer or mystery early on and then spend the rest of the time bored and reading emails or cruising the net or just simply shut it off out of disgust. That is the case with Heroes.

One thing that was evident from the beginning is that Lost is based in quantum physics and that is one of my favorite things to read about and discuss. I'm working on the background for a series of novels based on quantum physics and the possibility of changing the past. Don't ask. I'm not going to say any more about it. Very hush hush.

In the meantime, I'm ordering some new books on physics and plan to spend as much of my upcoming vacation as possible with my nose buried in the books or my fingers busily typing out words for the new books. I've even decided to take myself to a secluded spot to perform these acts so that I won't be bothered by phones, visitors or my Internet addiction. Keep that in mind when I'm missing from March 19-30. I've decided that seeing the sun rise in Chaco Canyon, as I've been promising myself for four years, is the best plan for using my refund this year. My little retreat is on the way back in a wooded area along the banks of the Colorado River. Breakfast delivered to the door, followed by a walk along the river into the woods and back and right into writing and reading mode, although I will probably do the reading outside in the fresh air with the music of the river and the conversation of animals and trees as background. My car battery isn't the only battery that needs recharging.

I will still spend my nights sleeping with physicists, philosophers and authors of all sexes and persuasions; there are some habits I am unwilling to break.

That is all. Disperse.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Not snail mail, storage mail

When I went out to put something in the mailbox and bring in the mail the box was slightly open. I still hadn't received the latest shipment of books from Authorlink so I was worried. I live across the street from a middle school and have been warned by the post office that sometimes kids steal mail. That's why the mailbox should be on my porch and not all the way across the parking lot and down on the street where I can't keep an eye and both ears on things, but we must make sure that the mailman doesn't have to walk too far from his vehicle to deliver the mail. After all, he's not getting paid that much money. Right.

Worried that my review books, and thus my income, had gone astray, I called the post office this morning, asked if they would check for the package and see if the carrier remembers delivering the books. The post office left a message. The package was there and would be delivered today.

Not so long ago (in human time and not post office time), the books were sent from Ft. Worth, Texas, about a week ago. Last year it took about three days to get from Texas to Colorado. It now takes a week? When I emailed my supervisor at Authorlink to let her know the books were being delivered today I mentioned that the post office must be using real snails and the cold has made them slower and more sluggish than usual. She replied that she finally had an answer for why the postal rates are so high. They're charging for storage. I think she's right.

This morning I checked the status of an item I ordered from Amazon two weeks ago. I found out they sent it on the 25th from Coffeyville, Kansas and that it took four days to get to Denver -- where it still sits waiting to be delivered on the projected date of March 5th. Denver is now four days away from Colorado Springs evidently. I then checked the carrier. The United States Postal Service. Yep, the higher postal rates are for storage because they certainly are not for service or speed or anything approaching accuracy, except when it comes to delivering bills and junk mail.

When Lynn and I talked a couple of weeks ago she asked me if I remembered back when the mail was delivered twice a day -- morning and afternoon. Yes, I do. And the postage rate was three cents for a first class letter and it didn't take two weeks to get from one side of town to the other. Letters sent within the city were often delivered the same day they were posted if mailed in the morning and the very next morning if mailed in the afternoon. That was first class service. Now carriers will not pick up a package that weighs more than 13 ounces even if it has the proper amount of postage and you can't just drop it off in a local mailbox because there are none. You must drive or bike or walk to crawl to the local post office and mail it in person. What happened to service? What happened to the mail carrier's creed? What happened to the mail?

Being a bit cynical and unhappy with the lack of service, I'd have to say that when the post office was run by the government it was better run and the costs were lower. That was before the unionization of the postal service back in the day when service was customer oriented and no one slowed down because the highest prices weren't paid for overnight delivery. It's not a new concept. I came across mention of it in a book I recently reviewed: The Devils' Paintbox.

A young man, devastated by the death of his sister, buries himself in work at a logging camp. He knows nothing about logging, but he learns quickly and he throws himself wholeheartedly into the work, numbing his body and his mind. There are quotas to maintain in order to keep the job, but he exceeds the quotas as his body and mind adjust to the heavy labor. He wants to be too tired to think at the end of the day and the natural rhythm of the work lends itself to greater output. The other loggers, little more than indentured servants working for the company store, aren't happy with the young man's output, so they beat the hell out of him and tell him to slow down so he doesn't make the rest of the loggers look bad. Sound familiar?

The book is set in the years immediately after the Civil War, so this is not a new concept and it was before the advent of the labor unions. I've worked in businesses where some of the jobs were union and the attitude was -- and continues to be -- that anyone who is working harder and better has to be reined in so as not to get anything done too quickly. I've been on the receiving end of quota hatred because I worked in data processing where pay was based on output and minimum quotas had to be maintained. I made good money because I focused on the work and didn't spend all my time gossiping at the water cooler or going to the bathroom every 10 minutes or out for a smoke. I did not and do not smoke. I really don't care to take breaks. I want to focus on the work and get it done. Other employees didn't care for my attitude and made it plain that they were not happy with my resulting output. I've even had supervisors and bosses tell me to slow down, not because I was making mistakes or doing the jobs wrong, but because they wanted to squeeze more money out of the clients by taking more time to get the job finished. And that is the bottom line -- money.

If you get paid the same amount no matter how much work you get done, why rush? Why exert yourself? Why get the job done in half the time when you can take more time and relax while making the same money. It's not about the job. It's about the money and it stinks. It's the wrong attitude and we're paying for it. That's why the post office is jammed with lines out the door; mailmen are taking their time processing the mail because it's only going to go into storage for a few days before it's actually sent. Something's wrong with this picture and changing the frame isn't going to make it any better, but you can be sure the rates will go up again this year just like the past three years and the quality of service is going to go down, and the trend will continue until someone -- a whole bunch of someones -- stand up and say ENOUGH.

That is all. Disperse.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Splinter memories

I was fine until she called and asked me if I knew what day it was. "March 1st. Dad died two years ago today." There was no hesitation in the answer. It had been lurking under the surface of my day like a wooden splinter I was reluctant to dig out, silent, waiting, not painful unless I moved the wrong way. "It seems like yesterday and like it happened a long time ago," she said, and she was right. I moved the wrong way and the splinter reminded me it was there.

Dad's picture is on the end table. He's smiling and young and wearing his Army uniform. I see it every day and take a moment to smile with him no matter what is happening. It always makes me feel good the way he made me feel when he was telling me a story of his childhood or regaling me with his chickens' or pigeons' antics or telling me about the trees, flowers and plants he was growing. He sometimes gave me an update on the avocado pit I sprouted in a glass in the window of my apartment in Columbus about 30 years ago and how tall and leafy it is. Ohio is too cold for it to set fruit, but it's still alive and growing for him. He kept all the plants I started or sprouted, caring for them as he cared for me when I was a child, talking to them, singing, playing music and tending them with loving care. Those plants were his connection with me, his wandering daughter, as other plants were his connection to all of his children and grandchildren.

Every winter he'd tell me when the Christmas cactus bloomed, the one Eddie deflowered when Dad first got it. The flowers were yellow and my 18-month-old son made a bouquet for me out of them. Dad never forgot or forgave him for that and every year Dad was sure the cactus wouldn't bloom again, but it did. That cactus is over 30 years old and the blooms are still yellow.

I told John about the second anniversary of Dad's death and he reminded me that Dad loved me and that I loved him and, although the memories were sometimes painful, they would give way in time and all that would remain were happy memories of phone calls and conversations, letters and time spent together. He was wrong about one thing. Dad left a few holes in me, too. The holes aren't big ones, but they're there, holes Dad couldn't fill, failures and silences that I don't probe too often. They're like that splinter, quiescent and quiet unless I move the wrong way. They're not as big as the holes other fathers left in their children, holes so big they swallow up the good times and the smiles and happiness and holidays and vacations, holes so big they feel like a vast emptiness or hot needles searing memory into painful twisting scars. The holes Dad left are much smaller than that and beginning to fill with memories of love and caring and big callused hands twisting fine dark hair around into perfect curls on a little girl's head and dancing while holding those same hands in the golden light of California evenings before television and school work, boyfriends and dating were even distant thoughts.

In the bright morning sunshine, in a picture on the end table, Dad wears his Army uniform and smiles his eternal smile and the memories are good ones.