Saturday, January 31, 2015

For Johnny

Once upon a time, there was a young man. He was a creative writing student at a community college. 

His name was Johnny. He wrote well. His fellow students liked hearing Johnny read his stories out loud, and he wore a quiet, proud smile on those days. He wrote in his journal about hard days as a Marine at war; he also wrote about the hectic, love-filled home he shared with his wife and seven children.

His attendance in class was erratic, and he met with his teacher in her office to explain, and to ask to be allowed to continue in class. She saw the hunted look in his eyes, and said yes. When Johnny was in class, his eyes looked a little less inward. He lived in the moment, offering advice to his fellow creative writers.

Each day for Johnny was a struggle. Some days he almost felt like his old self, if a young man can have an “old self.” Some days were bad, and he drank to assist the pills in dulling the world back. Sometimes the drinking helped for a while.

Pain lived on his face, visible some days more than others. Physical pain, emotional pain. His classmates saw it. They were all too familiar with the look of pain, and the look of hiding pain. Sometimes they saw that same face when they looked in a mirror. Sometimes they saw it in the face of a husband, wife, or friend. If anyone could understand, they could.

A week came when Johnny didn’t come to class at all. His teacher worried, checking the internet for his name. Two large young men, unknown to her, loomed in her office door. “We’ve come to talk to you about Johnny,” they said, their faces hidden beneath heavy beards. “It’s bad news.”

“He’s in the hospital. They had to revive him. They don’t know when he can go home.” She thanked the young men for finding her, and asked if she could go see Johnny, or call him.

The hospital was just across the highway from the community college. Ambulance sirens could be heard many times each day. “Not yet. He’s intubated and can’t talk right now.”

She didn’t expect to see Johnny again, but two days later he stood in her doorway, an apology on his lips.

She invited him in, and he sat for a moment. “I’m sorry I’ve missed so much class. I guess I’m not your student any more. I’m sure you had to drop me for so many absences. I came because my friends said you were worried.”

“I’m okay now. They’ve got me on so many pills, and I had a reaction. My wife found me passed out, and I had to go to the hospital.” Although his face was thinner, he looked surprisingly bright-eyed. Maybe some improvement was budding?

Johnny came back to class, and was there on the last day when students read from their own work, read their favorite poems from their favorite writers, and a class member, Brandon, brought his guitar. In the final moments of the class period, Brandon played and sang country singer Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High Upon that Mountain” for the class.

At his teacher’s urging, Johnny submitted some of his writing to the school’s annual publication of student work, The New River Anthology. One of his stories, “The Smoke Pit,” was selected for publication.

A small celebratory “Anthology Reading” is held each fall, and students read from their pieces to a crowd of forty or so students, staff, faculty, and administrators.  Coffee, tea, and cookies are served, and some years small cash prizes are given to the student writers.

Johnny, accompanied by his lovely wife, Anna, came and read “The Smoke Pit.” He looked gaunter than ever, and his wife stayed close to his side. He read his piece even though he was nervous. Afterwards, he and Anna chatted with the teacher, parting with hugs.

In the months afterward, the teacher heard from Johnny from time to time. He emailed her some of his works in progress, asking for opinions about editing. Then the emails stopped. She wondered if Johnny and his family had moved away as many families in the military town do. She also wondered if … well, she checked the newspaper occasionally for word of Johnny.

Yesterday, she was telling a class about the New River Anthology of student work, and urging them to submit their pieces for possible inclusion in this year’s edition. She passed around old copies of the Anthology, so they could see how nice the printed editions were.

A student saw Johnny’s name and his short story in one copy. “Oh, look, it’s Johnny! You know he was killed in a wreck, don’t you? I used to work with his wife,” he told the teacher.

After class, she looked for Johnny’s obituary online. “A good father, a good Marine, who had struggled with severe PTSD. His tearful wife said while deployed in Iraq, he had shot a young girl because she had a bomb strapped to her.”

His wife was in her own car at the scene of the accident. Anna and Johnny had pulled up to opposite sides of an intersection, and waved at each other. She saw the tractor trailer coming toward the intersection and tried to wave Johnny off, but he pulled out into the path of the truck. Anna ran to Johnny’s vehicle and was with him when he died. The accident occurred on Valentine’s Day.

Johnny, 35, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

From Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain”
I know your life
On earth was troubled
And only you could know the pain
You weren’t afraid to face the devil
You were no stranger to the rain.
Go rest high on that mountain
Son, your work on earth is done
Go to heaven a shoutin’
Love for the Father and the Son.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fashion "Disasters" ... or Maybe Not

Thinking maybe it was time I participated in a Throw-Back Thursday on Facebook, I grabbed a box of old photos I'd found recently. Many Throw-Back photos focus on fashion disasters, and there was no doubt in mind I could find a photo of one of my own fashion disasters. After all, I turned 18 in 1975. The seventies and eighties were frightening years for fashion in oh, so many ways.

Thumbing through the photos, I noticed for the first time that there aren't many of me. Guess that can happen when you're more comfortable taking the pix than being in them.

In the few photos of me, I often didn't look half-bad. Gasp. That I looked just fine astonishes me. No, I'm no narcissist, but low self esteem and I do have more than a passing acquaintance.  Not labeled the "pretty sister" in the family, I never had a positive body image, and in those days was resigned to being what I considered decidedly chubby. I didn't absolutely hate my looks back then, but I certainly didn't love my image in the mirror in those days.

Most of the pix show me in jeans and a sweater, or short-shorts and a cotton top. Not really what I'd call total fashion disasters. I was even rocking hoodie jackets before they were hijacked by hipsters. A real trend setter, bwah-ha-ha--not really!

With the few scraps of wisdom I've gained since then, I see in my earlier self a young woman who was in her prime, slim, with a pretty smile and sparkly eyes. Decidedly not chubby, and if I had been chubby, that wouldn't have been the end of the world, now would it?

Too bad I didn't enjoy and celebrate my appearance more back in my teens, twenties, and thirties! What time I wasted worrying about my appearance!

Finally, at the bottom of the box, I found the photo that qualifies as a fashion disaster. It's a red plaid dress, buttoned up to the neck, with a skinny black grosgrain ribbon tie. That 1984 dress hadn't crossed my mind in 30 years, but once I saw it, I remembered I indeed thought it was pretty. It was a nice quality dress that I wore for many years, and I felt good about myself when I wore it. Nowadays it looks vaguely Little House on the Prairie or perhaps a garment a "sister-wife" would wear. The bobbed hair was not my best look, either. Slightly cringe-worthy, but sheer youth and good health can make up for most any fashion faux pas.Some other photos in the box show me in the garb I wore while I was a commercial fisherman. One of only two women on the island who worked crab pots, there's a shot of me looking like the Gorton fisherman. But I look happy, even though my jacket is stained with fish blood. Surely many people would see the goofy red visor and grubby slickers and judge this the ultimate fashion disaster.

For once, looking at that awkward girl that I was, I feel nothing but pride. Happiness, youth, health, and a smile can make a fashion disaster seem trivial in comparison.

So yellow rainslickers are okay with me. However, you can bet I won't be tying a grosgrain ribbon around my neck again in this lifetime.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ernest Hemingway: The Joys and Dangers of Reading

Depending on the day I’m having, I blame, or thank, Ernest Hemingway.

Reading his books as a teen was dangerous. For Whom the Bell Tolls did me in. I followed it with everything he’d written. Hemingway made me think that it was possible for a kid from the suburbs to have an adventurous life. That the adventurous life was worth seeking. That there was more to me than a studious, meek, naive homebody.

So instead of going to college at 18, I embarked on the twisting, turning, jumbled journey of this life.

I went to work in an auto plant, making cars on an assembly line. An unintentional trailblazer, I was one of the first women autoworkers in the 1970s.

As a member of the UAW, I got an education in unions, learned to question authority. I found out what sexual harassment is, observed what alcoholism can do to people at a young age, and grasped how mind-numbing factory work can be.

I’m thankful someone wants to do that work; I respect factory workers immensely, but I could not survive the assembly line. Chrysler Corporation was floundering and laid me off from time to time, leaving me time to discover the next phase.

After breaking up with my high school boyfriend, I dated. Dating sucks. I pray I never have to date again. Family members introduced me to a fishing guide on an obscure, hurricane-lashed island, accessible only by ferries that sometimes didn’t run.

Hemingway whispered in my ear, told me that islands = adventure.

Yep, before I knew it, I was living under primitive conditions on Ocracoke Island, and married the fishing guide. I learned to cook in a fledgling gourmet restaurant, trained by a rebellious, classically trained female chef. Years passed, and I became a real estate broker, discovering I didn’t have to be paralyzed by shyness.

The marriage ended as I opened my own real estate firm and beach-clothing store. Just as the businesses began turning a profit, a commercial dredge crashed into the main bridge needed to get to our island ferries. With the bridge down, the businesses were ruined.

I parted from the island I’d loved for 13 years. My new man and I sold a few remaining assets, bought an old van, and refurbished a 1964 Holiday Rambler camper. We set out on a 2 year odyssey around the United States, logging 40,000 miles along the way.

We’ve had a few more adventures since then. Enough to agree with Hem that "life is a moveable feast."

And through it all, with each wild twist and turn, each heartbreak, each top of the world, look at that green valley below moment, Hemingway smiled.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Many Paws and a raffle for a free book!

If you agree with me that menopause bites, then it may not be too much of a stretch to go from menopause to Many Paws. Woof.

Don’t hate me because I love puns. 

Many Paws is a new “altered book” by writer and artist, Susan DeGarmo. She loves puns, too. From the flaming red-orange cover to the detachable last page of purple irises that can be converted to a hot flash fan, DeGarmo acknowledges the pitfalls that many of us experience during “the change.”

Many Paws is Susan’s adroit way of disguising the subject of the book, since “no southern lady is going to have a book laying round that  says ‘Menopause.’”

However, if you leave the book on your coffee table, the ladies from church may be startled to flip open the pop-up book and see artwork of a reclining female nude, covered in strategic places with long-eared white “hares,” since “Now gray hairs are everywhere!”

But, honestly, church ladies aren’t as easily shocked as they used to be. Especially if they are struggling with changes of their own.

What it is: Many Paws, Susan DeGarmo's altered book from Meaux Books that is customizable. You can put your own photos, or those of a loved one, over the heads of some of the figures in the book. If you give the book to a friend, for example, you can put her face in the book.

How it came to be: DeGarmo was teaching a class about making altered books while having a hot flash, and Voila! Many Paws came to be.

What makes it unique: It’s a pop-up book for adults! It has moving parts! It has (tasteful) nudity! It socks menopause a big one in the kisser!

Conclusion: A great gift book for anyone in or approaching menopause. Even those women who are having an "easier" time with the change will appreciate the humor and pathos. The art work is fun and inspiring!

Make a comment below to be entered in a raffle for a free copy of Many Paws. One entry per person, please.

Disclosure: I was provided copies of the books, but the opinions expressed are my own. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Wolf Hall, I Can't Quit You

Wolf Hall, a 2009 historical novel by Hilary Mantel, takes place in the time of Henry VIII. She won the Man Booker prize for her work.


Mantel is driving me crazy with her distracting use of the pronoun "he" without adhering to the rules of pronoun usage.

If we use he, we are usually referring to the last man mentioned. For instance: Norman carried a hatchet. He took it with him everywhere. The "he" means Norman. Not Thomas Cromwell!

"He" is the narrator of Wolf Hall, and Mantel plays games with the pronoun "he" so that I'm constantly re-reading to figure out if her "he" is Cromwell, Henry VIII, or another one of the dozens of males who populate the book.

Now that I have that off my chest, here is an intriguing passage from early in Wolf Hall. The first speaker is Norris, an attendant of the King; the other speaker is "he," Thomas Cromwell, who has served the now diminished Cardinal Wolsey.

"You know my lord cardinal is indicted under the statutes of praemunire, for asserting a foreign jurisdiction in the land."
"Don't teach me the law."
Norris inclines his head.
He thinks, since last spring, when things began to go wrong, I should have persuaded my lord cardinal to let me manage his revenues, and put money away abroad where they can't get it; but then he would never admit anything was wrong. Why did I let him rest so cheerful?
Norris's hand is on his horse's bridle. "I was ever a person who admired your master," he says, "and I hope that in his adversity he will remember that."
"I thought he wasn't in adversity? According to you."
How simple it would be, if he were allowed to reach down and shake some straight answers out of Norris. But it's not simple; this is what the world and the cardinal conspire to teach him. Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don't get on by being original. You don't get on by being bright. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that's what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all, these circumstances are extreme, the cardinal in the mud, the humiliating tussle to get him back in the saddle, the talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey's unraveling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.

Are you still with me? Damn, what awesome prose! So despite the annoying confusion over which "he" is "he," I'm still reading on page 400 of 500+ pages. I've tried to quit you, Wolf Hall, and I can't.

Le sigh.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Poem Made for Menopause

What’s that Smell in the Kitchen?

All over America women are burning dinners.
It's lambchops in Peoria; it's haddock
in Providence; it's steak in Chicago
tofu delight in Big Sur; red
rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning
food they're supposed to bring with calico
smile on platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined
but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it's
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything
it's a dead rat with a bomb in its belly
ticking like the heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.
--Marge Piercy

Just as T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” character ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") measured out his life in coffee spoons, Piercy’s speaker measures her life with Tupperware leftovers. Sometimes you’re the roast duck—others you’re the Spam. Relationships and aging are not for the cowardly. Men, be very afraid.

Friday, March 21, 2014


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