Praise for Smelter City BoyA selection of three chapters of Smelter City Boy won second place in the 2011 Pacific Northwest Writer's Association's Literary Contest.
Category Archives: Writing
I was not what you’d call a social kid. I always got along better with adults than I did people my own age. This troubled my parents. Probably more than I will ever know. So you can imagine their reaction when I told them I wished to take Hunter’s Safety. (I also was not an outdoorsy kid.)
At any rate, I remember my mother looking away, and my father looking at the ground. “Hunter’s Safety Grantsy? Whatever for?” I can see the faded linoleum on the kitchen floor. I was sitting in my customary chair at the dinner table, waiting to be excused.
“I want to learn how to fire a gun,” I said. I had a particular kind of plea in my voice, which I knew played on my parent’s emotions. It was a tone that was both defiant and pathetic at the same time. I used it in lieu of saying “All the kids are doing it.” I knew that wouldn’t go over well, so I opted for the direct approach. And the tone. It never failed me.
“Why?” My mother was mystified.
I opened my mouth and started to speak. Nothing came out. There really wasn’t a reason. I just thought it would be a good thing to know how to do.
“You know how I feel about guns,” she said. I really didn’t. Guns weren’t something we discussed in our house. I knew my dad had an ancient, 12-guage shotgun that he kept in pieces in the garage. “I don’t allow guns in the house,” she said.
My father alternated between looking at the floor and looking at his empty plate.
“I say yes,” he finally said. My mother blanched. “I think gun safety would be good for him. But they aren’t going to teach him how to shoot anything. And I’m certainly no help. Hell, I couldn’t hit a broadside of a barn even if I tried. But if he’s interested, I’m sure we can figure something out.”
In less than a week I was learning how to load a .22-caliber rifle. Turns out, there was a shooting range set up in the basement of my grade school. The class was run by somebody’s dad and one of the local librarians. They briefly taught us how to hold the gun in several different positions. We all wore headset mufflers and every so often would stop firing, unload and do something they called “fleecing the brass,” which I came to understand as cleaning up the empty shell casings.
We learned how to shoot from a prone position, a kneeling position and finally a standing position. I sucked at kneeling. I was not a social kid, nor was I an outdoorsy kid, and I certainly wasn’t a skinny kid. Fact was, I simply couldn’t stay on a bended knee long enough to get a shot to even come close to the target. That poor librarian tried everything. In the end, she rolled up her coat and let me kneel on it.
I became quite advanced. We would turn in our targets at the end of every round of shooting, the instructors would evaluate them, and give us pointers. At the end of the session we’d get certificates. Marksman, Expert, Sharpshooter. They were suitable for framing. I kept them in my baby book, along with my piano certificates and various other awards. I would take them out and look at them occasionally.
Eventually, the course ended. I took Hunter’s Safety, passed the state test and received a hunting license.
I used it only once, on a hunting trip with my brother. I shot a large, white-tailed doe through the back of her head, just behind her ear. She fell in an instant. I never fired a rifle again.
I recently pulled out those certificates I earned almost 40 years ago. They were signed by officials from the NRA. In my desire to be a part of the gang I had unknowingly joined the NRA. And they were happy to have me. They encouraged me, even at a young age, to be a gun-toting individual.
But that was 40 years ago. Imagine … firing a gun in a grade school basement supervised by the town librarian!
Back then, I’m sure I didn’t know enough to look at the seething underbelly of an organization, and I’m fairly certian my parents—as smart as they were—didn’t either. But today as I glance at my awards, granted me by an organization so firmly rooted in twisted logic and backward rhetoric I can’t help feeling duped.
You know there’s more to Creative Non-fiction than just making things up. It allows me to examine moments in my past and write about them with a deeper sense of truthfulness. These are not word-for-word recollections of the conversations I’ve had, but they are close enough to reveal the underlying emotion of the issue.
Today is my sister Cherie’s birthday. And as I reached into my bag of tricks for what to give her, I realized I had revised this section of the book to be published in a shorter form for a collection that I didn’t make it into this year. This isn’t the most attractive side of our relationship. It illuminates a moment in time when our kinship became strained. Cherie and I, you see, enjoyed a close alliance. Growing up, she was more than a sister to me. She was a sounding board, a baby-sitter, an ally in many arguments. After my mother died, Cherie became a matriarch, and wrapped herself in the mantel of all things family related. In this moment I wrote about, she was the arbiter of doing the right thing … even if it felt horrible and wrong.
We have long since confessed this to our family. I didn’t get the opportunity to come clean to my parents before they died. But you can rest assured, when I speak to them in my head (as I so often do) I let them know how much I loved them, and what an influence for good Cherie has been in my life.
My sister Cherie was the only person to ever cut my hair. Sometimes, she’d whip a towel around my shoulders and clip my hair in our kitchen. But today she had managed to squeeze me in between the shampoo, set and comb-out crowd she normally tended to in her beauty parlor. I usually left with more than a haircut. The shop a nexus of town trivia, and I took advantage of our half-sibling relationship to bitch about the other members of our complicated family. She had moved out of the house when I was two years old. We saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things.
“How’s being alone going?” Cherie asked. Mom and Dad were on their yearly mid-tax-season vacation. This year, they had driven to San Francisco.
“I love it,” I said.
“How’s the dog?” Cherie asked about Honey Yvette, our ancient toy poodle.
“Oh you know. She has more coughing fits than usual. Sometimes she passes out and pisses herself, but she’s holding up,” I said. Cherie carefully clipped my bangs, the wet hair fell into my lap.
“Yeah, about that,” she said.
“About what?” I could barely hear her over the bank of hairdryers working at full power, their denizens almost shouting at each other.
“About Honey. She has no quality of life,” Cherie said.
“She has what?” I shouted.
“Hush!” Cherie pulled out a blow dryer and directed it at the back of my head.
“She has little mini-strokes. You know, you’ve seen it,” I said, louder than I probably needed to.
Cherie turned off the hair dryer. My hair was far from dry.
“About Honey,” she said again. She swung the chair around and faced me.
“What about Honey?” I repeated.
“Listen, I … she … we,”
“We’re going to come by tomorrow and pick her up and take her to the vet,” Cherie said.
“Mom didn’t say anything about that,” I said. “But that’s fine. I’ll leave the back door unlocked.”
“We aren’t going to be bringing her back,” Cherie said. She swung the chair away so I faced the mirror. “Look down,” she said. She opened a straight razor to shave the back of my neck.
“That’s OK. I’ll pick her up from the vet after school,” I said. Honey was seeing the doctor with a lot more regularity since she’d developed a heart condition.
“Grant … ” Cherie shaved my neck with short, quick strokes.
“It’s no problem. I get out of band at 2:45 tomorrow, and I can pick her up before 3:00. She won’t be there all day. She hates being kenneled,” I said.
“No sweetie. We’re going to have the vet put Honey to sleep.” She wiped the back of my neck with a towel and unclipped the smock.
“What?” The air was leaving the room. The sound of the blood pumping in my ears drowned out both the hair dryers and the shouting women.
Before I could speak Cherie said, “Listen. She’s old. She’s really old and her heart … she has no quality of life. You’ve said it yourself. She has those coughing fits, and then she passes out. I think it’s better this way. She is causing a lot of trouble for Mom and Bob.”
“She is not,” I said. “She’s a good dog. She’s been our dog since I was, like, three years old. She’s got a heart condition.” I stood up.
“Sit down for a second,” Cherie said.
“Does Mom know?” I asked.
“Sit down for a second,” Cherie said. “Mom doesn’t know. And we’re not going to tell her.”
“What?! You think she’s not going to notice when she comes back from vacation and finds you’ve killed her dog?”
“She’s my dog, Grant.”
“She’s not though, Cherie. She hasn’t lived with you—ever. You may have been the one to bring her home, but you’re also the one who left her with us. She’s my dog. I’m the one who takes care of her.” I was starting to shout.
“I will not calm down. You’re going to … ” I couldn’t continue.
“We’re going to put her out of her misery, Grant. She’s really sick, and Mom and Bob are never going to do it. We’re going to have to do it,” Cherie said.
“Yeah? Well … they’re hoping she has a coughing fit, passes out and doesn’t wake up!”
“That’s what you are going to tell them when they call tomorrow night,” Cherie said.
“Excuse me?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You’re going to tell them that you let Honey out to pee, and she collapsed on the front porch. When you noticed her missing, it was too late, she was already dead,” Cherie said.
My eyes traveled across the floor. I looked at the hair Cherie had swept into a little pile. “Hold on. Let me get this straight. You want to kill my dog, and you want me to lie about it to Mom and Dad?”
“She’s my dog, Grant.”
“OK. You want to kill your dog—which you left with us when you moved out—and you want me to lie about it to my parents,” I said.
“Yes. That’s it. Listen …”
“Nope, I will not listen,” I said. “This is crazy talk. You are talking crazy talk to me!”
The women started to notice we were arguing with each other. I thought for a second, then I lowered my voice and said, “I want you to think about what you’re asking.” Cherie opened her mouth to protest, but I put up my hand to stop her. “I’m going home. They are calling at 10:00 tonight. If, between now and then, you still want to do this, you have to come up to the house at 10:00 and tell them yourself.”
Cherie’s resolve melted. Tears came up under her eyelids. She blinked them away and sniffed. “Jesus Christ. Can’t you just do this? Can’t you just do this for me?” she begged.
I tilted my head and frowned a bit. “I can’t see how this has anything to do with you,” I said.
Honey was asleep on the couch when I got home. She had long since stopped hopping up and down to meet me when I came home from school. But she had also astonished us with moments of pure, lucid, regular dog behavior.
I stepped across the living room and sat down by her side. She didn’t stir. I stroked her head and massaged the spot at the top of her ears. She opened one eye and blinked a couple of times. Lately, her breathing was irregular. She huffed a few times and then inhaled, nuzzling her snout into the palm of my hand. We sat together while the late February sun cast long shadows across the snow drifts on the front lawn.
Around 6:00, the sun had completely set. I got up, went into the kitchen and dialed Cherie’s home number.
“I’ll do it,” I said when she answered the phone.
The phone started ringing just as Johnny Carson was finishing the monolog. Don’t answer that, I thought. When they ask, you can tell them you were out and missed the call.
Honey had barely moved from her spot on the couch. The phone stopped. I exhaled, lit a cigarette, and waited.
A half-hour later, the phone rang again. There was no escape. I walked to the wall phone and picked up the receiver.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hello is more like it,” Dad said. “How’s everything?”
“Oh. You know, OK, I guess,” I said.
“We called before but you weren’t there,” he said.
“I was here,” I said.
“I was here, I just didn’t answer the phone,” I said.
“Talk to your mother,” he said.
I waited for a moment. I glanced at Honey. She was breathing in catches on the couch.
“Hello honey,” Mom said.
“Oh … my … hmm .. Mom … my … I …,” I stammered.
“Oh honey, what is it?” She knew something was wrong, my stammer had given me away. Again.
Nothing, I thought. Say nothing. Just wait for them to come home and ask about the dog. If you’re lucky, you won’t even be here and they’ll put it together themselves.
“Honey, is something wrong? Did you have a car accident? Are you OK?” If you wait long enough, sooner or later she’ll ask you about the dog, I thought. I hadn’t rehearsed this.
“Something’s wrong. Can you come home?” My voice cracked.
“Oh my God. Bob? There’s something wrong,” she said to Dad. I heard him in the background muttering. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“Honey’s … dead.”
“No, Honey’s dead. Honey died. Honey is no longer with us,” I blurted out.
“What? Did you just say Honey’s dead?”
“Yes. That’s what I said,”
“Oh no,” she said. There was a long minute on the phone. I could hear faint bits and pieces of other people’s conversations. Long distance was like that. Sometimes you could clearly hear entire conversations. Tonight, even the distant voices sounded difficult. As if everyone on the phone was lying to their parents. “Here, honey. Talk to your father,” she said. The phone clattered down on the hotel nightstand.
My heart started to race. I switched phone hands and ears, drying my free hand on my pant leg.
“What’s going on?” Dad said.
“Well, Honey died last night,” I said.
“Oh no,” he said. Another long minute passed and I heard muffled chatter on the line.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No. No. Not at all.” His voice drifted off. I’d heard my father sound angry, or frustrated, but never once had I heard him sound sad.
“How?” It was Mom on the phone. He had handed off the receiver.
“What?” I asked. I had hoped to avoid this part. It painted me as a careless person. A bad dog owner.
“How did she die?” Mom asked. I stared at Honey, sleeping fitfully on the couch. This is mean, I thought. You’re being mean to your parents.
“I let her out and she had an attack on the porch. She didn’t come back in, so when I looked for her before I went to bed, I found her on the porch. I thought she was asleep.” Jesus Christ! Listen to yourself!
“Oh no. I can’t believe it, you know? I just can’t … ” Oh my God. She can tell you’re lying. She can see right through you. She always could. This is so fucking mean. I heard her talking to Dad, “He says she had an attack on the porch, and when he found her she was dead,” she said. “Honey, here, talk to Daddy,” Mom said.
“Hey,” I said when Dad came back on the phone.
“Is it cold there?”
“What?” I was no longer there. I was somewhere else, talking to someone about something I had no notion of.
“Is it cold there? I mean, how cold is it?”
“I dunno. It’s … you know … above freezing in the daytime and below zero at night, I suppose,” I said.
“Did she freeze to death?” he asked.
“Was she frozen to the porch?”
“Oh! No. No, she was cold, but she didn’t freeze,” I said. There was another long pause. Someone on the line started laughing uncontrollably.
“Where is she now?” he asked. I couldn’t tell if he was talking into the phone or across the room.
“Are you asking me a question?”
“Yes, where’s Honey now?” he asked.
“Oh! Um … you know … um …,” I stalled. She’s asleep on the fucking couch! “I put her in the garage. Cherie is going to take her … no, wait … Cherie is coming up tomorrow and we are going to bury her in the sand box.”
“Well … you know … at least she died on her own,” Dad said. I had to end this conversation. My guts were twisting.
“Oh Dad, I … I’m just … I’m so sorry.” I started to cry.
“She was a good dog,” he said.
“Yeah. She’s a good dog,” I said. I glanced in Honey’s direction. “Please come home, OK? Come home tomorrow?”
“It’s going to take us a couple of days to get there. We’ll be home soon, though,” he said. He can hear you crying. “Grant?”
“Wha-ha-what?” I stammered.
Another long silence. Somewhere on the line, someone asked a question.
“Nothing,” he said. “It was nothing. We’ll be home soon. All right then … goodbye,” he said. The line went dead, and the dial tone crackled back to life.
The next morning I hopped out of bed and roused Honey. We began our morning routine. She coughed until she choked, lapped up a bit of water, and panted her way to the front door. I let her out and watched as she peed on the porch, her urine raising a little cloud of steam. She stood and sniffed at the wind a little bit, coughed, and walked to the other end of the porch. She pooped before she came back and scratched at the aluminum screen door.
I got ready for school, flicked off the porch light and pulled the door closed behind me. When I unplugged the heatbolt heater, I glanced back at the house and saw Honey sleeping on the couch in almost the exact same spot where she’d spent the night. I shrugged off the cold, started the car, and scraped the frost off the windshield.
After my second class, around 10:00 a.m., I went into the third floor bathroom and vomited. I swished some water in my mouth and walked into the office to tell them I was leaving for the day.
On the drive home, I thought through my plan.
You and Cherie will have a standoff. You will prevail. She will mention that you have already lied to Mom and Dad. You will tell her that lying was easy. So easy, in fact, that you will wait for their call tonight and tell them the dog had mysteriously revived in the garage. “When we went to bury her she was alive and well—better than ever,” you will say. You will apologize, and tell them you feel stupid. You will never speak civilly to Cherie again.
I pulled up in front of the house and parked the car. I raced up to the front door and burst inside. I considered dog-napping Honey. I had enough gas to drive to Missoula and back. That would be enough time for Cherie to come to her senses.
But I was too late. Honey was nowhere to be found. I called out her name a couple of times and nothing happened. I didn’t hear her cough to life in some obscure corner of the house. I didn’t hear the familiar jingling of the tags that hung off her collar.
She was gone.
I sat on the couch, where only hours before I had stroked her head and pulled lightly on her ears. Shit! I thought. Shit! Shit! Shit!
What a year! I mean … What. A. Year. It’s almost been a year since I started this blog. You should see the usage details. Big, big start, steady climb. Total dive. The best of intentions, laid aside to return to work. And now, it turns out, my writing IS MY WORK.
And I feel fine.
Of course, I’m working on this post between assignments. Which is really cool. Cool that I have such great friends in the professional community. It didn’t take long for them to find me, ask me about my unemployment, and find me something to do. Turns out that’s important. Finding something to do. Very important. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “These are the words of a desperate man.” But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been a year … almost … almost a year … not quite.
And I feel fine.
So: that happened. And so much more than that, happened. I’m richer now in experiences than I’ve ever been. I have a community of actor friends that are helping me find my way. I have a community of professional friends that are helping me find my way. And it’s been almost a year since I started this writing about myself stuff. So today I recollect. My roots are deeper back home in Anaconda. So many people reached out to me. Wrote to me. Posted stuff on the blog. Good stuff. All of it. Not one nasty bit in the lot. And it was a lot. It was almost too much. Almost. Not quite.
And about that I feel more than fine. I feel loved. And that’s really, very, very good.
Of course, I’m working on this today just in case there is no December 22nd. And here’s what I have to say about that: isn’t every day kind of like the end of the Earth? I mean, don’t we all live with a certain qualified amount of uncertainty about whether or not tomorrow’s going to happen? I guess I can only speak for myself, but I do. I have for quite awhile. Probably since that winter evening so very long ago. I think it was winter. Milan Lazetich, a family friend, had just died. I was probably six. Maybe five. Anyway I was laying on the couch, putting stuff together in my mind when I asked my mom if the dog was going to die. She said “Yes.” And I was fine with that. Sad, of course, by fine. Then I asked if I was going to die. She said “Yes.” And I was fine with that. Worried, of course, that it was going to happen right then and there. But it didn’t. Then I asked if she was going to die. She thought for a second and said, “Well, yes, honey … I suppose I’m going to die.” And I lost it.
I did not feel fine.
Hours later, or maybe minutes, you know how slippery these things are. I’ve written about that. You’ve read about it. It could have been just that very moment for all I know. It seemed like hours, though. And that’s what’s important. Anyway. Hours later, my dad came home. I was still crying. ”Carrying on,” as he called it. (When, by the way, did “carrying on” become something other than crying like a stuck ape for me? Doesn’t matter.) Hours later, my dad came home from working the evening shift at the office. (Must have been tax season.) And he said, “What did you say to him?” to my mother. They had a habit of talking about me while I was right there in the room. Like I wasn’t actually there. So my dad says “What did you say to him?” to my mom, and she says, “Well, I told him I was going to die. Someday.”
And that’s probably when I knew that time is … precious.
I don’t really remember what they did to calm me down. Probably tell me it wasn’t going to happen for a long time. And, of course, it happened. For both of them. Way too soon. But when it did, when it actually came to pass. It was hard, of course. But it wasn’t … impossible.
This past year has been filled with the types of things I simply lacked the imagination to predict. But here, on this almost, almost, not quite anniversary of writing this stuff down I know something:
It could all end tomorrow. It probably won’t.
And I feel fine.
Since Mondale v. Reagan, I’ve made an apple pie the night of every presidential election. It’s become a tradition. I like to do it mainly because it occupies the time while waiting for election results. It makes the house smell pretty good. And at the end, regardless of the outcome of the election, you have a piece of pie. As the years (and the presidents) have come and gone, I’ve given up on the obvious “American as” metaphor, and embraced the apple pie paradox.
Pie in general, and apple pie in particular, is both easy and hard. Anyone can make a pie. Yes, you can. It’s easy. You don’t need a fancy machine, you don’t need exotic ingredients. You need just the basic staples found in any kitchen. Flour, sugar, salt, butter, apples. There’s a bit of peeling and chopping and a bit of mixing and rolling, but it is doesn’t require an extravagant effort. In fact, you could argue it doesn’t take a lot of head space. You just sort of do what comes naturally. Do what feels good.
Over the years, I’ve learned how to finesse this process into a pretty intense affair. In fact, you could say that election night is the culmination of my entire apple pie season. I start by listening to people talk about apples. It’s crazy, I know, but if you really listen, you’ll find everyone has an opinion about apples. Everyone has a favorite. Most are mono-apple. They find one they like and stick with it. Others go by season. Some go by texture and a select few go by taste. At 50, I find myself in the taste camp. I prefer the Pink Lady for eating out of hand, or tangy/tart Granny Smiths. Neither of these apples are good for pie. Well, not solo. For my apple pie I need a mixture of all different kinds of apples. It’s like an apple melting pot.
Years ago I abandoned the arduous process of hand-peeling and slicing the apples. Here’s why: the folks who invented the apple peeler/corer/slicer knew what they were doing. You can whip through twenty pounds of apples quickly and every slice is uniform, so the apples cook at relatively the same rate. I like this idea. Individual apple slices, agreeing to some kind of uniformity for the good of the pie. In my head my apples have free will. Tonight’s pie has a mixture of Pinova, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Organic Crab. A mixture … all types of apples … that’s what makes the best pie. I process them the night before (a trick I learned during Clinton v. Bush ’92). I mix them with a combination of white and brown sugar and let them sit overnight on a counter in a big-ass bowl. I like that they get to know each other during this process. Their juices meld. Out of many, they become one.
I made the pastry dough this morning. Every time I make pie dough, I think of my mother, who told me “Learn how to make pie dough. You’ll always have something to talk about with strangers.” Probably the smartest advice she ever gave me. Like apples, every person who bakes has an opinion about pie dough. I tend toward the flakey. That takes flour; butter and shortening; water and vodka; salt and sugar. (That’s right, I said vodka.) There’s also a bit of diplomacy involved to get it right. Finesse. Agreement. It’s a process of making something unruly behave. For obvious reasons, it’s best to combine the ingredients in the morning and let them chill out. These are opposing forces, after all. Flour does not naturally get along with butter, and water does not naturally get along with oil. All the players in the pie require some rigor followed by some rest. It’s the natural order of things, frankly.
I wait until 5:00 p.m. PDT to assemble and bake. That way, as each state reports their results, the pie is finishing in the oven. Like the process of creating the pie itself, over the years this has taken a turn toward the methodical and ritualistic. Roll the bottom crust. Chill the crust in the pie pan. Strain the apples. Mix the juice from the apples with just the right amount of flour. Fill the pie, roll the top crust. Chill the top crust. Preheat the oven. Top the pie. Beautify the pie. Bake the pie. And wait.
The waiting is the hardest part. You never know. You just never know what you’re going to get. (I learned that the hard way … Bush v. Gore.) The easy part, and often the best part (lately) has been the pie.
A couple of posts ago, my nephew IM’d me on Facebook:
“Hi Uncle, nice story today! But I have a request? I love the stories that I know a little about soooo how about a gramma nobutt and gramps story, maybe one about Xmas eve, God I miss that more then anything! Thanks! Hope everything is looking up in the job hunting , love ya”
I replied, “Can do.” And left it at that. The gramma nobutt he is referring to is, of course, his grandmother (my mother … who had a working butt, but it was flat as a pancake). He called her gramma nobutt but around the house we generally referred to her as pancake ass.
It was an endearment.
The gramps he is referring to is his grandfather (my father). Both of whom have been featured in many, many posts. So, not wanting to completely disappoint my nephew, who is actually more like a younger brother to me than a nephew … I’m only six years his senior … I turned my thoughts this morning to my grandmother. Emma. Who would have been 124 today. She’s been gone for 22 years, and though this little snippet I wrote awhile back wouldn’t prove it, I miss her dearly. So … Nephew … this is for all of us.
My grandmother wasn’t much for sharing. Born in 1888 and raised in northern Minnesota, she lived in a sod house as a child, yet her family came to be one of the wealthiest families in the Red River Valley. As a young girl she worked at a milliner’s in Duluth. Once, when she was at work, a neighbor who worked for the railroad came into the store and asked her what her name was.
“Emma,” she said.
“Well, Emma, I’m Walt,” he said. “And I was just strolling down the other side of the street and I looked over here and saw you in the window. I told my friend out there—his name is Shorty—I told him that you were the girl I was going to marry,” Walt said.
“Well, it’s a good thing you introduced yourself,” she said.
When Grandma went home and told her folks that she was marrying Walt they disowned her. At her 100th birthday party her 96-year-old sister showed up with her 75-year-old nephew. This was the first time we’d seen anyone from Grandma’s side of the family. She and her sister had seen each other in 80 years. They didn’t say much to each other. We could tell they were rich and we weren’t. All because of Walt. But Grandma never talked about that.
Grandma never talked about anything.
As kids, we always thought we’d done something wrong. Everyone’s grandmothers would smother them with attention. Tell them stories. As teenagers, my sister and I thought Grandma was sweet, but still a little scary. My mom and dad would make us visit with her. They called it ‘small talk.’ After a few minutes of remarkably forced conversation, we were excused, and Grandma would sit and watch television, or read. Sometimes she’d knit. She was like that. But she didn’t mean to be. She thought she was talking. She lived to be 102 or 103, and I’ll bet that now, at the age of 39, I’ve said more than she did her entire life.
I used to spend Tuesday afternoons with her when she and I lived in the same town. I was encouraged by my family to spend time with her because—according to them—she liked me. She talked to me, they said. So, I’d leave work at around eleven in the morning and stay with her a couple of hours in her apartment in what my friends called the “Old Folks High Rise,” which, in Missoula, Montana was a retirement home that was five stories tall.
A typical conversation went something like this:
“Grandma, what was it like growing up?” I’d ask.
“Cold,” she’d say.
“What did you do for fun?” I’d ask.
“Worked,” she’d say.
“What was Grandpa like?”
“Funny,” she’d say after a few seconds hesitation.
“What was the best thing that ever happened to you?”
“I got a new car once.”
“What was the worst thing that ever happened to you?”
“Your Aunt Lola hit a cow and ruined my new car.”
This, my family considered to be small talk. One Tuesday afternoon I simply had a breakdown in her apartment. It had been a tough afternoon for me. Both of my parents had died within months of each other and I had just survived Hepatitis B, which had kept me quarantined for six weeks. I was 26 years old. Grandma didn’t say anything for quite a while that afternoon, she just sat there and handed me Kleenex. We’d been through some pretty tough patches together, what with me wanting her to talk and she not talking, but this afternoon I was about at the end of my rope. I think I was just about ready to give up trying to get her to talk to me. I could still visit her and sit silently. It would have been a bit of a stand-off, but I was fed up.
After a few moments of listening to me weep, she said:
“When Walt and I were about twenty years into it—around 1928 or so—Walt decided he was going to stop working for the railroad and start a farm. We sold everything we had and bought this farm outside of East Grand Forks. It was a bad spot. We didn’t know it at the time, and we spent a good deal making a go of it. We had to borrow furniture from the neighbors and grow our own food. One day the bank came and took the farm from us. They told us we had a few weeks to make what we could at auction and leave the rest. It was the middle of winter, and we had three or four kids by then. The morning we were about to set off, your dad pulled me over to the chest of drawers and opened up the bottom drawer. A mother mouse had just had babies. He and I watched this mouse make a nest that would keep her babies warm. She would run from one side of the drawer to the other with wood chips she’d pulled from the drawer. Your dad and I tore up newspaper and dropped it in her path to help her.”
Apparently this process took several hours. When I asked Grandma why she took the time to do this, she said “I admired her courage.”
The morning my Aunt Betty called and told me that Grandma had passed away in her sleep, I didn’t think at all about what Grandma had said—or not said—during her life. I did, however, think about that mouse.
You get what you need.
Rejection. So, I was having a conversation with someone yesterday who was in the process of rejecting me. It was obvious to me that the situation was much more awkward for him as it was for me. This guy actually felt bad about not being able to give me what I wanted. In the moment I said, “I’m completely comfortable being rejected.”
Since then, I’ve given that statement much more thought than I did at the time. And today I stand by what I said. I’m fine being rejected. In fact, I think I handle that whole thing pretty well. I have a fairly long track record with it.
There’s always a sting of disappointment. I’ll give any agent/publisher/director/employer that. I am, in the moment disappointed. But I’m self-aware enough to know how fleeting that feeling can be. I’m not a sulker. I’m a move-on-er. (Now, I also know there have been times in my life when I haven’t moved-on. And I think I can safely say nothing good has ever come from behaving badly in those moments. And for that, I’m truly regretful.)
Here’s the point: I know enough about myself to understand that if I put my manuscript out into the world, if I audition, if I apply for the job, if I venture into the unknown, I’m strong enough to absorb the message that the decider in these circumstances can always choose to go another way.
I’m fine with that.
I’m even better if there’s something I can learn along the way.
So, all you potential rejectors out there … give yourselves a break.
I’m a big boy. I can take it.
It was a common problem between the two of us. Neither of us were good at deciding what to do for birthdays, special occasions, or holidays involving gifts. Our first foray into Christmas resulted in what I call “The Misadventures of Green Leather.” On a lark, I purchased a large, green, Dooney and Bourke bag as my first real Christmas present to her, and she purchased a pair of green Birkenstock loafers for me. When the unwrapping was finished, we agreed never to stress about the activity of gift-giving. Both of us returned the gifts for cash, and we used the pooled funds to buy a vacuum cleaner. For the past twenty years, we’ve rarely surprised each other with gifts, but we do manage to be generous.
So when she said, “I know what you can do for my birthday,” my guard went up. “There’s a ring there on the counter,” she said. “My grandmother gave it to me when I was a girl. I had to have it cut off my finger. Can you take it to the jeweler and see if it is valuable, and if it is, maybe have it reset in a larger size?”
There, on the counter (as she said) was a tiny little diamond chip in a princess setting. Well, a broken princess setting. The pieces of the ring had been taped together with a piece of cellophane tape. From the days when tape was cellophane. It looked exactly like the kind of ring an ordinary grandmother would give to an ordinary granddaughter.
But I knew immediately, nothing about any of these players — grandmother, granddaughter, ring — was ordinary.
I never knew the grandmother, Rachel (pronounced RUCK-hull, which sounds more beautiful than it looks, and even more beautiful when someone says it with a Yiddish accent). She was a gifted storyteller. Her oral history, recorded for the ages and transcribed with loving care by her daughter, is as rich in detail as it is in plot. Born a poor peasant in pre-Soviet Russia, the resourceful, mother-praising Rachel would find clever ways to feed her eight siblings, keep their spirits up, and somehow rise about these meager means to land a job with a big, wealthy family in the city.
It was there that she caught the eye of an awkward, aging heir who would lavish her with jewels she would sell to buy material to make clothes for her family, so they didn’t look poor at her wedding.
The gifts would continue.
Rachel was shunned by her husband’s rich relatives, never really fitting in, yet somehow raising above the fray to be the only gracious, well-bred person in the mix. During the revolution, when the family’s factory was being assimilated by the socialists, Rachel’s husband moved to America. True to her nature, Rachel held close her daughter, Chava (pronounced KH-ava, which sounds more beautiful than it looks, and even more beautiful when someone says it with a Yiddish accent). When tensions rose between Rachel and her in-laws, she would use baby Chava as leverage. In that dynamic, she held all the power by holding close to her only daughter.
Rachel used that power to convince her husband to pay for the safe passage of all her siblings. Once they were settled in America and Canada, only then did she allow her husband to pay for her and Chava’s passage to America.
The stories of her childhood were as dramatic as they get. Near-starvation during the winters, near-extermination by the Bolsheviks, near-death from sickness. Rachel makes Angela McCourt look like a self-obsessed pansy. During one particularly dramatic passage in the oral history, Rachel buries her jewelry in the courtyard of the big house, to keep it safe from the marauding bands of soldiers looking to overthrow the aristocracy.
It’s a spell-binding, page-turning, wish-you-could-have-written-it, kind of story.
Rachel settled in America and raised a large, tight-knit family. She became Rachel, the matriarch, Rachel the storyteller, Rachel the corsetiere. Her daughter became Chava, the ransomed, Chava the stage beauty, Chava the doctor. Chava’s only-born daughter, Alana, became Alana the upstart, Alana the scholar, Alana, the actor/director.
To that granddaughter, Rachel bestowed a ring. A tiny chip of a diamond in a princess setting.
Too tiny to be fake, the stone is most-likely genuine, probably of little or no value.
But the ring itself could have escaped the careful eye of the socialists, the fellow passengers in steerage, the immigration officials who quarantined both grandmother and mother upon their arrival in America.
The worth of that ring? It’s too high to even guess.
Happy belated birthday, my darling girl. You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine.
I’ve been carrying around a couple piece of jewelry for the past few weeks. When I cleaned out my backpack before heading out to the beach for the week, I stumbled across them, and put them in a safe place. My intent was to take them to the jeweler to be repaired. I still haven’t done that.
Funny how hard it is to recognize classic writing exercises when they are staring you in the face. (Or you are holding them in your hand.) It’s an old saw. Find an object and write a story about it. The fact is, though, these two objects have been rolling around in my mind for three weeks. Maybe my amendment to the exercise is to find an object, carry it around for three weeks, and THEN write about it.
Both the objects are rings. One belonged to my father, one belongs to my wife. Both are shrouded in stories.
My dad wore an azure-blue star sapphire, set in a manly silver setting with two diamond chips on both sides. I don’t know why my mother bought a ring like this. Nor why she gave it to my dad, but I do remember he loved it, and that was rare. My dad took delight in many things, but seldom cherished anything.
Sapphires themselves are kind of native to Montana. During one of our few family outings, the four of us went to a sapphire mine and picked over a bucket of stones. My mom threw a chunk of what she was convince was Coke-bottle glass over her shoulder and we spent a good part of the afternoon sorting through road gravel to find it. Turns out, it was a blue-green hunk of corundum, which my sister now wears as a cut stone in a setting my mom chose. Given their relationship, I’m pretty sure that ring irritates my sister from time to time.
We didn’t find my dad’s stone. Maybe my mom gave the ring to my dad one Father’s Day. She might have said something hokey about the diamond chips representing my sister and me. I really don’t remember how, or why, that ring came into the family. I do remember how the depth of the blue jumped off my dad’s chubby fingers. And the milky-gray, sparkley star inside the stone mimicked my dad’s eyes.
In doing a little research, I’ve found that real star sapphires are rare. They are most likely blue. They are cut in a way that a six-pointed star appears to be inside the stone, and that star shape will move, but continue to show up, no matter how you hold the stone. Star sapphires are also frequently replicated or faked. There are many stones in the world with the star “painted” into a less-valuable material, like agate. One of the tests for authenticity is to make sure the image of the star remains, no matter how you move the stone. But clever counterfeiters can create synthetic material that mimics the star and sell it as real. So taking the stone to a gemologist is the only way to tell.
I came across the ring when we were culling through my mom’s stuff in preparation for my eldest sister Cherie’s move into the house I grew up in. I remember that day as being busy, and filled with strongly concealed emotions. My sisters were mostly concerned with my mother’s shoes. I sat on the living room floor with my week-old neice strapped into a car seat nearby. She had recently discovered her feet, and she squealed with delight every time she managed to snatch one up and pull it to her chest. My dad’s stuff was down to a few boxes. This was stuff my mom had saved, having parceled out the rest the year before. It contained my dad’s dog tags from WWII, his discharge papers, his wedding ring, a photo of his high-school track team, a copy of the speech he gave at his graduation, and a few other things my mom couldn’t bear to part with.
I’d never wear the ring on a daily basis. I’d probably never wear it even for special occasions. I did wear it recently in a play. (I had to wrap the band with tape … my dad had huge fingers.) Not an everyday ring, but something the King of France would wear.
The stone is loose.
And I have been reluctant to take it to the jeweler for more than a handful of reasons. Practically, I don’t have any reason to wear the ring, so why pay to get it fixed? And I don’t have anyone to give the ring to, once I’m dead, or ready to give my stuff away. Emotionally, I don’t want to know if the stone is fake.
Mostly, I don’t want to let the color of the star out of my possession.
Even to get fixed.
Those of you familiar with blogging know this. I didn’t. Tons of spam. So, in an effort to get real about the actual numbers of authentic people visiting, I stayed away for a month. My idea here is it will give me a vague notion of how many honest-to-god people in the world are reading what I’ve written.
When I was a student at the University of Montana, there was a visiting choreographer in the dance department. His work was inspiring, and devoted to including spoken text in his pieces. One I remember was an evocative, slow moving piece with dancers moving through space simply saying “I’m sorry.” Sounds stupid, I know … but it was incredible. The choreographer in residence worked on a similar piece. It wasn’t as grounded, or as artistically sound. (Why would it be, it wasn’t her idea?) At any rate, her dancers kept kneading the air repeating “Dough is a living thing. Dough is a living thing.” But there was a refrain in her piece that has resonated with me for almost thirty years. Out of this repetition, one of the dancers would explode with movement and shout “When I can’t dance I’m a nasty old bitch!” It was both funny “ha ha” and funny “peculiar.”
If I were to sum up my behavior this past month, I’d have to conclude that “When I can’t write, I’m a nasty old bitch!”
There are some learnings to be had here. The good news is, there seems to be quite a few of you real, honest, readers! The bad news is, I haven’t been able to write.
And it’s made me a nasty old bitch. So, here’s a list of stuff I jotted down while I was away.
- There’s nothing like a little bit of sunshine. Really. There’s nothing like it.
- Taxes, in the overall scheme of things, are still a good idea.
- Speeding is bad for the world, I’m not going to do it anymore.
- There’s no sense in eating cheap cheese. (Or to put it another way, expensive cheese is worth it.)
- Most people have two muscles in their calves that look almost exactly like tiny ass cheeks.
- Having a nagging, whooping-like cough as a child doesn’t mean you are immune to it as an adult.
- People can be challenging, but mostly they are just trying to be good.
- A clean car runs better than a dirty car.
- There’s really only a few things I’d like to do over, and most of them happened in Missoula.
- When given the opportunity, I’d rather teach than perform.
So, as you can see, there’s quite a bit happening for me. As far as the book goes, my plan is to dive into the edits like a madman when I go on vacation in a couple of weeks. I did, however, send my first page to an agent. She gave me a nine out of ten. (I think that’s good, but I wanted a ten.)
But I’ll take the nine and keep working. At least I’ve got that going for me.
My inbox is holding an edited manuscript. First time I’ve ever said that. My dear friend, despite having a new baby on top of a pukey toddler, has thrown me a big, fat, sucker pitch. Oh, she’s a great editor. She’s a sensitive and caring auditor. She’s encouraging. She’s had her chance at bat. She connected. In fact, one might say she knocked it out of the park. And now it appears it’s my ups. Time to put on the helmet and trot back to the plate.
I love what she has to say. And here’s what she has to say: Work harder.
I can do that. It’s easy for both of us, because she sees this effort the same way I do. It’s still in a formative stage. What, exactly, is it? I keep calling it “the book” but maybe it’s not a book at all. Maybe it’s a collection of stories, loosely woven together by a common thread. If that’s the case, I still need to work harder. But it’s a different kind of work. I need to get individual stories together and start sending those out. Once I start getting buzz from those, I can then put that success in my back pocket (and in my query letters) and start marketing a collection of stories. That’s a long game, that. That means we’re only in the first inning.
If it’s truly “a book,” well then, I’m going to need to take a step back into it and start working harder. We’re in the fourth or fifth inning and … we’re losing. It means more writing about … everything. More background about the place. More physical characteristics about the characters. More work on the narrative arc.
And I’m torn. I’m truly torn. It’s not even a question of long-term gains or short-term pains. It’s a question of how much of this I want to take back. How long I want to play.
OK. Time to get crafty. Time to dive back into the belly of the beast. Today, I start by reading the whole thing (again) as if I was reading a book. Today, I start again.
Not over. Again.