Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What Scared Me

A spring day, and we were in Melba.  The whole family, sans children.  My brother and his friend, Randy, who was there for muscle power, which we needed,  Maggie, my sister-in-law, cousin Julie.  We were on a mission.

My dad had died the previous November.  Our last years with him had been glorious. He was in a nursing home in our town for the three years before he died at 77, with the complications of muscular dystrophy.  His doc called him the oldest living MD patient on record.  I think that may have been more than the kindness of docs.  It might have been true.

At any rate, my dad had been corralled and treated kindly.  He was safe, well fed, and had lived long enough to see his grand daughter, Miss Mackenzie.  He liked his last years, he was in town where his kids could get to him, the nursing home folks kept him wheel chair bound—fine with us—and entertained.  He found a girl friend.  Safety and love for a 75-year-old muscular dystrophy patient are not overrated.

He'd lived in Melba all of his adult life.  He liked his old friends, and the paramedics would come often enough that he knew them by their first names.  He thought they were grand.  He kept himself occupied by making world-class plum and apple juice, his famous sour dough bread, and Christmas fruitcake.  He was ardent in caring for his fruitcakes, pouring brandy over them liberally every year for years.

So, we were in Melba trying to clear the place for the people who'd bought the trailer.  Steve and Randy tackled the outside stuff which had to be packed off or burned off. Maggie and I were in the kitchen.  If you've had elderly parents who've insisted on their own lives and that everything is just fine, thank you very much, you know what that means.  Julie lost interest about then, and who could blame her.  I didn't have that luxury.  

I entered the horror of horrors—under the sinks and the cupboards.  Maggie talked me through it, there being only room for one cleaner-upper.  I wiped up gallons of mice poopies and insect exoskeletons, fought valiantly against the the spiders and their sticky webs.  I was nearly hysterical with it, hyperventilating, shocky.   I got rid of the detritus, then scrubbed the boards hard with cleansers, then bleached the living daylights out of them.  It took me most of the day. Cleaning the rest of the house was a piece of cake compared to that.

I went outside to get parts of my soul back.  My brother had a big bon fire going; the pickup was full of glass jars for recycling; things had been picked up, swept up, hauled off.  I rescued the doll baby I'd had as a child.  Still love that little baby.  But everything else looked like it belonged in the fire.  

Then I noticed It It was burning along the edges of the fire, but It was breathing.  Or looked like a set of lungs, breathing. It was round, brown, shiny, inhaling, exhaling.   Steam was flooding out of the growing-larger-by-the-second orifices which looked like Satanic grins or screams, couldn't tell which,  with smoke billowing out of rainbow-colored fire—pink, orange, green, turquoise, blue, blood red.  It was wheezing, shape-changing, whistling, and swirls of multi-colored liquid ran off the sides.  It was vibrating with hell's own hideousness.  

"What is that?" I asked my brother.  It was an incredulous moment on my part.

 "Oh, just the fruitcake."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Of course, The West is an appropriately creepy place.  Our long vistas, howling winds, switchback roads, misty fogs, the ancient buildings, more ramshackle than not, and the loneliness and the resulting craziness, make us a fine people and place for ghosts to haunt.

My favorite "for reals" TV ghost story, and I'm a sucker for those, happened in Silver City, reputedly one of  the most haunted places in the West. I'd heard stories about that town for decades.  Two young, beautiful reporters spent the night in the bar and the hotel.  They were  getting locked into or out of places, usually with a massive slam of the door, that somehow refused to open after.  It could have been ghosts or it could have just been the old buildings, having a laugh at their expense.  Either way, they hightailed it out of town in the middle of the night. 

 More. Than. They. Wanted.

I have a family ghost story.  Aren't those the best kind anyway?  My cousin, Pat,  died of a heart attack when she was in her 50s,  just a few days before her daughter, Vicki, married.  Talk about a tough wedding.  Everybody cried all the way through that.   Fast forward a few years,  long enough for Vicki and her husband to have their first child and for that little girl to be between three and four years old.  This was a family that had fun together.  Vicki and Nicole came to visit Great Grandma and Great Grandpa, and were there for a long weekend.  Poor little Nicole was having a time of it.  She was crying and fussy all weekend, kept talking about the "lady in the corner," which scared her.  Nicole would point her out.  Nobody else could see "the lady in the corner."  On the morning, they were leaving, Grandma picked up little Nicole to take her to the car.  There, Nicole pointed, there is the "lady in the corner."  The little girl pointed to Pat's high school graduation photo on top of the fireplace mantle.

Most of this story is true.

I've had lots of creepy feelings in this state.  I remember fogs when I was younger that would be so thick, you couldn't see through them for days.  The un-nervingest  of those fogs hung over us at just over roof-top high.  It gave the street light a really odd cast.

Old barns can scare the willies out of you too, especially when the old boards don't exactly keep out the wind and the cold.  You can see through the slats of wood.  In the daylight, fine.  When the wind is blowing or at night, the sound of the wind howling through those old buildings makes you think the devils themselves have come straight out of hell,  moaning and shrieking, to eat you alive.

When I was much younger, I hiked into a high mountain ghost town, Boulder City in central Idaho.  The place weirded me out.  Maybe it was the plants, high above the tree-line, that were mangled by the wind, or the crazy-making greed that comes with gold mines, or maybe the long solitary winters, any way it felt haunted to me.  I said as much to an old friend  who had grown up in the area about it.  He said, "No, not Boulder City.  There are places like that in Idaho, but that isn't one of them." 

 Still and all.

My absolute best story was the story of my brother and a favorite cousin who were going to spend the night in a camper shell in the rural front yard, where the farm equipment was kept.  The boys were about ten years old.  It all went well until about midnight.  The lights were out, the wind  was up.  And then slowly, it began to  dawn on the boys that they weren't alone.  "That breathin you?"  Mike whispered.  What ever it was, it snored deeply. "Nope," my brother was holding his breath and trying to talk.   That was enough to send both boys screaming into the house.  My uncle had to go look by himself, since the kids had had enough for one night.  What did he find?   Two hunting dogs.  They were the "ghosts."  They had scrambled into the camper quietly for big guys.

Which brings me around to my own Halloween memories.  There were 8 family farms in my country neighborhood where we would Trick or Treat.  Each mama would make something wonderful.  We wound up with 8 treats, each one better than the last.

Things like brownies with frosting, snickerdoodles, popcorn balls, Rice Crispy treats, giant Hershey's bars, pretty baggies of candy corn and peanuts, carmel apples, lemon bars, black jelly beans and orange slices, lots of those.  Two hundred itty-bitty candy bars do not do it for me.  But those homemade treats can reduce me to a slobbering mess.

Then too, there could still be a ghost or two, still hanging around the old neighborhoods.  I was thinking those ghosts might be more like Casper.

Hoping, anyway.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Stopping Place

A single, orange leaf, untethered from the mother tree, drops into the wide green swath of manicured lawn.  It's landed on it's edge, and the morning sunlight ignites the leaf.

Here's the thing, there's not another leaf in this city yard that comes close to its shape, or  it's point of  progress through the growth and death cycle, nor is there any living thing that matches the same robust, flame-throwing orange.  This leaf has a spikey appearance, the others are rounded and serrated.

What we have here is a pilgrim, a wandering traveler, an untamed believer in the next best thing, no matter where it is.   For whatever reason, it didn't stay put.

A lot of us wander towards the end of our lives, a restlessness or an urgency to explore sets in.  Work and children rendered us capable of stability and safety.  Now those monumental tasks have loosened their harnesses, giving us some measure of freedom to stop if we think best, to go if we desire, or to plan a stay in somebody's back yard, if that's as far as we get.

The little leaf is at the end of its cycle, the next hard rain, coming in a day or two, will take it out.  It's edges are curling as I write these words.

Best to get going while the going is good.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fall's Weapon

This week the girls got together.  Mike, Marty's husband was hiding out in his den.  "Well, there's a game. . ."  he sheepishly explained why he wouldn't be joining us.  He's a guy's guy, and the things we talk about make him itchy.  Too many feelings and talk about "girl things."

We give him a lot of space.  First of all, there was a game.  And second of all, he's one of the great guys in our lives, and there are several of those.  Mike is hero material with a sense of humor.  Perfect.

But we have a secret weapon to  draw men from their lairs:  Spaghetti and meatballs.

We're having spectacular fall weather.  Gloriously warm day and cool nights.  Perfect weather for long, slow-cooked tomato sauce and those juicy, comforting meatballs.

Here's the recipe:

The meat balls:  Buy 1 small tube of hamburger, and 1 package of sausage.  You want the meat mixture to be about  50%/50% beef and pork.  Take off your rings, and use your hands to mix them together.  

Next:  add 1 egg, 1/2 cup bread crumbs (or more if the mixture is really wet and won't hold together,) 1-2 Tablespoons of oregano, 1 tablespoon of fennel seeds- add more if you wish- 1/2 tablespoons of salt and pepper (to taste), 1/4 cup thick worchestershire sauce, half an onion diced finely, and 2 cloves of garlic (mash them in a garlic press).  Mix all of that into the meat.  Form 2" meatballs, you'll get about 16.  Heat olive oil at medium heat.  Slowly brown and crisp the meatballs 4-5 at a time.  I did it in three batches.  Put the meatballs on paper towels to drain the fat.  Work on the next batch, until all of the meat balls have a lovely golden brown and delicious crust.  The crust helps hold the balls together in the slow cooking process that follows.

In a big pot (cast iron maybe-you'll need a lid), add  the other half of the diced onion and 4-5 large cloves of garlic (mashed.  Let those vegies soften.)   Put in a 28 oz can of diced tomatoes, a medium can of tomato sauce, and a small (or medium) can of  tomato paste.  You can vary those sizes if you wish. Add 1-2 tablespoons of oregano, 1 tablespoon of fennel seeds, salt and pepper to taste. ( I used quite a bit).    Drain some of the fat off of the meatball pan, leave a little, scrape the fond from the bottom of the pan and add that to the baking pan.  Add 3/4 cup water and stir every thing to together.  Taste now, adjust seasonings.  Add 1/2 cup sugar, if the sauce seems bitter.  You don't want it to be sweet, you just want to take the edge off.   Add the meatballs into the sauce, cover the pan, and let them cook together for 3-4 hours at about 300 degrees in the oven.  There may be some fat on top,  take that off. 

If you want you can add half a cup of mellow red wine to the sauce, a handful or two of mushrooms, diced green pepper, artichoke hearts.  Or anything else that strikes your fancy.  As I get older, I'm relishing the basics more and more.  So I just let it be.

Make spaghetti 15 minutes before serving time.  Make sure there's enough Parmasean.  Miss Gail said they were the best meatballs she's ever eaten.  The secret:  the uppage of the herbs and the slow, gentle time in the oven.  

I think.

Mike had a big plate, along with two kinds of salads, fruit and green with walnuts and apples. 

There wasn't a vitamin or a mineral we missed. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Group

Writers are odd ducks, it might be a psychological requirement or an impairment.  Who knows, just yet?  We spend too much time alone staring the computer screens or white pieces of paper.  Some days all we can do is sit and think.  I think it's thinking.  We're mesmerized by a golden leaf, the night patterns of the waves on the ocean, how words work.

I once got an inspiration for a poem, a mile and a half from home, on foot.   I sang it, shouted it. repeated it, so I wouldn't lose it, for the 20 minutes it took to get home to the computer.  If that behavior doesn't qualify as loopy, I don't know what does.

So when you find like-minded souls, loopiness and all, you cling together for decades.  We bring our characteristics with us—the urgency to tell a good story, the deep-seated need to understand, the creative bent, and in this particular time of our lives together—the great congealing passion of Boise State football.  There's that.  These gatherings feel like sacred space, like family when you do well together, like liveliness, like life.

A few years ago, one of our group moved to San Francisco, wife and all.  So this last weekend, they were back in town resonating with their peeps. Steven has been a doctor, a neonatologist, now his SF friends and neighbors think of him as a writer.  He likes that.  We like it too.  He's written the great American novel.  I'm serious about that.  He's finishing up a wondrous, immense novel that will make you fall in love with America all over again.  I'll keep you posted on that.

There's Leslie, who writes exquisite, delicate stories and poems about family.  She has the most handsome, beautiful two children, Kyle and Claire, and her husband is Dan, a brilliant, kind man.  Chris is our mountain man who writes love poems to the West.  He deserves the Pulitzer, at the very least, but he's been too busy teaching high school kids how to think.  He married a woman a little older than he, and they've been good together.  Then there's Mike, married to Jenifer, who writes x-rated literature that so is funny you have to come up occasionally for breath.  Bitsy is his main character, so you sort of get the drift.  He only writes 2.5 pages every three months or so, given his legal practice, so it might be awhile before you can get your hands on his story.

I was the first one to be published, but I've always, always  known I was the least talented of
the bunch.  By a long, long measure.

We had dinner together.  Les picked up gyros and spanikopita.  I brought exquisite tomatoes, fresh from the Marshal's and Jeanette's garden, tomatoes that had been artfully tended.  They were seasoned a little bit, some dried basil, a little salt and pepper.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Beer and Bibles

We're Methodists, which means we're left to our own devices to figure stuff out.  We're given credit for our brains and expected to use them.  John Wesley, our founder, felt like there were only a few things that he was profoundly adamant about—love God, treat other folk well, trust the God stories in the Bible.  That's about it.  Otherwise, he wasn't particularly particular.

So lots of people wind up under our cathedral ceilings.  The refugees are there weekly, have many different spiritualities, and we love them.  The homeless and  the penniless are there daily, and we love them.  We feed them weekly or if they need a sack lunch.  Our organist actually belongs to another religion, but there are few people who can master our immense, world-class, bigger-than-any-other organ in the northwest, let alone levitate all of us a good six inches off our pews.  And we love him.

So Wesley wasn't explicit about what we were to drink.  We could go either way.  A beer here or there was up to us.  We were left to our own good judgement.  A glass of wine with dinner, OK.  Eight or ten, not so OK.

We have a new pastor, one who ardently believes you oughta go where the people are, just hosted his first Bible study in a bar.  You heard me right.   It's a neighborhood bar, with an immense patio on the front side, and a garage in back.  It has a garage door that can be opened on a summer night.  A few tables.  A few people were there too who weren't part of our congregation, two drunk girls were outlasted.  About 20 other people.  We talked. We studied the first chapter of the gospel of Mark.  So it was a real Bible study.  I've never been in a livelier discussion.  We laughed often.  People, who didn't know each other, communicated easily.  The pastor had a beer.

I just don't think we're going to be hampered with too much stuffiness.