What? You didn’t trick or treat?

Clipart Panda

Because I grew up in a rural area where isolated homes were scattered across a landscape of fields and irrigation ditches, I never ran through the chill dusk of an October evening, yelling “Trick or Treat” on doorsteps decorated with jack-o-lanterns. Nevertheless, I loved Halloween and looked forward to it with anticipation because of the annual community party the good folks of Lake Shore hosted to entertain their children.

On October 31, my siblings and I bolted dinner and rushed through chores before dressing in costumes our mother made using her imagination and materials on hand. We admired our transformation into scarecrows, ballerinas and mummies then climbed into the car. Filled with excitement, we forgot to argue over seating arrangements, wriggling and giggling happily until we arrived at Lake Shore’s business district: a small grocery store with a solitary gas pump, an elementary school dwarfed by its playground and a brightly lit Mormon church of cream-colored brick.

Inside the church gym decorated with streamers of black and orange crepe paper, we joined a crowd of princesses, ghosts, witches, cowboys and hoboes to drink root beer ladled from milk cans frosted by dry ice, eat cupcakes piled high with orange frosting and watch cartoons shown on a bed sheet stretched across a corner.

Despite the variety of activities available for our entertainment — bobbing for apples, winning a pumpkin by guessing its weight, having our fortunes told by a gypsy — my friends and I spent most of our time running through the crowd, tripping on our costumes and trying to choke each other with streamers yanked from the ceiling by ne’er-do-well, sixth-grade boys costumed like the hooligans they were.

But, before we could have such fun, we first had to enter the gym along an endless hallway turned into a spook alley manned by disguised adults of the community.

One of my earliest memories of Halloween is holding my mother’s hand, walking a dimly lit hall and wondering why our nice neighbor, Mrs. Aiken, wore a pointed black hat and insisted her bowl of spaghetti was worms. Still having the literal mind of a young child, I didn’t understand the fun of being scared witless on Halloween.

But by third grade, I believed. My stomach knotted in frightened anticipation as I made my way through a giant spider web fashioned from gauze and entered the spook alley along with my mean cousin, Blake, and best friend, Deanne, a fainter.

We made it by the witch with worms, the executioner brandishing a cardboard axe who commanded us to put our heads on his blood-stained block, the open coffin with a corpse that moaned, “Help me; please, please, help me,” and the ghost that lurked in a doorway sobbing and clanking chains. But when ice-cold hands reached through a black curtain and grabbed our wrists, all hell broke loose: I tromped on toddlers as I fled; Blake attacked; and Deanne swooned.

We were escorted from the hall, and our parents were told.

It was a wonderful Halloween.

 

Advertisements

In Search of Storybook Endings

As I looked at myself in the salon mirror, I expected to see a halo of soft brown curls imparting a youthful glow to my aging face; instead, I saw an orange-tinged strawstack perched on an old face filled with dismay. Once again, reality shattered my rose-colored glasses.

Many years before, when I quit my school-district position as the director of curriculum and staff development to become an independent consultant, I thought I had achieved the glamorous job of my dreams. Then reality intervened.

I remember huddling in the glacial entryway of an unlit city hall, waiting to facilitate the goal-setting session of a civic group in a small Colorado town. Two strangers crowded into the semi-protected corner with me. We couldn’t go inside because “Barb isn’t here, and only Barb knows the code.”

After twenty minutes of forced conversation about my white-knuckled drive over an icy mountain pass blurred by whirling snow, a breathless Barb arrived: “Oh, I don’t know the code. It’s only two digits, so I just punch numbers until it clicks. Sometimes I have to call the mayor.”

Eventually, we entered a small room filled with folding chairs, stained Styrofoam coffee cups and peculiar odors. Barb found the thermostat and soon the heater clanked in complaint and coughed out a cloud of dust-laden air. I found the easel I’d requested in an over-stuffed closet; one leg was jammed and incapable of fully extending; so I propped it up with my purse. When muffled thumps and angry voices reached us through a cinderblock wall, I was told to pay no mind; the jail was next door. “They’ve probably just arrested some drunk.”

In addition to Barb, four people and a large dog attended the meeting. No one claimed the dog, so it introduced itself by sniffing us with more enthusiasm than appropriateness. The leader of the group had a cold, which he shared during red-faced fits of coughing. An older gentleman with wiry hair springing from his ears methodically munched cookies and spoke not a word. Coffee arrived with a pony-tailed fellow who beamed with a benevolent attitude, and grandmotherly woman called me “Hon” and crocheted nonstop.

No one introduced me, so I pushed the dog’s head aside and began.

During the months of planning my move into the world of consulting, I thought I would lead a life of air travel, inspired audiences and standing ovations. Then I discovered, once again, that happily-ever-after is a myth.

When young, my mindset was different: I deliberately predicted worst-case scenarios because I believed thinking of bad things that might happen would prevent their occurrence. Because of this poorly-thought-out philosophy, I imagined my parents had run away when they were late getting home, decided I would faint during my piano recital and assumed I would end up in an iron lung every time I had a cold.

I can’t say dwelling on possible misfortunes made me a happier child any more than imagining bliss made me a bleaker adult. But I’m glad neither approach stopped me from learning, experimenting, changing — and reaping the benefits of doing so. My friends thought my short, slightly orange hairdo an improvement over my long, 80’s perm; and consulting changed my routines, introduced me to interesting people and spurred my creativity.

Stepping into the unfamiliar, not knowing how the story will end, has its rewards.

The Games We Played

As a teacher, I supervised playgrounds teeming with children in need of a break who preferred throwing snowballs to building snowmen, chased one another for no discernible reason, and tattled. I applauded antics on the jungle gym, refereed battles caused by too many swingers with too few swings and thoughtfully examined scratches, scrapes and new shoes. Also, in quiet moments, I thought about the games of my childhood.

I remember grabbing a side bar on a merry-go-round, then running and running and running before jumping aboard for a ride as the other passengers cheered the outstanding spin I’d provided. My friends and I took turns pushing, riding on and falling off the merry-go-round, never questioning the sanity of losing our grip, flying off the whirling platform — our bodies hop-scotching across the gravelled yard —and climbing back on for another ride.

We also survived teeter-totters. When older folks suddenly look terrified, they are reliving the moment when their classmate jumped off the low end of a teeter-totter while they soared on high, causing them to plummet to a bone-jarring, spine-collapsing, teeth-crunching stop.

Sometimes the metal slide claimed us. Twelve-feet high with skimpy three-inch sides, it dropped straight to the depression our skidding feet dug out of the gravel. We fought for position on its stairs then descended head first, sideways, on our bellies, or flat on our backs with our legs and arms held aloft like dead bugs. Sometimes, we propelled our bodies as fast as possible without braking or lowering our feet to land, so we could fly through the air in an effort to capture the flight record before we thudded down. And sometimes, after a particularly bloody landing, we descended properly.

We played unsupervised games of dodge ball in a circle scuffed in the dirt with the heels of our shoes. Having lived with easily irritated siblings, I knew how to dodge to avoid being hit, so I liked ducking, leaping and dashing about. On occasion, a hard-thrown ball broke a classmate’s glasses or knocked the breath out of someone, and our teachers would forbid dodge ball at recess. But they usually forgot.

To play red rover, we stood in a horizontal line facing another team, our arms linked tightly, and chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Bruce right over,” which sent the classmate we called for running as hard and fast as he could to break through our line. Mayhem sometimes resulted: bruises, claims of broken limbs and heaped bodies pummeling one another.

I didn’t realize the Lake Shore version of mother-may-I differed from that played elsewhere until I participated in a game at my cousin’s birthday party in Provo. During play, I saw an opportunity and charged the girl who played mother without her permission, knocked her to the ground and leaped up to shocked silence and horrified faces rather than the cheers I would have heard at home.

Aunt Mary listened to my tearful explanation then told me sneaking up on a defenseless mother standing with her back to you and decking her was a Lake Shore adaptation. In the civilized world, a tap on the shoulder sufficed.

Though my friends and I survived the havoc of our play, when I remember the chipped teeth, embedded gravel, scraped knees and bloody noses that littered our lives, I understand why soft chips are now spread below equipment designed for safety.

But as I walk by Sunset Elementary, I also notice that children still run, scream, argue and find creative ways to get hurt at recess.

A September Encounter

ClipartSign.com

While it saddens me to say goodbye to friends who retire elsewhere, I understand their reasons for leaving Craig. I can be as grumpy as anybody about life in my small town: the absence of shoe stores, medical specialists and grandchildren, the presence of turkey buzzards and un-muffled pickup trucks, the irritation of mosquitoes, the length of our winters. But my husband and I are content here; we will remain.

We chose to retire in Craig in large part because nature here is unbridled, immediate, a powerful presence easily accessed.

A few years ago, I experienced the natural richness of our area as I walked one of the many trails that twine like tendrils of spaghetti behind the Sandrock Cliffs north of town. The unexpected encounter riveted my attention and saturated my senses; to this day, a glimpse of furtive movement, a September sun falling on my face or the spicy smell of sage deliver it to me again.

I shared the moment  with a Sue, a friend, and her companion Eddie, a small dog of dignity, on a Colorado morning filled with the promise of perfection. Eddie was the first to notice. Romping and sniffing back and forth in front of us, he sensed another presence and froze in place, as though turned into a pillar of salt for disobedience.

Sue and I, involved in a wandering conversation, eventually became aware of Eddie’s lack of movement and, concerned, scanned the path ahead looking for him. When we found him, his intense gaze directed ours. Twelve yards to our right, a statuesque silhouette stood on the crest of a yellowed hill backlit by a blue-white sky devoid of summer’s intense luster.

“It’s beautiful,” Sue breathed with the wonder and excitement she reserves for a pot shard found on a desert bluff, a summit view of mountain peaks marching into distant clouds or the Yampa River, ice-bound and lined by frosted trees on a foggy morning.

The three of us — a dog on high alert and two talkative women pulled out of ourselves by what we saw — stood as still as the shadowed elk: its muscles quieted; its head and antlers turned toward us; each point and branch of its symmetrical spread outlined by the unpolished sky.

Eddie quivered with an electric charge of awakened instinct, his ears, like teepees, standing tall. Sue and I stared in silence, wanting to observe completely, to secure forever this September moment of motionless splendor.

The elk, the most imposing member in our stare-down, tired of it first. Our presence no longer interested him, and he told us so with a stately exit, turning in a slow, four-quarter beat, moving at a regal pace: unfrightened, unhurried, unimpressed.

We watched; and when we could no longer see him, we  exclaimed about his size, his power, his control of the situation and our joy at having had a front-row seat for his dismissive performance.

We then turned back to the trail, and Eddie again ran in front, patrolling for tantalizing smells. But an ordinary walk had been transformed to the extraordinary by our encounter with a commanding wild animal. A few blocks from our homes.

And that’s why I love living in Craig.

My Many Mentors

Clipart Panda

Great Uncle Henry taught me to pluck Thanksgiving turkeys, and cousin Carol taught me to pluck my eyebrows. When my bowling instructor told me to quit thinking so much and “just let ‘er rip,” my average rose from forty to fifty; and my brother Bob showed me how to increase the pain of those I beat when playing rock, paper and scissors by licking my fingers before viciously slapping their wrists.

Having learned such important life skills from the best, when I began writing, I realized I should try practicing the techniques I’d learned from specialists around the world. Most people call them authors. I call them mentors.

A.A. Milne’s “Winnie The Pooh” fascinated me as a child, and the words of Luis Alberto Urrea in “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” enthralled me last week. In between, a legion of authors enchanted me.

The authors of all those books became part of me, gave me a sense for paragraphs that pulse with rhythm, descriptions that usher readers into a scene and metaphors that surprise with their aptness. As I zipped through books in pursuit of compelling plots, I also developed an appreciation for dialogue that sounds real and for carefully edited works that give readers a sense of security. I was reading for pleasure, and, without realizing it, I was also learning from experts.

When I retired and began writing, my reading became more intent. Recently, though the plot of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” captured me, I read Urrea’s words slowly, savoring his mastery over them as much as I enjoyed his rich story. I recorded delicious bits of his writing, studied them and thought how I could do something similar within my voice and topics.

Urrea, like all my must-read authors, treats words like crown jewels, selecting each with care. In “A Hummingbird’s Daughter,” he wrote, “Tomas rode his wicked black stallion through the frosting of starlight that turned his ranch blue and pale gray as if powdered sugar had blown off the sky and sifted over the mangos and mesquites;” and I felt I rode with him. I would probably have written, “Tomas rode his black horse across his ranch through starlight as white as frosting,” and few would have hopped on for the ride. But because I studied the rhythms and word choices of his sentence, I might write a stronger description the next time I write.

As another of my mentors,  Mark Twain, said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I want to hurl lightening bolts like Twain and Urrea, but too often I propel tiddlywinks. For example, I know I overuse the tired twins, enjoy and like, but their alternatives rarely work. Value and appreciate are too refined, and the phrase, take pleasure in, seems a bit uppity. Casual use diminishes the compelling emotion of love. Treasure strikes me as over the top, and relish makes me think of hotdogs.

So yesterday, when I started “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” by the western writer Ivan Dog, I decided to watch for his use, or not, of like and enjoy. Does he sprinkle them liberally in his prose? Or does he have other techniques for describing or distinguishing the emotions they represent?

I’d like to discover his approach to my dilemma. In fact, I’d enjoy it.

Catalog Clothing

The summer before my fifth-grade year, wanting a sophisticated look my home-sewn wardrobe failed to deliver, I spent my cherry-picking money on store-bought, back-to-school clothes. In rural Utah in the 1950’s, store-bought meant catalog-ordered; so the Montgomery Wards catalog became my fashion consultant as I earmarked pages, pondered options and wallowed in excited indecision.

Eventually, I chose a set of seven panties — each embroidered with a day of the week so I would know when to wear them — a sack of red, white, and blue anklets because I liked their patriotic flair and a red dress with white polka dots on the skirt and a droopy white bow at the collar.

When I totaled the cost of my selections and double-checked my math, the order came to $15.34 including sales tax and postage, which left thirty-seven cents for Snickers bars and giant jawbreakers.

I next went to work on the order form, happily recording item numbers and descriptions until I encountered the problem of sizing. I assumed the clothing would come in 5th-grade-girl sizes. It didn’t. Stymied, I thought of asking my siblings for help, but they would criticize my choices and say my brain was smaller than my nose. Mom knew my size because the clothes she sewed for me fit, but she wasn’t home. Besides, the last time I asked which anklets she thought I should order, she looked wild-eyed and dodged into the bathroom.

When I decided to search the catalog for help, I discovered size charts on page 215. Studying the chart for young misses, I learned my size depended on my chest, hip and waist measurements. Good grief.

I secreted myself in the bathroom with Dad’s tape measure. I knew my chest measurement, being in the habit of checking, and I quickly measured my waist. But hips stumped me. The instructions said to measure nine inches from my waist and around the fullest part. Of what? Each leg? After a few contortions, I came up with a number. Alrighty. Then, going back to the charts, I realized my measurements didn’t fit one size. Different parts of me matched different sizes.

I was a freak.

Frustrated, I marked my selections with what seemed to be the size in the middle of the list, thinking things would average out.

During the following weeks, the mailman and I became best buddies as we waited for the package that would give me the air of a catalog model when I went back to school. The day he handed the bulky parcel to me, my new friend seemed as happy and relieved as I was. Beaming, I ran home to try on my new clothes — try being the right word.

My beautiful dress the color of strawberries wouldn’t go over my shoulders though I wriggled and strained until stitches popped. The socks didn’t stretch over my foot no matter how much I hopped and yanked; and the panties, rebelling mid-hip, labeled my thigh as Monday.

Overcome by my first case of catalog despair, I collapsed on the floor in sobs with my beautiful back-to-school clothes stuck on odd parts of my body. And stayed there, snuffling and snorting, until Mom rescued me.

To this day, I open packages of clothing I’ve ordered with trepidation; and I often use the return envelope — though I no longer collapse and cry.

Public Restrooms, The Downside of Travel

As I hurried along the line looking for an empty stall, a young girl wailed, “No, Mommy, no! I don’t want to go in. It’s yucky!” I glanced into the stall in question and wailed with her. The only thing worse than using public restrooms is their absence when needed. So I use them, but they test my mettle.

I can’t be sure a stall is empty without bending my six-foot frame to look for feet. I used to nudge a closed door to test for occupancy; but too often the occupant hadn’t engaged the lock, and the door swung open to the dismay of both parties. So I bend double and peer.

When I find a vacancy, I often find a missing purse hook and a broken lock as well, which strains my limited flexibility. And when did flushing turn into an IQ test? Too often, I find myself in a game of “Where’s Waldo” as I search for the hiding place of the little black button.

Washing my hands in public restrooms can also be traumatic. When everything I need for the task is supplied and functioning, I’m so surprised I sometimes forget where I am and —as taught in first grade — belt out two renditions of “Happy Birthday” while I lather. People look at me. Once a lady at the next basin sang along like it was a party.

In general, I find airport restrooms clean, well supplied and efficient, though Chicago’s O’Hare has toilets with automated seat liners resembling plastic wrap that trouble me. You press a button and watch the old wrap roll away and new wrap roll in — just for you. Somehow it seems vaguely unsanitary. How do I know the wrap is new and not recycled?

Restrooms encountered when traveling by car sometimes give me nightmarish flashbacks — except in Missouri where I look forward to a particular rest area on the interstate. Open, curving halls without doors lead to a clean, well-maintained facility. But the best part is washing my hands.

I insert my hands into a semi-circular opening in the wall. Then comfortably warm water sprinkles them generously, followed by drops of sweet-smelling soap. After an interval just right for singing “Happy Birthday” twice, more rain-like water descends. Finally, a gentle stream of warm air wafts over my hands until they’re dry.

I’ve touched nothing.

I’d like to end with this miracle in Missouri, but I must air a final complaint: why don’t the architects of public buildings build more capacity into women’s restrooms?

In 1st grade, fun-loving Ronny Huff pulled me into the boys’ bathroom. Before I broke his grip and fled, I caught a glimpse of my male classmates gathered about a urinal, which intrigued me more than anything had all day. At the time, I didn’t realize urinals give men an advantage when restrooms are crowded.

A friend and I bought season tickets for the Reno Opera. While I don’t remember much about the operas, I remember men sauntering into their restroom without waiting in line. I also remember elegantly gowned, carefully coiffed women standing in line in the main hallway of the Opera House, on display to the crowd, as the lights blinked to end intermission.

This experience didn’t ruin opera for me; my preference for Simon and Garfunkle did. But it made me realize women’s restrooms should be designed by women rather than by men who are used to communal toileting.