Please Read Before Using

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When I drive west from Denver to Craig, I notice a sign posted on I-70 shortly before the off-ramp to Silverthorne, a busy town which sits at the bottom of the long, steep hill I-70 descends before swooping up again. The sign tells truckers not to exit if they’ve lost their brakes. I like to think truckers will see for themselves the folly of taking a short, downhill exit into a busy intersection without brakes, but I suppose you never know.

The sign reminds me of the assembly and use instructions that accompany purchases and divide folks into two groups: those who read them and those who don’t. I read directions; I can’t help it; I’m captivated by words. My husband Joel ignores directions; he could help it; but he can’t be bothered. When assembling a metal shelving unit, he dives in, uses interesting vocabulary interspersed with “huh!” and assembles a sturdy three-shelf unit.

I, on the other hand, must find my glasses, skim all instructions, arrange the components in order of use and collect the necessary tools from wherever Joel left them. Then I begin following the directions, step by careful step, until wayward pieces and a unit askew force me to ask for my husband’s help.

I feel bad when I ignore appliance manuals filled with dos and don’ts. Someone took care with those words; I should read them. Recently, I examined the booklet for my new crock-pot and was relieved to discover its eight pages of directions included French, Spanish and Chinese, leaving a mere two pages in English for me to study.

I’m also happy when I discover a manual includes instructions for different models, because I don’t have to read about those I don’t own. However, while leafing through the instructions, I invariably notice the premium model with its programming options, blinking lights and clever attachments. Then I experience buyer’s remorse: “Oh, I wish I’d chosen the dryer with a steam-refresh option. I wouldn’t look so wrinkled.”

Sometimes the instructions contain surprises. I use my microwave to re-heat coffee, warm-up leftovers, and thaw stuff. But the manual informs me that in addition to cooking broccoli, bulgur, and brownies, this miracle machine can toast nuts, heat herbal neck packs, and kill the salmonella lurking in sponges.

When my coffeemaker burbled and died several months after purchase, I searched its manual for warranty information. In the section on maintenance, I discovered my negligence. I had neither decalcified the coffeemaker every forty brew-cycles nor replaced the water-filtration disk every thirty. A person could get dizzy trying to keep track of when to do what. Wouldn’t common sense suggest that coordinating the two tasks would be more efficient? And is the suggested schedule necessary, or is it a ploy to sell cleaning solution and filtration disks?

I think corporate lawyers write the safety warnings in manuals. Why else would I be warned to avoid looking for a gas leak with a lit match, to refrain from putting my hand inside an operating blender and to prevent children from standing on a cooktop in use?

I also sense a low estimate of my intelligence when I read if my mixer doesn’t start, I may have failed to plug it in, turn it on or notice there is a power shortage in my neighborhood.

Yesterday, I purchased a new toaster; I need to stop writing now so I can read its manual. I hope the directions will warn me not to use it to warm my fingers, because I’ve been thinking about doing so.

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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.

A September Encounter

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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.

Those Who Live in Glass Houses

 

I indulged in gluttony in front of my loved ones at a funeral lunch and I was ashamed. But not sorry.

When I entered the hall and scanned the tables heaped with an abundance of appealing homemade food, my youngest grandchildren had already grabbed a soft drink, piled chips on top of their fried chicken and headed toward the dessert table.

I smiled at their self-indulgent choices and complimented myself on my healthy selections. Then I neared the salad section and saw several shimmering, sugary Jell-O salads: red, green, and orange Jell-O; Jell-O containing bananas, grapes, raspberries, and pineapple; Jell-O with nuts, cream cheese and whipped cream blended in or spread on top; mouth-watering salads with nary a vegetable lurking in their soft, creamy depths.

I picked up an extra plate.

Despite my funereal fall from grace, I eat healthy foods most of the time. But I remember fondly the foods I yearned for as a child in the fifties, foods much like those my young loved ones crave today.

I used to spend the pennies, nickels and dimes I earned doing extra chores for my mother on anything sugared and frozen on a stick, especially blueberry popsicles that dyed my mouth an alarming fluorescent blue. I also liked orange and white dreamsicles and chocolate-covered milk nickels. But I never bought fudgsicles..

I quit eating the chocolate treats when Dad bought one for everybody in the car. Those of us in the backseat whooped with appreciation, but Mom took one bite, said it tasted like brown chalk and tossed the remains out the window. Dad yelped, “Hide ‘em, kids, or she’ll get yours too,” but I sided with Mom and threw mine away. Carolyn called me a copycat; Bob said I was too stupid to be in third grade.

Like today’s teenagers, I craved soft drinks of any sort, spending far too much of my babysitting and fruit-picking money at the Arctic Circle trying to decide between lemon lime and orange. I routinely convinced my younger sister Barbara to trade tastes. I would take a generous swallow of hers then say she couldn’t taste mine because I didn’t want her cooties. I also accepted dates with young men I didn’t care for because I hoped the A&W would be on the itinerary.

Raised in a home where caffeine in any form was frowned upon, I didn’t discover cola drinks until later in life. But I‘ll never forget the illicit thrill that ran through me when I was ten and told Mrs. Tucker how much I liked the birthday cake she’d made for her daughter’s party. Mrs. Tucker thanked me and said that cherry cola cake was her family’s favorite. I ate two pieces and walked home convinced I was drunk.

So today, when I notice young people inhaling chips, soft drink, candy and ice cream, I keep quiet about their poor choices and my longing for Jell-O salad with bananas and whipped cream.

A Memory For Fathers’ Day

I remember how my dad took his children to Schroeder’s, despite a lack of ready cash. Screen door slamming; tall, work-slim body striding across the yard, he yelled to any of us within hearing, “If you want to go, climb aboard. I’m on my way.”

Word spread, “He might be going to Schroeder’s.” Deserting chores, we scrambled into our dilapidated jeep, jockeying for position. Dad gunned the engine, shot away and, singing that he’d take Kathleen home again, paid no mind to his passengers caught in mid-scramble.

A fast five miles of irrigated farmland flashed by, dotted by an occasional house hunched beneath massive outbuildings. The finger-smeared windows through which we peered softened the countryside and gentled farmyard clutter. Dad, more interested in his vibrato than our battles, bounced the jeep along rough roads in tempo to his tune, until, gravel flying, he executed his usual abrupt stop. “Whoa there, old boy, whoa there,” he shouted to our great amusement as he flamboyantly pulled back on the wheel and stomped on the brakes at Schroeder’s Auto Repair.

The single, rusted-out gas pump reflecting long departed prices isn’t tempt us; nor did the garage’s shadowed interior with its thick air smelling of rubber and oil. We didn’t stop to examine Schroeder’s grease-begrimed tools or the fly spotted glass case holding PayDay bars, Juicy Fruit gum, and hide-a–key containers. Instead, clutching unfamiliar dimes Dad distributed from a near-empty wallet — an act our money-worried mother wouldn’t approve — we ran to the rectangular soda machine sitting like a dusty treasure chest in a far corner, burbling moistly to itself.

While Dad discussed man things — lay-offs, unemployment checks, failed crops — with big-voiced, thoroughly dirty Schroeder, we circled the red machine and argued best flavors: orange and strawberry being top contenders. Then, decisions made, we clinked our dimes into the coin slot. The machine’s scratched red lid sighed reluctantly as we lifted it, exhaling cold air that washed over our peering faces.

Inside the rectangular chest, icy water bathed cold bottles that we slowly worked along notched metal rows until we could each lift our choice clear, remove its crimped cap with the built-in opener, and take the first sweetly stinging swallow.

Carolyn, a teenager, assumed a pose of nonchalance and sophistication, drinking as though it was almost more than she could manage. Bob threw his head back and drank like the rowdy boy he was, pausing only to burp. I sipped, savoring and saving. Barbara, who had yet to grasp the science of swallowing, let orange liquid flow down her throat in an uninterrupted stream, plugging it with her tongue when she needed to breathe.

As we drank and laughed, Dad looked over at us and grinned.

If the total of a man is made of small acts, our dad was a giant.

This post was adapted from my book, A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns

At a Loss for Words

The average English speaker makes seven to twenty-two slips of the tongue each day and fails to think of the right word another two to four times according to Michael Erard, who explores verbal gaffes in his book Um.

My life validates his research.

In fourth grade, asked to read from a book called Pesky Penelope, I pronounced the heroine’s name the way it looked to me: pen-e-lope, rhymes with cantaloupe. When Mrs. Thomas corrected my pronunciation, I flushed with embarrassment while my cousin Blake laughed so raucously he fell off his chair. I still question his worth.

Then, years later in high school, I was asked to give a speech in church about one of my pioneer ancestors. As always, I discussed the topic with my mother, and she suggested I talk about her great grandmother. I read a brief, handwritten history of our plucky ancestor then wrote and memorized a speech destined to be a humdinger.

On the assigned day, I donned my Sunday best, slicked my bangs and walked to the podium radiating confidence. But when I began by describing how my mother’s great grandmother, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had carried her baby and walked across the plains from Illinois to Salt Lake City, Mom looked startled.

“Do I have bits of breakfast stuck to my teeth?” I wondered, “I brushed them, didn’t I? She’s probably surprised I came up with an attention-getting introduction by myself.”

But when I joined my family after the services, one of Mom’s best friends, a giggling Adele Evans, was saying, “Myrl, I had no idea your great grandmother wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was that before or after she crossed the plains?” Then they both laughed in an unladylike manner.

My stomach sank; my face flushed; and I earned my status as a snide teenager by thinking, “Well. I may have confused my ancestor Harriet Bradford Simmons with a famous author, but I know better than to guffaw and snort at the mistakes of others while leaving church.”

As a result of misadventures with my wayward tongue, I’m sympathetic when candidate Al Gore assures his audience, “A zebra doesn’t change its spots” or baseball manager Wes Westrum summarizes a close game, “Well, that was a cliff-dweller.”

I’m especially partial to the gaffes of President George W. Bush because he modeled an effective way to handle verbal mishaps. When asked what it was like to be raised in Midland, Texas, he responded, “It was inebriating.” Then, realizing what he’d said, he laughed at himself and repeated his blooper for the amusement of others.

I wish I had used the president’s tactic when the junior high school principal was observing my teaching for the first time and I told my students Romeo and Juliet was a great Shakespearean travesty.

You’ll Regret It Someday

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I stifled a wail when I read Mike Spoor’s BuzzFeed list of “Thirty-seven Things You’ll Regret When You’re Old,” because I’m a shining example of his regrettables. Mr. Spoor provided the bolded descriptions of youthful follies; the confessions are mine.

Not learning another language: I sensed in 4th grade that I wouldn’t be a linguist when I failed to master Pig Latin. Then in high school and college, I took every literature class offered, which left no time to study another language. To me, analyzing Moby Dick seemed more entertaining than conjugating French verbs.

As a result, when visiting foreign countries, I repeat phrases from a traveler’s dictionary with increasing volume to any approachable stranger and receive confused shoulder-shrugs or incorrect information due to my mangled pronunciations. A dapper gentleman once led me two blocks to a zoo when I asked for directions to a restroom. Conjugating verbs has its rewards.

Not Using sunscreen: In the sixties, my high school friends and I believed we’d be more attractive with a deep tan. So we slathered baby oil on any exposed skin and lounged on top of Meldrum’s chicken coop, miserably roasting in the sun, hoping to look like Annette Funicello — and failing.

Then my college roommates and I sunbathed on the thick grass of a cemetery that bordered our dorm. We misted water on our hot skin with a spray bottle, poked one another to test for doneness, kept a wary eye out for cemetery workers and suffered unsightly sunburns that drew looks of pity rather than admiration.

Years later, my youthful skin-toasting financed my dermatologist’s second home..

Being afraid to do things: Some things frighten me — deep water, selling things and fried liver; other things don’t — spiders, public speaking and Jack Nicholson in The Shining. My fears of climbing a Colorado fourteener and traveling by myself faded when I did those things, but no matter how many times I drive big-city interstates, my hair stands on end, and I hyperventilate. My age has nothing to do with it.

Caring too much about what other people think. When sunburn didn’t make my teenage face flame red, embarrassment did: “But nobody else will wear a coat; I’ll look stupid.” “I hate it when Dad sings while my friends are in the car. They look at each other.” “Why is it when I drive up with one of my boyfriends, Blaine and JL greet us by riding around on the tire-less rims of our old bicycle? They look deficient.”

Eventually, as they matured, my family quit embarrassing me. It’s nice.

Worrying too much. Evidently it’s OK to worry a little. I’m an outstanding worrier, so I’d hate to give it up completely. During the last five minutes, I fretted about my cravings for dessert, the sharp pain I had yesterday behind my eye, and whether the weatherman feels bad about his poor forecasting record.

With age, I’ve begun to realize the futility of some of my worries like fretting that I won’t be able to open an airplane’s emergency door after I assured the stewardess I could. But I still worry that not worrying about something will give it permission to happen.