Well it’s spring again. How do I know? The first clue was the daffodils in the yard. The second clue…ants in my coffee. We have ants, ants in the kitchen, ants in the bathroom, and ants in the bedroom. They are little ants, not the kind that could carry off the cat, but ants are ants. I loathe them. Last week I sprinkled a product called Terro all around the perimeter of the house. I know this means my karma will have a deficit but I think it’s worth the risk. I am sick of ants in my food and every time I wipe down the kitchen counter I have to pick their little bodies out of the dish rag. Did I mention I loathe ants? Actually what I loathe are ants in my house. They are fine outside, in nature where they belong. But inside, they are on my turf and I want them gone.
Fred White appeals to my heart today with his entry on stretching the mind. I love to learn. I wish I could make a career out of it and make money doing it. I often hear people lamenting that they wish they had paid more attention in school. School is wasted on the youth. They just don’t have the perspective to appreciate it.
When I was young, my parents made an extravagant purchase. They bought on a payment plan all 26 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica including the 1978 yearbook and a separately bound index. My parents will tell me I have the dates wrong but that’s how I remember it. It was the bane of my existence in the beginning. Every time I asked a question about anything, my dad would send me to the bookshelf to look it up. It didn’t take long for me to get addicted. I loved the weight of those leather-bound, gold-leaf embossed books in my hand and before long, I was approaching the bookshelf on my own.
I learned with regard to the encyclopedia that it’s best to avoid specifics. Start with a general topic and then focus in to the details. It is the complete opposite today with access to the internet. Start with a general topic and end up with millions of entries to sort through. Hone in on a detail and Google gives you a manageable list. I can spend hours researching topic after topic as long as my connection to the internet holds out.
My family just doesn’t get it. They make fun of me because I hold useless bits of trivia in my mind. Like the names of trees. My son once asked me, “Mom, why do you care what kind of tree that is.” My answer was, “I don’t know. I just do.” And, it’s true. I not only want to know more. I need to know more. I love when I am engaged in a conversation with someone and they offer a fresh perspective on a topic. It will send me on a research frenzy for days to determine if I agree or disagree on the subject. Some people waste time with television. I get lost in blog threads linking from page to page to page.
Sometime around midnight we found our way back to our parking spot behind the porta-potties. Dirty and exhausted we tried to sleep in the car. I had eaten a questionable falafel from a street vendor during the Tom Petty concert which only added to the discomfort of all in the car. It was about 90 degrees in the dark so we rolled down the windows to let in an almost nonexistent breeze. The grass under our car was apparently home to every insect found in the state of Tennessee and so every time I opened the door to trek to the porta-potty, the dome light came on, and bugs swarmed in through the open windows. We tried hanging beach towels in the open windows as a screen but that ended up just blocking the breeze. We started to settle into our misery and doze when the last concert of the evening let out. Gradually our camp came alive with revelers. Firecrackers went off. Laughing, cursing, stumbling people made their way past our vehicle to their respective tents.
A fight broke out in a tent two rows over and we were privy to every word of the argument. Someone out on the prairie yelled, “Shut the hell, up!” and the camp settled down again. Tossing, turning, and sighing we tried to quietly endure our misery without disturbing our fellow passengers. At three a.m. we finally came to our senses. We weren’t sleeping, we were being eaten alive by bugs, and the hotel that we had labeled disgusting earlier that day now seemed like a palace. Lisa pulled out her cell phone and found a taxi service willing to drive out to the middle of nowhere to pick us up. We gathered our pillows and started the long dark walk to the entrance of the festival. Surprisingly, we weren’t the only festival goers looking to escape the festival in the middle of the night. There at the entrance was a train of taxi’s waiting to make their pick ups. Seeing the logo of the cab company she called, Lisa guided us to the aged rust colored sedan.
He was so friendly, the smiling young man with unbelievably long blond dreadlocks and straw hat. He nodded his head and smiled as he directed us to park our car near the first-aid balloon tethered to the line of Porta Potties. Lisa put the car in park and we all began organizing our belongings for the day.
I shoved a tube of sunscreen into my backpack and unplugged my cell phone. Erin and Adam rifled through the snack box looking for granola bars while Lisa applied lip balm in the rearview mirror. We were set, ready to head off for our adventure of the day. That’s when we looked out the front window of the Explorer and saw something unexpected. All around us, at least 12 rows deep on either side were cars surrounded by tents. A yellow Volkswagen Bug next to a dome tent, a pickup truck next to an A-frame, a Honda next to a partially pitched geodesic and a mesh dining tent against the bumper of a 1973 Vega, it went on and on as far as the eye could see.
“Oh no,” Erin cried from the back seat.
I looked at Lisa, “Uh, what just happened?”
Lisa scanned the parking area. “Do you think they might just be setting them up for the day?” she asked, not really expecting an answer. “If Tom were here, he’d start pulling up tent stakes.”
I sighed and said, “I am so glad he’s not here.”
We were stuck. The car was definitely not getting out of the grassy lot any time soon so we decided to carry on with our day and deal with our unplanned camping trip later. We headed out to explore the grounds of Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival in a pasture in Manchester, Tennessee.
Kate calmly walks to her car and removes 4 crates of eggs. She gathers up the women and we walk in the dark all the way out to the road. Lisa whispers, “What are we doing?” “Just wait and see,” I say.
The road is still hot from the heat of the day and Kate opens the first crate of eggs. She palms an egg then winds up like a pitcher on the mound and yells at the top of her voice, “I hate so and so!” The egg whistles through the air and then lands smack on the hot pavement with a hilarious squelching sound. We all laugh until it hurts at the sound.
“Come on,” Kate says motioning for us to gather round the egg crate. “It’s someone else’s turn.”
We grab handfuls of eggs and line up across the deserted, dark country road. “On the count of three,” Kate says. And so, on three, we all hurl an egg in to the air cursing whatever is making us angry at the moment. The cursing stops and is followed by – SQUELCH. We laugh from deep within our gut. “I hate actors!” Andrea yells. “Teenagers drive me crazy!” screams Lisa. “I agree!” I say. “This is awesome!” cries Kate. Squelch, Squelch, Squelch, and Squelch.
Soon, we are laughing so hard we can’t breathe. Our laughter draws curious husbands and kids and so the moment passes. It’s a memory I will never forget. Thanks Kate, for teaching us to laugh till it hurts.
Wow, I can’t believe he’s gone. My good friend Gary Lott made his final exit Monday night. He was fine one moment and the next, he was gone. It’s been heart breaking. His wife Andrea is an amazing, strong woman. Her openness during her grief has been such a gift to her friends.
Sean’s response upon hearing of Gary’s death was, “He called me, Dude.” I can hear Gary’s voice in my head saying it. I hope I never forget the sound. As Gary and Andrea’s friends gather around her in support I see a pattern. Together they have built a network of people with all the positive qualities of humanity. All their friends are loving, passionate, and giving. Andrea and Hannah have no option but to eventually be ok as they are surrounded by such people.
I’ve been avoiding my blog for the last few days, but it’s time to get back to it and I couldn’t seem to find a way without mentioning Gary. So there it is. My tribute to Gary, “Thanks Dude, for opening up your world to me. You will be terribly missed.”
In The Daily Writer today, Fred White talks about writing to preserve history. He talks about the importance of being true to historical events. He goes so far as to say we have a moral obligation to record history and that it is a betrayal to the resulting human experience not to. I wonder how any historical events get accurately preserved. I am continually amazed at how people living in the same community, let alone the same state or country can have polar opposite perspectives on life.
American politics, in general, seem so polarized right now; it’s hard to keep up hope. It seems as a country, we are stuck in a sort of bi-partisan stalemate on every issue across the board. I blame the media including the World Wide Web for perpetuating untruths and dividing our nation. The news networks have given up on pure journalism and constantly report events out of context. My email box is hit daily with forwarded messages about how over 50% of America is dumb enough to vote a terrorist President and how one party or another is openly planning a conspiracy against the other.
Still, I do have hope. I see groups popping up on the internet about finding facts instead of picking sides. I hear folks asking questions instead of just regurgitating what they’ve heard elsewhere. What will it be like in a hundred years when a historian looks back to sift through all the data we’ve spouted out there? How will he ever be able to make sense of it all?
Some of my favorite books include scenes where people are eating. The description of food adds such richness to the storytelling and often reveals something about the characters doing the eating. I love the food descriptions in John Grisham’s A Painted House. Not only does Grisham describe the prepared food itself in a way that makes cold biscuits sound delicious, but because his characters are poor cotton farmers he reveals the energy required just to put food on the table. He describes the whole family rising before dawn to tend to the farm animals, collecting eggs and feeding the livestock. He describes the women working in the garden behind the house and baking biscuits and pie and frying chicken all morning to have lunch ready for the crew working in the fields. In the first chapter, Grisham’s protagonist, a 7-year-old boy, is seen savoring a Tootsie Roll by taking a small bite and wrapping the rest of the penny candy in its wrapper for later. That attention to detail left me hungry after every chapter.
Stephen King uses food in a different way in his book Song of Susannah. The title character Susannah suffers from a fractured personality and her alter ego Mia is pregnant with demon spawn. King sets up scenes in which Mia, in control of Susannah’s mind and having midnight cravings, envisions banquet tables filled with aromatic roasted meat and pastries. In reality, Susannah is grabbing pond toads from out of the muck and crunching them live. In this way, King creates a world out of control and stirs the reader’s imagination with repulsion and sometimes even stimulates the gag reflex. He brilliantly uses these scenes to help the reader form an unfavorable opinion about Mia and sympathize with Susannah who is sometimes captive in her own body.
Lack of food is another technique writers use to emotionally connect the reader to characters. Anne Rice tends to tease her vampire characters by putting them smack in the middle of scenes where humans are enjoying Creole cuisine and French wine but the vampires are only tempted by the scent of the humans. Another example is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in which a 16-year old boy is stranded on a lifeboat at sea with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Not only does Pi have to solve the problem of his own starvation but he has to find a way to keep the belly of the tiger full so as not to become a meal himself. Martel captures the surrender required to survive 227 days at sea on a diet consisting mainly of raw fish.
Writers, if you find yourself stuck in a scene, why not go back and serve your characters a meal. It might reveal something new and take the scene in a whole new direction. Readers, go pick up a good book and really appreciate those food scenes. I’ve got to go make a snack.
Bent over in the warm sun, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel as the little black truck passes by. I straighten my back and offer a neighborly wave. He’s gone. Mr. Orville is headed to town so it’s now or never. I drop my trowel and handful of weeds into the dirt and turn slowly to confront the barn. The boards are worn and faded, weathered by eons of sun and rain and frost. A ghost of the red beauty it once was. Cracks in the gray slats show slices of sky near the hay loft door. I take a step into the pasture. The tall brown grass crunches underneath my boots. Orville cut the grass in the pasture the middle of last summer, but he was sick last fall and winter hit before he got in the final mowing. As I move closer, the shiny tin roof looms overhead. It’s strange. Orville keeps the roof of the barn in immaculate condition, but the walls seem to be rotting away. “What is he keeping in there?”
I approach the corner of the barn furthest from the view from Orville’s house. He’s gone but maybe his wife is on watch today. The earth around the barn’s foundation is mounded up. I have to climb to put my face against the wall. The boards are rough with age. I lean in pressing my hands against the wall to steady myself on the earth mound and peer through a crack in the board. I squint and close one eye trying to see into the darkness.
A long band of light streams in from a crack high up in the rafters. It holds a million specks of floating dust. Empty beams crisscross the space and light hits the barn wall about 9 feet from the floor and reveals nothing. I pull my face away from the wall and lean in for balance. I stand on my toes, moving down the side of the barn in search of a better view. The foundation is higher near the back and now I’m searching for a crack where the side boards meet mortar and stone. My hand grazes an intricate spider web and I almost fall. The spinner is in residence and her eight legged body sits inches from my face. Startled, I jump down into the field behind the barn. My heart pounds as I wipe my tainted hand against my jeans. I hate spiders.
I can see the back corner of Mr. Orville’s house where I stand in the field. It’s early spring and nothing has been planted yet. “How long has he been gone?” I wonder, examining the back wall of the barn. The foundation here is very high to keep out field run off during spring rains. There is no way to see in from this side. I have two choices, I can give up and go back to my garden or try to find a way to see in from the side of the barn facing Orville’s house. I turn to look across the field. I imagine Orville’s elderly wife in a flour sack apron standing at the kitchen window with binoculars. I shake my head, “Get serious. There’s no one watching.”
This side of the barn contains large double doors for bringing in tractors and wagons. They are latched with a heavy metal slide and sealed with a padlock the size of my fist. The word, Master, is engraved on it. I approach the place where the two doors meet and am amazed by the way in which the doors of this rickety old building hang so square. There’s not a gap anywhere, except at the bottom to allow the doors to swing free. I look over my shoulder at Orville’s house. It looks quiet and lonely. I lower myself to my knees and then to my chest as if I’m going to do a push-up. Crawling forward, I turn my head and place one ear to the ground. The sun has warmed the grass and it feels almost hot on my cheek. Under the door, light fans out across the floor of the barn. I see a pile of shapes covered by a dusty canvas tarp and the rubber ring of what must be a tire. I almost jump to my feet when I feel pressure against my back and twist to see my marmalade cat kneading my jacket. “Go home,” I say through clenched teeth as I swat him away. Returning my attention to the contents of the barn, I scoot forward at an angle to try to allow in more light. I turn my head to the other side to get another perspective and notice a shadow on the grass. I push up to my hands and knees to investigate and hear a deep voice say, “Hello, neighbor.” My heart starts to pound because I know that voice. Mr. Orville is back from town.
“Uh, hi there,” I mumble. “I was just, uh, I was looking, um…boy, its nice weather today isn’t it?”
“Are you looking for something?”
“I, uh, no, well, I was um… just curious,” I stutter with a shrug.
“Curious?” He asks and I can’t see his expression because the sun is behind his head and his baseball cap is shading his eyes.
I take a deep breath trying to calm my heart and try to explain.
“You see, Mr. Orville, we’ve lived here quite a while and I love looking at your old barn here. But, I’ve never seen you go in or come out and I wonder why you keep the roof so nice when the walls look like they’re about to fall down. I just wondered if there was something inside or if it’s just an old empty barn.”
“Humph,” he says and then pulls a key chain out of his pocket and approaches the door.
My heart starts pounding again. He’s opening the door. He’s going to show me what’s inside but then maybe he’ll have to kill me. I look around at his house and think, “Please let his wife be watching now.”
Mr. Orville swings a door open with a creak and props it open with a cinder block from inside. He steps into the gloom and turns back for me.
“Are you coming?”
I step forward without a word. The barn is not empty. There is a houseful of furniture covered with tarp and clear Rubbermaid containers holding enough items to stock the entire house wares department at Macy’s. In the center of the barn is an orange Volkswagen beetle. It’s old but it’s in perfect condition.
“So you just store stuff out here?” I ask.
“It’s not just stuff. It belongs to my daughter.”
Hearing a catch in his throat, I wait in silence.
“She’s a singer you know? She’s always loved music, even studied it in college. She’s been on tour singing with this choir for about 12 years now. She’s been all over the world. She sold her place because she wasn’t home long enough to put down roots. She really loves the traveling… We miss her though and I just keep the roof in shape to keep this stuff dry. We hope she’ll decide to come home to settle one day. Anyway, that’s the story. Nothing out here to get all worked up about. You really should mind your own business.”
“I’m sorry,” I say while staring at my toes. “Thanks for showing me the inside of your barn. It really is a cool barn… I hope you get to see your daughter soon.”
Mr. Orville places the cinder block back inside the barn, closes the giant door and locks the padlock. I start back across the pasture to my garden. He looks up and waves as he takes off across the field with the sun beating down on his baseball hat and I wave back. I’m satisfied. The mystery is explained. The barn is just a capsule holding memories of a daughter who moved out and moved on. I feel a little sad for Mr. Orville, but that’s what kids do. No great secret, no twisted plot just the stuff his daughter left behind.
A few weeks later, my family returns from a little trip. The kids are off school for a week so we drove down to Gatlinburg for a little hiking. After a long ride home in the pouring rain, we pull up the driveway exhausted.
“What the heck is that?” asks my oldest son from the backseat.
Looking up, we see what Mr. Orville has done. Along the back of our property line, where our land meets with Mr. Orville’s is a fence. Rough hewn wood posts dot the pasture every 7 feet. Wire mesh runs from post to post topped with a spiral of barbed-wire. Mr. Orville has made his point. “What else is in that barn?” I think to myself. ”
As if he can hear my thoughts, my husband replies, “Stay away from that fence.”
Fred challenges…extract the unusual from the everyday. This is all I’ve got.
Raindrops tap a tune on my windshield,
Each drop, a waxing crescent moon.
The dark half liquid silver, mercury;
illuminated, the other reflects color and light.
Telephone poles like black ink pens point to loopy, spiraling clouds
and draw arching lines across the sketchy grey sky.