Wednesday, November 18, 2015

We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

                We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby
            The last time I went to a phone store (such a thing!) and asked for a dumb phone, one that just made and received calls, the young clerk looked at me with such pity and compassion, bordering on grief, that I should be so clueless.

Indiana never was a forerunner for national cultural/industrial progress. The first telephone from my childhood was a darkly stained oak box solidly mounted on the kitchen wall. The black conical-shaped speaking tube flared from the center. One cranked the handle on the right to ring the operator to put your call through. The ear funnel hung on a hook to the left. Two “metal eyes” comprised the ringer.

            Our number rang as two longs and a short.  Every woman on the party line knew who was being called and, generally, who placed the call as well as the contents. Not so different from Face Book.

            My Dad never dialed long-distance lightly. Most of my life a call from Dad made me hold my breath waiting to hear who had died. He always yelled as though his voice had to travel the miles unaided. When Ted and Frank, my neighbors on either side, call home, I can hear them through my open door. Makes me wonder if I yell on the phone.

            We moved to the southern Indiana hills when I was in second grade. Our phone, a black Bakelite desk phone, sat on the counter in a kitchen nook. Dad gave me limited permission to use this phone to call classmates and cousins. Out of consideration for the neighbors on the line, my phone use was on a five-minute timer. Our number was 2248. I learned the tell-tale click and whoosh when a neighbor picked up to listen.

            In 1956 Dad realized his dream with another move, to the Milk River farm out of Harlem. At the time I didn’t share his dream but eventually I adjusted. We didn’t have a phone for a couple years; not that I remember, not until we moved into the “big house” from the “labor house”.

            Our phone, the same black desk phone, was wired into the foyer. I spent as many hours as possible, lounging in a chair in the corner, cord wound around my fingers, speaking softly so my nosy sister couldn’t hear. At times seven other persons on our line listened to my “dire” junior high secrets. Not all nosy neighbors are women.

            That phone number served my Dad the rest of his life. (I took over the number when I moved to Harlem in ’06.) I’ve no idea when each line went private. I spent a few years on a ranch south of Dodson with no phone, another time up north of Cut Bank. Matter of fact, I’ve been phoneless several short periods in my life. I’m not saying phoneless is good or that it is bad. There is a freedom.

            This will come as a shock to some, so grab a cup of tea or a stiff drink, your option. But there were olden days, a time before the telephone was invented. Deprived of this device, we inscribed glyphs on dead trees. After “sincerely yours” and a comma, we signed our name, folded the thin scroll into an envelope, licked a stamp on the front and dropped it into a mail box.

The postal service took it from there to its inscribed destination. One of the lost joys of life is to reach into a mail box and withdraw a letter from a friend. Sigh. Now even dinosaurs such as me use email and have “gone paperless”.

            A few of us still make voice calls with an actual phone, cellular or otherwise. The Princess phone, once the epitome of telephone fashion, is an antique. “Cordless”, once the height of technology, is simply another step along the way to obsolescence.        
I’m so ignorant that I don’t even know what the latest device is called. Probably an I-Something. Along with possibly making calls, the device also allows you to follow weather, sports, local, national and international news, the stock market (both cows and investments), bank accounts, plane crashes, prison breaks, horoscope, Dear Abby, and obituaries. It tracks your progress along the road, tells you where to turn, sends videos, knows the best time to plant tomatoes in North Havre. It does everything but communicate.

            Communication requires people. Plural. Nearest I can tell, these new devices require a dual implant, one side to hand, other side to ear. A lot of words pass through its system but I question how much communication happens. Most of the content I overhear, sorry I cannot help but overhear, is filled with “I” statements. The word “selfies” says it all. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 19, 2015

Foolishness of Fear—Riding the Bus With Myself

            Foolishness of Fear—Riding the Bus With Myself
            Fear is a mind killer. Fear holds me hostage in a puddle of paralysis—when I let it. Take my latest foolishness. My friend Lani, who lives in Etzatlan near Guadalajara has invited me to hop the bus to visit numerous times. I’ve always conjured excuses. I like Lani. Fear held me back.

            Cousin Nancie is in Etzatlan visiting Lani. The two of them flanked me, out maneuvered me, forced me to face my fear. Stupid fear. Fear of getting on a bus, alone, for the trip into the mountains of Jalisco. 

            My neighbor Ted asked me, “Were you afraid when you drove alone in Mexico?” “No. Of course not.”

            Well, that made me consider. “Self,” I said. “You drove half the length of Mexico, part of the drive at night. You never had a moment of fear or a thought of being afraid. Something in this picture is skewed.”

            Still, I insisted on lying awake one night dreaming up everything that possibly could go wrong. Not have enough language to buy the ticket. Miss the bus. Get off at the wrong stop. Do you suppose I might have a tiny issue with control?

            I’ve had bus experience. Mary, Kathy and I took a bus from Puerto Vallarta to Mazatlan several years ago. Kathy and I were stranded in Tepic while Mary was locked behind a stuck bathroom door at the back of the bus. The milk-run bus stopped at every burg along the road. Policia boarded for inspections every few miles. This bus didn’t carry crated chickens or tethered goats—but close. Air conditioning was a refrigeration unit. The movie showed on a big screen in front at full volume—no escape.

Another time Kathy, Richard, Evelyn and I were stranded six hours in the night when the Christmas Shopping Tour Bus to Guadalajara, one step up from a school bus, broke down on the highway. Actually, it was kind of fun.

            With control in mind, Tuesday I asked Carlos to take me to buy my ticket. We passed go, stayed out of jail, drew a “Free” card. We by-passed the huge mega-terminal with thousands of people clamoring to get tickets, hundreds of buses. We went to the brand new modern Primera Plus station and within five minutes I had my round trip ticket to Zapopan at the edge of Guadalajara, half price with my newly acquired Senior Pass.

            Once I had my ticket in hand, excitement began edging fear out the door.

            Thursday morning I handed over my bag, picked up my lunch, gratis with my ticket, and boarded my ultra-modern bus direct to Zapopan. If only airline travel were this posh. Seats were adjustable and comfortable. Air conditioning cooled to perfection. Every seat had a private internet connection (head-phones included) with a garden-variety of choices including music, Netflix and games. 

            I had my book. Unfortunately I had forgotten that I cannot read on the road. I never out-grew a tendency for motion sickness. I focused on breathing through the six-hour drive from coast to mountains until I could put my feet on the ground.

            Lani and Nancie pulled into the bus terminal just as my bus arrived. I stepped down from the bus into their arms. Who could not want to be here, right where I am!

            Now that I’ve broken the ice, that invisible layer of fear around going alone on a cross-country bus, I see all sorts of options open for exploration. What a fool I am.

            Durango next, maybe in December. Perhaps a coastal exploration in January. A day in Tepic, a day in Puerta Vallarta and another day in Acapulco, just to get an overview. Back to Guadalajara in February with Kathy and Richard to combine a couple days in Tlaquepaque with another visit with Lani and her husband Ariel.

Oh, the places I’ll go; the people I’ll see.

Sondra Ashton
HDN:  Looking out my back door

November 12, 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Day In The Life

A Day In The Life     
            A day. Not an ordinary day. No connection to music or movie. A day plowing through bureaucratic formalities. Still, if one has a mind to connect the dots, a good day.

            With Carlos, driver and interpreter, our first stop was the much visited immigration office where I’m now on a first name basis with Amelia, Sophia and Ogla. I’ve left reams of paperwork, copies of numerous invasive documents, fingerprints, mug shot and much of my money.

Today’s task was simple—I would pick up my temporary residency card, good for the next four years. Rapido. Sign in, wait for the green card to walk its way forward from a mysterious back room, sign out. Half hour maximum.

Dubious benefits of all my time and effort? I can plan my trips home to suit my schedule, not the government’s mandatory six month limit. And I sail through customs on my return trips.

Next stop, the DIF office. Don’t ask. I cannot tell you what DIF means. My purpose is to acquire a senior identification card so I can ride cross-country Mexican buses at half price.

Mazatlan is a large city. A man at the first DIF office sent us to the second office near the main post office in Centro Historico. The ancient building is being remodeled. A woman sent us to the third office, a rabbit warren of a room packed with people waiting for Jaime, the man at the table in the corner, to walk us through the paperwork. Take a number. 16.

Carlos isn’t shy. He pushed to the front to verify that we needed to have two copies of my passport, my residency card, not even an hour in my wallet, my telephone bill to prove my address. plus color photos, several.

Two blocks over and one block up, I handed over my documents for copies. Carlos suggested that I have another form made, a national registration identification that everyone in Mexico carries. Now that I had my temporary residency card, the folks at the papeleria could make my ID card.  Fifteen minutes.

From there we hiked two more blocks, crossed the street to the Kodak shop for a color photo, no smile, straight ahead. Fifteen minutes.  

With a fistful of copies and six grim mug shots in hand, we walked back to the DIF office where number 14 was being processed. No kidding, this room was small. Perhaps 9’X9’. With a dozen folding chairs in two rows, and a small wooden desk in the corner opposite the entrance where Jaime, the man processing people through the maze of paper, sat on one side; the client on the other.

Nothing was private. We all listened.  Perhaps Jaime is a stand-up comedian in his off time. He obviously is a man who loves what he is doing and he loves people. I was the only gringa in the room. But I could understand enough to catch the general drift.

When my turn at the table came, Jaime switched to English. I answered the questions in Spanglish where possible. People waiting caught the general drift.

This office is for seniors so a section of questions concerned my health. Now there is a file that states I have a good heart, liver, lungs, and blood. I didn’t bother mentioning replacement parts.

When I leave the house, I always take my walking stick. It is a lovely piece of alder, peeled sections alternating with barked sections, a scarf tied near the top.  Jaime asked if I used my stick for dancing. Dancing?

Ah, the Old Woman Dance, a marvelous fun traditional fiesta dance with scary “old women” bent over their canes, dancing to increasingly faster music. Everybody in the room burst into laughter.

From Jaime’s table, I entered an even smaller back room where Ophelia pasted my photos onto forms, typed up a card, pasted a photo onto the card, and sent us to have the card copied and laminated.

When we exited the large building, I looked up. Across the street, in a direct line from the exit, was a papeleria where we could have had both copies and photos done earlier. So we crossed the street and had my form copied and laminated. Minutes here, there, ate the day.

I now carry three official forms of identification should I get lost in Mexico and not remember who I am!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 5, 2015

The Elephant In My Living Room

                                                The Elephant In My Living Room
            I periodically scanned the news and checked the satellite images, waiting for Hurricane Patricia. It was much easier for me to focus on the dangers of the hurricane than to pay attention to the elephant stomping around my living room.

            My friends aided and abetted in my avoidance, unknowingly, of course. At six in the morning Nancie and Lani called me from Etzatlan near Guadalajara. “No, I’m in no danger in Mazatlan. In fact, if Patricia follows her projected path, you are likely to see more wind and rain than we do.”

            All day I assured friends that I was safe; that, no, I didn’t need to evacuate to a bunker, that, yes, I had food and water; that we in Mazatlan were basking in sunshine and the mildest breeze.

            While bouncing between the telephone and the internet, I cleaned house frenetically. My activity made no sense. If wind from the skirts of the hurricane reached us, I would have the whole job to do over the following day. But never mind. I was my own tornado whooshing through my little casa cleaning everything; a deep cleaning, a thorough cleaning, and, I determined to be finished by noon.

            I was insane. Such a thorough wash-down generally takes me three days. I wielded rags and broom and mop as if I were killing snakes in a pit. From the outside, it looks like I’m trying to kill myself. From my inside, I’m trying to create order so I don’t have to face the disorder. 
            By this time I’ve forged my shoulders and neck into immovable, yet painful, iron bars. Hours of personal counseling have taught me this means is something I am pretending not to know. And it has nothing to do with Hurricane Patricia. Yeah, I’ll look at it later.

            In a conversation with my older daughter, I mention all the above, the pain and frenzy and I don’t know what is bothering me. “And by the way, tomorrow is your ‘little’ brother’s birthday.” “Yes, Mom, that’s your answer.” That’s what I get for having a daughter with half an alphabet behind her name in counseling, specializing in trauma. “Oh.”

            The thing is, I have wanted to write about my son for several weeks. Sweeping around the elephant was easier. Until it wasn’t. Avoiding the hurt was easier. Until it wasn’t. This is my son who had it made; wife, daughter, house, job, all on the upswing. Until one day, about three years ago, he chose to ride through the desert on a horse with no name.

            Almost immediately he pushed me out of his life. But this is my son. He is in my life, no matter what. I was terribly hurt. After several months of his stories and lies, during which time he lost everything, we in the family realized he had become addicted to heroin. Seemingly addicted from his first usage. It happens. Why? Why? Why? A useless question with no answer. My son is an addict.

            In January he landed in jail, again; this time, jail with a difference. A miniscule amount of sales tax had been set aside to provide drug and alcohol treatment for inmates, an entire program with after-care plans. Fortunately for my son, this long-term enforced sobriety seems to be chipping away at his defenses. What will happen once he is released? That is entirely up to him, isn’t it? The recovery rate for heroin addiction is 3%. There is no cure.

            My story, my son, my elephant is neither rare nor unusual. Today I woke up and knew it was time for me to write about him. I love my son. I hope he makes it.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 29, 2015

The Wheels On The Bus Go ‘Round And ‘Round

The Wheels On The Bus Go ‘Round And ‘Round
            “You lie,” the note from my friend said. “You said you were in Montana. If that were the case, you would have stopped in to see us.”

            Immediately, as I often do, without thought, I shot back a reply. Afterwards, I began thinking. Was I flippant? I certainly did not mean to be. I had sent what I felt at the moment was an explanation. On later consideration, I felt I had sent a poor excuse.

            True, I had popped my head in the door and John wasn’t there. I only had a five-minute window of time. I was with my cousin on the way from Harlem to Great Falls. Oh, I am guilty of poor planning all the way around.

            And it is the fault of wheels, those “circle of life” sorts of things that we take for granted except when we don’t have them and they become objects of virtual worship. So, John, I blame the wheel, or rather, lack of wheels, that I didn’t get to visit you; you and a long list of other friends.

            Ah, blame. A rather useless exercise in emotion. Unlike wheels, blame gets me nowhere.

            I have no wheels. To begin at the beginning, two years ago I drove to Mazatlan, parked my van and in the first six months I drove it exactly once, to Etzatlan near Guadalajara. Marvelous trip.

Public transportation in Mazatlan is easy, available, and cheap. I can go by bus, taxi or pulmania, my choice. With the latter two, I quickly learned to haggle over price.  Great fun.

If there is anywhere on God’s green earth, pardon the cliché, that an object made of metal and rubber will deteriorate more quickly than here, I don’t want to go there. So I drove my sweet Roshanna Vanna back to Montana and parked her there to dry out for the next six months.

So that year passed. I found I didn’t need a personal vehicle except those weeks when I was in the States. Right or wrong, I got to thinking. I considered the cost of maintenance, insurance, licensing and oddments, even for a parked vehicle. Against that, I looked at the cost of a rental car for those few times I would really need one. Didn’t look like rocket science to me. (Please pardon my clichés.) I sold my sweet, dependable, reliable 225,000 miles and still rolling, van to a friend. She’s still the best!

Another year sneaked around, day by day, in that habitual way of days into years, and this summer I flew away to Montana. As I said earlier, nothing on that trip happened as I had planned.

And had I rented wheels, all would have gone differently. But I was trying to be a good girl. I tried to follow my doctor’s orders—no—suggestion. He said he would rather I didn’t drive for eight months to a year, if possible, after my hip replacement surgery.

I’m fortunate to have friends who love me, friends who carted me around. And I limited comings and goings accordingly. Their schedules became, of necessity, my schedules.

But, wait until my next trip. I shall have different wheels in every city. I shall be the rental car queen. Enterprise, Avis, Hertz, Budget, Alamo, Thrifty, Rent-A-Wreck; I’ll drive them all.

And, Dear John, you might not see me coming, but I’ll have wheels. I’ll screech around the corner, slam up to the curb, stop on a dime (dang the clichés) and saunter in for a cup of coffee and a good tongue wag.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 22, 2015

The Turning of the Seasons

            The Turning of the Seasons
            Nancie sent me photos of the vibrant leaves along the highway and streets of Leavenworth, yellow and orange and red against the green backdrop of Douglas fir and cedar.

            Immediately I could imagine the golden snake of cottonwoods slithering across the Plains, hugging the banks of the Milk River. I love this season with a tinge of sadness, knowing it is short-lived, knowing winter could arrive before the next calendar page is turned.

Those years when early frost, heavy with cruelty turns the leaves green to brown without the golden interval, make me feel personally slighted, as if I woke to Christmas with no gifts beneath the tree.

            Certainly north-central Montana is not to be compared to New England but is it any less beautiful just because the gold is sparsely scattered on the landscape?

            Here in my little corner of Mexico I am learning to see the turning seasons, seemingly limited to two, winter and summer. After the rains of August and September the green is greener. Even vacant lots shoot up with lush jungle growth, bushing twenty feet high and more where in April the ground had been scraped clean. The three islands across from the coast look like a bit of Ireland.

            Flowers bloom in profusion. But I don’t know many of their names or habits. Some bloom year round, some in their own time. It’s not like Montana where lilacs and daffodils in yards, crocus and rooster-heads on the prairie, announce spring has truly arrived. Fall is easily recognized by the deeper colors, whether weed, wild flower or cottonwood.

            Two weeks ago hummingbirds buzzed in to taste blossoms on the back patio. Today a butterfly big as a saucer fluttered next to me to see if I was a new species of flower. Disappointed, no doubt, it flew away.  

            In this tourist town, the migration of the snow-birds, those Canadians and Americans who live here from October or November through April, is a sure sign we move from summer to winter.

            This apartment complex I live in is small. The entire upper story is occupied by a family who own several blood-testing clinics. They leave at six in the morning and are home around eight. I seldom see them. Around the corner on Avenida Tiberon two young women live in two of the apartments.  One teaches school; the other works for an automobile sales company.  Of the three apartments along Calle del Pulpo, I have the one in the middle.

            Thursday night Ted from Edmonton arrived. He lives in the unit on my left. He was excited to be here, so while he was waiting for his girlfriend Theresa to come by cab, he woke me up and we had a sidewalk reunion.

            Saturday Gary and Heidi flew in from Ontario. They have the back corner unit on Tiberon. An hour after they arrived, with barely time to open their suitcases and change clothes, they were on their way to Casa de Cameron to hook up with their buddies. But they took time to poke their heads in my door for greetings and hugs.

            Now we are waiting for Frank from Spokane, who lives behind the door on my right. None of us have heard from Frank. We look out every time a cab stops near-by. When Frank arrives, any day now, we will feel complete. 

            Over the past two years these snow-birds have become important to me. I’ve gotten to know them, have heard their stories.

Mutilated Spanish is my summer language. With the snow-birds I can speak English without wondering which parts are understood, which parts incomprehensible, which parts mangled beyond meaning. Winter is English.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 15, 2015

When You Wish Upon A Star

When You Wish Upon A Star
I hope your week has been good. I hope your week has not been like everyone else’s. The only thing I can attribute it to is astrology. I’m sure you must believe in astrology just as religiously as I do. I’m sure the Moon is in Mar’s pocket, Venus is flirting with Jupiter, Pluto is in the twenty-ninth house of Disney and the Sun has measles spots. None of the planets are tending to business.

One of my close friends had three deaths in her family this week. Another friend had stomach surgery. Another is going through an ugly court-battle divorce.

One of my daughters must have knee surgery on both legs, her father has galloping Alzheimers, her insurance took an astronomical hike upward, and her daughter who has cerebral palsy must be tested for another malady.

Another daughter wrote me that “she is alive and everybody is fine”. I know what that means. We are much alike. “Fine” tells me that she feels like her life is floating in the toilet bowl with the Great Hand hovering, poised to flush. But she doesn’t want to talk about it.

And world news—let’s not even go there. That’s the quick road to depression.

My worries are tiny in comparison. But I do wonder if the planets are all sitting in the sports bar watching football on the telly and ignoring their real work of making our lives run smoothly.

It’s been a strange and difficult week for me. Nothing big; just a string of small irritations and disappointments. My big worries I save for you.  

My living room ceiling is falling to the floor. Water dripped from three different locations in that small room. The drip is not consistent. Sometimes the ceiling drips when it rains; sometimes when it hasn’t rained in weeks. I’m vigilant with basins and towels.

The problem is not being ignored. People who’ve looked at it think the leaks come from the upper deck. I know better.

Lupita, my upstairs neighbor, completely retiled her floors and deck and sent two men down to remove and repair the plaster on my ceiling. My house became a slum of plaster chips. Dust flew everywhere. The ceiling looks “fine”.

Before I could return my apartment to my standard of cleanliness, the drip, drip, drip continued. I knew it would. I pay attention. The drips are most active when the humidity is extremely high. Condensation on the pipes above cause the dripping. How do I explain that with my rudimentary Espanol?   

The other niggling little mess in my life this week concerns my temporary residency permit. This permit is important to me, mostly because it means I determine when I fly to the States. The tourist visa limits one to six months in country. With temporary residency I can leave in four months or fourteen months. It’s my decision.

I flew back to Mexico September 17. Nobody told me I had five business days to update my permit. The rules had changed from last year when I had a month. So I showed up at the Immigration Office on the 25th, one day late. I had to pay a fine and a late fee. And begin the whole application process over from step one.

So I took a deep breath and did everything I could do, paperwork, payments, photo and proof of various things to begin the weeks-long process. Friday I received a notification from the Immigration Office in my email, eight hundred Spanish words, number six font. I can guess my way through a lot of Spanish but not “official-ese”. I called my friend Carlos who graciously interprets my way through many difficulties.

“There is a small problem. Don’t worry.” To me, this was similar to getting an audit  notification from the IRS. I had the whole week-end to panic. Would they deport me for transposing passport numbers? Did I misspell my name? Monday morning I was a bundle of tightly strung nerves when I showed up at the office to learn, “no problema”. I’ll get another notification for next step, leave fingerprints and pay more money. Maybe next week.

Like I said, my problems are small. But it would be nice if the planets would get back into gear and round up some good stuff. Whatever happened to meeting tall dark handsome strangers and pots of gold at the ends of rainbows? I’m not asking for me, but for you. I’m “fine”. And I don’t want to talk about it.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 8, 2015