Sunday, May 16, 2010

My Head in the Sand

Building Sand Castles
My Head in the Sand

Back when I lived in the Windy City I subscribed to the Chicago Tribune, called by its publisher, Colonel McCormick, the “World’s Greatest Newspaper”. In those days it listed farther to the right than any newspaper in existence. This was the paper which ran the famous banner headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman”. The Sunday edition was approximately four inches thick and so heavy I had to separate it and drag it into the house, once section at a time. If I plunked the whole thing on the coffee table all at once, the legs splayed out like a spavined horse. I started with the front page and worked my way through the entire paper, section by section, a task which consumed a major portion of my day.

If that wasn’t enough, I regularly watched the televised news. This was back in the day when I had to cross the room to change channels, switching back and forth between Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. I was mesmerized by the monster of the airwaves. I watched every hour of both local and national news. I became a news junkie. News began to take over every aspect of my life. It was not pretty. The more news I consumed, the more deeply I sank into a morass of depression. I couldn’t separate my personal problems from the problems of people in the news. I couldn’t get enough. I upped my intake. It only made me worse. In the grocery store I sneaked the National Enquirer into my cart and pretended it was not mine while the checker totaled my bill. By the end of each day I was sick to my stomach.

My addiction escalated. One day friends found me lying in an alley, wrapped in layers of newsprint, clutching a copy of “TV Guide”. I was incoherent, spoke only editorial-ese. My friends forced me to take a rigorous inventory. They made me admit I was powerless over the hours I spent immersed in stories of murder, mayhem, war, scandal, fraud, sex-crimes and political misconduct. Diagnosis: overdose. Prognosis: potentially fatal.

I was terrified. I broke it off cold turkey. With one phone call I cut off my supply of newsprint. With white knuckles I pulled the plug on the tube and trundled it down to the basement storage room. There I found an ancient, crumbly stack of “Archie” comics, left by a former renter. I carted the comics upstairs. They became sugar-pill placebos to aid in my recovery. I plowed through the stack, one day at a time. Memories of Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty still make me smile, though I have not read a comic book since.

Today I do not subscribe to a major daily, but I am an avid supporter of my local newspapers. I am seldom nauseated by the headlines, and rarely spend a day paralyzed with horror over world events. I appreciate the Havre Daily News because the editors carefully choose what national and international news is most important and they don’t obsess over the sexual antics of famous people. I value the weekly Blaine County Journal. It keeps me up to date on the latest happenings in my immediate neighborhood.

My little world, which directly influences my life and which I, in turn, might influence, is small indeed. I want to know on what day is the pancake supper at the fire-hall, when is the health fair scheduled, and who won the basketball tournament. It is important to me that the agenda for the city council meeting be available to the community. And we all need to know about the projected raise in water rates and the city clean-up day. And where else could I search for a battered old pick-up truck at the right price, something to haul garden debris and landscape rock, if not in my local want ads.

So what if I have sand in both eyes and ears. In this age of electronic information, I do not feel disconnected. If I needed, for whatever reason, a more comprehensive view of an event, I could go on-line to read any newspaper in the world. Meanwhile, I’ll play ostrich.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
May 13, 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010

Old Buildings

This is my heart.
Old Buildings

I am a sucker for old buildings. I have love affairs, infatuations, with handsome old empty buildings. They have potential. Homestead shacks, abandoned houses with the wind whistling through the cracks, dusty warehouses or lovely brick commercial buildings, long ago boarded up. I am an incurable romantic. The phrase “fixer-upper” makes my breath go shallow, my knees weak, and my heart pound. Lovelorn lass that I am, I ache to restore their old bones to their former glory.

But the word “potential” sets off alarm bells and whistles. I have trained my mind to alert me to this danger. I hang onto my heart, compute the hundreds of thousands of dollars that each project would undoubtedly cost, then force myself to drive on down the road.

When I decided to return to Montana , after my long exile in the Seattle area, I remembered the first time I visited an artist friend’s loft in the city. What a romantic place to live, I thought. I searched high and low, east and west, for something similar here, a non-conventional living space. I checked out two store-fronts in Big Sandy. I spent hours mentally reconstructing a convenience store in Chinook. I drooled over a two-story brick in Chester .

Finally I bought my Dad’s old house in Harlem , a simple rambler, and renovated it to suit my needs. It was not the project I dreamed over. It lacked romance. But it is well-built and I did not have to fool with expensive re-wiring, heating, or plumbing.

But a building in Chinook still tugs at my heartstrings. Like a love-sick puppy, I often drive into town, park in front of it and mourn. I envision my expansive apartment up on the top floor, an open space large enough for a ball room, which I would turn into an art studio, a gallery. The floor to ceiling windows would trap all the light of the big sky. I would line the room with book shelves, throw old Kilim rugs onto the scuffed hardwood floors which I would sand only enough to take down the rough spots but would leave their aged character. I would hold a salon with my favorite recovered couches and chairs grouped to create conversation islands. To support the building, the main floor could be renovated into apartments or business spaces. I could see it clearly. I walked through that building four times, trying to make it work for me. I could have bought the building but I did not have the thousands of dollars to bring it up to code plus the thousands of dollars to bring out its true potential. So I had to let it go.

Recently I had an affair with another historical brick building, this one in Harlem , the old New England Hotel. It is truly a grand structure, complete with a curved staircase up to the second floor. The staircase is not quite up to Scarlett O’Hara standards, but I could see a bride slowly descending to the music of the grand piano and the hushed admiration of the wedding guests. One trip through the hotel and I had mentally knocked out walls and created a rustic bed and breakfast. Each spacious room would paint a homespun picture, complete with iron bedsteads, maple dressers, rag rugs, patch quilts, muslin curtains at the long tall windows and claw-foot tubs behind tri-fold screens. This time I would place my personal apartment on the ground floor, right in the middle of all the action. But it was the same story, same unhappy ending. No way did I have enough money for code and cosmetics to make over the grand old dame.

Last week a local businessman told me that the old derelict should be torn down. “You could put up a nice new steel building in that spot for a hundred-fifty thou,” he said. I cringed at the thought. My heart dropped into my stomach. He’s right, of course. But our town would lose half a block of architecture and a major portion of its history.

I think too much with my heart and not enough with my wallet. I can see the shadows of the craftsmen who built with pride and then added the touches that made the New England Hotel unique. I can see the ghosts of former occupants roaming the halls. A man shuffles into one room and sits down at an oak desk piled high with business papers. He removes a flask from his vest pocket and swigs a hearty slug of rye whiskey to ease the pain of a deal gone bad. In another room, I watch a worried mother rock a fretful baby, feverish with colic. This venerable building has weathered storms, meteorological and monetary, political and personal. I soak up its stories as though I lived them. I sigh, turn my head, and then see the finished project as I would re-design it, a place to welcome new people with new stories of their own.

I have other loves; one in Big Sandy, a handsome beauty in Ritzville , Washington , and a sweetie in Bonners Ferry, Idaho . They all have real potential, honest they do, and I know if I could just love them enough, they would be wonderful.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
May 6, 2010

On the Road Again

Here I go again....
On the Road Again

I received an invitation to read my poetry in Seattle . It was a giant boost to my ego. I drove a thousand miles to be a featured reader in front of a group of friends and fellow poets in a Seattle area coffee house. I miss my poet friends. Having an audience is vital to my creative process. When I read my poetry aloud, I hear things on a visceral level that I otherwise miss.

In three weeks I jammed and crammed a lot of visiting. More precious than gold are my friends, my relatives, and my grandchildren. It is good for me to occasionally get away from my everyday world.

When some people drive long distances, they listen to music or books. When I am on the road, I think.

I was on the road a mere thirty five miles from home, between Chinook and Havre, when I realized that my shirts were still stacked neatly on my bed, waiting to be loaded into my van. I pulled off the highway and checked. I was right. I had left my shirts. Now I had a choice. I could return to my house and get them, or I could buy new shirts along my route. A no-brainer, right? In Kalispell I told my friend Sharon that I wanted to go to the Salvation Army store, near her house. “My favorite store,” she replied. I replenished my shirt supply. Sharon bought even more than I did.

While driving in bumper to bumper traffic on Interstate 90, it occurred to me that we were much like the Blue Angels, the Navy’s exhibition flight team. We were driving in earthbound formation while the Blue Angels soared through the air. I had the nose of my van sticking to the tail of the truck in front of me, the SUV behind me was sucking up my fumes, a sleek Corvette convertible held the place to my left while on my right a decrepit rusty Nova chugged along, spewing black clouds.

In the sky, the Blue Angels stay in beautiful precision formation, breaking apart only to create another pattern. On the Interstate, our auto formation was constantly shifting with vehicles randomly changing lanes, speeding up or slowing down. Why is that, I wondered. Training, I answered. The Blue Angels are specially chosen for intelligence and skill. They are highly trained and tested.

We, however, need only pass a rudimentary test at sixteen, then climb into a car and go. We drive while hungry, sleepy, stressed, angry, or late for work. We apply make-up, shave, read, talk and text, eat, drink and threaten other drivers. Where would you rather be? In the cockpit with the Blue Angels or behind the wheel on the freeway?

Jaguars are the only truly beautiful car on the road. In my travels I have seen many, many varieties of automobiles, and none but the Jag has truly distinctive style that catches my lustful eye.

Every town I passed through had empty store fronts. My favorite grocery store in Bonners Ferry, where I stopped every trip for coffee and the best buttermilk donuts, had closed. My heart was broken. I felt momentary depression, then hope, that someone with dreams and elbow grease would come along to open new businesses in the old spaces.

While I was in Seattle , a friend invited me to ride the “Duck,” a left-over WWII amphibious car/boat which tours the city streets and then paddles around Lake Union . In all the years I had lived there, I had never done this. It was great. Be sure to buy a quacker and leave dignity behind. Be silly and have fun.

A surfeit of seafood is not possible.

On Whidbey Island , Washington , there is a pottery shop at Juan de Fuca, a hamlet slightly bigger than Savoy . For years I have said, “Someday I am going to stop there.” I stopped. At this minute I am drinking tea from a cup hand-crafted by an artist.

Several days later I exited into the town of Sprague , Washington , another “I wonder what is there” place. What is there, along the lake, is a grand collection of vintage farm trucks and a lovely former railroad depot which a craftsman has restored into a unique residence.

As the wheels on the van go round and round the wheels of my mind go weird. Why in the world would I break into loudly singing the childhood jingle for “Beefaroni” while driving through Spokane ? (Hooray for Beefaroni, it’s made from macaroni.) It was a warm day and I had rolled the window down. At a stop light I saw that I had attracted an audience. I rolled the window up.

On I-90 I saw innumerable dead tire treads. Back in Montana , on roads the writer William Least Heat Moon called “Blue Highways,” I spotted two big horn sheep, two elk, a wolf, and hundreds of deer and antelope. I also drove through a cloud of eau-de-skunk.

I drove a thousand miles back. Brown is more beautiful than green. Hooray, Montana .

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Looking out my back door
April 29, 2010