Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Like a Hitch in Your Get-Along

Step, hitch, step, hitch, step, hitch!

Like a Hitch in Your Get-Along

I leaned against my kitchen stove talking with a friend, mindlessly staring at the cupboard across from me. Suddenly my eyes popped. “That pull on the bottom drawer next to the sink is crooked. I have lived here five years and I have never seen it until just this moment. I can’t believe I never noticed it before.”

In half a heartbeat I crossed to the drawer, pulled it out, and checked to see if one of the screws had fallen out. My house is old. My kitchen is old. My cupboards are old. And the drawer pulls are old. So a loose screw might have been the problem. Both screws were tight. “Now that I have spotted this glaring flaw, I’ll see it every time I come into the kitchen. Oh, woe is me.” I lifted my arm across my eyes in mock despair.

I like to think of myself as a person who notices things. Most things. Well, some things. Last week I climbed out of the driver’s seat of my van and noticed the door panel was hanging on solely by the screws in the door handle. The entire bottom was loose. The pocket where I keep maps, a rag, ropes, a packet of bungee cords, an umbrella, a corkscrew, gloves, a pair of water shoes, some wet wipes, two rocks, a window scraper and a bent screwdriver was hanging loose. There also was a scrap of paper, a note to myself torn from an envelope flap. It read: short on top, long on bottom back. It meant what screws went where, from a job at some long forgotten time. It meant the short screws went on top and the long screws went on the bottom back. Simple.

“Look at that. How long has this door panel been hanging open like this? My maps are poking out. I wonder what I’ve lost. I wonder when it jarred loose. I can’t believe I never spotted it.”

My friend, Steve, who was in the van with me opened his door and slid out. “Hmmm,” he said. “Have you noticed this side?”

I looked across the seats to the passenger door. It was also hanging on by the two screws holding the door handle onto the panel. “Oh,” I said. “How could this be? I’m in and out of my van every day. How could I be oblivious that the door panels are falling off?”

I do notice the big things, I do. Like just now, my house seemed awfully humid, rather like the tropics in high summer. I went straight to the laundry room where my dryer was running. Sure enough, the vent thingy, you know, that flexible white plastic stuff stretched over coiled wire that carries the lint out, had split open where it attached to the dryer. Lint was flying everywhere. The pile of lint behind the dryer looked like a soft gray nest, rather like a mouse nest. So I pulled the dryer away from the wall, dragged in my vacuum and cleaned. As long as I had the vacuum out I pulled the refrigerator away from the wall and cleaned the air intake and whatever that grid is which gets all icky.

Despite my need for order, annoying little things go wrong all the time. For example, my shop heater which hangs from the ceiling on long bolts has rattled all these five years. I had the installer in to look at it. He poked around and shrugged his shoulders. The irritating rattle gets louder the more it throws out heat. So Steve got the ladder from the cabin, climbed up and pulled the panel off the side to see if he could solve the problem. Interestingly, without the side panel, it didn’t rattle. Hallelujah! After five years, problem solved.

This afternoon Steve fixed the door panels. Tomorrow I’ll go to Charlie’s and get the dryer thing. I’ll buy a metal one this time. Oh, rats, cats and bats! My heater just kicked back on and the blasted rattle is back. It’s like a hitch in my get-along. I’ll have to live with it. And I’ll live with the crooked drawer pull and grin when I notice it. It’s not even a pebble in my shoe in the grand scheme of things.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

April 28, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Missoula Children’s Theatre Comes to Harlem

Missoula Children’s Theatre Comes to Harlem


Saturday night, right here in my own home town of Harlem , I attended a live theatre production. Along with two hundred excited parents, family members and friends, I watched thirty children, cast in a variety of roles, cavort across the stage in “Pinocchio”.

But for me the fun began the previous Sunday afternoon when Dan Watson and Lydia Jane Graeff, a team of directors from the Missoula Children’s Theatre, drove their little red truck into my driveway, and came inside to meet me and to see what was to be their home for the following week. I showed them to their rooms so they could unpack and take a few moments to relax before their work began.

Missoula Children’s Theatre has been around for forty years. If co-founder Jim Caron, out of a job and on his way to Oregon , had not broken down while driving his ancient VW van near Missoula , MCT might not exist. While waiting for repairs, he noticed a poster advertising auditions for the musical, “Man of La Mancha”. “Why not,” he thought, “just for fun”. He found himself cast in the play and during the run developed a friendship with Don Collins who played the lead.

After “ La Mancha ” closed, Caron and Collins formed a company to present theatre for children. Their efforts in Missoula were such a success that soon Jim and Don were receiving requests from other communities to perform for their children.

When they started they cast adults in the plays, with children only playing appropriate roles. In the winter of ’72 the company was booked to travel to Miles City for a production of “Snow White”. Jim and Don were hesitant to take seven children on that long trip over the icy roads. They took the radical step of driving to Miles City ahead of the rest of the crew, hoping they would find seven children willing to spend the week of preparation and be part of play. Four hundred fifty children showed up for auditions and the present form of Missoula Children’s Theatre was conceived.

Today hopeful directors audition to be part of Missoula Children’s Theatre. They are intensively trained and placed in teams of two which travel throughout the United States in little red trucks with the MCT logo prominent on the doors. International teams take theatre around the world. My new friends, Dan and Lydia , rookies with MCT, are touring “Pinocchio” to Montana and Wyoming communities. In their truck they carry their clothing and personal effects, the scripts, lighting, props, costumes, make-up, sets and all the equipment needed to create a stage wherever they go. Every Sunday they arrive at a new home. They cast up to sixty children and rehearse throughout the week. On Saturday they raise the set, run through a dress rehearsal, briefly rest and on Saturday evening the kids perform for the community. After the play, Dan and Lydia tear down the set and load all the equipment back into the truck. Early Sunday morning they head down the road.

For some communities MCT is the only live theatre to which their children are exposed. This is the second year that the newly organized Harlem PTO has sponsored MCT’s appearance. Last year sixteen children participated. This year thirty children signed up for the hard work of rehearsals every night after school. This is not just simple entertainment. MCT states “the primary goal, indeed the organization’s mission, is the development of life skills in children through participation in the performing arts.” I know how hard our kids worked, because I saw their directors drag through my front door chewing their hair at the end of the evening, looking like road kill. Yet each day, Dan and Lydia returned to school eager to help the kids build the next layer of competence.

Finally the big night arrived. I went to the high school to see the play performed on the same stage where we had plays when I was a student. The old gym, with its stage on one side, is the only remaining part of old Harlem High. I sat through the performance, a grin pasted across my face, delighted at the bravery of the kids. I silently cheered for each young actor and held my breath whenever the action on the stage came to a halt, evidence of lost lines. But these children did it. They pulled it off. The show was a triumph.

After the play, parents took thousands of photographs, locking in memories forever. Dan and Lydia , together with a few community members, broke down the stage and packed the entire set and all the equipment into the little red truck. We came back to my house to celebrate and over a feast of pizza, talked theatre and life (and aren’t they the same thing) until midnight. Sunday morning I waved good-by to my two new friends as they headed down the road to their next gig.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

April 21, 2011

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Diner, The Witch and The Birthday Cake

When a surprise is not a surprise is a surprise! -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The Diner, The Witch and The Birthday Cake __________________________________________________________________________________________ I have been looking for any excuse to get out of town after being held hostage by winter. I especially wanted to see my friends Ron and Sharon in Watson , Saskatchewan . Also, I didn’t trust winter to stay gone, so it would be a comfort to have a friend along to share the eight hour drive north. Steve, a good friend from Silverdale , Washington , arrived for a visit on the Empire Builder last Tuesday. I jumped at my opportunity. “Steve, did you bring your passport? Good, let’s go to Canada .” I wanted to surprise my friends, but I wanted it to be a pleasant surprise. So I emailed Sharon : Do you like surprises? Sharon replied: I love surprises. That’s all I needed to know. So early Thursday morning we quickly pack our bags and leave. Ten miles out of Harlem , we hit the snow fields. Not fields of snow: snow fields. There is a difference. In the valley, the snow has melted into the thirsty earth. In the hills, snow is deep and creeks run swift through the coulees. Our day is sunshine bright and our spirits run as high as the creeks, out of their banks with excitement. After crossing the border at Turner/Climax we stop for a farm-style breakfast in Shaunavon, one of my favorite towns, continue north to Gull Lake, east on Highway 1 to Regina, through the beautiful city and north on Highway 6 to Watson. Snow and high water, geese and deer, hawks, coyotes and a wolf flank our journey. We pull into the parking lot at the Quick Stop Diner at 5:30. Sharon flies across the parking lot and grabs me in a hug. “I knew you were here. One of our customers saw you drive in and said, I see your friend from Montana is here.” I introduce Steve and we hustle inside. I sneak back to the kitchen and surprise Ron with a big hug. Lilia, the other member of the Quick Stop team, spots me and rushes over to wrap me in her arms. In the diner I recognize several customers, all of whom grin and wave or nod to me. “You’re back, eh?” “How long are you staying?” “Good to see you.” I planned a surprise, but I am surprised in turn by how warmly I am received. “We’ve come to help,” I announce. “And to celebrate my birthday. I brought our own aprons and Quick Stop tee shirts. I’ll bus tables.” “And I’ll do dishes,” Steve said. And so we do. Friday the little diner bustles with customers all day long. Everybody is responding to a sunshine day with easy-going talk and laughter. Sharon, Ron and Lilia incorporate us into their little operation. I deliver orders from the kitchen, pour coffee and clear tables. Steve helps both on the floor and in the kitchen. For me, the highlight of the day comes when a woman arrives with a three year old daughter and her two sons about fourteen and sixteen. The little bright-eyed charmer watches me come and go, smiles at me and gives me little waves, so I make a point to stop by their table frequently with a word or two. Finally the toddler motions me over and announces loudly, “You are funny. Are you a witch? I think you are a witch.” “Why, thank you. I do believe I am.” I laugh, pleased. I recognize praise when I hear it. Her mother, however, is mortified. I can tell Mom wants to crawl under the table, hopefully to disappear through a hole in the floor. “No, no, no, she gave me a compliment,” I assure Mom. “Your little girl knows happy magic when she sees it, like that of the good witch, Glenda, from the ‘Wizard of Oz’.” The boys grin and nod their agreement. I cherish that compliment all day. As the last customers wave good-by, Sharon locks the door. Sharon, Steve, Lilia and I finish the closing chores. In the kitchen Ron grills lamb chops with all the trimmings. We sit down to the feast, tired and hungry. We bask in the satisfaction of a good day, well worked, with good friends and the magic of hearts at ease. And then another surprise appears, a birthday cake with candles flickering. Ron had baked it for me first thing that morning. My friends urge me to make a wish. I close my eyes and wish the love and the joy that surround us this moment be with us every day all year long. I blow out the candles and cut the cake. It is a magic birthday, the best birthday I ever had. Sondra Ashton HDN: Looking out my back door April 14, 2011 _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

My Million Dollar Idea of the Day

Theoretically, each of us has at least one million dollar idea per day. We generally don't recognize it! -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- My Million Dollar Idea of the Day _____________________________________________________________________________________________________ I lie in bed at night and worry. I worry about us here in Blaine County . I don’t need a census report to know our population is decreasing. Nowhere is this more evident than in my own home town of Harlem , where the population today hovers near seven hundred souls. Our small town, once a thriving commercial center, long ago ceased to grow. We desperately need a reason to exist. The last snow storm inspired my latest brilliant idea. Winter nails some of us behind closed doors as we watch the thermometer plummet. The same winter that paralyzes me invigorates others, those hardy winter sports enthusiasts who think winter was created just so they can play. Like I said, I lie in bed at night and worry. Some of those worries turn into ideas. Most of the ideas I discard and wisely so. But one idea took hold. Why not develop a ski area in Harlem . Where? North of town, on the hill up out of the valley where the old dump used to be. Now it’s a container site. What if we turn it back into a dump and build up a mountain of trash, upon which we’ll then build our ski resort? People from all over the country are desperate for a place to truck their garbage. They’ll pay big bucks. The money thus generated will fund the project. It’s perfect. Don’t laugh. There is precedent. If the enterprising folks of Evanston , Illinois , who built Mt. Trashmore Ski Area completely out of garbage, (ditto for Crystal Ridge in Milwaukee, Mt. Trash near Detroit, and even Mt. Blackstrap Ski Hill south of Saskatoon) can turn trash into cash, so can we. My excitement mounts. The view from the dump is as spectacular a vista as one will find anywhere. I see the Swiss chalet-style lodge perched atop the hill, overlooking the expanse of the valley. Down below the train chugs along the tracks, stops at the new station, disgorges hordes of happy winter frolickers where the fleet of limousines awaits to carry them to the Lodge. The frozen river meanders between serpentine banks. Zambonis smooth the ice for skaters who waltz to the music of Harlem ’s famous Milk River Oompah Band. On a clear day, and when is it not a clear day on the Hi-line, majestic mountains define the southern horizon. I see lifts and trails, the lights at night. The lifts carry beautiful people adorned in the latest outdoor fashions. Teams of St. Bernard rescue dogs patrol the slopes, casks of brandy snug around their necks. Laughing children zoom down on their sleds. Hardy cross country skiers traverse the valley. The hills hum with the happy racket of snowmobilers’ racing motors as the power driven sleds throw curtains of snow in their wake. The ski hill is the flagship idea; this is where it starts. Winter sports facilities will shoot up like mushrooms on a soggy day. In a natural progression, we’ll build an ice arena for hockey and another for curling. Working together we stand to make a fortune. Investors will fight to grab a piece of the action. We need a business plan, a vision, a mission statement, a state of the art office complex, executives, clerks, secretaries, sales teams, designers, accountants, workshops, desks, reams of paper, telephones, computers, paychecks, taxes, lobbyists, benefits, bonuses, copiers, fax machines, humidifiers, coffee makers, water-coolers, doormats, pencils, a logo, a corporate name, advertising, parking spaces, electric bills. There is much to consider. Ah, picture the hustle and bustle on Main Street . Every store full and overflowing with colorful ski wear, boots, parkas, train loads of merchandise. Our new bank, a veritable mirror of prosperity, looms above the booming business sector. Fountains spout around ornate statuary in the town square. New housing developments and condominiums ring the city. International hotels sprout overnight. Population explodes. Opportunity abounds. Destination: Harlem , Montana . We’re back on the map. Sondra Ashton HDN: Looking out my back door April 7, 2011 ____________________________________________________________________________________________

Friday, April 1, 2011

When One is Invisible

To be or not to be . . . -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- When One is Invisible _____________________________________________________________________________________________ Two weeks ago I was at Sweet Medical in Chinook for my annual Woman’s Exam. My doctor asked me a series of routine questions, and concluded by asking my age. I’ll be mumbly-mumble in two weeks,” I said. She looked up from her paperwork. “Happy Birthday, Sondra.” “I’m getting older grudgingly, not gracefully. I dislike aging. Brown spots, papery skin, this one long white hair that sprouts three inches overnight on my face. And why can’t we sit down or stand up without sound effects matching every move?” She laughed. “Would you like to go back to when you were younger?” “Not on your life—or my life.” “Not even if you knew all you know now?” “I’d probably do the same foolish things over again. With the knowledge I have today, life would be even more painful. But the thing that makes me angry about being an aging woman is that sometime in my fifties I became invisible. I don’t know how, but when I became an older woman, I vanished.” My doctor’s eyes sparked fire. “I know what you are talking about. I experience it all the time. It happens whenever I transact business. My husband and I were shopping for new floor coverings. We spent hours in the store looking at samples. The clerk talked to him the entire time. I made the choices, not him. I paid the bill, not him. But I might as well have not been there as far as that clerk was concerned.” “Yes, sometimes it seems like we don’t exist, like we are vague shadows. I remember one time when I went to buy a cargo van. The salesman insisted that I didn’t want a cargo van and he had the perfect mini-van for me and I needed to bring my husband to make the deal. I told him, look, I need a full-size cargo van for my business. And I don’t have a husband. He didn’t even hear me; he repeated it again, bring in your husband and test drive the mini-van. I stomped out of that place steaming and never went back. “I went down the road to the next dealership, smoke pouring from my ears. I told the young salesman that I’m single, I know what I want, and if you even hint that I need a man to seal the deal, I’m walking right back out that door. Whew, he brought me a mug of coffee, sat me in a chair in his office, closed the door and said, you just came from up the street, huh. An hour later I drove out of there behind the wheel of my new cargo van.” We had a good giggle. My doctor then said, “Frequently a female patient wants her husband in the room so that he can hear the information first hand. I make sure I address most of my comments directly to her with good eye contact. I talk to him too, but most of my discussion is with her.” Invisibility still dominated my mind when my daughter Dee Dee, a family counselor, phoned. “It’s not just women who are invisible,” she reminded me. “Add to your list the physically or mentally challenged. Old people don’t see young people. Young people disregard the elderly. People with dark skin or those with light skin, both can be invisible. Or people who speak a different language or wear unfamiliar clothing. Some people erase those who have green hair, tattoos, or body piercings. Almost all of us avoid looking at the homeless. It’s easy to become a non-person.” We humans are talented beyond belief. We make people disappear who are not carbon copies of us. We forget that every human being is unique. Each one of us has a compelling story. What would happen if we stopped, looked for the humanity in her eyes, and listened to her story? Or his story. Think about it. Sondra Ashton HDN: Looking out my back door March 31, 2011 _________________________________________________________________________________________________