Saturday, August 17, 2013

When A Manicure is More Than a Manicure

When A Manicure is More Than a Manicure
It started out as a typical morning at coffee with the "boys". I’ve been having coffee with the guys at City Shop around four years now. We show up any time after 6:00. The boss is there first and the coffee pot is full. "We" means the city employees (minus the clerks), a county commissioner, another councilperson and me. I’m there by invitation—honored to be accepted as "one of the boys". Work starts at 8:00. I usually leave when the boss begins assigning the day’s tasks, around 7:30. It’s a good way to start the day.

We had exhausted the usual run of topics: baseball, (Cardinals versus Cubs), football, which I think is a dumb sport but I do well on the football pool so can’t complain, soccer, which I think is dumb too but am beginning to understand it which worries me, and rugby, with one blood-lusting fan in the group.

Richard’s wife Marcia owns a hair salon. She recently rented space to a manicurist. Richard said, "I can’t believe how many women come in to have their nails fancied up. That woman is busy all the time. I don’t understand how they justify spending the money to have their fingertips colored and sparkled. I could do that for them in five seconds. I’d just dip their fingers in a trough of paint and they’d be done."

You must understand that Richard is fiscally conservative unless he is spending city money for shop equipment, especially things like new tractors, trucks, and sweepers.

Chuck, who is a widower, said, "Sandy used to have her nails done. It’s okay."

Charlie admitted, "Julie does her nails. She likes them that way."

"Renee likes her nails to look nice," said Kim. "Well, they do look nice."

"I think the women go for the gossip," added Richard.

And so around the room. Except for Reese, young and single. Reese looked embarrassed by the whole conversation.

I may be the only woman in town who has never had her nails manicured. It just never seemed practical because my fingers were always either planting in the dirt or tearing down furniture, which does nasty things to one’s nails if they aren’t trimmed tight. But I understand the appeal of color, design, glitter, shaping and polish. However, there is more to a manicure than the cosmetic finish.

"Okay, men. Listen up. Obviously, you don’t understand. If I want gossip, I can get all I want from you guys at morning coffee," I said. "It’s not about gossip. Style is nice but that is not the whole appeal. Think about this for a minute. I know this will be a stretch for you, but try to remember back to when you first began to date the girls. You pick her up in your Dad’s Ford Fairlane. You take her to the Grand Theatre, buy tickets to the John Wayne feature of the week, get a bucket of popcorn, two large cokes, and go sit in the middle of the back row. Remember that? The lights go down. You watch the newsreel, the cartoons, the previews. Finally the movie starts. You wait for just the right moment, after the popcorn is finished, probably when the hero is petting his horse, and you reach over and take her hand in yours. You hold her hand through the rest of the movie. Maybe you even get a goodnight kiss at the door at the end of the date. But the important thing, the thing she remembers for the rest of her life, is that you held her hand.

"No, don’t laugh. What I’m telling you is important. Women love to have their hands held. Men are different. Men are hunters. Once the game is bagged, they ignore it. Once you got married, you never held her hand again, did you? Why would you—now you own her, right? Now you turn your manly attention to other things, like the recliner and the remote. She still remembers when you used to hold her hands.

"So your women go have their nails done because for a half hour somebody is holding their hands and giving them undivided attention. Think about it."

"If I went home tonight and held Kim’s hand," said Dale, "She’d be suspicious I’d done something wrong, stopped at the casino or something."

"My wife would just say ‘I have a headache,’" offered another guy.

Poor Reese, he blushed. But he’d just as well know the real facts of life.

Coffee with the boys is okay. I learn valuable football skills. But tomorrow I’m going for a girly-girl manicure.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

August 15, 2013

Not in My Back Yard

Not in My Back Yard
I am a reasonably tolerant and lazy gardener. When an unsolicited seed shows up in my back yard, sprouts, shoots, flowers and flourishes, I’m open to letting it stick around. Unless the newcomer is a noxious weed.

My work-free gardening philosophy has evolved over time. My Washington home sat perched on the crest of a hill, surrounded by two acres of dips and doodles, ups and downs, populated by trees, berries, and shrubs galore. Natural landscaping was a breeze. I could spit a seed and grow a tree. I planted. It flourished. No fuss. No muss. No work. Year-round blooms and beauty.

Back to my roots: ‘Welcome to Harlem, Flat Spot of the Nation’. But, hey, here one can grow great sagebrush, spiny cactus and tumbleweeds. The first two years I battled the grass infested weeds. Finally I identified the most invasive pest—Russian thistle. I geared up with heavy leather gauntlets, armed myself with a digger tool, and marched off to battle. Thistle won the battle. In desperation I bought scorch-the-earth poison and a flamethrower and declared all out war. I won the war. For the last couple years, nary a Russian thistle is to be found.

Meanwhile, because I am lazy and cheap, maybe it was during my third year, I replaced the lawn with fifteen cubic yards of bark chips. And, because I am an artist and hungered for balance, I insisted on something vertical to offset the seeming acres of horizontal.

I envisioned trees and shrubs creating islands of vertical interest. I conducted scientific research. I drove around town to see what was still alive on the vacant lots. If it could live with benign neglect, that was my kind of bush.

Lilacs. Lots and lots of lilacs. Every hue of lilac. And apples and plums and choke cherries and June berries and sand cherries and raspberries and rhubarb and currants. I broke open the pottery of gumbo ground and plunged naked sticks with a straggle of bearded root deep into the earth. I only lost two sticks. Each year it gets better. Not only is Spring alive with the sound of lilacs but the fruits of my labor have yielded an orchard jungle.

For finishing touches to my rather four-square piece of property, I needed shapes, circles and amoebas and patches of paisley. What better than flowers! Zero maintenance flowers. Another scientific tootle around town convinced me to keep it simple with iris and tulips, peonies and day lilies, hollyhocks and sunflowers and babies’ breath. So I planted them in great batches of color.

This summer a colony of bachelor buttons popped up in a surprise appearance among the bark chips. Bachelor buttons, while not exotic, are fetching, especially when their little pink and blue and white heads bob and dance in the breeze. How did they get to this one little patch of yard? Not a clue. Never-the-less, come little bachelor buttons, be at home.

Sounds idyllic, does it not? But, oh, must there be a snake in every garden. This particular snake must have sneaked in two by two and immediately began breeding. The snake in my garden is not fauna but flora—Canada thistle. It wasn’t there in April. (I was gone.) I didn’t notice it in May. I was gone (again) in June. By July Canada thistle had grown into a robust weedy family with numerous cousins, twice removed, determined to take over every available inch of unoccupied territory and encroach on the occupied. Canada thistle is not nice. It bites and scratches and fights back.

My options are limited. It is too late for me to resort to poison. Every fruit and flower is flourishing. Apples burden branches to the ground. Berries hang in bursting heavy clusters like grapes. On rainy days I pull on my gloves, set my feet, rip and pluck thistles out of the ground. On dry days, I take my whicker-whacker and chop them down at the ankles. I lay their fallen bodies in mounds of mulch to rot and return to the earth.

Lazy or not, every day I tackle a portion of garden. Yesterday I cleared thistles out of the sand cherries. Today I liberated a plot of lilies. Tomorrow I will pursue the caustic weed in and out, over and under, around and through a stand of sunflowers and, if it isn’t raining, attempt to relocate the strawberry bed.

If I don’t get these buggers under control soon, if I can’t eradicate the Canada thistle by the end of August, I’m going on another trip and ignore it until the snow falls. Rumor is, early winter. Bring it on.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

August 8, 2013
The Mystical Weather Psychic Foretells Winter
It is a dire and dirty job but somebody has to do it. Every night for the last week thunder rumbled while lightning forks split the sky and sundered the earth. Every night, during the sky show while rain pelted the town, I paced the floor, single-handedly keeping town and my part of the world safe from fires and mayhem. The responsibility weighs heavily on my sleepy shoulders. I decided to come out of the closet and confess to my prescient gift. I’m a weather witch.

Really. Sure, my joints ache when it rains or snows or the wind blows. That’s normal. I can open the NOAA National Weather Service site and scan the radar. That’s easy. I can stand outside, sniff the wind, feel the raindrops on my skin and tell you it looks like a shower coming. That’s obvious.

No, I’m talking knowing ahead a year or more. I’m not sure when I first noticed I had the gift. It seems it was always there. I remember being with my Dad out in the field irrigating sugar beets and watching him scan the sky for clouds. That was a desperately dry year. Clouds formed on the horizon, moved to the center of the sky, split up and moved around us. Not that it mattered which direction they went. They clouds carried nary a drop of moisture. Nobody lost crops to hail that year. I could have told him.

Worse than the prediction gift, I can call down rain. The first time I recall consciously calling rain was many years ago while visiting friends in Oregon. The man of the family remarked that his newly planted blueberries had to have rain or they would die. We were eating dinner. I looked up at the bare blue sky and said, "Okay." An hour later rain began to fall. All afternoon it rained. It rained only on the eastern ten acres of his little farm, the acres planted with blueberries. True story.

One day this summer I didn’t want to set up the hose to water my lawn and flowers. Without much thinking it through I called down rain. I know that sounds trite. I apologize. I only meant it for that one day.

And I don’t take responsibility for every daily rainfall. Not all of them. Only that once did I lift my face to the empty sky and call in the clouds. Generally, I don’t mess with Mother Nature. Always she sends along unseen consequences.

Farmers tell me this year the windrows of hay roll up so high they choke the balers. The wheat fields ripening in the daily sunshine promise plump kernels big as berries to overflow the bins. Cattle in the field fatten to a fine fettle on the lush grasses. Town-folk mow their lawns twice weekly. Mosquitoes colonies flourish in every puddle, threatening to carry off puppies, cats and small children.

My pay-back from Ma Nature comes every night. She shakes me awake with the first far-off rumble of thunder, stumbles me out of bed to pace from window to window and keep watch over my town. Night after night.

When I gaze into my crystal ball, clouded by fog and murky with condensation, it shows winter blasting across the eastern plains come October. Already I feel winter’s cold breath lurking around the corner. Despite the fact that the hills, which should now be brown, are still green with grass, the grass heads golden ripe, the first of August feels like September.

Our summer rains will soon freeze to snow. Winds not gentle will force snow into every crevasse, will bury grasses beneath heavy crusty blankets of drifts. This will be a winter people talk about. So hold back some of that good hay, tempting as it is to sell every bale at the current top prices. Our cattle need to eat too. Winterize your rigs early. Dust off those snow tires. Get in extra supplies of wood and bread flour. This might be the year to order those new mukluks you’ve been eyeing. Lay in some candles and jigsaw puzzles. Winter will be a doozy.

We will make it through. We always do. Spring will follow. Some enterprising soul will sell shirts which proclaim "I survived the winter of ’13-’14". We’ll all buy one and put it on the shelf with the rest of the clothing we seldom wear.

Winter will come soon. I don’t cause it and I can’t control it. I just predict it.

Don’t look behind the curtain. Don’t look behind the curtain. Keep away from that curtain.

Me, I’m heading south with Toto.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 25, 2013


Harlem Class of ’63—Go, Pork Chop, Go!

Harlem Class of ’63—Go, Pork Chop, Go!
Our class was small (graduating only twenty-three) but we were tight. Whatever we set our collective mind to do, we did it up right. Year after year we had the best float in the Home-Coming Parade, the best skit at the Carnival, the most innovative dance theme. Best of all, we were pals. Then we graduated and scattered to the winds.

Back in ’05 while we were lined up for a class photo at the All-School Reunion, an every five-year event, Karen and Jesse suggested, "Why don’t we get together every year." Collective mind went into action and within a few minutes, the gang of us had determined to explore Montana while renewing friendships. We’ve gathered in such far-flung places as Virginia City, Ennis, Lincoln, Fort Peck and around the fire-pit in Sondra’s back yard in Harlem.

This year, destination Red Lodge. Thirteen classmates (along with family) arrived from California, Washington, Idaho, Utah and throughout Montana. For us that is a grand turnout. What pulled so many of us together this year? Other than to celebrate our Big 5-0, my theory is that it had to be the Pig Races at Bear Creek Downs.

So Sunday night we met at the Bear Creek Saloon for steak dinner and a hot time in the ol’ town. After our meal, we sauntered out to the deck to look over the prospects, snorting and rooting in the pen below. Then we placed out bets. We didn’t actually bet on our favorite jersey-clad porker. Betting is run more like a football pool with two dollar squares. Five squares are drawn at random, one for each pig in the race. If your number is matched with a pig and if that pig wins, you win twenty-five dollars. The final race pays out a whopping hundred dollars with a five dollar buy-in.

The bugle sounded the Call to the Post, we raced to the rail to support our steed, the gates opened and five pigs flew around the track with the red jersey edging out green across the finish line. We repeated this process several times that night. Most of us went back to our lodge a little lighter in the pockets. We did have at least one big-time winner. Jerry flashed his money in our faces but his wife Lola let slip how much money he spent to acquire his twenty-five dollar purse.

Race proceeds fund scholarships for local students, many of whom once worked Bear Creek Downs as sow-boys or sow-girls. By the way, the Saloon does not serve pork.

We checked in at the Rock Creek Resort Sunday and most of us were there through Wednesday morning. One thing we look for when choosing the gathering place is a common room where the entire group can gather, relax, cook meals, mill around and visit. Monday night the men fixed prime rib and Tuesday night the women hosted a sourdough pancake supper. The rest of the time we played pinochle, explored town and countryside, uninhibited tourists that we are, or hung out and told stories, some larger than life. More than one person said, "No, that’s not the way it happened. I remember it like this." Or, "You’re making that up—that did not even happen."

I have heard several people say they don’t see why we make such a big fuss over our reunion, after all, they’ve never been to one of their reunions and furthermore, don’t intend to go, ‘cause it’s just a bunch of la-de-da about who’s done more, better, best’. I find that sad. Our class is and was a group of diverse individuals who shared a common history through years of grade and high school. Those experiences act like glue; they stick us together on the same page, even if memories shift and get tattered around the edges. Kind of like an old Valentine.

At our 2010 All-School Reunion, a couple, both Harlem grads, from ’61 and ’65, hung out with us all weekend and finally asked if we’d adopt them into our class, saying, "You have more fun." They were probably supposed to be in our class anyway and got mixed up along the way. We don’t have the exact same history, but close enough. And if we need to, we’ll make it up. We have a lot of story-tellers. And they are right. We do have more fun. Who else would make the pig races a destination?

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 18, 2013

How I came to Own Half a Car in Mexico

How I came to Own Half a Car in Mexico
Recently I spent two weeks in Puerto Penasco, state of Sonora, northern Mexico, in a neighborhood which reminded me of Harlem when I was growing up, dirt streets and all. My friend Lupe had gone there from Mazatlan to work for a few weeks. Business was slow in Mazatlan but hopping in Penasco, so his company said. They would provide transportation north and an apartment. He invited me to visit him and see more of Mexico.

Lupe arrived in Penasco three days before me. His "apartment" was a 10’ by 10’ room with blue walls, one of six in a row, on the backside of the landlady’s property. "That’s okay," I said. "I’m coming to visit you, not an apartment." Meanwhile he asked a buddy if he could borrow a car to show me around. No, but he had one for sale. Being mechanically inclined, Lupe looked it over and handed his friend 5,000 pesos for a Dodge Grand Caravan. He could sell it when he returned to Mazatlan. Aw, shucks, this sweet man bought a car for me.

The car sat in a locked compound in Sonoyita, a border town an hour north of Penasco. Lupe knew he had two days work to get the car ready to drive. He could take the shuttle after work to change oil, pump tires, charge the battery, all those things he could do himself. For nine frustrating days, Lupe was unable to reach the compound owner so he could get our car. We walked everywhere. We walked a lot.

Finally Lupe got the car and took time off, grabbed tools and took the early shuttle to Sonoyita. He drove the car home, pleased with his purchase. Then we went to the government office in Penasco to start the paperwork.

We had no idea how our last three days together would be spent. Since the car was going to live in Mazatlan in Sinaloa, it would have to be registered nationally, rather than just in Sonora. Registration had to take place at one of the border towns. It has something to do with convoluted (my word) import laws. For $60.00 US the government agent at the office told Lupe that it took three days in Sonoyita but could be done in three hours if we went to San Luis Rio Colorado. Oh, and one had to pay in US Dollars. $900.00. Which neither of us had in our pockets.

But, I had my credit cards. The nice man at American Express had told me once that if I were ever stranded anywhere, all I had to do was call for help. Any bank would give me the money. We spent the remainder of that day going to banks. No, to American Express. No, to Visa. Any bank but not in Mexico.

We decided to go anyway, a day trip. We got up early and crossed the desert to San Luis Rio Colorado. First we went to the office that handled the registrations. Then, thinking it might work closer to the border, we tried to get money at four banks, to no avail. But, wait. All I had to do was walk across the border, find a bank, and walk back. The last thing I said was, "I hope my cell phone doesn’t quit when I cross the border."

I crossed the border, walked about six blocks to a bank, exited in two minutes with a fistful of US Dollars. I crossed back into Mexico. No Lupe. The rule is, when lost, which I figured must apply here, stay put. Which I did. I turned into a large grease spot on the concrete, in the 118 degree sun, texting furiously. Meanwhile, Lupe was waiting two blocks away, where he had been told I would exit, wondering why I wouldn’t answer his texts.

After an hour, I hailed a cab, "Take me to the Cathedral." It seemed logical to me. It was a place I knew. I sat a few minutes on a bench in the town square. Then I recognized the cafĂ© where we’d had breakfast. Our car was parked across the street. To the left was the office with the paperwork. I found the office, asked the girl to call Lupe and downed two liters of water. I was hot. Take that any way you want.

We hung around the office until closing. "Manana," they said. We had the clothes on our backs. We began hunting a hotel. The first was cheap but awful. The second, gated, guarded and expensive, worse than the first. Like in the fairy-tale, the third was just right. I wanted to move in. We bought tooth brushes. Next day, "manana" again. I missed my flight home. The second night I scrubbed our sweaty clothing at the little sink. We talked a lot. We laughed a lot. Third day, it always takes three days when one is stuck in a fairy-tale, we drove back to Penasco in our new car, registered, legal and oh, so broke.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 11, 2013