Monday, June 4, 2012

The Plastification of My Life and Other Woes

The Plastification of My Life and Other Woes     
It seemed that everything happened at once. For one thing the armrest fell off the driver’s side door of my aging van (my only vehicle, except for a dilapidated broom that I am grooming to take its place). The armrest is a pitiful specimen of plastification. It was held in place with three plastic pins, which sheared off flush, plus two plastic screws. The plastic washer/spacers had disintegrated into a tiny pile of rubble with a half life equal to that of nuclear waste. I can get along without an armrest except that it is the thing with the gripper which one grabs to close the door.
This inconvenience is not the end of the world. It is a mere armrest on a ’97 van. Try to find a replacement; just try. I think I’ll glom the whole thing back together with epoxy glue so I can close my door without cutting my fingers on the knifelike piece of metal exposed when the armrest fell off.

Then I lost my keys. No big deal. I keep a spare. But it was my favorite set. A bright red bottle opener dangled from the key ring. It made the keys hard to lose. I never used the opener. I just liked it. I looked high and low, in, up, and under. I checked the refrigerator, the cat’s dish and the tea kettle.

I wanted a duplicate set in case of catastrophe. That sent me scurrying into a hardware store. While the keys were being ground, I picked up tubes of epoxy glue for the DIY job on the arm rest. Then I remembered that the ice maker on my refrigerator had quit dispensing. All the parts of the ice maker are either electronic or plastic. Fixing the ice maker equates to replacing the refrigerator. I had a better idea. Before the days of automatic ice, O Best Beloved, we survived with ice trays. So I searched the shelves and purchased a set of two ice trays, plastic, of course, plastic being the only option.

Earlier that same morning I had called an appliance repairman to talk about my washer. It had begun to sound like a John Deere threshing machine and had started to walk around the laundry.  I figured a bearing was going. My washer is a mere six years old. I thought they lasted twenty or thirty years. (Insert laughter here.) Mr. Repair asked me a couple questions and said yes, indeedy, my bearings were shot and to expect leaking next. For a moment I thought he was talking about me. He informed me that the bearing, plastic, of course, is an integral part of the transmission. In other words, buy a new washer.

Meanwhile, back at the hardware store, tucked out of sight, was an appliance section. I wandered about, peered into top loaders and front loaders. I fondled the price tags. I blanched.  As long as I am in Havre, I thought, I’ll check around and make comparisons. I picked up my purchases and started from store to store.

If ever you find yourself in need of a good dose of depression, I highly recommend shopping for a major appliance. The more I looked, the more I learned, the more I despaired. I suspect all washing machines are cranked out of one factory in Lower Slobbovia. A huge vat of liquid plastic is poured into a funnel which sends it through a series of molds and presses and arms and relays and tubes and conveyers with all kinds of thuds and squeaks, eventually making its way through the Rube Goldberg process and out the other end, where it is stamped with a manufacturer’s name, falls off the edge into a box and from there onto a truck to the store near you, all at a price you cannot afford.

And the machine itself is only the beginning of the expense. It needs hoses, sold separately.  As is the soap. That is, the special soap without which the sensitive machine will self-destruct in mere seconds. It’s true. The salesman told me so. Add to that munificent sum the delivery fee and the installation fee, unless you are strong enough to lug it home yourself.

What is a woman to do? Our grandmothers, several generations back, might have gone to the river and slammed their wash onto the rocks to get them clean. Given the turbidity of the Milk River, I must pass over that option. Besides, most of the year, it is frozen.    

But, voila! I can still buy an old fashioned wash board, made of corrugated metal with a wooden frame. No plastic parts to fall apart. Please save your bacon grease for me so I can cook up a batch of lye soap.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 7, 2012

Still Life with Poppies, Sally Ann and the Twilight Zone                        
The Salvation Army Thrift Shop can be a treasure trove, depending on what you are looking for and how badly you need it. I am a card-carrying thrift-store junkie from way back. When I have time I like to poke in at the Sally Ann and browse. Usually I am looking for nothing in particular, but now and then I have a specific item on my list. I take my time. Most treasure is hidden, the map is lost, and you have to dig. Often I search for a discard that can be transformed into an art piece. Last week I went in looking for a low table that I could convert into a garden bench.

I wandered the aisles and picked up four canning jars, walked through the furniture and found a 1940’s chair which winked at me with possibilities. I gave it several minutes of contemplation.  Then I girded my courage and turned my back on temptation. As I swung around, a flash of brilliant color at the front of the store caught my eye. I stopped in my tracks. My jaw dropped.  My eyes expanded to the size of saucers. It couldn’t be. It had to be. I shook my head to clear my brain. It looks like it is. How could it get here? In a daze, I walked to the front of the store to check it out up close. There couldn’t be another like it in all the world. I did not trust my own sight. I checked the signature. It sure was. How did we both get here, in this store, at the same time?

“That’s my painting,” I said aloud.

“What do you mean?” asked BJ, the clerk standing at the counter.

“That’s mine. I did that. It’s the first oil I ever painted. I gave it away, years ago, in Washington.  But how did it get here? How did it get to Havre, Montana?”

"Oh, you’ve got to have it,” replied BJ as I lifted my old painting from the shelf.

 “Of course. How much will it cost to get it back?”

 “Nothing. It’s yours. Take it,” she said.

I thanked her, still stunned that my picture and I should meet in this odd manner. I painted this oil on masonite back in 1988 or ’89 in Poulsbo, Washington.  For several months I took lessons from Julanne Campbell. I enjoyed the lessons. Life got complicated. I dropped out of class and painted only now and then. An acquaintance who liked my painting offered to buy it. I told her I couldn’t possibly sell it but would give it to her. 

The picture is an arrangement of poppies in a silver pitcher. One of my flowers looks smudged. The ceramic jug in the background is disproportionate. The yellow tea pot in the foreground has an awfully long spout. In real life I’m sure the apples were closer together. A curtain hung in the back left corner. My drape looks more like purple black bruise. Otherwise, it is . . . it is . . . well, it is my first painting.

I had to tell someone my bizarre story of how my old painting and I converged at the Sally Ann. So I walked over to the Atrium and upstairs to the frame shop to see Kris Shaw. “A lot of artists meet their work at the Sally Ann,” said Kris. “Sometimes their feelings are hurt. But when we give or sell anything, we don’t know what path it might take. People change their tastes and their surroundings. They come and they go.”

“I wish I could know how it got to Havre. It’s weird that I walked in and found it. I don’t mind that somebody gave it up. After all, it’s not very good. About the best thing I can say about my “Still Life with Poppies” is that it is colorful.”

“It is probably not that bad,” said Kris.

“I can point out every flaw,” I answered.  “But I’m happy to have it back.”

My poppies now hang in an inconspicuous spot in my shop. From time to time I look at the painting and cringe at my inexperience. I have even thought about touching it up. I won’t. It wouldn’t be the same. Most people won’t even notice it. And if they do, they will probably think, “What a colorful picture.”

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

May 31, 2012

Carpe Diem and full speed ahead

Carpe Diem and full speed ahead
I was half listening to my radio. The woman’s voice said something like this: “I’m retired. Retirement isn’t the end. Retirement is another phase. I worked hard all my life. Now I can live.”
“Whoa,” I responded. “I’ve worked hard all my life too, but it would be a crying shame if I had to wait for retirement before I could live. What’s that supposed to mean?”

The past few days, every time I turn around, a reminder to live fully has popped up smack in my face. I suppose we all have a different definition of “living fully”. To me, it doesn’t mean life is all fun and games. We each experience a measure of pain and sorrow. For myself, I want to be aware of every moment, no matter what.
This week in the obituaries I read that a friend from thirty-one years ago had died. Ed was eighty-one. I know that he lived a good full life. Until I met Ed, I was a rowboat who’d lost her oars, battered about in a stormy ocean. Ed dragged me onto shore and kindly kick-started me onto on a different path. He was one of several friends who taught me practical rules for life.  I regret that I didn’t keep in touch with him. I often remember Ed with gratitude.

I was talking with a friend, both of us without a sweet anchor. We agreed that we are incurable romantics who somehow had hooked up with people who tried to erase us. I told him that, in my opinion, most of the men I meet now are already dead. They just forgot to quit breathing. They want a partner to sit with them on the barstools of life and watch the world go by, preferably on Fox. I want a different channel. I want to trek along the uncharted cow path, even if it ends in a gopher hole.

“That’s kind of how I felt last winter,” said Steve, a friend from Washington, here helping me with a couple projects that require man power. “I was sitting in my recliner with a beer in my hand. I wondered what had happened. Theresa was seriously ill and I couldn’t leave her. But I wasn’t doing anything. That man in the chair didn’t feel like he was really me.” The good news is that Theresa is better and sounds like her old bubbly self. Steve is out of his chair and active. That intermission in life might have been necessary but it was not comfortable for either of them.

After a meeting later that night Linda told me about a conversation with Bev. Bev told her, “I plan to go to Mexico with Sondra next year.”  “You can’t do that,” Linda said. “You can’t go to Mexico with Sondra. That woman is crazy. She goes all over the country by herself. She isn’t scared of anything. Sondra, you are braver than I am.” 

“I doubt that. Look, Linda, I’ve been alone a long time. I figured out that I had choices. I could sit home by myself and slowly die or I could get out there and do things. At first it was hard to pry myself out the door. Even today it is not always easy. I’d rather do things with someone else. But if I have to go alone, I go. I might not always have a good time, but at least I have an interesting time.”

“When you explain it, it makes sense, but I couldn’t do it.”

 “Linda, if something happened to Duane, you would be surprised at what you can do.” The truth is that Linda is a strong and courageous woman.
The next day Dick phoned to see if I was back home. I told him about the radio ad that triggered this whole line of thought. “I’m glad I didn’t hear that woman years ago,” he said. “I just might have climbed right down into the grave and told them to shovel on the dirt.”

I had to laugh. Dick is my hero, a man who frequently steps outside his comfort zone, a man who many years ago learned to live each day to the utmost.  
That same night Steve and I watched a silly feel-good movie, about two crazy old coots living adventures, encountering African lions and lost treasures in exotic lands, fighting Arabian sheiks and rescuing kidnapped princesses. I think the movie was telling us to believe in ourselves, to get out and do it, crazy or not, scared or not, true or not.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 24, 2012

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Like a pig at the trough

Like a pig at the trough
My friend Kathy invited me to be her guest at her swank condo on the beach in Mexico. I would even fly on her companion ticket. The whole trip would hardly cost anything. I said the only thing I could say—YES!
Yet, as the day to leave approached, I felt strangely ambivalent. I wanted to go and I wanted to stay.
I could imagine how the breeze wafting off the ocean would smell as I climbed down the ramp of the airplane onto the tarmac. Hugs from Carmen and Ana would await our arrival, warm greetings from Rui and Susanna. As soon as we could shuck our clothes and tug on swimwear, Kathy and I would hit the beach. I could close my eyes and almost feel my toes sink into the warm sands of Mazatlan. I packed my bags a month ahead.
Remember back in the day when the thick Sears catalog arrived in the mail? Our mailbox was a mile down our country lane. I would walk back to the house slowly, thumbing through the pages that interested me most, toys, bicycles, and clothing. As I got older I used that time alone to surreptitiously study women’s underwear. I wondered if I should ever get to wear such mysterious garments. A few years later I graduated to memorizing pages showing young male models. They looked so debonair compared to our local louts. The catalog spread a cornucopia of delights. It little mattered to me that the only things I ever ordered were new shoes and school clothing. Every page was mine.

Most times my life is like that Sears catalog. Every day I have pages of delectable activities from which to choose. But here’s where my simile falls apart. Unlike the catalog orders which arrived promptly, my life is a bit sloppy. Sometimes items arrive that I didn’t order. Other times the order is damaged in shipping. Most days bring me bits of happiness spiced with bits of sadness. What is life if we don’t laugh a little and cry a little. Oh, so many choices.

Despite my packed bags, I felt blue about all the events I was going to miss.

Along with Anne and Ralph Schneider who teach music at the North Harlem Colony, I had been helping with a portion of the graduation and the Mother’s Day presentations.  We worked with Adrian and Royce, the two graduating boys, on a series of musical numbers.  I was excited to see the growth and the talent of these two young men and was proud to do my part. I would miss both celebrations.

Then there was the first swimming pool fundraiser, a dinner and auction at the VFW Club, and I felt torn to miss that important event. (By the way, I heard the group has garnered over $15,000 dollars to date. In little Harlem, this is momentous.)

Every May for the last several years I have gone to Billings for the annual MMIA training for elected officials. Not only is the trip fun, but I have always come back with useful information to help me in my civic duties. I look forward to greeting friends from all over the state, to meet new people, to share ideas, experiences and frustrations. Ah, next year.

Along with everything else, I had arranged to host the Missoula Children’s Theater directors in my home. They drove in as I drove out so I handed over the keys. I missed getting to know a team of dynamic young women. I missed our Harlem kids play “The Tortoise and the Hare”.

On the morning I left, I walked around my garden to check the progress of the budding tulips, the leaves popping on my chokecherries, the rhubarb already up and running, the iris and lilacs, the herb garden, hollyhocks, and everything else I knew was going to explode into full growth the minute I turned my back and headed for Mexico. I wanted to be here to celebrate every baby sprig and green of spring.

Now I’ve gone and come back home again. My cat greeted me with purrs and refuses to leave my side.  The garden is beautiful. Lilacs are blooming. Raspberries show promise of a good crop. I breathe deeply and smell Montana.

Already I miss sleeping to the sound of surf. But in Mexico I got a jump start on my farmer tan, ate sea creatures every day and added to my burgeoning vocabulary of mangled Spanglish. 

Self knowledge is a good thing. What I’ve learned is that I am a pig. I want it all. I want the truffles in the forest and the hog slop in the trough.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
May 17, 2012