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

The Potato Plant and Ms. Potato Head

The Potato Plant and Ms. Potato Head
            A potato plant, healthy, hearty and hale, about sixteen inches high, has shot up through a break in the sidewalk on the inland side of Avenue Cameron Sabalo. I spotted it when I walked to the lavanderia to pick up my laundry. Actually, I stopped and ogled this surprise of greenery. Who would expect a potato plant in the sidewalk!

            Potatoes are one of your basic volunteers: “Choose me, choose me, I’ll grow anywhere.” I’ve seen potatoes pop up in the compost pile, in the alley after a neighbor’s dog had knocked over the can and scattered peels hither and yon, in the current year’s squash which I had planted in the plot where last year’s Yukon Gold had been buried.

All one requires to grow a spud is a scrap of peel with an eye. This particular potato is situated off the left corner of Nancha’s Rincon, an eatery which also happens to be home to a voluble parrot who perches and squawks among the exotic flowers. On pick-up days, trash cans are wheeled out and plastic bags of food debris are plunked down, just to the right of the unlikely potato. I’d like to think Jose Q, the parrot, saw an opportunity and planted a spud.

            But a city sidewalk? Cameron Sabalo, one of the busiest streets in Mazatlan, juggles tourists, surfers, beach vendors and a host of local workers. When it rains, this street floods. Buses spew diesel exhaust with constant regularity. Yet, it grows, one potato plant. Bullies pick wings off flies, torment cats, torture their little sisters, but nobody has stomped on this lowly, lonely potato plant.

            Okay, the next strange thing, not a bit related to the potato plant in the sidewalk, is every bit as weird. It’s my head. Not inside my head but the outside of my head. It is a two-part problem, actually.

October in Montana means autumn, cool, refreshing. In Mazatlan the summer heat and humidity begin to abate. Actually, it is more a promise of abatement. It’s still summer and that means I sweat a lot. With no activity on my part, my upper lip is sweetly dewy. When I go for a walk, mop the floor, or cook a meal, I am drenched, soaked in un-lady-like sweat. Some days my hair never dries.
Two of my babies were tiny during the hot months. That meant their little heads were always damp. That meant each of my girls had a covering of cradle cap beneath their hair. Guess what—adults get cradle cap too.   

            I could deal with cradle cap if my hair was not falling out by the handful. Seriously. I pay attention to my hair. Mostly with a scowl. I always wanted pretty, curly, thick coarsely-stranded, easily managed hair. Want doesn’t mean get. My hair is baby fine, straight as a stick. It does what it wants—lies against my head as if it were painted there. The bane of my existence.

            When I was seven, my classmate Joann had a full lush head of strawberry blond waves that flipped at her shoulders. Cousin Sharon had dark Shirley Temple ringlets to her waist.  I had a Dutch Girl cap; a bowl-cut of fine hair that clung to my scalp. I hated them, my two best friends.

After a month in dry-as-dust Montana plus three weeks in unusually drought-stricken Washington, I noticed the usual predictable effects. My nails turned brittle. My skin flaked off in sheets. And my hair began falling out, more than usual. If you want to locate me, follow the trail of hair.

            Losing gobs of hair worries me. I don’t want to be bald. I consulted that oracle, he who knows all, the internet. I learned that sometimes, as much as six months after a trauma such as surgery, a person might suffer hair loss. Right on time, I am. Oh, joy. Now I’ll be a bald old woman with cradle cap.

Surely, if a potato can grow in the middle of a busy sidewalk, surely, bear with me, please, I should be able to grow hair on my busy head. Meanwhile, call me Ms. Potato Head, scaly peels and all.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

October 1, 2015

When The Car Breaks Down And Other Fears

When The Car Breaks Down And Other Fears
            Few things bring fear or dread into my life. When my car breaks down, I admit to approaching a state of near panic. This is mostly imaginary. When I was twenty-three, a truck plowed into the side of my pick-up while I was driving east of Highway US 2. I went into shock. I nearly lost my life. I have absolutely no memory of fear.

            And in actuality I cannot bring up one instance of car trouble, in which I didn’t know help was nearby or AAA would gallop to my rescue. My car problems were minor. My fears, unfounded, stem from ignorance. Motors are a mystery to me. I always had a mechanic willing to treat my car like a husband would; he didn’t want me to break down on lonely Montana roads.

            I admit I have never experienced a major catastrophe. My life, like yours, has had its share of sadness, deaths, and worries. In equal measure I’ve known joy and contentment and beauty.

            However, when my mouth breaks down, I panic, real fear; I bury my head in the sand, clamp my jaws, avoid seeking help. About three months ago, while eating a frozen Snicker’s candy, I felt the crown lift off my back left molar.

For me, a major catastrophe. I make my own private Hell.

Without even brushing my teeth I walked ten blocks to Dr. Paty’s office. She glued the crown back, patted my hand, and tricked me into making an appointment for an exam and cleaning after my holiday in the States. That wasn’t so bad, was it? 

A month later, at the Miner’s Bar and Grill in Zortman, while chomping a cheeseburger, I bit down on something hard. I was with friends so I unobtrusively extracted the chip from my mouth. Looked like a sliver of bone. Or piece of tooth. Who can tell the difference? With a shrug, I finished my burger.

Mind you, I’m putting this story together in retrospect. This is my best guess. At the back of my newly glued capped tooth, my tongue found a ragged edge. Without consulting me, it did what tongues naturally do. It spent a portion of each day examining that rough place, prodding, playing and poking, questioning. I could not make my unruly tongue behave.

I knew. In my un-psychic heart of hearts, I knew. Somehow a piece of my tooth had broken, had worked its way through or under the crown, the only gold I own, and emerged in my cheeseburger. Even I know gold is a soft metal. I would have to see my dentist.

Saturday, my third day back in Mazatlan, while mopping my floors, without the aid of Snicker’s, my gold crown loosened. Simply floated off my molar. My tongue immediately mined around the unprotected surface. I felt definite evidence of a missing chip, about the size of Mammoth Cave.

Monday morning, filled with fear and trembling, I leaned back in the chair in Dr. Paty’s office and opened my mouth. Yes, she told me. A tiny chip had broken off. And my crown had a miniscule hole toward that back edge. I don’t grind my teeth, except metaphorically. I clench my jaws. I knew what caused the hole and the chip.

The minute Dr. Paty inserted the needle into my topically numbed mouth, my jaw began trembling. Uncontrollably. While waiting for my jaw to go numb, she asked me about my first dentist. I blanched. My eyes grew large with memory. “It was horrible. He was mean. He jabbed me and drilled immediately. When I told him I wasn’t numb, he said, yes, you are, shut up and sit still and continued drilling. When I jumped from pain, he smacked me.”

Dr. Paty patted my shoulder. “I thought so. The mind lets the experience go but the body never does.” In my book, this woman is golden. She understands.

While Dr. Paty worked slowly, giving me rest stops between each short grind, I made a startling discovery. If I keep breathing, my jaw doesn’t tremble so much.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Since that first fiasco, I’ve had some great dentists, excellent dental care. Doesn’t matter. I’m still afraid.

In ten days I’ll return for my new crown. My jaw will tremble. My eyes will water. I’ll be afraid. Hopefully I’ll breathe. I’ll be okay.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 24, 2015

When You Want To Go And You Want To Stay

When You Want To Go And You Want To Stay
            When you want to go and you want to stay and your mind is in a muddle with more questions than answers—that’s me—I do what’s next on the list. That’s one answer I give myself. Oh, I have an entire warehouse of questions with multitudinous solutions.

Today I leave the other possibilities packed away on the shelf. Each “possible” thinks it is important and has a nasty habit of popping out to entertain me in the middle of the night. Oh, bother.

            But my plane ticket is purchased. Nothing must be decided or solved today. Time will iron out a good portion of my questions and quandaries. So I’ll fly off into the wild blue yonder to come to earth in rainy, humid Mazatlan, there to stay for the winter.

            I wanted more time in Montana. I whizzed through Havre when I yearned for a week. My visits in Harlem and Glendive were much too short. I’ve a list of people I didn’t get to see. Ditto for friends in Washington.

            Not only that, I found myself yearning to return to Montana. In a flurry of activity I collected applications to senior housing in several cities. My actions generated energy in other directions. Out of the blue, not knowing my thoughts, a family member invited me to share an apartment in her home. Two days later a friend invited me to share space in her house. Both situations appeal to me for different reasons.

Or, I could stay in my apartment in Mazatlan, where it’s always “summertime, and the living is easy. Fish are jumping and the cotton is high.”  Public transportation eliminates a need for an automobile. I live two blocks from the beach. Oh, what is a poor woman to do? See what I mean?

That’s the upside. The downside is that I am very much alone, decidedly alone, unmitigatedly alone. Missing family and friends is what plunged me into this swamp of decisions in the first place.

On the other hand, now that I don’t have to deal with pain, surgery and recovery, I could volunteer to hand out programs at Angela Pealtra Teatro. Or volunteer to read books to children (in English) at la biblioteca.

I could fly to the States more often. I have options. I don’t live in a cocoon.

Whatever I do, I’m sure to find adventure. For example, one of my last days in Washington, my friend Vidya and I took a cruise on a Washington State Ferry over the Straits to Coupeville.

The two of us plus my two fully-packed suitcases struggled to get through the turnstile for walk-on passengers.  Vidya finally turned her ticket the proper direction so the reader on the screen flashed green to let her pass through to the other side. We wiggled and jiggled and squiggled one suitcase in an attempt to get it through the skinny turnstile. Finally we lay it down and scooted it beneath the barriers. Slick. Ditto with second suitcase.

That left me standing outside while Vidya with all my baggage looked back from inside. Try as I might I could not get my ticket to let me pass through the turnstile. In fact, it gave me an ugly “honk” of rejection.

Finally I raised my arm and waved at her. “By, Vidya. Have a good flight. My passport and ticket are in the turquoise bag. You’ll find a bundle of pesos in the same pocket. Once you get through customs, take a cab to my apartment. Say ‘hello’ to my friends. Good-by.”

Eventually an employee of the ferry system arrived and unlocked a gate to let me through. Vidya reluctantly returned my ticket and passport.

In typical fashion, once we boarded the ferry, we stood in the elevator a full five minutes chatting before we remembered to press the button to take us to the passenger deck, a common elevator occurrence with me and my friends.

Today, without further mishap, I’m on my way home. Family and friends have filled me with good food, memories and love. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Where are my pesos? Did Vidya give me back my bundle of pesos? I need my pesos.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 17, 2015   

Tilting at the Fearsome Dragon

                        Tilting at the Fearsome Dragon
            How do I talk about something about which I don’t even want to think? Give me a good strong dose of denial. Cover my eyes with a blindfold. Bury my head in the sand.

            This summer I’ve had a good dose of talking with friends about what to do next, about down-sizing a life, about disease and death. Two of my friends lost their husbands. Two more are suffering the downward spiral of Alzheimer’s. One friend is struggling to maintain by herself a life she loves which feeds her passion for massive gardening. One couple made a leap from a home in the wilds to an apartment in a city. Another couple bought a travel trailer to see if they might enjoy the touring life. Another couple are waiting for their house to sell, then retirement and world travel.

            We all have unanswerable questions. I have already downsized. For me the wake-up call rang when I underwent surgery for a hip replacement and spent the following several months working hard in recovery and completely alone. I’m used to being alone. I treasure my solitude.

Daily, friends, people who cared about me, knocked on my door to see if I needed anything to just to say hello.  I doubt it would have made a tidbit of difference whether I lived in Mazatlan or in Havre or in Omak, Washington. Despite my general contentment, my perception of “alone” changed or expanded or shoved me against a wall.  

Like I said, I’d rather do anything to avoid digging into the depths of my fears.

When I flew into Montana this summer, perhaps the only thing I knew for certain was that I needed a strong prescription of friends and family. My people are more important than anything. I crammed friends, cousins, daughters, and grand-children into a much too short time period. I would take another month or two to see everyone I wanted (needed?) to see. Poor planning on my part.

It’s not physical distance that makes me feel this way. We all know that if we lived next door to one another, we might not see each other any more than we do when I make the trips back and forth.

Fear motivates me to strange actions. I crossed Montana picking up applications for senior housing.  “Covering my bases,” I tell my friends. “Just covering my bases.” Jason, my Washington daughter’s significant partner, tells me I should check out senior housing in Puerto Rico. Why not? It’s a viable thought.

Worst possible scenario: living under the bridge in a refrigerator box with stolen grocery cart for a storage unit. My children think I’m nuts when I talk this way. Best possible scenario: I win a gazillion dollar lottery and sail a yacht into the sunset with crew of, uh, never mind. Oops—I didn’t buy a lottery ticket! I never win so why buy tickets. If I bought enough tickets I might sooner end up living under the bridge in a refrigerator box with grocery cart.

Realistically, I’m nowhere near ready to move into a one-room living situation. My children tell me, “You are too vital!” That makes me feel good. Yet, age and physical disabilities has forced me to examine life through another lens, cloudy and smudged though it be. Add poverty, given the world financial situation, to this picture. So what is my fear? Is it fear of the unknown?

When I was young and strong and invincible, fears never intruded. I’d tackle any dragon without a thought. Unfortunately. When the dragon won the fight, I laughed and dusted myself and headed down the road looking for the next dragon.

The very thought of past dragons today makes me slightly sick to my stomach. If I stay out of my head, I’m okay. Almost daily I tackle unknown situations, though admittedly not dangerous ones, with nary a twinge. I prefer my dragons tamed and named.

What I know for certain is that life is full of surprises. I have no idea what today might bring, let alone tomorrow. The elusive future forecast (my crystal ball is cracked and chipped) is for paths lined with pussy cats and the occasional dragon. Looks like my fear of the day can be summed up in terms of alone, helpless and broke. I’m naming my dragon Melvin. I can live with that.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 10, 2015

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
            I love my Montana home, which, along with Washington, Idaho and our neighbors north and south, is burning. Love is, indeed, blind. If we have any sensibilities at all, our hearts are on fire. Our beautiful state is in flames. And The Platters said it all. When your heart’s on fire smoke gets in your eyes.      
            The air is full of ugly particulates. The horizon has disappeared. Our view is dull, our “Little Sky” hovers, brown and gritty. Looks like a blizzard could blow in any minute. But wait! Step outdoors. What a shock to feel summer heat. “Tears I cannot hide. Smoke gets in your eyes.” It is depressing.

            My weepy eyes are swollen almost shut with “carry-on-size” bags. My nose runs intermittently. My throat is dry and scratchy. I have sneezing marathons daily and I’m considering applying to the Guiness World Record Book. My sneezles will be famous. I peek at you sitting across the table. Sorry, but you look as miserable as me.

            Health gurus recommend we stay indoors with the air conditioner and air filter chugging full blast. Air conditioners suck all the moisture out of the air. So add double dry skin, the texture of rough-out saddle leather, to my list of physical woes. I could peel my face and make a handbag. Yes, indeedy, I am whining.

            Even more depressing, the smoky air has cooked my brain to a consistency between smoked salmon and elk jerky. One month, only one month of constant exposure to smoke, and my brain has withered and dried. One month and my brain is smoked.

            Never would I make fun of tragedy. Think of our firefighters, battling blazes all summer. The fires raging across the western states are real. Destruction is real. People are displaced, homes destroyed, animal habitat decimated. Entire regions of forest and grasslands destroyed.

            For those of us out of the path of destruction, we don’t know the short term/long term effects of breathing smoke day after day. It does my heart good to hear that strenuous activity such as football practices at area high schools are cancelled or curtailed. Despite the “fact” that we were invincible when we were young, we need to protect the health of our young people.

            The last few days I have been the guest of my high school buddy, Karen, at Floweree. You’ve seen the signpost just past Carter on the road to Great Falls and wondered what in the world was at the end of that gravel road. Now you know. Last house on the right.

            Generally when we get together, Karen and I are sharp, witty. Repartee bounces back and forth like a ping-pong ball on the table. Not this visit. Wit is noticeably lacking. Thought processes pour from our wizened brains like proverbial molasses in January. Our minds generally grind out what we want but slow and somewhat unsteadily.

            At times we stare at one another with fear. Is this the short course to dementia? Fear is real. Eventually our errant thought, hers or mine, lands with a plop and we sigh with relief.

            Which reminds me, we each handle our inability to suck in enough oxygen differently. Karen tends to take short, frequent breaths. I sigh. I sigh heavily and deeply; I sigh a lot.

            Then came the winds and a reprieve, relief, however short. Karen and I drove into Fort Benton for lunch at the Wake Cup Coffee House. On the way home the wind whistled through Karen’s not-quite-shut car door. Sounded like a Montana blizzard in January. My brain shifted into gear. “Funny how our physical senses are inter-connected. If we shut our eyes, Karen, listen to the wind, we could freeze to death.”

            On a daily basis I view most things from a tilted, quirky point of view. But I think I generally have a pretty good head on my shoulders. In my opinion. Until this past month, when the fires have smoked my brain. Dis-function, malfunction, non-function, scrambled smoked brain! While my love for Montana is blind and smoke gets in my eyes, smoke also makes me stupid. I’m flying to Seattle. Brains and eggs for breakfast?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 3, 2015