Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Take Off Your Bib, Put on Your Apron

Today's a cooking day. Right now there is a pork loin having a sauna in my oven, surrounded by apples and onions flavored with cinnamon, sugar and a cup of apple juice (only because cider is hard to come by today). Topping it off is a good dose of minced garlic across the top of the pork.

This one isn't for me. It will accompany green beans cooked with bacon, a salad, biscuits and a cherry crunch dessert. Sometime in the next hour to hour and a half the whole dinner will be packaged up and driven to a family from my church.

My prayer today, as I cook, is that it will bring them some of the comfort I wish for them. Both husband and wife are about my age. Both have had severe medical problems in the past couple of years -- she with multiple orthopedic surgeries, he with cancer.

To top it off, their elder son joined the Marines and is set to be deployed shortly to Iraq. As a church, we surrounded him with prayer, hugs and tears a few weeks ago before he headed back to Camp Pendleton to await his unit's orders to ship out.

Their younger son is still at home, trying to live the life of a normal high school boy.

There are plenty of people in the church who have been helping them during the hardest days. At one point, they were crossing paths at the hospital door. It was a time when the one person each was most dependent on was unable to support the other spouse.

It's been a little while since the darkest days, but things still are not easy. Every day is filled with the overwhelming fear a family feels for a young man going to war. Every day is filled with reminders of their own pain and sickness. They may be functioning a little better, but they are not well.

There's still a schedule of people who are volunteering to bring them meals -- their Sunday school class and other groups are excellent at organizing support.

She has resumed her teaching assignment this semester, which puts even greater physical demand on her. I can't imagine how tired she is at the end of the day. But she always manages to keep a smile on her face and to be grateful for the good things in her life. It's amazing to see it.

So I'm not putting on my apron tonight to do a "good deed." It's quite a selfish thing I'm doing, actually. I'm hoping I get to see that smile, if only for a moment.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Pleasant afternoon

I turned off the alarm this morning and just let myself sleep until I woke up naturally, after last night's thunderboomer lullabies. It was really nice knowing I didn't have any appointments or obligations to anyone else today.

My eyes opened around 12:30 p.m., which may be hard for early risers to comprehend. I know grownups are supposed to leap out of bed, ready to greet the day. That doesn't happen in my house, people, and probably still won't even when I'm 80. I'm NOT a morning person.

But as I rose, I remembered what I wrote previously about the joys of Saturday morning, and decided today was going to be a special day. I was going to make today an artist's date with myself.

This is something I do every now and then to renew my creative spirit. It's something I've learned from online groups that are based on Julia Cameron's book, "The Artist's Way.: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity." I have put the book high on my "to read" list.

My idea for the day was to gain inspiration and appreciation for the creative process. There are several places that do this for me: Museums, libraries, gardens, galleries among them.

Today was a combination of two of my favorites, gardens and galleries. Today's mission was to visit Coles Garden, across the street north of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. I've been intrigued since the gardens opened a few years back, and can't believe I've waited so long to go see the place in person.

It's a nice place to visit and it's not one of those "all day" places. I was able to go at my leisure, slowly wandering along the garden paths, seeing the different plantings and statues.

There are a couple of secluded areas enclosed in tall hedges that are set aside for weddings. A bride (and groom) would be proud to start their married life in these lovely settings. An indoor chapel and reception room are also available.

Among the different garden scenarios is a memory garden. Trees and plantings have been given in memory of loved ones, and Good Shepherd Hospice has established a memorial tree for the patients it has served. The tree, similar to a Christmas tree at the center of the remembrance garden, includes pewter leaf ornaments engraved with the name of patients who have died. They are tied to the tree with purple ribbons, and after a year the leaves are presented to the families as a memorial.

Wind chimes of various sizes surround the garden, providing a polyphonic song from the angels that must rest in the trees here. One can feel the breath of life that flows from one generation to the next, tying all of us together.

That's one of the nicest things about the gardens -- the place appeals to all ages from children to seniors. Families can come here and everyone would have a good time. The statues include serious art as well as whimsical pieces that will delight the child in every heart. Don't miss "Eat More Beef" or "Fish Story."

There are pieces that will catch the eye of those who appreciate history. The gates at the entrance were built for Napoleon Bonaparte around 1810, and two gigantic painted teak horses were built for Queen Victoria's 1897 Jubilee.

A beautiful historic piece invites couples to sit and wish. It's a 100-plus year-old brass wishing swing from India, covered by a temple with green columns and topped by a golden dome.

From the swing you can hear the waterfalls at the koi pond, which is also home to statues of alligators, pelicans and the Loch Ness Monster (or a cousin).

An hour or two is enough time to tour the whole garden and feel refreshed and re-energized.

Those who want to make a family day or weekend trip can easily visit the gardens in the morning, have lunch at County Line Barbecue and then visit the Cowboy Hall and Western Heritage Museum in the afternoon. Add in the Oklahoma City Zoo and Omniplex Science Museum for a second day full of family fun.

All of these locations are easily accessible from Interstate 35/Interstate 44. Exit at NE 63 or Kelly and follow the signs, or check Mapquest for more detailed directions if you're unfamiliar with the area.

Please visit, and have fun!

Sleepless night

It's 3:30 a.m. and I'm still awake -- not so unusual for me, but I wanted to be asleep a few hours back. I'm very tired tonight, too tired to sleep, even.

It's still a good night, even with the fatigue. I went outside about 1:30 to see if it was raining, since the weatherman was reporting we were under a flood warning. No rain, just the sound of birds shifting in their nests in the Bradford pear. The night sky had a yellow glow from the city lights reflecting off the cloud cover.

Thunderstorms have just gotten here so I have the rumble and bumble to keep me company. Sometimes, being awake to hear the sounds of the night is good. It's a reminder that even when we're sleeping, God's still up, keeping watch.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Perpetual peace

I'm not big on going to cemeteries to visit the Dead Relatives.

Since my dad's funeral, 28 years ago today, I've been to the cemetery maybe a half-dozen times. I've always gone alone to spend a short time where he is buried, next to my grandparents and my dad's only brother, who died long before I was born.

Getting there is always a pilgrimage. It's not that I get lost -- it's just so remote and I go so infrequently that I'm always fearful that I've driven past the turn to the right state highway to get me to Shamrock, OK. And if you miss seeing the two-story green building in Shamrock, you've missed the turn that goes past an old oil pumping station, out to the country road that turns and then leads to the cemetery.

That, in a nutshell, explains the geography of Shamrock, OK. One day I'll tell you stories about the people who live there. But not today. Today, we're visiting ghosts.

It's never a pleasant encounter, dealing with these ghosts. Oh, I treasured my grandparents and have great memories of them. But my dad, well, that's another story entirely.

It doesn't feel good to say that he was a mean man. But he was. Always angry, language peppered with expletives shouted in a hateful tone. His main interaction with his two children involved a whipping with his leather belt -- on a daily basis.

I do not believe that he came into this world designed to be this kind of person. I do believe I understand many factors that shaped him into this person which probably also contributed to his death at 55 years of age.

The man was brilliant. I think if he had been born later, he would have given Bill Gates a run for his money.

He was born in 1921 in the oil patches around Drumright, OK. Grandpa was a roustabout who worked and lived on several oil leases, in camp towns and boom towns like Shamrock. Life was always tough, compared to our standard of living today, but it never bothered anyone then. Somehow, they always made it work for them, even though Grandpa lost the tips of at least three fingers when he was drilling. He wasn't the only one on the Sinclair lease that was maimed and coped with it.

Dad expected to have a better life and joined the Army Air Corps during World War II to take his exit from the lease. I have all the letters he wrote while he was in the service -- thank God Grandma was a packrat. She kept every one of them in a box she gave me after his death. It's clear from the letters that war time was capricious and cruel. Dad was away when his kid brother died at 17 of appendicitis. He was away when one of his sisters lost her husband on a submarine in the Pacific. Life, with all of its pain, continued in his absence. I think it wounded him deeply that he couldn't be with his family to help hold things together. It also hurt that no one told him about many of the events until later because they thought it would be easier on him. He couldn't change anything anyway, was their thinking, so there's no sense in giving bad news.

After the war, Dad went to school on the GI bill. In 1953 he and my mother married and he started working at Conoco in Ponca City. Life looked like it would be good.
Nine months after they married, my brother was born and I came along 16 months later. Instant marriage, instant job, instant family -- a lot of changes in two years with a lot of responsibility.

The depth of responsibility wasn't fully known for a while. My brother was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after I was born. He also had strabismus -- crossed eyes -- that required surgeries when he was 5, as well as glasses. He spent a year at the Cerebral Palsy center in Norman when I was starting kindergarten, coming home only on weekends. I was probably 7 before he was home to live with us for good -- with leg braces, glasses, a speech impediment and obvious learning disabilities.

Dad was so consumed with his thoughts that he couldn't cope with normal life, much less one with problems. I have a 1959 photo of him with a computer he invented for Conoco which is about the size of a television armoire. My mom's handwriting says "Bill with 'The Monster.'" It would not surprise me a wit to discover that my Palm Pilot has more power than "The Monster." But it was groundbreaking innovation in the oil industry. It was one of many inventions for which he earned patents for the company, and for which he was paid the princely bonus of $50.

He would come home promptly at 4:35 every afternoon, his mind still filled with the thoughts of the day's discoveries and problems. Many times he would isolate himself to work on formulas or make sketches and schematics. The noise of children was torture to him. Especially the noise of an imperfect son.

So he reacted.

He would silence us by removing his belt, folding it in half and snapping it as a threat of the beating to come. So often I remember how out of control he was, especially with my brother. Too many times I stepped between him and brother to stop him and take the beating myself. I got plenty of my own, but I could not bear seeing him hurt my precious brother that I was so proud to have home, finally.

Usually after the whippings, we would go to our rooms to cry. Dad would withdraw into his silence in front of the TV. Only after it was quiet for a while was it safe for us to come back out. Later I was able to throw myself into my homework as an excuse to stay away. In many ways, I became the son he never had. Academic achievement was all that he acknowledged or praised.

That scenario pretty much sums up my daily memories of my Dad. Oh, we had big vacations every year, traveling across the country and across Canada several times. I saw things my classmates never did. It opened my eyes up to the fact that there's a huge world out there with more things than we can see in a lifetime.

But there was never joy in our house. Never.

So fast forward to Aug. 23, 1976. 10 a.m. My mom and I had been to the bank to get money and traveler's checks for me -- I was going to be returning to OU for my last semester at school, planning to graduate early in December. I was going to be the first person in my family to earn a full bachelor's degree from college.

I pulled the Datsun into the driveway, seeing the large car parked on the street in front of the house and knowing in my gut that it was bad news. I had no idea that it was two men from Dad's work who asked Mom if they could come inside for a minute.

I can see them standing in our tiny living room -- both of them pretty large. Mom sat on one couch, me on the other. Brother was sitting on the piano bench. The men's backs were to me -- I couldn't tell you now who they were by name. But I could see Mom's face as they said "Bill had a heart attack at work a few minutes ago, right after the guys finished their coffee break. The company doctor was there right away, but there was nothing anyone could do."

The days ran together after that, but I recall studying everyone's reactions to the news. Mom kind of shut down. She wanted to be the parent in charge but just couldn't be.

Brother, at some point, shocked me to my core. He turned to Mom and summarized it by snapping his fingers and saying "Gone. Just like that. Maybe now he's proud of me."

I was the one who planned the funeral. I shopped for the casket, arranged for the church, the organist, the singers and the minister -- asking the former pastor who had baptized me to return for the service. He obliged me, graciously.

The eternal joke was that Dad was an atheist. In my lifetime, I saw him in a church one time, for his dad's funeral. He didn't come to my baptism and he wouldn't go to my friends' weddings.

So now it may be clear why we accepted my grandmother's offer when she said there was an empty plot in the family space at the Shamrock cemetery. It was perfect.
He could rest in peace in the area he roamed as a child in the oil patch, forever undisturbed, perpetually isolated from the rest of us.

I try not to bother him too often.

Mom and brother have left me since. They were inseparable in life and remain so today. I had them both cremated and mingled their ashes before scattering them in a garden at the cemetery in Ponca City. Together they can always enjoy the roses.

I sent you a motorboat....

Remember the old joke about the faithful Christian in the flood? As the water rose, all of the neighbors started to evacuate and offered to help him leave his home as well. One neighbor says "There's room in the back of my truck for your stuff if you'll just come with us now."

"Thanks, friends, but I'll trust in God to keep me safe," says he.

Most of the neighbors had left, and the water had reached about waist high when he sees a motorboat coming down the street with a rescue worker.

"Come on, get in!" yells the rescuer. "We've just got enough room for you!"

"Thanks, friend, but my God will keep me safe. I'll just stay here and pray," says he.

The rescuer shakes his head, but goes on without the man.

The water continues to rise higher, and the man climbs up on the roof. A helicopter comes and hovers above him, throwing down a rope ladder. The pilot calls out over a bullhorn urging the man to grab the ladder and climb up so he can be rescued.

"Thanks, friend, but God's kept me safe so far and I'll just stay here and pray," says he.

Finally, the flood rises so high the man drowns.

When he reaches heaven, he asks God why He allowed this to happen.

"I prayed and prayed, Lord!" says he. "I told all of the others that you would keep me safe. And now look... DEAD!"

God looks at him, square in the eyes.

"Look, I sent you a truck, a motorboat and a helicopter. What more did you want?!"


Today's been that kind of day. My yard is looking shabby again, time for another haircut. I've had trouble this summer keeping the lawn cut so it looks nice -- a combination of too much rain, too little time and waayyy too little ambition.

Twice this afternoon the doorbell has rung. On the other side there have been young men -- nice, strong, pleasant-looking young men -- offering to mow my yard, including tree trimming and edging for a nice price. I didn't have the cash on me at that time.

I hit the ATM when I went to the 7-Eleven to fill up the car. Then I went home and got ready to mow. Kinda. I was still sitting in my office chair when the doorbell rang -- for the third time.

Again with the nice, pleasant-looking young men! This time I just chuckled and said "What do you charge?"

You won't catch ME drowning on my roof. No sir. Not so long as nice young men keep mowing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

A sick remembrance

In 1986 I was working as a reporter in a small city in northwest Oklahoma, covering the police beat. Most of the time the most serious thing I had to worry about was collecting the public records from the court clerk, police station and fire department. Usually routine stuff that only interested the people involved, and usually only because it meant their name was in the paper.

That innocent, lazy routine changed abruptly in mid-May. When I arrived at the office that afternoon for my usual night shift, the publisher and two managing editors were huddled in a corner office and called me in as soon as I walked through the door.

They were discussing whether I was tough enough to cover the day's horrible story -- the rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl. I gasped, covered my face and swallowed hard. Once the initial shock had passed through my body, I assured them I could do whatever needed to be done, no matter how much I disliked what had happened.

We made a plan outlining how I'd work this story. First, I would go to the apartment complex where the girl had lived with her mother and siblings. It was a Section 8 complex and there had been plenty of rumors spreading among the residents.

Investigators determined later that the girl's mother had put her children to bed and then went to another apartment about 1:30 a.m. to party. When the party started winding down at 4:30 a.m., she invited three men to come back to her place.

About 7:15, witnesses reported seeing one of the three men carrying the little girl away from the apartment. A woman in her 80s identified a suspect from photographs -- one of the men who had been partying with the mother.

A little later that morning, the mother didn't find the girl in her bed when she went to wake her for school. Apparently she assumed the girl had already left for school. It was a couple of hours later when she called the school and was told the girl never arrived; at 10 a.m. she filed a missing persons report with the local police. She had no idea police had already found her daughter, dead.

I talked to neighbors, asking them if they had seen anything or heard anything, whether they noticed anything out of the ordinary. Lots of people wanted to talk, but it was the kind of talk that had no credibility. Mostly talk about how "that woman" never took care of her kids and was always running around. They talked about how late the party had gone in the other apartment. I made note of names and phone numbers, thanked everyone for their help with this horrible story, and moved on.

Next I went to the address where the girl's body had been found in a detached garage. Black fingerprint powder covered the outside of the garage -- the overhead door as well as the side door, which apparently was never kept locked. It was a couple of blocks from the girl's apartment.

The owner of the house was an elderly woman who had dementia. Her caretaker met me at the door and asked that we outside to talk, explaining the woman had no idea what had happened in her garage. There was no sense in upsetting her with questions or information because she obviously had not been outside a few rooms of her house for years. I told the older woman I was really happy to meet her and wished her a good afternoon. She was thrilled to have had the company.

Outside, the caretaker showed me around the back yard and explained what she had seen and what the police did. While we talked, the photographer from the paper joined us and shot photos of the blackened garage door, then rushed back to the office.

The caretaker said she had found the girl's body about 9:30 that morning (30 minutes before the mother reported her missing). The caretaker had noticed the side door was ajar when she arrived, and she saw the girl's battered body when she checked the garage. Some of her clothes had been removed.

My next stop was the girl's school. I had been asked to get a copy of her school photo, but I was stonewalled by every teacher and office worker in the building. I was careful not to ask any question in front of the few students still waiting for their parents to pick them up, but several of the girl's classmates came up to tell me about what had happened. Their versions were at least as lurid as the truth.

My final stop before going back to the office was the police station. The police in this city got great pleasure out of withholding public records and even greater pride in refusing to answer any questions. They also enjoyed making up lies to tell reporters. Today was their day, to be sure. They should have been given some special award for withholding truth.

I asked to see the public records and to talk to the investigating officers. What they gave me was the day's traffic tickets. And of course the officers weren't in the building anywhere. I asked if the girl's mother had been found and talked to. The desk sergeant mumbled something to the effect of "bitch, we know how to do our job. If you want any information, park your ass in that chair." He said he'd let me know as soon as he could tell me something, so I sat.

And I sat. The local reporter for a competing newspaper showed up. He was treated only slightly better, and I attribute that to the fact that he was male. He was engaged to another woman in my office and we had become friends in the few months I'd been there.

He sat too, and we talked about how horrible this story was. I think I remember him waiting about an hour, and then telling the desk sergeant he would check back to see if anything new developed.

I sat and waited a little longer. Finally, I heard the back metal door of the station close with a loud thud, then heard an inside door shut. The desk sergeant's face turned red and I was sure I saw him trying to hold back tears. His eyes met mine for a moment and he let his head drop slightly.

It was 5:15 p.m. Only a few moments had passed since the two doors had shut. The time on the clock was permanently seared into my mind as a loud, gutteral, primal scream came from the direction of the closed door. It was a monsterous sound I hope never to hear again, a cry of anguish straight from the doors of hell.

Instantly I looked at the desk sergeant as I rose to cross the lobby to his window. He wouldn't look at me. When I reached him, I whispered "Is that her mother? Tell me!" He shook his head yes. I asked "Is this the first she's been told about what happened?" Again, yes.

"You should leave for now," he said. "There won't be anything else I can tell you tonight. You've got what you can get for now."

I told him I'd be back at 10 for my regular late-night check. He nodded and turned away.

I drove two blocks back to the office, reported to the managing editors who then called the publisher with an update. I saw the photos that had been shot, wrote the cutlines and sat down to write my story.

Post script: This story was brought back to the front of my brain today as the police in that small city announced they had reopened the case, 18 years later. It seems some of those neighbors finally remembered key information that will help the police make a solid case against the man who was arrested as a suspect in the little girl's murder. He had been arrested at the police station just a couple of hours after that horrible, heart-shattering wailing that came when her mother found out the girl had been sexually assaulted, then beaten and strangled to death.

Tests of blood stains on the suspect's boots were declared inadmissible by the judge in the trial that started 15 months after the girl's death. The same judge then denied the District Attorney's petition to delay the start of the trial for one more month after additional evidence was discovered. The DA had wanted the new evidence to be tested by the state bureau of investigation to make sure the local investigators' results were correct.

Within the week, his bail was cut in half and he was released from jail. Prosecutors later amended the charges and a new preliminary hearing was set, nearly two years after the murder.

Charges were dropped in November 1988 before the case made it to trial after heated arguments between the defense attorneys and the state medical examiner. The now-83-year-old witness was unable to identify the suspect in court, after identifying him at the time of the girl's death.

It was a month later when the FBI started testing DNA evidence for law enforcement agencies.

It took until May 2004 for police investigators to send the suspect's bloody boots to the FBI headquarters for testing, a few days shy of the 18th anniversary of the girl's murder. While they were preparing the boots for shipping to the FBI, they also discovered a knife inside the evidence box. It had been found in the suspect's home. It was shipped for testing as well, since it had been determined she also was stabbed multiple times.

Today, the suspect is in jail in a neighboring state for violating parole on unrelated charges. He's had numerous other arrests on his record in the ensuing years.

The suspect was 22 years old at the time of the girl's death. Had she lived, she would now be 24.

She is still remembered as the 6-year-old girl who took care of her younger brother and talked to other children about Jesus. Those who remember her wonder how her life would have been today.

Many people have failed you, Amber. May you finally get your justice, sweet one.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Saturday morning


It's Saturday morning and I'm aggravated that I'm not thrilled by that fact.

Once upon a time, when I was a kid living in the old house I'm selling off now, Saturday morning was a treasure chest full of adventure. It was a time of extreme freedom -- the parents slept in or enjoyed close to absolute silence, refusing to allow the world to wake them for any outside nonsense. Brother was occupied with the cartoons on TV. It was understood by everyone that Saturday morning was MY TIME to escape, to slip out of the house silently, respectful of the home ritual.

Such a long time ago now, it seems. The sun crept into my bedroom windows, like other mornings, but on Saturday it was greeted with unusual enthusiasm. Before it rose above the level of the carport, I had slipped on my jeans, a shirt and my sneakers. I had tiptoed to the bathroom to brush my teeth and comb my hair, and if Mama was awake I gave her a kiss before running out the back door.

For years and years, Saturday morning meant dashing over to my best friend's back door. I timed it -- I managed to get it down to 43 seconds from my back door to hers. Out across the driveway, down to the corner and turning to cross the street. Sprint to the third house, rounding her drive, through the swinging wood gate and up the wood steps past the sleeping collie, Ranger. We could have cut 20 seconds off of that if the back gate to her yard had worked.

Her family had much the same ritual of silence on Saturday mornings -- certainly harder to achieve with her younger twin brothers. Both households were more than happy to see us from the back heading out the screen door.

Once we escaped the houses and were outside the perimeter (the "code of silence" extended to some unseen line -- we figured it was the elm tree on the other side of her neighbor's house) we were off and running to the Conoco gym, three or four blocks away.

If you've never seen the old Conoco gym, I can only describe it as a haven without compare for the kids of employees. There was an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool with a retractable sun roof and two diving boards, shower rooms and a gymnasium. Ralph usually sat in "The Cage," a tiny diagonal office of sorts that held wire baskets where folks could check in their clothes while they swam. Ralph also handled skate rental and candy sales, so we always kept him busy.

Saturday morning was time for us to skate. My friend always had her own pair of boot skates, a fact that I envied. I used the clamp-on skates for years. Eventually, she outgrew her white boot skates, and being the champion friend she is, passed them on to me. They were exactly my size! I thought I was in heaven the day she first let me wear them -- white leather boots with about a hundred holes and hooks to lace up, wheels with ball bearings and perhaps most important, toe stops!

She and I had spent so many Saturday mornings skating that we got to be really good. She was always a little better (I still say it's because she had boot skates all along, but no, that's not sour grapes AT ALL.) The skating time usually included an hour and a half of free skating, which meant all-out, fast-as-you-can, make-the-loop-around-the-gym skating. When we wanted to show off, we skated backwards. When we really wanted to show off, we would alternate, forward, backwards, forward.... one foot, spin.

After we'd worn a groove in the wood floor during free skate, Ralph or one of his minions would start the weekly contests. Everyone was lined up in little groups and challenged as a team to skate to the far end of the gym, do situps and skate back. The next challenge was to skate down, spin three times, skate back. Then skate down, make a box turn on one foot, skate back. Each challenge got a little harder until usually it was just the two of us competing.

When everyone else got bored, we'd move to the badminton court and use the painted border for even more intricate challenges.

Finally, at noon, Ralph would stop the record player and blow the whistle to tell us to clear out. It was time for him to run the big fluffy mop over the gym floor before the men came in to play volleyball or fill the pool tables way down at the far end.

We, of course, were not allowed to play pool until we were 15, but the day that happened, they could never get us off the tables. See, this was my chance to have an edge. I turned 15 in April and my friend couldn't play until July. Heh, heh.

Now, here I am, 49 years old, on a Saturday morning. No more rituals of silence. No one else left in the house to kiss goodbye as I dash out the door. No friend waiting for me, 43 seconds away. No more skating. No more competitions.

Instead, the lawnmower calls. I have to take advantage of a dry morning to work on the yard so I don't get a citation for maintaining a nuisance. Oh, I've already abated the tall grass complaint, but I'd like to go beyond that to make the yard look nice. I'll spend some time pulling Virginia Creeper off the house, then spraying the roots with Round-Up. This stuff is going to choke me someday, probably soon. It already managed to pull an old TV antenna off the house.

Wish I could figure out how to make it a contest. But I'm afraid it would win. It's had more practice.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Looking forward to a party

I guess I could characterize this phase of my life as a search for balance.

For the umptee-umpth years I worked in the office, I was consumed by work. No balance -- no fun, little leisure, just a workaholic. Heck, I rarely went out to lunch. I don't even know where the good spots are.

Now for the past couple of years, I'm rebuilding and reinventing. I'm rediscovering the things that put joy in my life -- chiefly, spending leisure time with other people or working together on meaningful projects.

Tomorrow my singles group is going bowling. It's been a few years since I went with a pastor friend's youth group to bowl. It was a blast because the kids delighted in making fun of us "old fogies." What a hoot! Before that, I'm sure it was 25 years since the previous bowling experience.

Sunday we're having our fourth workday making crafts for our church pumpkin patch celebration. We're the church with the big pumpkin patch at NW 63 and Northwest Highway (Grace United Methodist Church.) We'll have pumpkins starting when the truck arrives Oct. 2. Our festival, Pumpkin Day, is Oct. 10 -- guaranteed fun for everyone in the family!

In September, we'll be working on our second Habitat for Humanity House in this group. For many, many years I worked on Christmas in April homes (now known as Rebuilding Together.) Both of these organizations are doing God's holy work providing safe, healthy shelter in the community.

Shine on, Harvest Moon!

But to the party!!! I'm having a Harvest Moon party for the singles at the end of September. Harvest Moon is the full moon in September. Because of the dates, the party will be just a couple of days before the actual full moon, but moonrise that night will be at just the right time -- around 6:30ish. It's going to be a full-on cornball get-together with a barbecue and group singing and stories. My big assignment is getting a fire pit and new barbecue grill for the occasion. Stay tuned -- there will be a lot of preparations for the fun. Wahoo!

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Other important things in life

I've been following the story of a friend who is going through the pangs of taking his step-daughter off to college for her freshman year. It's touching to see this big ol' tough guy getting all veklempt about the empty nest, but the story also is a great reminder of the rhythm of life. (You can read his story at his blog, Erudite Redneck, linked at the left.)

We celebrate the "New Year" in January, but I've always felt like the holiday was misplaced on the calendar. In my thinking, the real new year always has come in the fall, when school starts over. Even though I'm decades out of school myself, I still measure my life in semesters -- shorter periods of times with set goals and a plan to achieve them.

My sense of "semesters" is skewed now, however, since I've kind of stepped out of the "normal" world the past couple of years. I'm not in synch with other people nearly as much since I work in relative isolation. And the truth is, after a while it is a bit disconcerting.

At first, the notion of being a nonconformist sounds like a blast. Work when you want, sleep when you want, wear what you like. And it's good, for a while.

The problem, for me, seems to have come when I realized how far from "normal" I've strayed. We are, after all, social creatures. And through our socialization we've developed a more-or-less universal rhythm to life. Kind of like those sleeping pill commercials that show a litter of cute puppies piling into their bed when the sun goes down and then watching their little eyes open up when the sun peaks out in the morning.

No matter how we resist the notion, we thrive when we have routines and structure. They help us pace our lives, much as semesters do. We set goals and make a plan of action measured in increments of time.

A schedule or routine provides the framework that makes sure we get things done, but it also makes sure we leave time to LIVE. It's stupid to schedule ourselves too tightly, leaving no room for relaxing, reflecting, renewal and replenishing ourselves. It's equally stupid to schedule ourselves too loosely, because then we don't get anything done and thus have no sense of achievement or success.

I mentioned Flylady previously -- my online mentor. One of her key tools is the mantra "I can do anything for 15 minutes." No, she did not say "I can finish anything in 15 minutes." But she wisely understands that sometimes we can only face a task for a short period of time. And sometimes we grossly overestimate how long a task will take. It's nice to finish a job sooner than you expected.

Putting this lesson into practice is easy -- set a timer for 15 minutes and simply begin. Knowing you can stop when the timer goes off helps. And often, simply starting provides momentum to continue. The key is to give yourself permission to stop before you become obsessed or overwhelmed. This is why we got recess in grade school and it's still a wise model of time management.

Goodnight, Moon
Tonight I'm going to establish a bedtime again. My inner brat has had too much control lately and it's time to exert a little discipline.
The rhythm of life flows in 15 minute chunks, semesters, seasons and years. Ultimately, we must redeem our time. We need to sacrifice irresponsible freedom for the freedom that comes with structure.
Like a home-cooked dinner, a bedtime is good for us. G'night, folks.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Tie one on!

AS you'll notice in my profile, I am a domestic goddess.

Seriously, stop laughing. I use the title with pride.

It doesn't mean I've molded my life after Martha Stewart, although she was an inspiration back in her earlier days, long before she ran afoul of stock trading regulations. There was a time when her lifestyle was manageable and admirable. She could demonstrate how to make a great pie crust in the food processor in seconds. Later on, her vocabulary came to include the ubiquitous "beautiful" and "perfect."

That was about the time I tired of the pretentiousness and moved on to find others who modeled the life I aspired to. There are plenty -- Ina Garten, known also as the Barefoot Contessa, is a queen of hospitality. Paula Deen rebuilt her life by opening a restaurant, The Lady and Sons, to support her sons. Recently she has found love anew, which has only served to deepen the genuine loving qualities of sharing food with friends and loved ones.

Wearing an apron is a symbol of servanthood. It says "I accept the directive from Jesus when He said 'Feed My sheep.' What modern custom could be more representative of Holy Communion than cooking for and serving loved ones in your home?

As for learning about creating a lovely home, one of my icons is Alexandra Stoddard, author, speaker and former host of HGTV's "Homes Across America." Such a gracious woman, with an equally thoughtful husband. At book signings she scribes personal messages and gives the gift of a ribbon book mark. She demonstrates rare respect for etiquette by following up interviews with personally hand-written notes to reporters, recalling distinct moments from the time spent together.

There are so many examples of women (primarily) who espouse an elegant lifestyle. I can't possibly mention all of my influences here, so perhaps there will be more entries as time goes by.

The warm, loving home that I wish to maintain for myself and my friends and loved ones has evolved over the years. Those who have known me for a long time know I was a huge slob, lost in the kitchen, unwilling to invite people into my home. I'd cringe at the thought of making dinner for anyone! I realize now what sad times those were for me, for a variety of reasons. That's for another discussion, however.

Today's point is that I knew I aspired to live a welcoming lifestyle. I think I am on my way to achieving it.

I found my greatest mentor, Flylady, online.

Flylady, AKA Marla Cilley, describes herself as "Tinkerbell's drill sergeant."

Her no-nonsense style of e-mail mentoring now reaches more than 235,000 people every day. There were about 1,500 subscribers when I joined her group. She mentors a system of rotational house keeping with brief reminders about daily tasks, weekly chores, monthly jobs. There are other parts of the system, which can bring peace to the home when used as a whole. Check out her web site, linked at the left.

It's still one of my great honors to know that I was the first newspaper reporter to interview Cilley. We've maintained contact since then, and finally met in person a couple of years ago at an Oregon conference held by Pam Young and Peggy Jones, the SLOB Sisters. They are the true mothers of the housekeeping methods Flylady mentors, and so they have a position in my heart equivalent to the Queen Mothers. Their view of life from the window of Everywoman, coupled with their humorous and honest writing style, have made them well loved by countless families. (See the link to their SHE web site -- SHE standing for Sidetracked Home Executives.)

Inspiration is a wonderful thing, and as you can see comes from countless sources. But without that inner spark and yearning for a meaningful life, the inspiration would have no effect and change would never be ignited.

In the years I've pursued this, consciously, I hope I've created a home where my friends like to gather. It seems they do. I've come to love having dinner parties, choir parties with lots of music, even planning sessions for church committees. There's rarely a wrong reason to get together and share food, music, conversation.

Next party: Harvest Moon at the end of September. Let's hope the back yard is ready in time!

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Save the world: Use your oven

I've given a lot of thought to the breakdown of our society and all the problems we face today. And I think I've got a solution. This isn't just some hare-brained notion -- no, there's been a lot of reflection on this. I think if one of the political parties adopted this platform before November, they'd be a shoo-in to win the White House.

It's not a complicated idea. Indeed, the simplicity of it is the basis of its genius. We used to implement the key components of the plan without giving it much thought -- it's that simple.

OK, you may know where I'm going with this. I'm talking about the simple notion of the family dinner hour.

My friends like to tell me they don't cook these days. They say they don't have time. Some say they don't know how to cook. Believe it or not, there are some that say it takes too long or costs too much.

Let's get real about the facts of life, shall we? We all need to eat. In families, the adults are responsible for feeding their children. It's a sacred responsibility in my view. That doesn't mean it has to be hard.

Remember back to the '50s and '60s? Moms cooked dinner. We had a formula: A protein (in those days we called it "meat.") A salad. A hot vegetable. A starch (also called a "potato".) We drank milk. On rare occasions we might have a piece of cake for dessert. Most of the time we got an orange or grapes later in the evening if we wanted something sweet. Look at any old Ed Sullivan rerun and you'll see that nobody had weight problems then.

Start to finish, it took 30 to 45 minutes to cook dinner and put it on the table. Any kid tall enough to reach the sink washed dishes as soon as the meal ended. Then it was time for homework.

Green bean casserole can save the world.

When did we start thinking it was easier -- or "better" -- to bypass the kitchen and do the drive-thru thing? Say it takes 10 minutes to drive to the Golden Arches from your house. Another 10 minutes sitting in line to get to the speaker to order. Another 10 minutes to get to the window to pay and get the food. Another 10 minutes to take it home. Sorry guys, but those fries aren't worth 40 minutes of my time.

Let's talk about how vegetables and casseroles can cure society. First, it requires a family to sit down at the same table, in their own home. This is a sacred place. The sacred responsibility of feeding a family deserves a sacred space, don't you think?

It should provide an intimate place for quiet gathering. Parents can talk to their children. Children can talk to their parents. They can find out what's going on in each other's lives. And it's a sneaky way of making sure they aren't someplace else.

There's a lot to be said for parental supervision. It takes some of the joy out of bad behavior if you know mom's going to call you for dinner in a minute or two.

But it's not all punitive or a matter of monitoring behavior. It is immensely affirming and supportive of these little developing people. What better way to say "I love you. I want the best for you" than to prepare a meal? Can you really get more bang for your buck -- or your time -- than this?

This is your chance to make sure your kids are feeling plugged in to a family. Your kids know that not everyone gets a special meal every day. Why not let your kids be the lucky ones? Make sure they know they have a place where they belong.

Casseroles have amazing curative powers. Church folks know this. That's why the church ladies deliver foil-wrapped care packages to families who are grieving the loss of a loved one, celebrating a birth or recovering from an illness. Nothing invokes a feeling of belonging like a green-bean casserole (the kind with the french-fried onion rings) or a broccoli-cheese casserole (the kind with Ritz crackers crushed on top.)

School is starting right away. You've bought the school supplies, the new clothes, the books, the cell phone ....

Next stop: Grocery store. Tell your kids you love them. Then buy them the produce to prove it.

An unexpected parade

Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

I was watching a movie with a friend in Tulsa on a recent Sunday night when we heard music, growing increasingly louder. At first I thought it was someone's boom box, but soon it was clearly not that. I looked out the front door to see a parade going past his house, in an older residential area.

Several thousand people were involved, all celebrating the dedication of a replica of a holy icon and a Mass at the Expo Square Pavilion. They marched from the pavilion to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, which was dedicated as a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The crowd was mostly Hispanic, but there were several participants wearing native Indian tribal dress. People carried flags, banners of flowers, crosses and a platform with the icon.

For me, it was a rare moment of serendipity. I'm not Catholic, but the celebration of faith was an inspiration for all who saw it. How often do we see such a parade going down our streets?

Trading Specters

Previously I mentioned something about chasing ghosts. We've all got them, stashed away somewhere, just waiting to pop up and haunt us again.

Lately, I've been having a lot of fights with dead relatives. You know what? They always win. They never have to listen to reason or take your feelings into account. Truthfully, they don't even have to say anything new. Just the memories of the old fights is enough to make them the victors.

I've been feeling particularly ganged up on, as dead relatives are about the only kind I have. I'm the stump of my family tree -- the last survivor in my line, with none to come after me. Sort of gives them an unfair advantage, don't you think? I mean, they're all gathered together, sitting in a cushy coffee shop on the other side, puffing away on unfiltered Camels and complaining about who made the last pot of joe.

Here I am, in the land of the Upright, dealing with things like finding a new grocery store (my closest store closed recently and it's really thrown me for a loop. I like my routines.) I'm still having to pay bills and keep a household together. They don't even have to mow the grass any more.

Gives them a lot more time for haunting. Mowing alone takes a couple of hours, when I get around to it.

I blame the ghosts for a bad real estate purchase I made a few years back. I was in my hometown quite often while my mother was ill and after her death. For years I had been having vivid memories about the house I grew up in, and one day while I was up there I saw that the old house was for sale.

There was an irresistable need for me to see that place. We had been renters -- my parents never owned a house while I was growing up. But this house was the place I considered my "childhood home." We lived here from the time I was in third grade until I was a junior in high school. There were a lot of memories and ghosts tied up in this place.

So I called the listing agent and asked to see it. I thought I would just take a look around and be able to put things to rest. Didn't happen. I complained about the fact that someone had removed the clawfoot bathtub that I loved so much. The agent said he had hauled a lot of those to the trash dump, never thinking anyone would ever want one.

Other things had changed as well. My bedroom was 8 1/2 feet by 9 1/2 feet and had two doors and four windows. I didn't have a closet. My clothes were hung from an ironing valet we shoved in a corner; it was always tipping over and dumping everything on the floor.

Now the door that connected to my parents' bedroom had been closed off and made into a closet. I was surprised what a difference it made. Even so, the room was entirely too small to imagine being functional, even with a closet. It would have been claustrophobic as an office.

Adding that closet also diminished the size of my parents' room and formed an odd niche. I suppose it would have made a great place for a built-in dresser. Funny how small that room looked too.

We never had carpet, but now the place was covered with nasty, smelly, stained carpet. We had had wood floors, and a floor furnace in the living room. Now that was covered, and there was an odd, open-flame gas heater on the wall. Talk about inviting disaster -- the thing looked lethal. The agent said there had once been a fire in the floor furnace so it had to be removed.

Outside, things looked mostly as I had expected. The carport looked about the same. The clotheslines were long gone, as were my favorite trees. But other trees had grown tall in different spots. Dad's red roses were nothing but a memory.

There was a second house, too, just across the driveway. The houses shared the carport. I suppose the little house, just a tiny one-bedroom place, started out as a mother-in-law home or something. I always loved the little house, although I had seen more than a few people moving out in the middle of the night, skipping out on the rent. I had a clear view from the windows in my tiny bedroom and saw a lot of things that probably would have shocked my parents, if they had known. Some people really should learn to pull the blinds.

The agent and I looked around the little house, rather stunned by the decorating style of the current renter. But all of her fou-fou faded away when I walked through the door.

All I could see was Kate and Calvin's stuff. They had been our best neighbors in my childhood. Calvin was a true, real-life old cowboy who had worked at the 101 Ranch "back in the olden days." They had a leather sofa, chair and ottoman with stitched designs of cowboy boots, hats and pistols. It smelled of their cigarette smoke -- Salems, different from the Camels my folks smoked.

We continued to look around the little house. I often had dreams of having a little house like this to go to on weekends just to write, without interruption. All I would need is a table for a laptop, a comfortable chair, and a twin bed to fall into when I was exhausted.

I had forgotten that this house had the world's tiniest bathroom. Seeing it again sucked the breath right out of me. It was impossible to sit on the toilet facing forward because the sink would be in your lap. There wasn't enough room to manuever around the tub to get it really clean, so there was always mildew in the corners. And to top it off, the water heater was in the space, too.

Somehow, once I finished my tour, I found myself asking about the price for the houses. They were listed at $35,000. Two houses. I thought about it for a minute, and shook my head. The ghosts made me ask how much they would be in a cash deal.

"You'd pay cash?" the agent said.

"Yeah, maybe. I think it could make some rental income."

"Well, for cash I know they'd come down to $28,000," he says.

Geez. I was sucker punched. We made the deal that afternoon -- he ran the papers across town for signatures.

It was only when he brought the papers back to me at my mother's house that he revealed that his wife was the owner of record. Yep, I was really sucker punched.

I put a lot of work and money into updating the houses. New electrical, major plumbing updates. New roofs.

And then, of course, I found the worst possible tenants who did the most possible damage and cost me every penny they could.

Oh well. Spilled milk, I guess. Bad investment. But it gave me a chance to chase some old ghosts. I was able to make the house better than it had been. I reclaimed something of my past. As small as it was, I left my mark, this time as an adult.

It's been hell trying to sell these places because the real estate market fell apart there. The big oil company merged with a competitor and the market was flooded with a lot of nice houses going for pennies on the dollar.

Eventually I did get an offer I accepted, on a lease-purchase plan. We're supposed to close in about a month, and at last I will be able to cut my ties with my hometown. I'll be able to tell the ghosts goodbye.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Fishing, writing and inspirations

I just had one of those exchanges that makes writers crazy.

My head was full of thoughts about a substantial topic -- cultural dexterity. I was eager to get some thoughts written before they escaped. Then it happened -- in popped an instant message from a Good Ol' Boy friend.

He posts. I answer, then flip back to type furtively while he reads and responds.

It's the usual exchange of pleasantries: "How's your morning?" "What are you doing before work?" "What are you up to today?"

I try to explain that I'm writing in my journal. (I'll learn not to do this.) I figure that's a simple explanation of what my blog is. Likely I won't invite him to read this, so I didn't want to get into details about the form. Just that I'm writing some thoughts on a deep subject.

Friends, learn from me. Just let it be. Don't engage in the conversation while you have the fire to write. Especially if you're unequally yoked on the topic.

Here, in condensed version, is kind of what happens:

Me: I am writing about cultural dexterity this morning.
He : k too deep for me
Me: writing about how communities get along better when there is more diversity. How there are fewer problems if there are three (or more) cultures in an area instead of just two.
He: sounds neet
Me: The more cultures involved, the fewer clashes because everyone is a minority instead of there being one dominant class.
He: ok, like the human race
Me: Yes. We've gone from a black-white culture clash to a more diverse society when there were other groups added like Hispanics and Asians. But we may be shooting ourselves in the foot as the rich create exclusionary communities where everyone is like them.
He : of course
Me: Some areas of the country are working to prevent that by requiring a percentage of affordable housing in all new communities.

A small debate follows, about cultural groups, economics and class distinctions. It's getting farther away from my original thoughts. He's not understanding my point when I talk about people who live in gated communities, and asks if I like those houses. He thinks I'm probably hoping to have a house like those and is surprised when I say I would never want that kind of life.

Eventually the conversation takes a different turn. You should probably know that I'm working on a book based on my great-aunt's life.

He : do you like to fish
Me: I don't like hooking fish. I sometimes like the solitude and serenity.
He : ok. does it inspire you to write
Me: Sometimes. Inspiration is a funny thing. More often writers need to be stimulated by thoughts in order to get going.
He : what makes you think of your aunt's life.
Me: Looking at her things and family photos. Remembering things she did and stories I've heard. Reading about what life was like when she was a young woman.
He : what things
Me: Her ledger. My great-great-uncle's camel-back trunk. Magazine photos she collected. Letters. Photos, newspaper clippings. Dresser items.
He : what photos?
Me: family photos
He : have you seen them in a while
Me: I see them every day.
He: ok I wish you could achieve your dream and publish her book
Me: It's my book, not hers.
He: for sure. so many things side track you
Me: I guess it may look that way from the outside.

OK, so this is why you shouldn't engage in the conversation. People who DON'T write don't understand the process. They don't understand inspiration. And they don't know what we do.

Writing is a business like any. It takes the discipline to sit in the chair and do the writing. But there are different kinds of writing and some are not linear. Writing my book is NOT a linear process.

The writing I do to pay my bills is completely different from the book. I make the phone calls, do the research, set up photos and do the writing. I turn it in and eventually I'm paid. Then it is over, done and I move on to the next topic.

The book, however, is a different matter. It is personal. It takes living it and feeling it to make it happen. Once a section is "ripe" in my mind, the typing takes mere minutes. But the typing is not the writing. The writing is the story that has been haunting me as I drive, as I wash dishes, as I dream.

I've had many supportive friends who have been standing by me as I have taken the time to work on this book. Many of them do understand the creative process, and they have the ability to cheer me on and encourage me when I hit the wall.

These people are different from those who think there's something wrong with me because I'm not yet published.

Folks, if you're a writer, you don't need those "friends." They think we're lazy or sidetracked and find fault with us when our minds are drawn to other subjects. They think we should just sit there and type.

Look. We don't tell you how to do your job as airplane mechanics or insurance agents or auto parts salesmen. Trust me, I know how to handle my work. Your criticism and attacks are not welcome. They are not productive or helpful.

I've been at this for a long time now. I'm 49 years old and I've been a working journalist since I was in high school, 31 years ago. I've seen a lot, I've done a lot. I've had fantastic opportunities in this profession.

I am well trained, well educated and experienced. Don't give me any pity speeches about not having a "real job". I chose to leave the office a couple of years ago so I could explore different parts of my life, pursue some unrelated interests and let this book ripen in my head so I can put it on paper.

For now, I do my freelancing. It gives me time to deal with some real estate business, do volunteer work and put a lot of effort into church programs. It gives me time to think.

It is all time well spent.

Soon enough some loose ends will be tied up and I'll be ready to work full-time again. But for now, I am debt-free and have enough money to cover my living expenses. Don't try to rob me of my joy by imposing your notions of what I "should" be doing on me.

This is my life. It is my book. I'll be the one to write it.

Welcome home

Welcome! Glad to see you here! Or should I say, glad to be seen here.

This is going to be a bit of a wild experiment in writing, folks. You'll get to see some of my eclectic thoughts and interests. I'm not making any promises about what topics I'll address and I sure will not promise that you'll like or agree with what I choose to write about.

This is a place where I'll empty my brain now and then, mostly to make room for new thoughts. I'll probably bury a few ghosts here -- especially those ghosts brought up from fighting with dead relatives.

You'll probably see the things that make me impatient, the things I feel passionately about, and oh, my strong opinions. Maybe you'll learn things about me or the way I see the world. That would be a secondary result. First and foremost, I'm just here to write.