Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Snows of Vancouver

This morning the frigid air left light gray frost on the darker gray field grasses under the nearly black Douglas Firs. The road looked wet in the headlights, and once in a while a lamp would expose a tan house in the predawn light. As I raced along the empty country roads, the sky lightened until the indigo gave way to bluish gray. By the time I reached the beginning of the industrial area, pink glowed behind Mt. Hood.

The sun wouldn't peek out from behind the mountain until I was settled into the closet, but I imagined a crisp, beautiful, sunny day. My lunch time was spent in an empty, windowless office while I worked on editing. About three in the afternoon, I heard the gasping breaths of co-workers. Snow. I ran out to the office area and squinted out the window at the dark rain. If you stared long enough you could see a snowflake occasionally float down among the drops.

Panic.

Two flakes stuck to the ground.

Mass panic.

The radio interrupted regular programming to begin 24 hour news coverage of the blizzard. By four o'clock drifts as high as a half inch had accumulated.

It looked like fun to me. I didn't want to miss driving in it.

"Gosh, look at the size of the flakes. They are the size of a quarter. They are huge," I casually mentioned over the dire predictions of an inch to three inches expected. "Look at the top of my car, it is completely covered." I made a bunch of tsk tsk noises and shook my head.

"Go home," my boss said. "You'll never get up your dirt road hill if you wait any longer."

"Yes," I made my voice shake to announce my concern. "I must go now, while I can make it." I shut off my computer, zipped up my black windbreaker and nearly ran out to the car. If I'd had my red shoes on, they would have acted as snow shoes.

(The white splotches are actually snow flakes including the one on the right rear quarter panel)

I jumped in and remembered I would have to chip away the frozen glacier on the windshield. I started to climb out, but decided to turn on the wipers instead. Hopefully no one would notice how easily it brushed off until I was out of the parking lot on my way home.
I love the Northwest. By the time I got home, the snow had turned back into rain.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Influence of Ray Orrock


Writers are often asked who inspired them to write. Many respond with modern names such as Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger. Sometimes more historic authors are mentioned; Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens. I’d like to say one of these historic legends is responsible for my desire to write, but it would not be the truth. My answer to the question would be Hayward, California’s Daily Review newspaper columnist, Ray Orrock. Ray Orrock died last year, but he will live on in the memories of thousands of Bay Area readers. Mr. Orrock once said, "Reading is quite possibly the most fun you can have with your clothes on." How could that not inspire me?

A couple times a year he would do a column, in which he wrote fictitious "letters from readers" to himself, asking questions for which he just happened to have the answer. He would always include a comment in his pretend letters about his column. It was outrageous. It was ridiculous. It was inspired. As a tribute to him, I will devote this blog to emulating his question/answer columns. This is for you, Ray Orrock.

Dear Melanie Sherman

I really love your blog. It makes me laugh. Please keep on writing.

When I was a kid and something broke, my father used to “gerry-rig” it back together using duct tape or wire or rubber bands. Do you know where that term came from?

Your devoted reader,

Antonio Gomez Gutierrez



Dear Mr. Gutierrez

Thank you so much for your compliment. As it happens, I can tell you the term “gerry-rig” is actually from the nautical term “jury rig”. When a mast was carried away in a storm, or blown away in battle, the crew would jury rig a temporary mast or yards using whatever means possible until they could get into a harbor or port where more permanent repairs could be made.

Yours,

Melanie Sherman



Dear Melanie Sherman,

I’ve been reading your blog for several months and I can really identify with all the problems you encounter. It makes me feel good to know there are others out there as inept as me.

Who was it that said, “I have not yet begun to fight?” Was it Thomas Paine, Benedict Arnold or Nathan Hale?”

Sincerely,

Wahab Bhagyamma



Dear Mr. Bhagyamma

I’m happy I am able to make you feel right at home with your incompetence.

It grieves me to say this, but none of those gentlemen were responsible for this famous historical quotation. It was Captain John Paul Jones who, in 1779, uttered that retort when Captain Richard Pearson of the 50 gun HMS Serapis (it was actually a 44 gun ship but it carried an extra six 6-pounders at the time of the battle) asked if Jones was giving up. It seems the battle wasn’t going well for Captain Jones. His equipment was old, his ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard, was an old, converted merchant vessel, and the cannons were blowing up in the crew’s faces. One crewman cried out, asking for mercy from the mighty British ship. Unfortunately Captain Pearson heard the cry before John Paul Jones could silence the man. Pearson asked if Captain Jones was asking for quarter. Infuriated one of his crew would cry out in such a manner, Jones called out he had no intention of striking his colors. “I have not yet begun to fight,” he insisted. True to his word, he eventually captured the Serapis, affecting the first United States victory over a British ship of war during the American Revolution.

Thanks for your question,

Melanie Sherman




Dear Melody Shoreman

I haven’t ever read your blog. I think it is a waste of time reading blogs. But, I wondered if you knew anything about making jelly.

Thelma Pipsnorkle


Dear Ms. Pipsnorkle

No I do not.

Sincerely,

Melanie Sherman



Dear Melanie Sherman

I love your blog so much. It is so witty and filled with interesting information. I have it on my blog roll and can’t wait to check to see if there is a new entry each day.

Why was a British Royal Navy seamen called a “Limey?”

Curious,

Francesca di Giovanni


Dear Ms. di Giovanni,

Thank you very much for your interest in my blog. I appreciate it. The British discovered that giving seaman lime juice would prevent scurvy, a disease that could wipe out a good deal of the crew. It was a brilliant plan, saving the lives of countless sailors.

Thank you again for your question.

Melanie Sherman.




Yes, I can see now how fun writing the question/answer column must have been for Ray. I certainly enjoyed writing this one. Thanks for all the laughs you gave me, Mr. Orrock. I’m hoisting one for you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

First Blogger Christmas

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Well, semi-good people. Well, me.

Normally we all gather at Nina's and Laurent's house (my sister and brother-in-law) on Christmas Eve and spend the night. Nina and Laurent are fabulous cooks and we have a leisurely dinner, listen to Christmas music, play games and bask in the multi-colored glow of the Christmas tree. Even Hobiecat and Schooner are invited. We wake in the morning, have crepes and bacon and espresso and then open gifts. We curl our fingers around hot coffee mugs and tuck our feet under us and enjoy all that being a family involves. And one-by-one we depart in the early afternoon and slink back to our own beds for a long winter's nap.

That didn't happen this year. Some say it is because Laurent was sick and now that my parents are here we do not want to risk making them ill. My own personal suspicion is that no one wants me to twitter about them. Earlier this month at my mother’s birthday, I overheard someone mention they should all keep their mouths shut because everything they say could end up on my blog.

Honestly. Like I would do that.

So I spent last night alone. I opened a box that arrived from my friend, Kathy, in California. It contained several different kinds of English muffins. What a gold mine. I put most of them into the freezer and ripped open one package. I had an English muffin with a piece of cheese on it. I prepared this all by myself and didn’t even set the kitchen on fire. This morning I scraped some strawberry jam out of the bottom of a jar onto another toasted muffin. This would have been an okay Christmas morning breakfast except I didn’t have any coffee.

I planned to leave early enough to swing by Starbucks, but I ran late and had to stop at McDonalds. The coffee wasn’t bad and kept me warm on the hour’s drive down to Oregon. I picked up my mother and drove her to church. On Christmas, as you can imagine, it is crowded with people in bright red sweaters and dangling ornament earrings and warm smiles. We joined in the singing and then something awful happened.

It wasn’t my fault. It was the shoes.

I bought a pair of red Doc Martin shoes last month. They are gigantic and each weighs about 70 pounds. I can barely walk in them (but they are cute!) and they take up much more space than any of my other shoes. I had one foot in front of the other and just as the song ended and silence descended, I moved my forward foot back beside the other. Only I misjudged the amount of space I’d need for the enormous shoe and the heel of the moving shoe scraped down the ribbed heel of the other shoe. It created a shocking Fifffffft sound, like passing gas, right into the momentary silence.

Oh dear Lord.

People shifted away and the woman next to me took out a hanky and covered her nose, pretending she had to wipe it. Usually under such circumstances the only way out of the embarrassment is to recreate the noise so that everyone sees you do it. But how could I possibly recreate it? The pastor had already begun reading from the bible. I had to stand there and let people think, well, you know what they thought.

That was the longest Christmas service I’ve ever attended.

After church, my daughter drove in from Portland and Nina left her poor, sick husband and we met at the retirement center. Nina popped open a bottle of champagne before lunch. My dad started playing the harmonica and we tried to sing along. After a second glass of champagne, we noticed he’d begin one song, but end playing a different one. Hard to sing along with that. When it was time to go to lunch, my father put on a hat he’s had for years and tramped down to the half-filled dining hall and began playing Jingle Bells. All of the employees stopped and stared. Finally they began clapping along and singing.

That is my daughter and my father. Okay, so the long hair sticking out is actually attached to the hat.

We went back to my parent’s apartment and opened gifts. The only thing that prevented it from being a perfect Christmas was the absence of Laurent.

Well, that and the red shoes incident.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dark Twinkling Peace

Have you ever had a day where everything goes right; when you feel as though your stars are aligned with the correct gas pumps or your karma is dancing with your aura and sending rays of sunshine to warm your heart?

Today I dressed in holiday finery and scampered to work in a jolly mood. My co-workers gathered at the coffee pots and eyed me askance. “Why the heck are you all dressed up?” one of them grumbled as she filled her cup with the fragrant brew.

I smiled. “I’m leaving early.”

“Why?”

“I’m going to my mother’s Christmas concert.”

She laughed. “You mean your child’s concert?”

“No, I mean my mother’s. She joined the senior chorus and their concert is this afternoon.”

She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “You really never do anything the way normal people do, do you?”

I’m pretty sure it was admiration in her voice. All last week people were coming in late, leaving early, or taking long lunches to attend their children’s concerts. Hey, I attended my daughter’s belly dance program on Halloween, so now it was time to attend my mother’s program at Christmas.

And it was lovely. My father sat on one side and the woman who drove the bus from the retirement center sat on the other. Directly in front of me several white haired people sat on chairs or wheelchairs. Occasional whiffs of Eucalyptus or menthol blended with the scent of brewing decaf coffee. The chorus filed in and sang cheery Christmas songs and sentimental ballads. There were solos and duets and quartets. One man began to sing “Oh Holy Night.” The crowd fell silent. He was so good even the squeaky feedback from hearing aids died down.

After the concert I took my parents out for coffee and we chatted until it was time to take them back to the retirement center. When they realized it would be rush hour in Portland, they invited me to have dinner with them. I accepted. It is an hour’s drive in the best of circumstances. It can be a two hour drive if the traffic is bad. So, while we waited for the dinner bell, my father dug out his harmonica and gave me a private holiday concert of his own. How lucky to have two gifted parents.

By the time I left, my car had frost on the roof. I cranked up the heater and pushed the pedal to the floor, roaring home in just an hour and twenty minutes. As the tires crackled along the gravel road, lights twinkled in an inky black sky, with only a sliver of a moon to light the land. I pulled into my garage and heaved open the door, testing the air. Warm. About 34 degrees. I picked my way up to the top of the driveway, listening for any growling and baying wildlife and tipped my head back.

What is it about looking up at the vast night sky with the glittering of thousands of stars that fills one with wonder and joy? I searched the sky for the big dipper and for Orion. I’ve been in love with Orion since college. They weren’t there. At some point I wished someone knowledgeable stood next to me so I could ask if that was the Milky Way or if that group over there formed the heart of Taurus.

What would it have been like to be a shepherd and see a star shining in the east beyond them far?

I stood in the dark until my teeth began to chatter. “Thanks,” I whispered, “for this day of happy peace and wondrous beauty.”

Merry Christmas to you and may you find peace and beauty wherever you are in the world. May you find yourself with more good days than bad.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for commenting. Bless you all.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Shopping in Whoville


I hate shopping. No, really. Seriously. Any kind of shopping sparks shivers of fear, but Christmas shopping evokes a cold sweat. For one thing, it requires interaction with humans. Not so easy a task for a recluse living out in the hills. Oh, don't get me wrong. I do not live at the top of Mount Crumpit with a dog named Max. It is just that my "personal space" is about one hundred feet and Christmas shoppers ignore that. But, to participate in the Whobilation celebration requires thoughtful gifts, so today I ate a hearty breakfast, strapped on my flack vest and trudged out to the shopping mall, biting my nails and gnashing my teeth.

Because I had to wrestle a cart out from under two children (the mother may have meant I could have the two children, not the cart) I didn't see this sign in front of the store. You are going to have to trust me on this. I didn't choose this store because of the sign. Honest.

Whoever thought of this gimmick was a genius. What draws people into a store at Christmas? Fifty percent off sales? Five items with ridiculously low prices? Chocolate? HA. I laugh at such shenanigans. Well, maybe the chocolate...

But wine tasting? Fabulous. I'd only intended to taste one or two, but the woman kept saying,
"Wait, I think you should try this one." I didn't want to hurt her feelings, right? By the time I got out of the store, I'd just about completed my shopping. At least I think so. There are about ten bags of items in my living room. Shopping was never so relaxing.

I do wonder about the sign, though. The times say 1-4 and 3-6.

Tap tap tap.

Hmmmm.

Tap tap.

Odd, don't you think?


Thursday, December 17, 2009


As I’ve said before, I’m easily amused. It is a flaw.

When I first moved to the Portland/Vancouver area, I got a job in downtown Portland in “The Black Box," so named because it was all black on the outside, including the windows. Every morning it was like entering a coven. I’d sidle up to the elevators and jab the button, waiting for one of the doors to open and let out a vampire or a witch.

My training to process claims for a national insurance company began on the nineteenth floor. Sometimes my entire class had to travel to the fifth or the third floors for training. All twelve of us crowded onto an elevator and my trainer, Norma, came up with an inspired idea. You’ll just have to trust me on this, it wasn’t my idea. Honestly, it was Norma. Her idea was to turn around and face the back.

Brilliant.

We swung around, our backsides facing the doors, and floor after floor, the doors would swish open and meet with silence. Some would slink into the car, tap the button to the floor they wanted, and stare at the ceiling pressing themselves into the front corner. Others would wait for the next elevator. A few asked, “What the heck is going on here?”

My sides hurt from trying to contain my laughter by the time we reached the third floor.

Learning medical and dental codes and medical terminology made my eyes glass over and my stomach knot. The only good parts of the training were the elevator rides. Sometimes we’d all crowd up against the door like the elevator was full. Sometimes we’d face the side. Sometimes we’d all stand to one side. Aaaah, good times.

At the end of my training, I moved down to the fifth floor. What a disappointment. Not only were there fewer floors in which to have “elevator fun” but I was alone. If you face the back when you are alone, people just assume you are nuts. I mean, not that I tried it or anything.

One day at four in the afternoon, I shut down my computer and sauntered out into the elevator lobby. A gentleman from the mail room grasped the handle of a little cart with two full bins marked, “U.S. Mail”. He stared up at the lights indicating which elevator had the best chance of reaching our floor first and pushed his cart toward the doors.

The bell clanged. The door hissed open. The elevator was crowded with about fifteen strangers. But it wasn’t full. If everyone had scrunched over toward the sides the man with the mail would have been able to squeeze the cart in. I stepped into the car and held the door.

No one moved. No one. My mouth dropped open in disbelief and my hand fell to my side. The man with the cart poised at the door, waiting for the shift of people. Except no shift occurred. As the doors whispered closed I stammered, “B-b-but the mail must go through.”

Phfffft. Whir.

I turned and faced all the people and placed my hands on my hips. “Through rain and snow and dark of night, the mail must go through. Aren’t you all ashamed?”

They stared at me and collectively said, “Ahhmm.” Two heartbeats later they all said, “No.” It was so perfectly timed, so precisely executed that it appeared to be rehearsed.

My hands flew to my face, but not in time to cover the snort of laughter, and like dominoes, one after another joined in. Some collapsed against the sides and snickered, others clutched their leather briefcases and chortled and others loosened their ties and tittered. The doors opened at the fourth, the third and the second floors, but the outsiders did not join us. They backed away like the healthy eyeing a pen full of swine flu carriers.

Would you have stepped onto the car if the doors had opened onto a crowded elevator with everyone roaring?

Sometimes life is simply good.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Experiencing Life's Ups and Downs


Experience is essential in writing. Generally, the more horrendous your life, the better writer you can be. It may help get you through a crisis if you can just hang onto the fact you might sell your story later. I wish I had known this when I was younger. It would have made getting “sunday-punched” in the face by a maniac on the streets so much more fun.

Looking back, even embarrassing experiences can be useful. Long, long ago, in a land far away, I worked for county government. One day my boss came to me and smiled. “I have some good news,” she said. “You’ve been chosen to work down at the courthouse on Sunday.”

I squinted at her. “The courthouse is closed on Sunday,” I said. She couldn’t fool me.

She hunched one shoulder. “Visiting hours.”

I gasped. They housed the most dangerous male prisoners awaiting trial on the top floor of the old, stately courthouse. This was certainly an honor. I couldn’t go into the housing area for the males, and I knew only the most experienced deputies worked in this high security area, but perhaps I would be in charge of scheduling the prisoners for their visits. Maybe they expected me to run warrant checks on the visitors. Maybe I would make the visitors empty their pockets and step through the metal detectors. It was a heady thought. This was a chance to climb the ladder to success.

On Sunday, I walked into the empty lobby of the building. Doors usually opening to the courts and other county offices were closed and locked. I glanced around the ornate lobby with the polished brass scrollwork and pushed the buzzer to the jail, hidden discretely in a panel in the corner. The lavish doors to the old elevator moaned open and the sergeant stepped off in full-dress uniform with his stainless steel, four inch, .357 magnum Smith & Wesson strapped to his side.

“Good, you are here. You ready to take over?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I stood a little straighter, squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. “I’m looking forward to it.” I was a half hour early so they could train me on the security gates, or show me how to screen the visitors on the computer.

“Okay, climb in.” He stepped back into the elevator and pointed to a lever. “The building is closed except for the jail. When visitors come into the lobby, Deputy Knowles and Deputy Harlan will run them through security and then send them to you.”

“Great. I’ll be ready for them. What will I be doing, running them for warrants? Checking NCIC? Logging them in with a scanner? “

He cocked his head. “Um…you’ll be operating the elevator. We shut it down so it doesn’t operate automatically. You just push this button here, and then manually swing this lever over to open and close the door.”

“Then what?” I asked.

He grinned and adjusted his black, basket-weave gun belt, making the leather creak. “That’s it.”

My eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, ‘that’s it?’”

He picked a piece of lint off his dark blue Eisenhower jacket and ran his sleeve over the polished brass badge. “I mean, that is it. You’re going to operate the elevator.”

My shoulders dropped and my gaze locked on his. “The elevator? That is it?”

“Yup. You’ve got it.” He rocked back on his heals. “Now, push that button and take me back to the fifteenth floor so we can get started with visiting hours.”

I sighed. My corporate ladder to success was manually operated. “Yes sir.”

For the next five hours I rode up and down fifteen floors. No deviation. Visitors would climb on, some of them dressed nicely and others reeking of body odor and cheap cologne. The elevator jiggled and swayed up the shaft until it squeaked to a stop at the jail lobby. I’d crank open the door and off they’d go to visit their loved ones.

It was an excruciating five hours. In retrospect, however, I realize it gave me some insight as to what it must be like to be the captain of a square-rigged ship in 1805. I mean, I was in charge. The elevator went where I directed when I jabbed my finger against the “15” button. I controlled the lever like the captain controls the tiller. We were in constant motion. In fact, when I finally stepped off the elevator, I felt as if the lobby were moving.

Lastly, I got to clip out orders, just like a captain. “Step to the rear,” I’d bluster. And the visitors did what I said.

“Thank you for coming. Please come again,” I’d order. At one point Deputy Harlan overheard me issue this command.

“Melanie,” he said. “You don’t have to thank these people for coming. They are not customers.”

“I was just being polite.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, they are here visiting murderers, rapists and arsonists. Asking them to come again isn’t necessary.”

I’m glad I didn’t listen to him. The experience was invaluable while writing my British commander. He is such a gentleman, even while threatening the enemy with destruction. If it weren’t for my experience being an elevator operator, I may not have been able to write him with such a devotion to duty and honor.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Earnestness of Being Important

How important are you to your company? A while ago I would have ranked myself somewhere between the guy who blows the leaves out of our parking lot twice a year and the woman who empties our trash and recycling containers twice a week. But then I remembered a lesson I learned as a teenager. My cousin, Karen, and I watched the original version of The Nutty Professor. In that movie, Jerry Lewis drinks a potion and changes from the nerdy professor to a handsome heart-throb. When the movie was over we reasoned that the only difference between the absentminded, dweeby professor and the suave, sophisticated Buddy Love was attitude. Buddy Love personified self-confidence. Who doesn’t want to be around someone with self-confidence? When the plane is going to crash, I want to be next to the individual I think will be able to get us out alive. I want to be strapped in beside someone calm, confident and not likely to panic in a crisis.

For a week after seeing the movie, Karen and I strutted about, kissing mirrors and saying things like, “I’m not saying I’m perfect; it is just that I’ve never met anyone better." At the end of the week, we were still the same girls, but now we had attitude. We were awesome.

As I mentioned in the last post, I work in a closet. Besides the filing cabinets, printer and fire extinguisher, there used to be a shredder squeezed between my chair and the wall. Important people from all over the company would swagger in and stand behind me to shred their crucial documents. It became distracting, not only because it is eerie to have someone stand behind me, but because I wasn’t important enough to use the shredder myself. Nothing I did was all that essential. When left alone with the machine it would jeer at me, pointing out my insignificance.

And then I remembered Buddy Love.

I sat up straight. Who is to decide how important a piece of paper is? Me. I decided. My dang papers were fabulously influential. I stooped over and dug out all the papers from my recycling bin, mostly duplicate bills, shrunkled (yes, I’m important enough to make up my own words) paper I’d pulled from the jammed copier and empty envelopes previously housing invoices. These were all very important. I shredded them. Then, throughout the day, I’d shred the cover sheets to faxes and any inter-office memo with my name on it. Even sticky notes became exceedingly critical.

“Melanie, what the heck are you shredding in there?” my boss finally shouted one day. “I hear the shredder going all the time.”

“Just some important documents,” I yelled over the din of the devilish device.

One day I fired up the machine and stuck the end of my important document into the shredder. My boss walked in. Over the racket of the motor and the snarling teeth chomping proprietary information into indiscernible fragments of confetti, she yelled, “What are you shredding?”

I jumped and whirled around, my eyes widening. There was nothing for it. I had to tell her the truth.

“My adding machine tape,” I said.

Her mouth dropped open.

“We wouldn’t want our competition to see our numbers, would we?” I explained.

A week later they took the shredder out of the closet and put it in the front of the office area where the rest of the accounting staff sits to “allow easier access for everyone in the company.”

I miss the shredder. I’ve gone back to throwing the empty envelopes into the recycling bin and I rarely shred my fax cover sheets. Maybe what I miss most is the weighty feeling of consequence. But I have to admit, I don’t seem to miss the "important" people hovering behind me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Stuck with the Stapler

Okay, so I'm easily amused. I admit it. Itty-bitty things make me laugh out loud. Maybe that isn't so good when you work alone in a closet with a bunch of filing cabinets. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. There is a lovely red fire extinguisher hanging right near the printer. It is so cheerful.

The other day I was stapling checks to bills and I came to the Staples, Inc. invoice. I placed the check on top, straightened the papers together and slid it under the stapler.

Bam.

Nothing. Out of staples. What are the chances of that, humm? I mean, running out of staples just as I processed the Staples invoice? My boss walked by the closet and heard my guffaws. She stuck her head in and her eyes grazed the room, noting I was alone. "What is so funny?"

I wiped the corner of my eyes and snuffled, reining in the mirth. "The Staples check. I ran out of staples. It is like the invoice just sucked the staples right out of my stapler. Like it called all the staples back to the mother ship."

She stared at me for a couple of heartbeats. One eyebrow rose.

"I write fiction," I defended, shrugging. I sent her a bright smile.

Her head shook side to side. "You are more than a fiction writer. You live a lot of your life in the make-believe."

I took that as a compliment.



Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday Shopping


I drove out to the Columbia Gorge today, to do some shopping at Sandra Tucker's house. I didn't make it to the Larch Mountain Craft Fair due to freaking out about the weather and searching nearby stores for rain boots, gloves, ear warmers and chap stick for my sail on the Lady Washington. Sandra usually follows the show with a home fair with many artists in a folksy atmosphere of good friends. It is really so much better.
After buying several items, from Sandra and from Robin, although many other wonderful items were displayed, I settled into the kitchen. The wood stove ticked and creaked and spiced apple cider warmed on the stove. Several artists brought blueberry cordial, homemade hard cider, elderberry cordial and Sandra supplied the blackberry cordial.

I loved the elderberry, although I expected to see the little old ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace hover over me, waiting for me to die so they could drag me into the cellar and allow Teddy Roosevelt to bury me. Luckily that didn't happen. On the way back to Vancouver from the gorge, I snapped a few pictures.







Crown Point












Moss covered railing













Moss covered trees







I'm just trying out my new camera, but I think I'll have to break down and read the directions. Of course, it could have been the blackberry cordial.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Coyote Moon


On my way home from work, the moon cast silvery light through the dark shadowy trees. Its eerie beauty pleased me until the tires crunched along the dirt road to my house and the beams of my headlights lit the neighbors' garbage cans.

Dang. Garbage day tomorrow.

I backed into my garage, slammed on the brakes and heaved open the door, racing inside to gather the wastebaskets. Bathrooms, HobieCat and Schooner's room (they seem to make a lot of garbage), kitchen, garage, twelve Starbucks cups from my car, and a bunch of little packing
pellets from a cardboard box. I hauled it all outside
and splayed my hands, blindly batting the inky black for the obsidian plastic can. I felt the frosty lid and ripped it off, jamming in the spoils of my trash hunt.

The spindly wheels crackled across the frost-covered asphalt as I dragged it up the hill and around the center island to the end of the driveway, about a hundred feet from the house. Tall douglas fir trees and western red cedars blocked the moon's welcome light and I shivered in the 40 degree air, wishing I'd remembered to put on my jacket. When I reached what might be the end of the driveway, I tapped with my toe until the firm sound of leather against pavement was replaced by the tentative bite of leather on rocky dirt.

I set the can upright and began inching my way back toward the house. In the distance my garage light beckoned, but cast no light upon my path. And then I heard it. The threatening yip of a coyote, not far off. I froze and peered through the dark, my heart punching into overdrive. The whining wail whipped up the hair on the back of my neck and gooseflesh prickled along my arms. Another bellowing bark joined the first. They were moving in for the kill. In moments I expected the frenzied yelps as the pack closed in on the hapless victim.

My feet kicked into motion and I sprinted the last fifty feet, slipping on a patch of moss, recovering, sliding down the last of the driveway into the garage. I pounded the button and the garage door sprang to life, lowering in agonizing apathy, while my breathing burst forth in white puffs.

Before the automatic door finished its laborious task, I flew into the house and slammed the door, leaning back against it, sucking in gulps of air. I've lost pets to the coyotes. Everyone around here has. Even if you've never heard it before, when you hear the deranged, maddened yipping of coyotes making a kill, you know what it is. I knew HobieCat and Schooner were inside. They don't go out. Ever. But some poor creature met its end tonight, and my heart feels grief.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Lady Washington Part 4


While we waited for Dash to begin the training, Beth showed me the courses, the clew lines, the bunting lines and the sheets for the mainmast. Forward, the same lines hung from the belaying
pins for the foremast.

“Now, if I have it correctly,” she said, “the sheets haul the sails back to cup the wind and the braces angle the yard to fill the sail in the best possible position.”

"What is that out there, is that the chains?"

"Yes."

“Okay,” I said, “What is this flat piece of wood called on top of the railing?”

“That is the cap rail.”

“So what is the gunwale?” I asked.

She stared at me.

“You know. The gunwale, like on—“

“How do you spell that?”

Now I stared at her. “G-U-N-W-A-L-E.”

She tossed her head back and smiled. “Oh, you mean the gunnel.”

“Gunnel?”

“Yes, it rhymes with funnel.”

I knew the forecastle was actually pronounced folks’l and the topgallant sails were pronounced t’gallents, and boatswain was pronounced bosun, but this one had escaped my research. I flipped open my notebook and wrote Gunwale = Gunnel, and jammed it into my pocket.

Dash sauntered down to the waist and signaled for us to gather around the mainmast (pronounced mainmast). He began showing us the proper way to drop the extra rope on the bunting lines and clews so the bitter end was against the deck. This was to assure it would not foul when needed.

“Dash,” came a call from the quarterdeck.

He looked up and nodded. “Excuse me,” he said and sprinted up the quarterdeck ladder. We waited on the waist, watching Dash and the captain, but I could not hear anything over the grumble of the engine. Dash nodded and both the captain and Dash glanced my way. Oh oh. Had I done something wrong? Was I to walk the plank? Was he instructing Dash to have the men assemble for a flogging?

I held my breath as Dash thundered down the steps. “You’re in luck,” he whispered to me. He raised his head and shouted out, “Hands aloft to loose tops’ls.”

My eyes flew to Jeremiah and it is embarrassing to admit, but I think I danced in place and clapped, excitement gushing out. It felt like a movie. I expected Horatio Hornblower to appear on the waist. Jeremiah smiled.

Daisy, Forest and Jesse scrambled up the shrouds. The rest of us took the t’gallant sheets off belay and went to the bowlines. The sails were loosed and the crew aloft went below.

“Sheet home.” The order clipped out. It was repeated by crew, as the sheets were hauled with the help of the passengers willing to assist. In my thrilled excitement, I forgot the hand-over-hand, but quickly remembered after the first haul. We kept hauling until we heard “Avast!”

We went from one line to the next and I lost track of what was happening. My notebook remained in my pocket and I was torn between wanting to participate or observing and recording to paper what was happening. In the end, I hauled away on whatever line they told me to haul and wrapped it around the belaying pin when told to do so. I’m not positive I have it right, what we did. I do clearly remember the “No, Melanie, clockwise, clockwise,” someone yelled. Dang. It is a curse to have a digital watch. I unwrapped the belay, careful not to give anything back, and redid it, clockwise, four turns and underneath.

“On the quarterdeck,” Sara yelled, “floating log one point off the starboard bow.”

“One point off starboard,” came the echoed reply.

“Hands to the main braces.”

I followed the crew to the braces and we hauled our starboard lines while the larboard crew gave slack.

“Starboard ease off three inches.”

“Easing off three inches.”

“On the quarterdeck, log is two points off starboard bow,” Sara informed the captain.

“Two points off.”

And so it went until there came a blessed silence. Ropes and lines and halyards and sheets all safely belayed, I glanced aloft to see the sails filled taut in the warm, golden sun and an exhilarating sense of peace settled over me. I smiled. It felt right, like I was home.

With only the tops’ls set, we glided along at about 2 knots, past freighters with fore and aft anchors set, past a tugboat pushing two barges along, past Frenchman’s Bar. We slipped by them all in magnificent, graceful silence, broken only by an occasional whisper of rigging.

The Lady Washington is a beautiful creature, and I fell in love with her.

All too soon the order was called to furl the sails. We repeated all we did earlier in reverse order. The railroad bridge opened for us. Then engine growled to life. Crew scrambled to haul out the fenders. Jesse grabbed a rope dangling from the rigging like a Tarzan vine and as we came along side the dock, he swung out over the water and dropped to the dock. Lines were thrown to him, first from amidships, which he wrapped around the post, then the others, fore and aft. The gangplank was rigged.

It was time to leave, and it was heartbreaking. I shook Jeremiah’s hand and thanked him. I went ashore with the other passengers, wishing we had another day, or a week left to the trip. It was over much too fast. Eight hours was only a blink.

The Lady Washington still has remnants of her acting roles, like a star has Oscars. She still carries the broken "H.M.S. Interceptor" name, from her role as the Interceptor in the Pirates of the Caribbean, The Black Pearl movie.







Her compass still steers a steady course above more modern equipment in the binnacle. And in front of her tiller is a patch where her "wheel" used to be as it steered the Interceptor under the hands of the antihero, Captain Jack Sparrow. It adds to the Lady's charm.




Bruce, Ryan, Nelson and I have already discussed another trip. We'd like to sail the Lady

Washington again, but this time on the ocean. Until we do, however, I’ve been busy planning my revenge. I think I have Ryan talked into setting up my “husband” Bruce’s home computer so whenever he logs on, it will pipe him aboard.




Many thanks to the captain and crew of the Lady Washington.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Lady Washington Part 3


The engine rumbled and diesel fumes fouled the air. What happened to the briny scent of the sea and the whisper of wind in the rigging? (Okay, I knew we were on the Columbia, but I still expected some salt air.) Where were the gruff commands to hoist the mains’l, holystone the deck, loose the cannons? After forty-five minutes of rain, hail, rain, I'd had enough experience with the grim reality of bad weather. I scowled. The crew pattered about their tasks without regard to conditions. Shipboard life went on regardless of daylight, darkness, sun or rain. The five other passengers managed to amble topside with steaming cups of hot coffee.

I didn’t get anything to drink. I’d made that mistake in the Caribbean. On a trimaran we’d been issued rum punch along with our life jackets. High winds and huge waves drove most passengers aft to hang over the rail and retch. The rest of us clung to the ropes on the outer hulls to keep from being swept into a pile of wreathing arms and legs in the center netting. With my

free hand, I brought my cup of rum punch to my lips. Blaaak. Salt water with just a hint of fruit nectar and rum. I wouldn't make that mistake again.

No way did I want hot coffee with chunks of hail and diesel dust.

But wait, what was that?

A rainbow off the stern chaser?



Rays of warm sunshine? The sky lightened. My heart sang. A reprieve.










The crew scampered to the brightwork, polishing the brass to a spotless sheen. Daisy, the gunner, worked on the ship’s bell.


Dash, the first mate, polished the runners of the after cabin hatch. Forest climbed into the rigging to check lines.

This was more like it. Every move they made I quietly committed to memory (okay, yes it is merely ram until I commit it to my hard-drive notebook with a pen), still leaning against the belaying pins on the quarterdeck. And then I heard Bruce talking to the captain, Jeremiah.

And it was about me.

I’ve been sailing on a 42' Catalina in the San Juans off the coast of Washington with Bruce as the captain. Ryan had captained a 42' Beneteau. Nelson, like me, crewed. Before we boarded the Lady Washington I told them I wanted to remain anonymous. An invisible observer. "Okay," they said, nodding their heads and eying me like I was crazy to think it would be otherwise. They seemed to understand my request.

But now I heard my name. I inched aft.

“And then Melanie,” Bruce pointed to me, “brought a whistle with her. Ryan captained the Kipper Kite and I captained the Raven. Whenever I left and reboarded, she would blow the whistle.”

“Blow the whistle?” Jeremiah asked. His brow knit and he glanced at me, his mouth dropping open like he’d just discovered he had a fugitive aboard.

“It was a bosun’s whistle,” Ryan confirmed. “She was piping the captain aboard.”

“Every single time,” Bruce complained. “I’d jump to the dock and grab my duffel and my charts, she’d pipe me aboard again, And when we moored that first night we were stern to stern in a quiet little bay so we could walk back and forth between the Raven and Kipper Kite.”

“And she’d not only pipe him aboard, but she’d pipe me aboard, too,” Ryan added.

Jeremiah gaped at them. I thought I’d better defend myself. “It was a sign of respect,” I explained.

“And then another boat, the Dream Catcher, came in beside us. We knew her captain, Phil.” Bruce shook his head and sighed as if I had murdered the man and tossed his body overboard.

It vexed me.

“She piped him aboard, too,” Nelson chimed in.

Jeremiah’s eyes flicked to me and back to Ryan and Bruce. “Well, at least she doesn’t have the whistle this time.” Although he said it as a statement, it was oh so much a question. Poor man.

“N-no, I don’t have it,” I stammered. I had been conducting research aboard the Raven, for crying out loud. Research is okay, isn’t it?

Nelson paused beside me and raised his knuckled hand. A bosun’s brass and copper whistle dropped down from the chain wrapped around Nelson’s fingers and swiveled in the breeze.

Jeremiah’s eyes widened and Bruce and Ryan stiffened. My shoulders dropped. Oh dear lord. “Noooo,” I squeaked. “I’m not going to blow that.” Sheeez. So much for remaining anonymous. I gave them a weak smile and lowered myself down the ladder to the waist, hoping to lose myself in the activity amidships. I watched Beth for a few minutes and asked her a couple of questions. I whipped out my little pad of paper and pen and asked a few more. She answered them with a bubbling excitement, a broad smile flashing through the dripping rigging.




Some of the crew began a training session, tying knots and working with rope ends, under the direction of Dash.




Forest swung up the main mast.







Sara perched in the bow, watching for obstacles.





Laura, the cook, climbed up the gangway. “Main course is served. Main course is served,” she shouted.

The six passengers nodded politely and remained where we were. Laura knew how to handle a crew. “And, I must tell you, our crew is hungry. But they cannot eat until after the passengers eat, so please come below now. We have a thick corn chowder and homemade bread, all vegetarian, but I’ve also set out lunch meats if you prefer meat. There are also fresh cookies.”

We straggled down the gangway (no easy task for my torn unmentionable muscle) and filled our bowls with a hot chili pepper corn chowder to die for and bread still steaming from the galley stove. Laura waited until we found places to sit on the benches before she called the crew. They trampled down much quicker than we had.


After the midday meal we returned topside. Steam rose from the deck in the early afternoon sun. Beth sat on the forecastle hatch and motioned me over. “Since you’re writing a book, you might want to join us for our afternoon training.”

My jaw dropped. “How did you know I’m writing a book?”

She leaned back. “Well, your husband said so.” Her eyes floated up to the quarterdeck.

My shoulders slumped and I cranked my head toward the stern. What part of anonymous did men not understand? “Which one is my husband?"

She pointed to Bruce.

I’d make Bruce pay later, the rapscallion. “Yeeeaaah. No. He’s not my husband.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Her cheeks turned pink and she hunched her shoulders.

I sighed. “It’s fine. Yes, I’d love to hang out for your training.”


Part 4 to follow.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lady Washington Part 2


“Permission to board?” I called.

No answer.

I tottered up the gangplank dragging my duffel and peeked over the cap rail. He had been there a moment ago when Bruce and Ryan climbed aboard. I shrugged, happy to be able to clamber onto the deck without an audience just in case I tripped over the rail and landed with a splat. It takes a while to gain my sea legs, like maybe a week, or a month. I picked my way across the rain soaked deck and peered down the gangway. A tall, thin man with graying whiskers stuck his head through the opening. He smiled.

“Welcome aboard the Lady Washington.” He stuck out his hand and grasped mine in a firm shake. “I’m John Paul, the steward. May I take your bag?” He hefted the dunnage below as he called out, “You’re welcome to come below. We have coffee and hot cider.”

“No, thanks,” I said. We were in intermission. I whipped out my camera and shot pictures before the rain’s act two began. Crew appeared from the forward hatch, the after hatch, up the gangway, all busy performing chores. Tiller, the terrier mix, went ashore with Sara, the boatswain. Nelson and his daughter, Amy and granddaughter, Maddie boarded and John Paul guided them below.

The captain, Jeremiah, appeared on the quarterdeck and the order was given to get underway. Crew jumped to action, hauling in the gangplank, calling out positions, preparing to take in fenders and untying the lines. The big diesel engine sprang to life and we began to inch away from the dock. Jesse, a young man in a plaid flannel shirt swung up from the dock, clearing the bulwark and landing lithely on deck.


“Rain’s coming.” Beth, the purser’s mate said.


I glanced up, flipping open my case and stuffing the camera inside. Light gray clouds with intermittent patches of blue drifted overhead. “Where?”

She shrugged. “Astern.”

Behind us black clouds shed a wall of hazy liquid over the water. I shivered. We zipped against the current of the Columbia River at a pretty good speed. “Do you think we’ll outrun it?”

Beth squinted aft, swung her eyes up the mast to the flags and dropped them to me. “No.”

Dear lord. I put up my hood.

Within a few minutes sheets of rain hammered the deck. Crew flipped open hatches and dropped below, reappearing in rain gear. Amy and Maddie clutched their hoods at their necks and inched toward the gangway on the wet deck. I leaned against the belaying pins on the quarterdeck while the wind whipped through my trousers. The captain held steady, dressed in an olive drab rain slicker and fur-lined hat. On the flaps covering his ears a skull and crossbones warned.

“Do you want to go below?” one of the crew asked.

“No, I’m fine. This isn’t bad.” My gloves--purchased the day before at a sporting goods store--kept my hands warm and dry and my rain boots performed their task admirably. This wasn’t so bad. Back in 1805, the sailors would have been fine if they’d had the right clothing. But then frigid wind gusted and icy white balls pelted my jacket and danced across the deck. My scarf edged up over my ears and my gloved hands jammed into my pockets. I glanced down and watched rain run out of the scuppers like gutter water out of a drain.

Stop by again for Part 3


Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Lady Washington Part 1



Something woke me. My eyes flew to the clock to make sure I didn't oversleep the 4:45am alarm. The dial screamed black void. It wasn't the clock alarm beeping, it was the alarm system shouting out a warning that the electricity was off. Beep, once, twice, three times. I shot out of bed and tripped over the rain boots. Forgot they were in the spot usually reserved for clear passage to the bathroom. I groped my way to the sink and patted the counter until my fingers closed over the cold metal of the watchband. The face blinked blue and read 2:30.

The wind howled outside and rain pelted the windows. The hundred foot Douglas firs
surrounding my house strained and creaked not more than 40 feet away. I cringed. Windstorms wreak havoc on my nerves. Two months after moving here a hundred footer fell across the driveway, trapping me in until my ex came over with a chainsaw. The electricity went off then, too. For five days.

Thoughts of a nice, hot shower before going to sea left me miserable. I'm out in the country. Without electricity, the well pump quits working. No water for showers. No water after the first flush. I lit a couple candles, pulled up the lever on the sink and filled the sink with hot water before it had a chance to cool. When it was gone, no more water. With the aid of a plastic cup I washed my hair and shivered in the dropping temperature. Dang. No blow dryer.

So my day started out wet, two hours earlier than anticipated. There is an old sailor saying, "Get wet, stay wet." Perhaps an omen? I got dressed by yellow candlelight and dragged my duffel with the extra clothing and rain jacket out to the car. Back inside I blew out the candles and grabbed my keys, stepping into the garage again. I screeched to a halt. No electricity. Power door. Stuck.

The trunk provided a flashlight and the top of my convertible came down so I could stand in the car and grab the dangling rope to disengage the garage door opener. When that was done I put the top back up and trotted to the double door.

Perhaps this is the time to admit I strained a muscle in an unmentionable place while lunging with a sword. (Yeah, yeah, I know.) The garage door is extremely heavy. Heavier than any other garage door I've ever become acquainted with in my very long life. When I heaved, the muscle blathered out its protest.

Great.

On the way to the Red Lion Inn at the Quay, the road was littered with tree branches in the pitch black. My headlights didn't seem to light the road well in the driving rain. I did manage to make it to the meeting place where we left our cars and piled into Nelson's camper. Bruce, Ryan and I squeezed into the front and Mattie and Amy snuggled into the back to sleep the hour to
Rainier, Oregon. As we crossed the Lewis and Clark bridge the rain let up a little and we scanned the shoreline for the Lady Washington. She floated, hugged up against the dock, in all her magnificent beauty, waiting to get out and run.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Preparing for Battle


Okay, I've got my gloves, my hat, my poncho, my jacket, my windbreaker, my overshirt, my undershirt, pants, three pairs of socks, Doc Martin shoes, an extra change of clothing and a silver flask.

I know how to handle a sword, so I'm ready to take on the pirates and defend the captain. I've got my camera and extra batteries and my notebook and two pens and a pocket knife (which I've used to cut tape for packing boxes, but I'm
sure it is still good). Regular glasses, sunglasses (who am I kidding?), an energy bar, my ID and hush money. I got air in my tires and ibuprofen in my blood.
Forecast:

Rain

Windy. A

steady rain in

the morning, with showers

continuing in the afternoon. High 47F. Winds W at

20 to 30 mph. Chance

of rain 90%. Rainfall

around a quarter of an inch.

I hope there is a nice place to plug in my computer and perhaps some wifi. And do they have, I don't know...flight attendants or something? And it would be nice if they added some "all you can drink rum punch" like they do in the Caribbean. And, it isn't as if I'm making my poor characters go around the horn, you know. They are in a nice, warm Caribbean sea, so I don't think the rum punch is asking too much.

I'll have to chat with the captain about this as soon as I'm aboard.

I think I'm ready. At least I thought I was until I read the forecast.


When my ship comes in, I'm on it.