How to Keep a Bridge Quiet When in the Car

There is nothing like writing a book to illuminate just how awful a communicator you are.

I think everyone should do it. Not only for the (eventual) resounding joy of completing such an accomplishment, but also to recalibrate your ego—bring it down to a more palatable level.

Like bug height.

And it’s only at such a degree that you will see the crucial minutia—the details, the complexities, the nuances that exist beneath the large umbrella encompassing the process of conveying information. Yes, the granular level is critical; the grammar that contains all the basic linguistic units that make up our parts of speech, but there is so much more than the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in each sentence.

Of course, to see that “so much more” collection, one must pull back the lens to include a big, broad perspective. One must don the panoramic glasses of an omniscient deity, let’s say, providing you the opportunity to view your work from every angle and from great heights.

I’m not so sure I’ve ever met a human who embodies the ability to do all of the above, for if you ever have the chance to experience publishing a book in a traditional manner, you begin to see that there should be countless names given credit as author, and not just one boldly inked above the title.

Let me explain. I think writing a book is a metaphor for factory work. Rarely, do we find one person who wears every hat. Creating something—for instance, a widget—typically requires an interconnected tapestry of relationships. Even if you hang your own shingle stating you’re a one-man band baker, it’s doubtful you’re also the grain farmer, the mill grinder, and the manufacturer of the oven, right?

The last box I tick off on the completion list of “book writing” is to craft an acknowledgement page. Over the years, I have learned to keep a checklist, as there is nothing more worrisome than coming to that moment when this write-up is due, and you’re wracking your brain for Who else? Who else? Oh fudge, there are surely more!

There are. I’m not kidding when I state that I would like to include some grade school English teachers who taught me the basics, and also highlight others whom I hold at fault for not drilling more into my brain. I suppose one could lasso in any individual who aided you whilst learning language, but it’s mostly considered a slight not to include one’s parents, so we’re mostly covered there.

The factory work of book writing is where we could state that our earliest teachers are the manufacturers of the raw ingredients. They provide the schooling that leads to the recognition of a collection of sounds, which are assigned to various letters. Placed together and in dictated order, they form a syntactic unit.

I see myself as the widget maker—utilizing all those syntactic units. Once possessed of all those units—or words—I churn them out and pray they have a functional purpose. Whether to educate or entertain, the person who soon purchases those words will, optimistically speaking, find them worth the expense.

That widget is then inspected by upper management for design flaws, operational errors, and defects of any nature. Upper management includes editors, proofreaders, and interior designers. The widget gets sent back to the production room floor a lot. A LOT.

Then that widget is enrobed in fashionable, eye-catchy wrapping. Photographers, graphic artists, models, and designers first all huddle in some stylish conference room and bemoan the fact that it will be near impossible to convey the “idea” of the widget, unless upper management can make the “idea” a better one. Upper management sends the widget back to the production room floor.

The floor operator (that’s me) has no one to complain to, as she is not unionized and really just hopes for a paycheck and therefore, straps on her elfin cap once more and gets to work.

Eventually, either the widget is acceptable to upper management and the creatives, or someone shoves it through inspection as they can’t stand to look at it one second longer.

The larger point is that we’re all involved in trying to communicate something to others. Something we feel is worth the slight distraction from whatever other activity those others may be engrossed in.

Us: “HEY!” (Now, someone holds up the widget)

Others: “Huh?” … “Oh, I get it.”

Us: “Our work is done.”

But getting to the “done” part is arduous—and, oftentimes, sadly unsuccessful.

Communicating is hard. Telling people what you think, how you feel, what you see and believe should not be that difficult with all the tools at our disposal, and yet, because of inflection or syntax, those threads are open to interpretation.

Every proofreader (but mostly those having worked on my books) will tell you that we give meaning and emphasis to words and phrases where we absolutely shouldn’t. I am at an Olympian level when it comes to misplaced modifiers.

Example: Being a lover of bridges, this one was gorgeously swoopy.

There. I just made a bridge a lover of bridges. (facepalm)

Back to the larger, larger point—I trust my readers to know what I mean, not what I say. And I ask them for forgiveness and also not to laugh at the parts that I did not intend to be hilarious, like making bridges anthropomorphic.

I think, as humans, we all have ample experiences to point to where we’re finding dialogue, and communication writ large, to be more challenging than ever. Whether attempting to pair the perfect emoji to replace words (often fails), sifting through media opinions hiding as facts (often succeeds), or trying to decipher what code level color the CDC has stamped as today’s mask needs (usually epic blunders), time is an important element one must employ on both ends for success.

Well, maybe time to communicate, time to interpret, and time for a stiff drink if we manage to botch up the babel.

I stand by my suggestion that everyone gives it a shot though—a shot at writing a book. It will flood you with a sense of thoughtfulness as you spend countless months and years attempting to craft content that will be unforgettable. It will highlight the value of cooperation as the team of factory workers by your side pour their souls into attempting to re-craft your content so that it will be readable, enjoyable, and all errors will be “forgettable.” And lastly, it will provide you with an opportunity to say something without being interrupted—as this always happens to me whenever I’m in a car with a bridge and they just blurt out their enthusiasm for overpass architecture.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Not So Fit as a Fiddle, but Still Music to My Ears

This year for the holidays, I received a beautiful gift: a bow.

Not a knot tied with two loops and two loose ends to adorn my hair or embellish a box.

Not a weapon from which I would launch arrows to fend off foes or hunt whilst hungry.

Instead, it was a wooden rod, curved and carved, attached to horsehair, and meant to fill a room with sound once drawn across a set of strings.

I’ve been missing the bow to my violin for years.

I’m fairly certain it left of its own accord, for my skills as a violinist are thus that once revealed, fill any listener with more desire to have me cease, than the encouragement they first offered to have me begin.

I have been surrounded by musicians my whole life. It is not difficult to assess who was capable and who was simply fulfilling the chore affixed to their daily schedule by a parent who insisted that if they wished to see the dawn of the next day, they would accomplish the tasks assigned to them on the present one.

I wasn’t fond of practicing the violin, and I don’t really know what would have happened had I refused to play it. Or if I would purposefully create sound that would have others beseeching I never do so again. I was a rule follower. And more than a modicum of effort was expected to produce results.

I reached the great height of mediocrity and would still to this day firmly quibble with Elfriede Jelinek who stated that The middling level has no terrors, no anxieties. For no matter where I went—and at that time, I was going from stage to stage—I found I was hired on because “yes, you can sing,” but also “we need a violinist too.” Therefore, I was thrust into the limelight where others now shined a blistering focus on those lackluster skills. Terrors and anxieties accompanied me as if we were tethered triplets.

Once departing that domain and birthing two small humans who grew to the level of trust where they could hold an instrument and not simply utilize it as teething relief, I quickly, and astonishingly, discovered what true aptitude looked like. Smart enough to engage industrious tutors, and youthful enough to recall tutorial methods that did not resonate with me, the blueprint to build two true musicians began to take shape. The foundation of this construct required one element I insisted be present, lest the whole edifice collapse: joy.

I think most of us realize that to achieve any measure of competency, it will involve some elbow grease, and therefore, joy can be muffled when engaged in employing said grease. Muffled does not mean silenced. No pillow may be engaged in asphyxiating the necessary joy essential to furthering one’s abilities—no matter how downy soft it may be. Many would agree the joy emerges strengthened and intensified, but usually after great effortful endeavors. Learning that pattern is what’s most difficult.

Now although my skills did not improve greatly as I worked and learned alongside my children, my joy associated with my violin did. I think it was due to living vicariously through many of their advancements. Hearing someone tackle increasingly difficult passages and produce mellifluous sound was phenomenal not simply to experience firsthand, but also to feel the jubilant skipping of my own genes expressing the thrill of a job well done. I would never take credit for my offspring’s’ capabilities, but I take a small amount of satisfaction knowing I did not fully dampen them to the point of being mute.

Today, the two of them are magnificently masterful with their art, and I remain astonished at the heights they’ve achieved.

I also remain tethered to my own averageness and would love to shift the blame onto something as absurd as my personal fear of heights. Some ladders are not meant to be climbed, although I find myself at least brave enough to perch a few rungs above dirt level.

And the view from this spot, although not panoramic, feels purposeful enough to elevate the worthiness of my efforts—the energy put forth to revive latent skills for no one else’s benefit but mine, where a small bloom of satisfaction unfolds as ancient filaments of melodic line burble up to the surface from ink to brain and instrument to air. The fact that they stitched themselves to some part of my essence and found hush-hush housing, emerging when called–albeit dusty and brittle, does not dampen my pursuits. In fact, those efforts are made more profound because someone I love gave me the means to express myself. And although I wish that that which is expressed from those four tightly drawn strands sounded less strained than the method one envisions it required to create the catgut strings, there is still joy.

Joy that someone gave me the gift.

Joy that someone still absurdly believes I have the wherewithal to make use of the gift.

And the joy that on any given day I can simply announce, I am not going to practice today, so there.

From where I stand on the ladder’s rungs of talent, I’d have to say that’s a gift in and of itself and should be wrapped up in a bow.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

The Din of December

There is something magical about the word December.

And I think it’s more than the tingles I get from simply saying the word—a word that envelops me with a warmth containing decades of memories, all twinkling and glittered. I think it’s the hearing of all things December related.

December has a sound all its own.

For me, and where I live on this patch of earth, it is the sound of swirling snowflakes, cotton soft and cushioning. It’s a muffling of the natural world, a bright white quilt under a blue-white moon.

It’s the sound of wind chimes chinkling, nudged by invisible fingers of a frost-laden wind.

It’s the whistle of winter’s breath as it races down the chimney shafts and rushes through the empty halls, a purring, fluid melody, so measured and hypnotic. Suddenly, it inhales and pulls all open doorways shut with slaps of sound that startle, breaking soothing silence.

I hear the somber trees, brooding and contemplative. Rhythmic and slow, their drinking of the earth and drawing in the air allow them time for mindful reflection, and their meticulous planning of a spring that slowly creeps closer day by day.

And I listen for the pop of seasoned wood, ensconced in flames and smoke. The tiny hiss from flickering tongues is the language of heat, a faint articulation of a promise against the bleak and bitter chill.

I warm at the thrum of mellifluous song, the trilling of carols, the honeyed blend of bright, buoyant voices. Whether it be the refrains of jubilant noise thrust toward the heavens of a brilliant starry night, or one single, hallowed melody, hummed quietly and kept in check, music seeps out into the air, whimsical, innocent and heady.

This month is filled with the sounds of gratitude: the contented sighs slipping from souls who witness December’s darkness replaced with tiny, twinkling lights, the bright-eyed, gleeful shrieks from innocent mouths who point at storied characters come to implausible and colorful life, and the cheerful hail of reception that fills front halls, front porches, and the faces of those behind front desks.

It is abundant with the thanks for a warm cup of tea, a filling cup of soup, a coat, some shoes, a toy, a bed.

It is filled with a million wishes on the same bright stars, overflowing with countless dreams whispered deep beneath the covers, scratched in a letter to Santa, chanted in prayer over candlelight.

I hear the sound of sharp blades on ice, waxed sleds on snow, snowballs on parkas.

There is the noise of muffled feet on carpeted risers, the hum of a pitch pipe, a sharp intake of breath, and the strains of melody and harmony and dissonance braided throughout the next many minutes that make the hair across your arms quiver above goose flesh even though you are in an overheated room, squished into an undersized chair.

Throughout the month there is the crunch of dry leaves, the cracking of gunshots and the grunt of effort when dragging home that which will fill the freezer. I hear the soothsaying of snow, the delightful patter of euphoric feet, and the collective groan from a city full of scraping shovels.

The sounds of December are those of rustling coats and the stomping of boots, the rubbing of hands against the numbing, wintery sting. They are the hushed prayers of voices in holy vigil, the retelling of sacred stories to fresh ears and hungry souls.

The sounds I hear are those of glasses, clinking all in toasts. They are the wishes of warmth and the hope of fellowship, the thirst for triumph and the promise of change.

But most of all, I hear the plaintive yearning of my heart, voicing the wish that December won’t end, that January won’t come, and that time will stand still.

December is a month of sounds that sounds so good to me.

~Shelley

Lastly, I leave you with a small gift from me to you. I sing Norah Jones’ song ‘December.’ A tune I feel is my holiday hug to the world.

(And a huge hug of thanks to my wonderfully gifted son for mixing and production.)

Winter On … and On and On and On

I grew up in a house where the winters were long, the springs were greatly anticipated, and the summers were scheduled for one week somewhere around the middle of August. Fall was lovely, but it really was just “introductory winter,” if I’m speaking frankly.

Heat was a commodity no one took for granted. You needed it for a good solid nine months of the year, and it had to be reliable. The thermometer was a device you trusted not just to tell you how to dress for the day, rather we used it to determine whether you should even step outside the front door.

One January morning, when I was seven or eight years old, my family piled into the car to head to church services. It wasn’t an unusual day per se, as despite it being incredibly cold with a nose-numbing ice fog sparkling all around us, one was never encouraged to indulge with the obvious complaint existing within everyone’s head as to just how unhappy one was. My dad had drummed one phrase into us: Your being cold is not a personal experience, therefore, suck it up.

This particular morning, we arrived in the church parking lot and pulled a standard move—something that was considered fairly normal for this time of year—we kept the car running.

It was only once we’d finished the service and loaded back into that car that we heard the radio announcer report that as of today, our little town was the coldest one in America, registering a balmy sixty degrees below zero.

Apart from the obvious danger to skin, other more unusual things begin to happen at temperatures that frosty.

Cars’ tires will freeze to the road surface in a somewhat flattened shape, and now it will be like driving with square wheels.

Heating oil turns into jelly.

Storm windows shatter, and nails pop right out of house siding, whizzing like bullets.

And of course, there are a few extra children’s tongues tethered to flagpoles. *shrug*

For most of us, that was just another day growing up in Wisconsin. And those long, cold winters meant time to chop and haul wood. If you heated your house with a wood stove, like we did, it meant you’d be chopping and hauling at least four cords of timber. You take on a special appreciation for trees at the beginning of the season when you cast your eyes across the tremendous sacrifice they contribute toward one family’s wellbeing, or maybe more accurately, survival.

And although I no longer endure those formidable winters having moved to Virginia, I do currently live in a log cabin and rely upon a large fireplace for mostly the physical sound and visual tease of heat. My wood needs have shrunken considerably, but each year I dutifully have a cord of hard oak delivered, and I stack my treasured logs in a way so they will be seasoned, and I will have access.

Except this year I noticed I still had several layers of split logs filling the bottom third of my main wood rack. It was agreed by me and the well-seasoned logs that moving them to any other location would simply be an exothermic exercise and a waste of precious heat, therefore, the newly dumped truck full of split wood would have to find a home somewhere else.

I eyed available space and assessed my resources. Oftentimes, once you run out of room in your ideal location, you simply look for cooperating trees—solid trunks that will stand as sentries on either side of your neatly stacked row. But mine stood on hills and a good way from the house, and most folks tend to disappear when the general question of “who wants to fetch more wood” is asked, and they see it will require hiring a Sherpa for assistance.

Reaching back into my brain for any latent engineering skills that may have been deposited there via a freak of genetics, I remembered occasionally seeing an oddly-shaped wood pile during my youth in Wisconsin—a state liberally sprinkled with Scandinavians looking for weather just as cold, but a language less annoyingly mimicked.

With renewed vigor, I went about planning my new wood stacking design—the Norwegian Roundhouse. I know this sounds like some sort of kickboxing move, but in truth, if it’s made well, it looks a bit more like a giant wooden gumdrop. And no one has ever had to defend themselves against pectin.

I took apart an old whiskey barrel and used the metal rings as a base, then I placed a layer of thick metal lattice on top to create the “circulation” layer. If there is one thing I have gleaned from my youth, it is that being just cold is much more survivable than being both cold and wet. And everyone who has ever gone camping in the rain knows just how soul-satisfying cryogenically preserved baked beans eaten out of a tin can be.

Wood must not get wet and stay that way.

The whole point of the Norwegian Roundhouse is to build a wood stack that wind can whistle through, mice can scramble through, and no eight-year-old boy can kick down. Breezy, yet sturdy, like the Titanic if it simply encountered an eight-year-old boy.

Layering the wood is a process of intense focus with choice, placing every log facing inward in a large circle the size of a four-person hot tub—or an amateur Florida sinkhole. Each piece of wood is a puzzle that must fit perfectly into its slot. The sides, as you build, must never bulge, never move outward and overlap the piece beneath it. Instead, each one must lay the tiniest bit farther into the center, eventually creating the appearance of a beehive, or a gumdrop, or a pyramid built by a guy following directions provided by IKEA.

As I did not know these last bits of direction before getting about chest high, I spent the next several hours hammering pieces into place. After two full days of choosing the perfect logs, hammering them into their ideal spaces, wedging in supporting structures, and bandaging the hammered and wedged fingers that got in the way, I was finally finished.

It looked awesome. It looked perfect. It looked like a mix of true engineering and art. It looked like I was going to need to call the lumberjack back for another load of wood because ABSOLUTELY NO ONE WAS GOING TO BE ALLOWED TO TAKE WOOD FROM MY “ART IN PLACE” PROJECT.

And so it begins again. The constant pursuit of warmth … and perhaps a small dose of sanity.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Kindness Costs Nothing, but Tomatoes are a King’s Ransom

I am a procrastinator.

Although my explanations for delaying any decision or activity are crammed with reasonable details, I am also fraught with unreasonable guilt for the pile up of decisions left unmade and activities left undone.

One day I’ll get to that bucket list which is now a barrel list.

One day I’ll see to that niggling pain I’m hoping will disappear (obviously, it’ll definitely disappear by the time of my funeral, so I’m kinda covered on this one).

One day I will discover how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

For the last couple of years, on my one hour and fifteen-minute route into work, winding through farm fields, cow pastures, and five-house towns, I have passed a little wooden shack—a farm stand selling vegetables. I remember thinking, One day. One day I’ll stop and check it out.

Finally, the excuses of I need to get home, or I need to get to work were put aside because one of those John Deere combines that claimed 620 horsepower but only 6 mph speed stopped traffic on my tight and twisty farm road. Coincidentally, in front of that farm stand. I now had absolutely no excuse not to investigate that which has been a colorful blur out my window. Countless bountiful months—those spring through fall harvest seasons—simply whizzed by for years where my only excuse was “not enough time.”

Farmers have a way of putting the advice of “stop and smell the roses” (or the newly mown hay, or the freshly dropped cowpie patties) into crisp and unignorable perspective. It is not so much advice as it is a forced bit of guidance.

I pulled off onto the semi-circular dirt road that advertised the large hut with a few wooden shelves full of tomatoes, green beans, shallots, and corn, okra and peppers, potatoes, and beets. Each bin held a price, and I stared dumbly at them for a full two minutes. I glanced up to see a dry erase whiteboard with an entire menu and coordinating costs that matched the bins’ prices.

Ten cents for any tomato larger than your fist. Five cents if it’s one you can shove wholly in your gob.

No way, I thought. That’s got to be wrong. Or maybe they all tasted like they should sell at a K-Mart Blue Light Special event.

I found a five-center to test, overestimated the size of my mouth as I crammed it in, and then experienced the delayed response of one who realizes just how determined tomato innards are to gush past the house of their skin and any other boundary one feebly tries to embrace them within. Juice, seeds, and an exclamation of surprise came flying out my mouth.

But this is a farm stand in the middle of nowhere. Who’s watching, right? Who saw me splatter the wall and the front of my shirt, and the whole whiteboard menu?

Umm … maybe the fifteen cars idling on the road waiting for the great green beast to give them passage around him. Apparently, my faux pas was entertaining enough to produce a couple of honks and one “Nice work!” from the audience.

I trudged back to my car and found an oil rag, hoping I could erase some of the whiteboard’s woes I’d crafted. Word by word, and price by price, I replaced the tomato splattered menu with fresh listings, thanks to the dry erase marker on a ledge beneath it. I was mid-way through my work when I stopped to marvel at the taste of something so magnificent and a price so unmatched. I can’t believe I’d been missing out for years on this vegetal treasure chest.

Returning to my work, I’d turned to hear the squeaky hinges on a truck door slam. An elderly man in grass-stained overalls tottered toward me on legs so bowed they looked like parentheses rather than appendages.

“You changing the prices, young lady?”

“No, sir,” I answered as he stared at the marker and rag in my had.

He snorted and pointed to the vegetables, “You city folk come by here lookin’ for a bargain and still aren’t happy with what you find. I’ve told Beatrice that her prices are too low anyway, but she’s just a good-hearted woman easily taken advantage of.”

“I’m not city folk, and I promise I’m not changing the prices. I’m just redoing the whiteboard because I accidentally splattered tomato all over it. I was trying to do the right thing.”

He pointed toward the empty see-thru plastic bin with the sign above it displaying the words Money Box – Honor System. “The right thing round here is to pay before you consume, and most people—city or farm folks would know that.”

I felt like I was back in school, chastised by the principal for some second-grade misdeed. And I also felt a little bit miffed that I’d been unfairly accused of said misdeed, but I knew what it must look like to this guy, so I unzipped my purse and searched for my nickel.

Of course, I had no change. Of course, I had no dollar bills—no fives or tens.

I pulled out a twenty. “Do you by chance have change?”

The farmer slapped a hand to his thigh and cackled. “Do I look like an ATM machine to you?” He shook his head and moved back toward his truck, mumbling, “You city folk.”

Except I wasn’t whatever negative version of city folk he had in mind. And I was about to shout that out when I saw the old guy returning. He held up a silver coin, dropped it into the plastic box, and then said, “This one’s on me.”

I nodded with my humble thanks. “Please tell Beatrice her tomatoes are amazing.”

He shrugged and snorted. “I have no idea whose farm stand this is actually. I was a couple cars behind you in the line and was getting grouchy with the wait. I saw what happened and just had some fun while stretchin’ my legs. You drive safe now.” He got in his truck and pulled back onto the road, the traffic now cleared.

With a face likely as red as the tomato I’d mostly eaten, I finished off repairing “Beatrice’s” whiteboard.

When I was done, I pulled out my $20 bill and dropped it into the “Honor Box.” The way I looked at it, I was half paying a fine for all the wasted time of never stopping by and purchasing the best tomatoes ever, and I was half paying for that exceptional fruit.

Some life lessons are a little pricier than others, and somehow, I felt like it made sense to purchase a twenty dollar five-cent tomato.

Next time I’d bring a pocketful of change.

And a change of clothes.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.