Present Tense, Two Memoirs

Present_Tense_Card-m

Past exhibition-Spanierman Modern

I am a serial reader, so more often than not I have at least two books on my bedside table (or on my Kindle). This past week I finished reading two debut memoirs, Torre DeRoche‘s Love With A Chance of Drowning and Liz StephensThe Days Are Gods.

These are vastly different, these two memoirs, one is an adventure story, the other a literary tour de force, but both had one thing in common: both authors chose to write largely in present tense.

This is not an easy trick. To keep the book moving forward and reflect back while staying in present tense requires a skilled writer. When I’ve used it my sentences tend to be stilted. “I come into the room and discover my husband dissecting a frog.” (Just an example.) Now that sentence is fine and pulls the reader right into the scene. Holy smokes… he’s doing what?  I can do it for short spurts, but eventually I end up writing something like, “I come into the room and found my husband dissecting a frog.” In other words, I want to move back to past tense.

I think, or I thought until I read these two books, that  present tense is difficult in memoir. The memoirist tends to write looking back at past events; we see the person who experienced those events long ago and offer up reflections based on who we are now.

I suppose it depends on what sort of memoir it is, though, because these two authors manage it well.

DeRoche (Love With A Chance of Drowning), writes a story of action, of things happening in the here and now. She struggles with a new life aboard a boat and deals with her extreme fear of water,  gets to know her new lover, his family,  as well as all the adventures a sailing life offers. Present tense works wonderfully well here, pulling the reader along for the trans-Pacific voyage. The reader feels as though they are in the boat (without tangling up the lines or tripping over Torre and Ivan).

Believe me, you are right there in their little 32-foot sailboat, Amazing Grace, as DeRoche writes:

16242289 “There’s no doubt about it: we’re going to die. It’s night and the wind is vile. The waves are reaching as high as our radar antenna, which must be twenty feet from sea level. We’re staggering down each angry wave, and my stomach keeps bottoming out.

Amazing Grace isn’t so amazing right now, nor is she graceful. She’s tumbling like she’s hammered on salt water. Our life is in the hands of a drunken boat.

Boom! A wave collides with fiberglass. Who knew water could sound like a bomb explosion? These bombs are hitting every minute or two—a horrifying bang, followed by a sharp lurch sideways. My body rolls in my small bunk, and I’m thankful for the canvas lip that keeps me from flying sideways.

Boom! I wait, trembling, praying for her to come back upright. The angle seems too steep. What is our tipping point, anyway? How far can we keel over before we tumble and get swallowed by the jet- black ocean?

Boom! Another wave-bomb hits—a clean uppercut to a staggering drunk. We’re definitely going down. Somehow, she finds her way back upright but then overcompensates in the other direction.

Boom! A heavy crest comes down from above, washing the topsides with fire hose pressure.”

 

Stephens (The Days Are Gods), on the other hand, writes about a time when she and her actor-turned-welder husband move to Mormon country, Utah, where she completes her MFA but also searches for “home.” She creates a world where the reader resides inside the head of the writer. We know what she is feeling or thinking at any given moment as she feeds her goats, buries chickens killed by a neighbor’s dog, and tries to get to know her neighbors. But we are also experiencing her reflecting on those events from her current perspective as a writer. How Stephens does this is a real skill of construct and form.

 

Stephens-DaysAreGods.indd “Yes, I still feel the frisson of unexpectedness in moments, but it comes more and more slowly, less and less often-maybe when I’m standing in front of a morning class, realizing that I’ve already fed a dozen chickens in the dark of morning, when I’m just about still asleep, climbing two pipe fences at six months’ pregnant to dig layer feed out of the bag in the tack room, nudging aside my not-intelligent charges to set the metal feeder among them, weaving through drowsy horses to trudge back to the house. As much as I want to feel I belong, as I lose my sense of outsider resonance – shedding the irony I was after all trying to outrun – I feel sometimes as if my sounding is off, my bearings indistinct.”

 

As different as these two memoirs are, the immediacy and intimacy of present tense works so well in both cases. Both authors occasionally flip to past tense when writing back story and future or subjunctive when postulating, but the bulk of both works is present tense.

I feel lucky that I pickled them both up and read them at the same time.

Gilbert, McPhee, Lamott, and the Shitty First Draft

“If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.” ~ John McPhee

IMG_0996I’ve had a terrible time returning to my writing lately, pushing on through what is possibly the shittiest first draft of all time. The work came to a complete halt after a month of intensive writing last November in which I managed to write 30,000 words (the good part) but also discovered some pretty unsavory truths in the process. I realized that a lot of what I’d written would need to be deleted entirely or at least seriously rewritten, the arc of the story was no longer what I thought it should be, and a recurring theme kept insisting on being told.  I was not comfortable with any of it. The whole memoir imploded after that; it was all too much. Marge Piercy describes this aspect of the writing as “eating bricks for breakfast.”

Despite all of the whining, recently a couple of very interesting and encouraging things have happened to me.

I stumbled across a guest post by Richard Gilbert over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, a writing blog I enjoy reading. Gilbert was blogging about his soon to be published memoir, Shepherd: A Memoir (due out in the spring, 2014). This led me to his blog and a piece he wrote about John McPhee and writer’s block. He started the post writing about the name of his blog, Narrative. It is now often confused with the lit magazine of the same name. He wanted to change it and thought 4th Draft would be a good title. When he googled it, he ran into John McPhee’s latest essay on writing in The New Yorker, Draft No. 4: Replacing the Words in Boxes.

Gilbert went on to talk about things he learned along the way while writing what he thought would be a year-long writing project. Seven years, many revisions, and four drafts later,  he now has what he considers a worthwhile effort. He is remarkably humble about the process.

I found comfort hearing about a writer encountering the same issues I’ve had while writing my own work-in-progress. He, too, found his story was not about what he thought when he first started writing it but, instead, found far deeper and richer themes. It was not until the second draft that he began to be able to say, Yes, this is what it is about. I wrote to him and thanked him for the post, saying how much it had meant to me. He wrote back,  saying it pleased him that I found some of it helpful. He also said what my comments told him is that I am deeply immersed in my own work, and, like a magnet, attracted to what I need.

I got hold of a copy of the McPhee’s New Yorker essay and read it. I found such solace listening to a great writer talk about the agony of writing the first draft. He says he hates everything about it. The writing stinks, he feels worthless and wonders why he ever chose a writing profession, his ideas are stuck, and getting it onto the page is agony. In a letter to his daughter he describes the first draft,

 “The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that you have achieved a sort of nucleus.”

Dear God, do I ever know how that feels. He goes on to talk about the second, third, and fourth drafts, which sound much more encouraging. It even sounds like fun by the third draft.

But that shitty first draft is a must.

Coincidentally, I was in the states recently helping my 94-year-old mother move from her home of twenty plus years to a very nice assisted living facility. (So nice in fact I said to a friend, If this is what assisted living looks like, move me in!) During the sorting and packing process we came across many things: original newspapers announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor, a family Bible, print date 1815, and other things not quite so interesting.

In the give-or-throw-away pile was a small leather case with a tiny tooled flower on the cover. I undid the miniature c-clasp, still intact, and opened the rectangular case, one side padded in claret red velvet and the other with a gold picture frame of something called a Daguerreotype, a vintage direct camera image on a silvered copper plate. The image is oxidized now, nothing remaining but a gold rim framing a blurred area. My mother did not want it, and, unsure why, I  put it in my luggage.

When I got home and found the little picture frame, I thought to myself, This is silly. Mum is right, I always save these sentimental things. It is of no use, or value, and more practically, what am I going to do with this thing anyway? But I put it on my writing desk next to a photograph I keep of my IMG_0993parents taken around their 70th wedding anniversary. A few days ago I looked at the little frame and it hit me, the hand-to-forehead jolt.

I remembered why I saved it or at least some part of me remembered.

Years ago, when I first thought seriously about writing, I read Anne Lamott’s now famous book, Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1994). In it she wrote about a one-inch picture frame she keeps on her desk, because, she says,

 “It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car–just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.”

I wanted a one-inch picture frame of my own after I read that, and I looked and looked but never found one. How serendipitous that I should find one now, now when I finally understand what she was writing about, how getting that first draft onto the page takes focusing, not on the whole, but simply on an individual scene, one description, or one conversation, just fling it onto the page like mud against a wall, bird by bird, so I can see what I have for the next draft.

I like the little frame because it came from my father’s family, but, more than that, I love that it has a blurred image of possibilities… something like the first draft of a book.

Semana Santa, Crime Sprees, US Embassy Warnings, and a Grateful Expat

beach lifeYes, it that time again; Semana Santa, Holy Week, in which seemingly all the Central Valley descends on the two coasts of the country. The hotels are full, bars and restaurants are over flowing with customers, and we are staying in for the week. Yesterday there was a steady stream of traffic in front of our house. Where years ago a car might pass once a day, now there is a four-wheeled river.

If you pave it, they will come. I ventured out for some supplies this morning but made sure I did it before seven in the morning, long before the revelers got up to ease their aching heads from the night before.

Narcoboat_newsfull_hOf course all this is a boon for business, and it is happening in spite of a US Embassy warning issued just last week advising North Americans to avoid the Caribbean due to recent crime spree. There have been a string of violent hotel invasions over the past several months as well as a drug bust in Manzanillo on March 12.

In that incident a high-speed panga with four (FOUR) 300 horse motors—that’s 1200 horsepower, folks, and a whole lot of speed—carrying about two tons of cocaine was run aground in Manzanillo by the Coast Guard. Four men fled into the jungle and faded into the local population. The white stuff was captured but not the men. But all that said, the Pacific side of the country fares no better; there were several similar drug busts on the Pacific in the past few months. All in all Costa Rica has captured about 20 tons of cocaine this year alone… on both coasts, all headed north to a guaranteed market.

It has always been the assumption of the people on the Caribe that Pacific investors and hotel cartels put out bad publicity about the Caribbean around the holidays. That might have been true in the past, but this time the Caribe has things it needs to address. And I see the government and the police have formulated a plan to fight crime. The idea is to allow people a toll free number (1176) to call and anonymously report crime or suspicious activities. I hope it works.

The only issue I see is that people here are afraid to report because they do not trust their police or the government and they fear retaliation from the criminals themselves. Healthy concerns.

For now, though, it’s nice to see the cars full of people from San Jose coming to the Caribbean to celebrate Easter, and I hope they have a good time. (And as always I hope they clean up their trash when they go.) The small inconvenience to me is slight in comparison to the success of businesses here. May they prosper and give legitimate employment to all the young people who need work to live a life without crime.

Happy Easter. Feliz Santo Domingo. Have a good time, everyone. Play safely and even if it means my house shakes with the bass beat of a local bar, so be it.

On a side note: I still do not understand fireworks on Good Friday, the day it is believed that Christ was crucified, but I’m Buddhist not a Catholic. Just saying.

Film Reel Rolling Backward

A celluloid life

is easier

Splice and mend

cut out the mistakes

Erase the grief

 

The year I spent fucking my way across Europe

Sam & Dave spilled out over pirate airwaves

off the Isle of Man

 

Possibly that

could be discarded

Culls for the cutting room floor.

 

I was Mustang Sally

doing desperado sex,

on-the-run-no-questions-asked sex.

unprotected sex

In a time of free love

 

What I needed

most

was comfort

Relief from the pain

 

Cut and splice

his death

so shattering it could have been my own

So young

 

But we cannot roll back the film

We go on

All those mistakes

make us who we are

 

[Scintilla Project prompt, day 10: 1. Sometimes we wish we could hit the rewind button. Talk about an experience that you would do over if you could. If you would like to sign up for this storytelling fortnight, click here, or on the icon in the right menu. It’s Scintilla. It pushes your boundaries.]

Lost Without Translation

Costa Rica News – ”Stop the car!” I yelled at my husband. “Maybe that guy knows where the place is.”This is an all too familiar cry when we are driving anywhere in the Central Valley. We are both excellent drivers, but the bulk of the driving has fallen to him. I invariably ride shotgun, acting as navigator, and that involves asking for directions more often than not.
giving directions in costa rica
The man I spotted had what I look for when making inquiries. He was older, trimming a big red bougainvillea that overflowed from his yard into the street, so I assumed he lived there. And he appeared to own a car. One was parked in his drive, anyway. This last item is almost essential, because, with luck, the directions he gives will be for a driver and not a pedestrian. I’ve gotten those, and we’ve run into one-way streets, alleys, and dead ends. I have used taxi drivers parked by the side of the road. They are great. And on more than one occasion I’ve actually taken the taxi and had my husband follow in the car to find the correct address.

On this particular day we were trying to locate a wrecking yard in San José, Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. The address on their website said—no kidding: in San José, La Uruca, Barrio Corazon de Jesus, 800 meters north (road to Heredia) at the intersection of Pozuelo.

This is not an anomaly; this *is* the approved address system of Costa Rica. If you are a local, you probably know right where these places are, but if you are an expat or a visitor, good luck. It’s a bit like directions the old farmer gives when you’re lost in rural America. “Go up this road until you come to the Burns’ place, turn north, and continue on… oh, maybe a mile or two until you get to the corner where that old oak was hit by lightening back in ’96.”

It’s hopeless. Even if you do follow the directions to a T, you often discover the hypothetical tree is no longer there. For instance, there are addresses that mention the Coca-Cola Building in downtown San José. Coca-Cola moved to another location—across town—years ago, and the building is now a flea market, but many businesses close by still refer to it in their address (From the Coca-Cola building 50 m north and 25 m east, between avenida…). That sort of thing. And the 50 meters north or 25 meters east address makes having a compass in the car indispensable.

We were familiar with Uruca, a section of town known for its traffic jams and the Office of Immigration. I had no idea where Barrio Corozon de Jesus was. I searched desperately on our old, and not very detailed, roadmap as we inched along in traffic.”Road to Heredia,” it said. Okay, I found Heredia on the map. Dot to dot. It must be the road we’d seen at the bottom of Uruca, at the huge intersection that was often a free-for-all of cars and trucks. We needed to turn right at that point, but what in hell was “Pozuelo?” I beavered through my trusty Spanish-English dictionary. No entries.

“We are going to have to turn right pretty soon,” I said. “You need to get over in the far lane.” Easier said than done. Costa Ricans, like the rest of us, are polite face to face but can be rude and pushy behind the wheel. As we edged across two lanes of traffic and a chorus of horns, I became vaguely aware of the smell of sugar baking, something buttery.

I was checking our map when we drove straight past the turnoff. A couple of blocks later we looked for a place to turn around. That is when I saw the man trimming his bougainvillea and yelled at my husband to stop.

I showed this portly stranger the address, and he pointed to where we had come from. He said we needed to turn left for Heredia. “But what is this?” I pointed at the word Pozuelo. He gave a me quizzical look and pointed up and across the intersection. I looked up and saw the huge billboard-sized sign: POZUELO. Of course, Pozuelo, the bakery, the one that makes all those sugary cookies. I thanked him, feeling rightfully foolish, and said I was lucky it wasn’t a snake.

We took another stab at it, made the left turn and headed toward Heredia. 800 meters later, not counting overshoots, turnarounds, and the need for more directions, we found Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. They did not have the auto part we needed, but suggested another wrecking yard that might, Repuestos Pana: in San José, North Granadilla, Curridabat, University Latina, 4 kilometers east.

 

Mentors: Looking Through the Interstices

CalligraphyAll during high school, or until I was old enough to drive myself, my mother faithfully dropped me off at the front door of the art museum in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. Evenings, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I entered the deserted museum–– uniformed guard in the front foyer–– and made my way past whatever current exhibit was on display, then down the marble hallway to the stairway at the back of the building. For three years of my life I took a two-and-a-half-hour class led by Lloyd J. Reynolds, master calligrapher and iconoclast professor from Reed College.

The art museum allotted him a long narrow space just wide enough to fit twelve or fifteen desks with slanted tops. Narrow windows at the top of the room were covered with wire mesh for security; fluorescent tubes our only real source of light.  The room was often empty when I arrived. Over the next half hour others drifted in and settled themselves unpacking canvas art bags. We took up our pens in silence and retrieved our papers from our large black art folders. There was no need to be told, we were there to work.

Calligraphy is the art of making letters. That is the simple definition. It is not a skill like print lettering or stenciling, but a covenant between the artist and the paper. I was to find later that at its pinnacle it is a dance––a kind of performance––in which the artist is able to express himself with a spontaneous, yet disciplined, outburst on paper. A master calligrapher stamps his work with so much personality it becomes instantly recognizable as his own, as does any Cezanne or Picasso. Like any art form, it starts with singular focus, constant practice, and the application of will.

Reynolds usually arrived on time or slightly after the hour. He kept his white shoulder-length hair slicked back, and his thick, black-framed glasses seemed to accentuate his usual scowl.  He marched down the aisle between the desks, toting his enormous briefcase and puffing on his ever-present pipe. Once at the head of the class he would take off his coat to reveal a disheveled black suit, white shirt, and a narrow black tie. Next, he would unpack his briefcase and organize himself for class.

EXEC-06-1.400x400

Michael Ziegler Photography: Lloyd J. Reynolds, calligrapher

I always remember him arriving in a foul mood, or perhaps he was distracted or tired or something else a 16-year-old would not understand. Most of us knew not to press him until he was well into the second half of the class. He took his time getting situated and, once organized, proceeded up the aisle to see what we were working on. And we better be working on something, otherwise we would be admonished, yet again, that we could just as easily be doing nothing at home. When the occasional uninitiated joined the class, with thoughts of a new hobby, they didn’t last long.

“You must hold the pen just so,” he said, as he demonstrated with an enormous calligraphy pen that made two-inch wide strokes. The letters floated effortlessly off his hand and onto the art tablet he set up on an easel at the head of the class; six strokes and a perfect capital M stood anchored to the ground, its solid and yet flourished edges standing tall. A collective groan rose from all of us.

“Why do you even bother if you aren’t willing to do your best?” He would ask, relighting his pipe or taking a few puffs.  Lost in thought for a moment, Reynolds seemed to contemplate his own words, and we could sense him mellowing. And I realize now, forty years later, that we were doing our best, but he pushed us for all we could give.

One of his former students, calligrapher Clyde Van Cleve, once said this about Lloyd Reynolds: “He had little patience with uninformed intuition. He celebrated the beauty of a circling kite and knew the importance of the string.”

The string––practice––was the key to everything, he told us repeatedly. To make a flourish look spontaneous and light on the page there must be true artistic discipline behind it. Only a master can make it look easy. As we bent over our letters endeavoring to meet this goal, slowly his attitude would begin to shift from ill-humor to a call for understanding the pattern of things––all things.

Once warmed up, he would segue into his lecture for the night. It might be about a script he was particularly interested in at the moment, Carolingian or Gothic, but it Golden rectanglewould soon became a lecture about Charlemagne and European history in the eighth century, and then on to how print presses changed not only lettering but writing as a whole, showing us the links between what we write today and the same letters written long before us. Or he would start out by talking about the Golden Rectangle and by the end of the lecture he would encompass Euclid, Pacioli, and Da Vinci. We could feel his enthusiasm rise as the lecture progressed. He took us with him on his journey into art, and history. At fifteen or sixteen I didn’t know who Pacioli was, but he made me want to.

By the end of any given class he was alive and energetic, a champion of our work. Renewed by his own enthusiasm, he would always tell us before we left for the night, “Now, go home, and make beautiful letters.”

Taking a class from Reynolds was an apprenticeship in life. Through him, I began to discover that even the mundane held meaning. It could be true of cooking or any other creative outlet. Anything I attempted could simply be routine but I could, if I wished, turn it into art. It was up to me.

 

[Storytelling prompts provided by The Scintilla Project. Click here to find out more or click on the icon in the right hand menu. It’s fun. It’s Scintilla ’13]

 

No Turning Back

Scintilla #7– What have been the event horizons of your life – the moments from which there is no turning back?

no turn backThere are times in our life when we stand at an intersection and more often than not it requires hindsight to know we were even there. Yogi Bera once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it,” and perhaps that is the best possible advice. Either way, whatever decision we make will irrevocably affect our lives going forward.

And that hot day in June when my husband said to our lawyer, “Yes. Close his easement,”  it unleashed a series of events that would irrevocably change my life.

It might have been the air conditioner blowing a chilly wind that made me shudder, but it might have been that second sense I developed after years of working the emergency room, that second sense that tells us we ought to proceed with caution.

Whatever else I have learned from what followed, one thing is certain. The next time I am tempted to aggressively engage others in any grand design to make things better or to avoid loss and destruction, I will remember that pivotal moment in the lawyer’s office. Because to win sometimes we lose more than we gain.

What made us think, expatriates in another country, we knew enough or understood enough, to enter into a legal battle over an easement?

I do not know the answer to that. but my husband was convinced he would rather fight than give in to neighbors traipsing across our land.

[This is an excerpt from a memoir. Thanks to the fine people over at The Scintilla Project, I edited this little passage, the moment where there was no turning back.]

If you’d like to take part, follow this link or click on their icon in the right-hand menu.  It’s fun. It’s Scintilla- a fortnight of storytelling.

I Don’t Fly Well, Or Rather, I Don’t Land Well

Hurticaine MitchReturning to Costa Rica in the fall of 1998.

The trip had gone relatively well, as flights go, although the weather was a bit rainy when we arrived in Dallas. We got on an American Airlines flight listed as non-stop from Dallas to Costa Rica. Once we were secured in our seats. the captain came on the intercom and informed us we’d be making a short stop en route. Apparently American considered any flight where passengers could not debark, a non-stop flight.

The flight was a bumpy one but we really didn’t think much about it. It is almost always turbulent around Dallas. We watched a movie and a couple of hours later we heard the announcement to fasten our safety belts, straighten seat backs, and put away all electronics. We were due to land in Guatemala City. They also advised us there was a bit of rain and the landing might be rough.

As we descended out of the pitch-black sky, the turbulence increased. The last pass the flight attendants made through the cabin was far more attentive to seat belts and trash than any I’d experienced before. They clung to the seats to keep their balance, and staggered down the aisle lifting blankets from people’s laps, checking to make sure all seat belts were securely buckled. There were sheets of rain pummeling the sides of the airplane by now.

I had a premonition of doom, but I’m not a very good passenger when it comes to landings anyway. Always the white knuckles.

The airport in Guatemala City is located smack dab in the center of town, or it felt like it. As we approached the runway the rain was so heavy it looked like thousands of bullets streaking past the windows. Out both sides of the plane I could see buildings so close I thought I saw people moving about inside. The plane bucked and heaved wildly, first dropping one wing and then the other. The pilot wrestled to keep the plane level, and–I hoped– on the tarmac. But it was too rough. He pulled up at the last moment just before our wheels touched, and we lifted back into the sky banking off and to the right.

The pilot said something on the intercom that might have been Spanish. It sounded as though he was speaking into a fistful of tissues or a sock, nothing but a garbled buzz. The flight attendants did not repeat his comments in English. I finally realized what he said, because we continued to bank and buck until we were in position to make another stab at a landing. This time was worse than the first. The same buildings flew past at supersonic speed, the rain streaked past, and just before crashing, we were rescued when the pilot pulled up at the last-minute, making the now familiar banking turn. Again the garbled Spanish. The Latin gentleman across the aisle from me  turned and said politely, “He says we are going to try it one more time and if he cannot land we will divert to San Salvador.”

I wanted to shout, Well what the fuck is wrong with doing that right now? 

We did this a total of three times before we bumped and skidded up to the terminal.

All Costa Rica bound passengers were required to stay in their seats while the lucky got off and went about their business. My armpits smelled and my only thought was about abandoning ship. If the landing was this bad, what would takeoff be like?

It turned out it was much easier than the landing and we arrived safe enough in Costa Rica later that night.

Over the next few days I gathered from the papers and TV news that we had just flown through Hurricane Mitch, a hurricane so violent it is remembered all over Latin America as a benchmark for major disaster and loss of life.

Photo credit: Hurricaine Mitch: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA)
National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS)

Storytelling prompts provided by The Scintilla Project. Click here to find out more or click on the icon in the right hand menu. It’s fun. It’s Scintilla ’13

Today’s prompt:

1. Being trapped in a confined environment can turn an ordinary experience into a powder keg. Write about a thing that happened to you while you were using transportation; anything from your first school bus ride, to a train or plane, to being in the backseat of the car on a family road trip.

My First Boss, A Cowboy Born in the Wrong Century

 

 “Mr Thomas was born May 31, 1915 in Fossil, Oregon, to William and Mary Thomas…. He worked on several ranches in wheeler county and was a professional rodeo cowboy……..” 

Jim ThomasJim Thomas was born in the wrong century for cowboys.

I knew him most of my early life but never knew until his obituary that he served in WWII or that he was a cowboy poet.

What I did know left an indelible mark.

My first memories of him are from the Saturday night square dances my family attended at the Camp Sherman Community Hall. As young girls, my sister and I waited with great expectation for those dance nights. We had rituals about what time we arrived, what to wear, and there were endless discussions about who might, or might not, be there. There were excitements and disappointments every weekend.  If Jim came, he came late, the evening punctuated by his entrance. Whether he was drunk or sober, he made a splash. I remember once there was a commotion at the back of the hall when he tried to ride his horse into the dance hall. I was thrilled someone would do something that outlandish.

He danced the Cotton-eyed Joe like a floating dream,  his bowed legs and cowboy boots tapping out the rhythm— heel and toe, and one, two, three— his strong arms holding some lucky woman at a proper distance as they glided across the dance floor. I remember when my turn came for a dance. I must have turned a crimson shade of red as we swirled around the room, knowing every woman was watching. I was only ten or eleven, but I knew innately—right then—what a dangerous man was long before one came along to break my heart.

Some years later I worked for Jim at Jim’s Horses for Hire. Ending up running a dude string is a bit like a prize-fighter becoming a professional wrestler, I would imagine. He also drove the snub-nosed school bus for the local two-room school-house I attended for a year. I suppose he was trying to be a good husband and father, a free spirit tied down by his responsibilities.

He lived with his wife and two small children about a half mile from the corrals. In fact, he lived right across from the community hall. He rode his horse, Roanie, from his house to work leading my horse along behind so we could round up the rental horses in their pasture. The crisp mountain air stung my nostrils on those mornings, the smell of pine, and that special way that sound travels through cold air woke me up as I waited for his arrival at the corrals.

He would have worn a plaid cowboy shirt that had been through the wash enough times to soften and fade it into a wonderful shadow of its original color. The front pockets were never snapped, and there was always a pack of Camel straights in one. He wore button up Levis’ held up by a tooled leather belt with a silver belt buckle with its brass bucking horse frozen in time. His weathered old boots were not fancy, just working cowboy boots. His hat was a Stetson, no other kind was acceptable. It was black, but with a sweaty grease ring around the bottom third, mixed with dust, dirt, and grime that made it seem a kind of dark brown fading into black at the crown. The brim was weathered and tipped down so far he had to cock his head back to look you in the eye. He always had it on unless he was being introduced to a woman. Then he would remove it politely with a nod.

He smoked his Camels from the minute he got up in the morning until he went to bed at night. He may have smoked at night, for all I know. He smoked without ever taking the cigarette out of his mouth, and he smoked them right down to the stub. His fingers were stained brown from the tar. I can remember watching impatiently as the ash would grow longer and longer, waiting for it to drop onto his shirt or pants. When the butt was short, the smoke would begin to drift up his nose setting him off into a fit of coughing that would force him to remove it until the spasms subsided. Like all smokers, it was worse in the morning. I could  hear him coming a good ten minutes before he got to the corrals.

A gifted horseman, he  knew whether a horse was giving its best on any given day, and he respected the work they did. He expected them to work in the summer but wintered them out on a huge ranch in Eastern Oregon where they never saw a human being until spring. Rarely did he send his horses out alone with customers he didn’t know or trust. And that was my job, the guide and protector of the hoses. Sometimes he would ask my opinion of someone who wanted to go out alone with a horse. I never realized it at the time, but he was teaching me to look at people, to assess their character, know whether they were trustworthy.

We spent a good deal of time sitting around that corral waiting for customers and I learned a lot. I learned how to play mumblety peg. I learned how to play coin toss games, how he made tea in an old coffee can on a wood stove. I learned that he drank and kept his stash in the barn where his wife wouldn’t find it. I learned a lot about horses, trimming hooves, about tack, about using turpentine on wounds as a disinfectant, and all along, I learned about people.

I have never understood how someone could walk into a corral with an old cowboy like Jim and try to convince him of their equestrian skills, but they would. Usually, these same people would try to mount the horse from the wrong side, or claw up the side of the horse as though the saddle were a life line. Once on board they had no idea how long the stirrups needed to be, or even what they were for.

Jim had a horse he kept for special occasions when someone rubbed him the wrong way. I suppose you could call Bar-S a Palomino, although he was a far cry from the version we all think of: the beautiful golden color and flowing blonde mane and tail. Bar-S was more albino than Palomino, blue eyes surrounded by reddish pink eyelids and white lashes, a washed color that looked more like a worn coat than gold. He had a sullen and shrewd look, evaluating you the minute you walked into the corral. Bar-S, was his name because of the brand on his left shoulder, but Jim called him “The Pig” because of his demeanor and for Bar-S Bacon®, popular at the time.

Sometimes Jim would let a particularly arrogant rider go out alone, especially if he was trying to impress his friends. Inside the tack shed, out of earshot of the dude, Jim would turn to me, an evil grin on his face, choking on a bit of smoke drifting into his nose. “Saddle up the Pig, Sarie,” he’d say. Once The Pig was saddled it was the rider’s turn to try and get him out of the yard. This was particularly humiliating as his friend’s horses would dutifully head out of the yard on their well-known track. The Pig wasn’t having any of it. Kick, and he would back up. Kick harder and he would back up faster. Sometimes, he would back up under a little loafing shed trying to scrape the rider off under the low roof. He would jam himself into a corner and just dig in with every kick, crushing the rider’s leg against the corral rails, or until the rider was forced to ask for help. The Pig always came home dry. No one would run him into a lather.

I worked for him throughout high school, and then our worlds grew apart. I was in the whirlwind of my youth, gobbling up life as it came at me.  I never realized that Jim’s life was in a steep decline. I guess life was gobbling him up. Years later I got word that he and his wife had gotten a divorce, and I went to see him once when I was in my twenties with children of my own. He was living the lonely life of an alcoholic by then. I made some sorry excuse about getting home with the babies. That was the last time I ever saw him, but I have never forgotten those years together. I know that whatever insight I have into people comes from the years I spent with Jim in that corral so long ago.

[This post was inspired by a writing prompt from The Scintilla Project, offering a fortnight of storytelling. Follow this link to find out more, or click on their badge on the right hand menu.]

Wound Care + Sugar: A Very Sweet Solution

Scoop of SugarWhat would you say if someone told you the fastest way to heal a wound was to pack it with sugar? And what if you lived In the tropics, where infections run rampant and wounds are slow to heal under optimum conditions?

If you are like me, a nurse, at best you would be skeptical and at worst you’d probably think the person was off their rocker. But this is exactly what our vet, Dr. Marco Mora of MediPet Veterinaria, told me to put on our little male basenji’s nasty abrasion. He got it from a terrible accident a week ago last Monday. And when I say nasty, I mean about half the back of his left hind foot was missing, tendons and bone exposed, and penetrating through two of his toes. A gaping hole.

All I could think of when Mora suggested a sugar treatment for a pus infected abrasion was a giant magnet for flies and bacteria, but he assured me this would not be the case. “You are going to be doing the treatment and you are going to see just how effective it is,” he said.

Before I agreed to this, I did some quick research. Chacho’s foot needed rapid treatment; there was no time to waste. Ah, the Inter-webs and their infinite search possibilities.

The method goes back 4000 years to the Egyptians who, it turns out, used honey to treat battle wounds. In fact, according to this New York Times article, the sugar system only fell out of favor with the advent of modern antibiotics.

It seems the sweet stuff has several things going for it.

• It covers the wound completely, protecting it from flies and other external pests

• It is highly osmotic. Hold on. I know this sounds technical, but think about it. Have you ever left sugar out on the counter by accident and found in the morning it had turned to a puddle of water? This is because it absorbs water from the atmosphere. Anything that has a higher osmolarity pulls fluid from a substance that has a lower osmolarity. What does this mean for wound healing? It means that the sugar (or honey) pulls fluid from, not only the wound, but also organisms that might infect that wound, making it a natural bactericidal.

• As stated above, it pulls fluid, reduces swelling, dries the wound, which in turn promotes healing by attracting macrophages—our body’s good guys who come to clean up an area when alerted to a break in the skin, or any infection.

• It increases epithelial tissue growth, i.e. meat and skin.

• It provides a cellular energy source. Growth

According to one site I visited there are negatives, and I suppose to be impartial I will list these here:

• Granulated sugar must be 1 cm thick and be bandaged. No drawback so far.

• Because of the osmolality, the treatment can result in dehydration, protein and electrolyte imbalance. Okay, this is worth looking into.

• The bandages should be changed twice daily to keep the osmolality gradient. Fine.

Well, after four days the chasm in my dog’s hind foot has closed to about two-thirds the size of the original injury. (Photos—before and after— are discreetly placed at the end of this post for those who can stomach this sort of thing).

I have noticed Chacho is a bit constipated. That may be due to dehydration, but it could also be because he is taking Tramadol® for pain, twice a day before dressing changes. Anyone who has ever taken an opiate pain reliever knows that constipation is part of the package. I doubt a basenji would eat prunes, so I just offer him water frequently. I am also feeding him a high-protein dry dog food mixed with cooked and ground chicken parts (home made). I think I will buy him some electrolyte supplements, which would augment any losses he might suffer from the treatment. It would also benefit his fractured bone on the other hind leg. (It was a major accident).

He is healing, bright as a button—even dealing well with the somewhat Elizabethan collar the vet placed to keep him from chewing on the wound. I think he will recover to walk and run again, if not exactly like before, at least a good imitation of that cocky trot he had.

Here is the recipe for his treatment:
2% Betadine (povidone iodine) diluted to half strength with sterile water (this is important, because undiluted, the iodine will actually damage the tissues)
White table sugar— about a teaspoon on a 4 x 4 gauze dressing
4 x 4 gauze dressings
Gauze wrap
Coban® wrap

After carefully rinsing his wound with sterile water (I’m using sodium chloride I got from the vet), I spray betadine on the open wound.  I place about a teaspoon of white sugar on a sterile 4 x 4, spray it with betadine until it is well saturated, and carefully wrap it around the injured area. Then I wrap the leg with gauze, and cover with another wrap of Coban to protect it from feces, urine, and dirt. It also keeps him from chewing on the dressings.

We do this twice a day.

He is an okay patient; I’ve had worse. Although, I have to admit, no wuss in the ER ever bit me. He has done it twice now. But I know he didn’t mean to; it is all very confusing, he is scared, vulnerable, and it HURTS.

 

Wound on 09 March 2013

Wound on 09 March 2013

IMG_0902

 

Four days later, 12 March 2013

Wound on 12 March 2013

 

lateral view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 March 2013

IMG_0915

 

IMG_0916

Notice the pink around the wound as it begins to grow derma.

 

 

And here, 12 April, after one month of treatment, Chacho’s foot almost completely healed,  skin fully formed and the hair has grown back on his leg.

Image

Image 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other references:

Sugardyne®

Livestrong: How to Use Sugar to Heal Wounds

Ferrier’s Journal- Sound Hooves-Sugardine