Patience tested to the limit – But not over

I am typically the most patient shopper you will ever see at a supermarket. I try not to hurry people who pause (as they always do) in front of the one item in the aisle I am looking for. When there’s a near collision in the aisles I always smile, apologize, make a joke. At the checkout counter it is always my aim a) to not make the cashier’s day any worse, b) elicit a smile from the cashier and, if possible, c) get the cashier to laugh just a little.

I never complain if the line seems to move slowly – the line I’m in ALWAYS is the slowest, that’s just part of being me. I try to “possess my soul in patience,” as the Bible says (or words to that effect) If the person ahead of me is taking longer than seems reasonable, I’m sure I’ll get the same attention from the cashier when it’s my turn – whether I want it or not. Life’s short.

So when I say I did NOT strike the woman ahead of me, you may assume there was some provocation.

I was in a time crunch because I had to get Max’s car back to him so he could go take a final at college, and Winn-Dixie did not have an item I needed (power steering fluid. His car was moaning like a dieter in the candy aisle) so I would have to make another stop.

There were two registers open. One had a line – the person being checked out and three people behind her. I pulled into the other line, where I was next in line after the woman whose groceries were almost all rung up. You’d have done the same thing, although experience has shown me that that’s almost always a trap. Still I played the odds – and lost.

The woman – a perfectly coiffed, perfectly made up “Southern Lady” of about my age – was standing and flipping slowly through something on her phone. There was a muted discussion going on with the cashier (who I’m sure doesn’t get paid enough.) I finally figured out the Southern Lady was looking for an online coupon she had seen somewhere. Then she put the phone away and the two of them started flipping through the store’s coupon brochure.

It took a few minutes but they finally found what the Southern Lady was looking for. The cashier pointed out that it did not apply to the product the Southern Lady was trying to buy.

She had already been at the register for some time when I pulled in behind her. All her groceries were rung up and bagged. What I witnessed had taken at least 10 minutes. I finally couldn’t help myself. I literally have NEVER done this in a supermarket, but I spoke up.

“Excuse me, but some time today, please?” (Note the “excuse me” and the “please.”)

The Southern Lady turned toward me, her head swiveling like a lizard’s.

“Did you say something?”

My eyes widened as I repeated myself, “Sometime TODAY please.”

It would not be fair to suggest I shouted, although my voice had taken on a sharper edge. One of the three shoppers in line behind me snickered.

The Southern Lady didn’t smile, didn’t acknowledge that perhaps this had taken longer than was completely reasonable. She didn’t even blink. She just slowly oscillated away from me and resumed flicking through the online coupons.

It was another five minutes before the Southern Lady found what she was looking for, displayed it triumphantly to the cashier. The cashier showed her why that wasn’t the product she was trying to buy.

OK, I admit that at any time I could have returned my groceries to the cart, pushed my way back through the people lined up behind me, and gone to the other register. It would have been a pain in the ass, but I could have done it. But I just kept thinking, “This has got to be over soon, doesn’t it?” And long experience told me that if I went to the other register – where shoppers were sailing through like stock cars at Daytona – it would have come to a shrieking halt and the lane I was in would have sped up the moment I left it.

As near as I could figure, the Southern Lady was trying to save 50 cents on a jar of mayonnaise. This had all taken about 20 minutes – 3 times 20 is 60 minutes, 3 times 50 cents is a buck fifty. The Southern Lady had apparently decided her time was worth $1.50 an hour.

The mayonnaise was removed from the bag, rescanned to deduct it from the total, and set aside.

The Southern Lady paid for her remaining groceries and put them in her cart.

Then she oscillated back towards me and – with no trace of an expression on her perfectly made-up face, with the deadest eyes I’ve ever seen and the coldest voice I’ve ever heard – said:

“God bless you, sir.”

THAT’S when I thought about hitting her. I didn’t of course, I never would. But man! I could picture it.

Oh for a Few Thousand Extra Bucks!

Oh, for a spare couple of thousand dollars!
 
We went to a yard sale in the neighborhood. Picked up some office supply stuff, many paper clips and a heavy duty stapler for Tori’s class. A car jack for a buck. Couple of other things.
 
It’s what we DIDN’T buy that was so painful.
 
The woman was clearing out her house preperatory to moving to be nearer her daughers and granddaughters, and had a lot of her late husband’s stuff: tools, jackets – cameras.
 
And not just a couple of cheap pocket cameras. Nothing digital. These were cameras that just a dozen years ago were the top of the line.
 
A Hasselblad A HASSELBLAD! I can’t think of the last time I saw a Hasselblad. (probably a wedding in the early ’90s.) A large-format Bronica. A Nikon F3. A couple of Mamiya Sekors. A table covered – covered – with lenses (and judging from the lenses, there was at least a Canon or two back there somewhere.) Two boxes filled with filters for said lenses. Tripods, camera bags, light meters. The whole kit and kaboodle. And there was more inside, the woman said.
 
All film cameras, except for some older video gear.
 
The collection had no business in a yard sale. It was the sort of thing that you call a couple of people who deal with high end older camera gear and let them make you an offer on the lot. You can’t piece it out on a couple of tables in the front yard and get anything like its worth.
 
The last thing I need is an older camera that requires film. Still, I wanted one of ’em – the Nikon or the Hasselblad – or both!. But even at yard sale prices, they were WAY out of my range – by a factor of 10 or more. And in the real world, not the yard sale worls, by a factor of 20 or more.
 
The woman and her daughters who were running the sale were lovely people – they even bought a copy of my book! So that was definitely a plus! The copy of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” offset the price of the tripod I bought. A good one, not the best one there. They had a big, shiny German tripod she said retails for about $200. Asking 20 bucks – but it was so big it would have made my camera look silly. I got another German tripod, appropriately sized, for the price of the copy of “Chrissie.”
 
But man, if I’d had a spare thousand bucks or so lying around.
(NOTE: You might have noticed I haven’t posted in, what, six or seven months, anyway. I’ll make that the topic of another post really soon. Suffice to say, I’m back at work.)

Hurricane Thoughts: If You HAVE to Have a Disaster …

Watching the wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Irma today and thinking.

I have been through most of the major categories of natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, fires, hurricane, tornadoes. And this will sound odd, but if I had to pick one, if someone said “You’re going to have a disaster, what’ll it be?” I would choose a hurricane. Every time.

Not because I liked the hurricanes I’ve been through. Of course not, they’re amazingly powerful and destructive and scary. Hurricanes have a voice, and as the storm goes on it goes from a rumble to a demonic shriek that would scare the crap out of you even without the lash of wind and rain.

But here’s the thing. You can see a hurricane coming. You usually have about a week’s warning. When we were on St. Croix and Omar hit the island, it came “out of nowhere,” and we still had almost three day to prep. You have a little time to get supplies, to board up, to figure out what you want to do about it. If you live on a small island, there’s nowhere to go and you have to choose between your home or a shelter. If you’re in the states, you can decide to get the hell out, as so many of our friends in Florida did.

Earthquakes and tornadoes come out of nowhere. You never see ’em coming. Tornadoes are strangely quixotic, taking this house and sparing that one. When you get word of a tornado heading your way, if you’re lucky you have time to get down to the basement. If you live in Oklahoma or Kansas or Missouri, you know you’re going to have some tornadoes every year, but there’s no telling when or where.

Quakes? If you live in earthquake country, you know it’s always possible, but you never know exactly when or where, so that’s always sitting in the back of your mind. You’re sitting in your home or office minding your own business, the way you do every day – then suddenly the ground is doing a samba under your feet.

And fire has its own brand of horror, raging like a living thing as it destroys everything in its path. The “hot shot” fire crews who go out and man the fire lines, armed mostly with digging tools – shovels and mattocks and machetes – trying to cut off and quell the burning beast, have a special place in the hall of heroes. As a young reporter I walked through a forest fire with a crew and they have nothing but my sincere praise.

So no. I am watching the coverage of Hurricane Irma and feeling guilty that I’m glad it’s not heading my way, even though that means it’s ruining someone else’s life. I do not “like” hurricanes.

But I would rather get hit with a hurricane than any other natural disaster. It may be Mother Nature at her most destructive, but at least she announces her presence before she gets there.

Hurricane Prep – One Unusual Thing

We learned to prep for a hurricane on the island. Yes, you definitely need all the things they tell you – nonperishable food (a manual can opener is a good idea. If you only have an electric can opener, you’ll be disappointed when the power goes. Disappointed and hungry) Drinking water – a gallon per person per day you expect to be cut off. Your prescriptions. Important documents in a sealable bag. Don’t forget pet food. Gas up the cars and get some spare fuel if you can. All that stuff.

One thing you don’t hear as much about is cash. If you can, get a couple of hundred bucks cash, or at least a hundred, because if the power is out any length of time that plastic in your wallet won’t do a damn bit of good. You need some cash.

Insect repellent is also a good thing to remember.

But after Omar, maybe the single most important thing we had was a bucket and a rope.

On St. Croix, most people’s water supplies is the rain water run off stored in a cistern under the house, and pumped up under pressure. When the power goes out – and in the islands that’s pretty much a given, the power will go out in a hurricane, or storm, or stiff breeze or because it’s Thursday – your pump suddenly doesn’t work and your house has no water.

We didn’t want to use up our drinking water to flush the toilet, but with the number of people in the house – there were eight of us – flushing was going to happen. With a bucket and rope, we could open the cistern and haul water out. We were four days without power, and it was nice to be able to take a bucket shower, or flush. I can’t imagine what we’d have done without the bucket and rope.

Reading matter is also a good thing. We were four days without power. As it happened, we had just a few weeks before purchased, used, a 32-volume set of Agatha Christie novels. We all went through all of them. Some weren’t very good, some were classics, and I was enchanted to discover the Parker Pyne and “The Mysterious Mr. Quinn” stories.

I also remember the evening, four days after the storm, when the WAPA truck (V.I. Water and Power Authority) came slowly down the street, going from pole to pole, resetting transformers. People stood out in front of their darkened houses watching, and when they power finally came back on and the block lit up, there was cheering up and down the street as if we’d just won the lottery.

In a way, we had.

Max Is Set, Now Let It Begin

Max (right) and Chaz at the entrance to Pontchartrain Hall North on move-in day.
Max (right) and Chaz at the entrance to Pontchartrain Hall North on move-in day. (And by the way, the image on Max’s shirt is from a video game he plays, “Overwatch,” which Tori painted on the T-shirt for him.)

Saturday was move-in day for new students at the University of New Orleans, and Tori and I have been pretty achy and tired ever since, getting Max setup and ready to go.

But at least there was plenty of help. When we pulled up in front of the hall with a pickup load of his stuff, a group of student volunteers, faculty and administrators immediately engulfed us, unloading our stuff before I could even get out of from behind the wheel, and dragging it up to his room. This included his new mini-fridge (60 pounds) and his guitar amp (65 pounds.)

It’s a UNO tradition. It not only makes the moving go more smoothly for everyone, but it gives the new students (and their parents) the feeling of belonging, a feeling that people there care about their students.

We got his stuff unpacked and organized, making the best use of the space possible. It helped that the bed could be raised high enough so that fridge and amp fit underneath. After we’d done most of the organizing, Tori and I walked over to the University Center – the student union – and grabbed lunch, then got something for Max, who was helping Chaz – his best friend from high school and now one of his college roommates – organize his own stuff. At the cafeteria’s “Creation Station,” the woman showed Tori how to pull together a bowl of vegetables, meat and pasta, which the woman then stir fried for him. As she cooked the woman – Michelle was her name – assured us that Max was in the right place and promised Tori, “I’ll look out for him.” Had to feel good about that. And the stir fry looked delicious.

Pontchartrain Hall is an awfully nice facility. They’re not typical dorm rooms, they’re suites, with four smallish bedrooms, each. Max’s room (A) shares a bathroom with room B, which is occupied by Chaz. That unit then shares a large living area with another unit of two bedrooms (C and D, natch) and a bathroom. A fairly comfortable arrangement.

Sunday was moving day for returning students, and that includes the two guys who are sharing the other half of Max’s suite. On Sunday we had a few more things to drop off for Max and we met one of the two, a studiously nerdy looking guy who was busy setting up his computer system. Then we ran him over to the nearby supermarket to pick up some things. Yes, he’s got a meal plan and won’t starve (Michelle will look out for him, right?) But you know how college is.

Then, with lumps in our throats, Tori and I headed home.

Now it’s up to Max. There are a couple of days of “welcome to campus” activities and then, on Wednesday, classes start. And that’s Max’s job for the next four years – working hard, getting A’s (please gods, please) and becoming the great adult we know he can be.

It’s the way it should be, but we miss him.

And one other thing UNO

The mascot for the University of New Orleans is fitting for Max, the son of a pirate who also made a bit of a splash in the buccaneer world. They are the UNO Privateers. A privateer, of course is basically a pirate who did all the paperwork. Max will fit right in.

Each Word Must Justify Its Existence

My new novel, “Scurvy Dogs,” will be released in a little less than two months, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I am deep, deep into the final edit.

The first draft – which in this case was completed five years ago – is the creative time. Then there’s the second draft, and the third, the drafts where you figure out what the story is actually about and sharpen it and hone it until everything in the text advances that premise.

Author Anne Lamott calls those the “down draft,” where you write it down, and the “up draft,” where you fix it up.

I finished my down draft and up draft of “Scurvy Dogs” a couple of years ago. Then I put it aside to simmer, while I finished “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.”

Now I’m getting ready to release “Scurvy Dogs,” and I’m on what Lamott calls the “dental draft,” the draft where you go over it “tooth by tooth,” checking to make sure everything in it is working, there’s no rot, no cavities, no gingivitis. Everything works, and there’s nothing in it that gets in the way of the story.

This is all about the nuts and bolts.

More than any other part of the process, it’s the time you absolutely have to have a heart of stone, Every scene, every sentence, every word has to justify its existence. Is it telling the story? Is it telling the right story? If it’s not, out it goes.

Make every word beg for mercy.

One scene I took out recently was at the end, a showdown. It was one of the best – no, not one of – it was THE best combat scene I have ever written, a sword fight between two characters. It’s a terrific scene, if I do say so myself, some really good writing that was both exciting and demonstrated the inner nature of  the two characters.

The problem was, as Tori pointed out when she read the story, the wrong two people were fighting. The bad guy, Sutherland, sure, that was what the whole story has been leading up to, Sutherland getting his. But the other person was all wrong. It was one of the adults, defending his family. But this is the kids’ story, and for the story to work, they have to come up with a way to defeat their nemesis themselves. I couldn’t just switch characters, that wouldn’t have been believable. So whatever I did, I had to scrap the sword fight and find a way for the kids to win, a way that both made sense and would be satisfying, that would make a fitting cap for their story.

I did it. Yeah, it hurts to get rid of a piece of writing I”m proud of. But I’m proud of what I put in in its place. It’s better, and the story is better. Everything has to serve the story. It’s not about me. Not about the writer It’s about the story.

I still have the duel, and it’s good. It’s just not in the story. At some point after “Scurvy Dogs” has been out for a while, maybe a year or so, I’ll post it or make it available somehow, just for fun. But I can’t do it right away, because there’s a pretty big spoiler in there. I’ve skated pretty close to the edge as it is.

Anyway, there’s more work to do. And I’ve gotta get back to it.

Full Circle on Button Fly Levis

Things came full circle Friday night.

The story starts 44 years ago, the summer of 1973. We had just graduated from high school and a group of six or seven of us – a mixed group, no couples – had jammed into a station wagon and headed out to a drive-in movie.

I have no idea what we saw. It was just a group of friends enjoying that interlude between high school and the rest of our lives. But one thing made it memorable, at least to me.

One of the people there mentioned having gone shopping that day and had purchased a pair of button fly Levis. Not remarkable in itself, but we started playing with the phrase. Someone, it might have been me but who knows, said, “Button fly Levis took the zip outta my romance.” And I said – and yes, I’m sure it was me – “Sounds like the title of a country western song.”

And my friend John Sanders (who now uses the full family name John DeGrazia-Sanders) turned to me and said – “Write that song!”

So I did. Took two days, but I was determined. Partly because it was a dare, right? I couldn’t turn it down, and partly because it was a funny idea and I didn’t want someone else to take it. I ended up with a plaintive country western ballad that told the story of unrequited love – or at least unrelieved teenage lust.

The problem was, I don’t read or write music, don’t play an instrument. I can sing bit. So I wrote the song but it was really just a bunch of words that fit a pattern. I sang it a few times, but it was probably different every time I sang it.

It was eight years later, when I was working at the La Grande Observer in the far back corner of Oregon, that I met my reporting colleague Jim Angell. Jim is also a great guitar player and performer. He listened to me sing it through a couple of times, tweaked a couple of lines and figured out the chords for it. It became a real song. We actually performed it at the Eastern Oregon State College Oktoberfest that year. Afterwards the college president told us we were nuts. I appreciated that.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, Father’s Day. We are now in the New Orleans area, and Max – as I’ve mentioned a time or two – plays guitar. Plays pretty well, as a matter of fact, and will be studying music in college this fall. He’s been taking lessons at the Guitar Center, and every fifth Friday of the month (for those months that have five Fridays, of course) they have a jam session. The students and the teachers get together and play. Sometimes a student will play something particular he or dshe has been working on. Usually one or two eight year olds will plunk out something on the piano, but there’s usually three or four people up on the stage playing drums, guitar, keyboard, bass. There’s an old guy who teaches wind instruments, and he’s usually on stage throwing in sax solos and keeping them together. Tori’s gotten on stage a couple of times to sing with different combinations of players. It’s fun.

Well, we’ve been going to these for four years, and Friday’s was Max’s last as a student, since he starts classes in August and the next five-Friday month is September. So earlier this year I tracked down Angell – he’s in Wyoming no happily married and just back from a vacation in Iceland – and he sent me the chords, and this Father’s Day Max sat down and played “Button Fly Levis.” We practiced it a few times this Friday at the jam session we performed it together.

It was a blast. If you listen to the video, you’ll recognize that my voice doesn’t go quite as high as easily, as it did 43 years ago. It’s a little strained. But I’d forgotten how fun it could be to perform, and Max followed me wherever I was going so it was OK. I told the story, and people laughed in all the right places, and applauded at the end.

It was especially sweet to perform the song with Max. He is the age now I was when I wrote it. It was fun to share that moment from my past as he’s getting set to start his future.

Fun with a Phone Scammer

Sometimes you make your fun where you find it.

Max has been receiving calls from the “U.S. Government Grants Department,” offering him a $9,000 grant. Now, we’re certainly interested in any help in paying for his college education, but this was pretty obviously not legit.

The next time the guy called, I motioned for Max to give me the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

He identified himself as Randy Miller. He had a flat accent, maybe Eastern European, hard to place. He said he was from the U.S. Government Grants Department, and was offering the Maxwell Powers at this phone number a $9,000 “loyalty grant” for being a good citizen. Only 1,700 people in the country were to receive such a grant. Max was going to have to call the Treasury Department at a number he gave me (which turns out to be a VOIP phone, voice over internet protocol. Pretty sure Treasury uses regular landlines.)

I observed that it was a sorry state of affairs if only 1,700 people were deemed to be good citizens. He ignored that. I then asked to whom my son would have to pledge loyalty to receive this money. He seemed puzzled. I decided to play a role.

“We don’t pledge loyalty to just anybody in this household,” I said. “We’re very religious and only pledge loyalty to our lord and savior Yahweh.”

He went back to page one of his script.

I asked again what department he was from.

“The Government Grants Department.”

“What government?” I asked. “This isn’t some foreign country trying to subvert my son, is it?”

He went back to page one of his script.

“Well $9,000 is a lot of money,” I said. “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want $9,000. I know nine or 10 people and none of them would turn down $9,000.”

That one was kind of out there, and I wasn’t surprised he didn’t bite at it, although I was a little disappointed. Back to page one of the script.

This went on a little longer, but frankly I was getting bored. He was not, I have to say, a foeman worthy of my steel. So I finally told him that Max wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college.

“That’s a lot of work, four years. He’s thinking he might do better getting a job like you have, trying to rip people off with a phone scam. You don’t have a college degree do you, and you’re doing okay at this con game, right?”

He started to go back to page one, then he sounded offended and challenged me. “I haven’t asked you for any money, have I?”

“Not yet, but I’m online reading a report about your scam. You’re following the script, and I know that before this is over you’ll tell him to buy an iTunes gift card to pay the processing fee. I can read it right here. I may sound stupid, but I’m not as stupid as you.”

And I hung up.

It was 15 minutes. I would have liked to play him longer, but frankly he was boring me. At least that was 15 minutes he wasn’t scamming somebody else, so I guess that’s something.

By the way, anyone who wants to send Max a few bucks for his college tuition is welcome to chip in. But he’s not paying a processing fee via iTunes cards, and he’s not pledging loyalty to anyone.