Sunday, August 31, 2008

Saturday at the Chuckwagon Races

30,000 people descend on a ranch in northwest Arkansas for Saturday's program at the National Championship Chuckwagon Races. I sit with my cousin's wife, under a bright blue awning tent set up on the bluff facing the field where the races take place. Thousands of spectators dot the bluff in between huge outcroppings of rock.

The races will be run on The Bottoms, the flat field straight ahead of us. There's a big hill to our left and blue mountains in the distance all around.

All over The Bottoms, hundreds of men, women and children ride horses and mules. It's 90 degrees, but the riders are “dressed cowboy,” which means long sleeves, jeans, boots, and hats. Some even wear leather chaps and vests. A man rides by wearing a feathered headdress that trails down his back and over his horse’s withers.

Music blares from the loudspeakers: a mournful voice sings, "I’ve pushed these cattle for the last time. . . ."

Finally, the announcer asks everyone to clear the field. When space opens, riders enter from the extreme left and right sides of the field. Four riders entering from the left wear white shirts with red ties. Four riders entering from the right wear blue shirts with white ties. Each carries a United States flag. They ride in swooping, complicated patterns, crossing back and forth over the field with their flags billowing in their wakes. Many times it looks like two or more horses will collide, but they turn at the last possible moment, in complete control of their movement and patterns.

Over the loudspeaker, Dolly Parton belts out "Red, White and Bluegrass" as the riders form two lines at the center of the field, white-shirted riders on the left, blue-shirted on the right. All the horses are bays or roans (brown or reddish brown). Their flags fall limp when they find their positions. A palomino (blonde) appears from behind, dead center between the lines. Dolly's voice is replaced by Elvis Presley singing "Dixie." The palomino prances slowly to the front, the rider's flag snapping in time with the horse's feet. There is absolute silence until Elvis's voice fades completely.

The announcer asks everyone to stand, and I swear you can feel a breeze as thousands of cowboys lift their hats. The valley fills with the voices of the Oak Ridge Boys singing the national anthem. The last few words are accompanied by a roar from the crowd.

The announcer asks for quiet and a Connestoga wagon pulled by two magnificent horses rolls onto the field. The wagon's buckboard is empty. The reins disappear behind a canvas curtain that conceals its interior. As the wagon circles the field, the announcer lists fans and participants who have died since last year's race.

Hogshead Hollingsworth. Attended the races for 15 years. 6 foot 6 and 400 pounds, a mountain of a man. Heart as big as he was. He was a good man. Raised a good family. We miss him.

My cousin's wife tells me she loves this part, says she wants them to release doves from the back of the wagon after they read her name one day.

There is an invocation, a prayer, then the announcer bellows, "Are you ready for a good time?" The crowd's response leaves no doubt about their answers.

Friday, August 29, 2008


Got to Clinton just in time to see my cousin win today's races. Turns out chuckwagon racing is dangerous, crazy, fun. Wicked fun. One guy got thrown from a horse during the melee of rounding the barrels. He flew through the air like a t-shirt shot from one of those cannons at a MLB ballpark. Ambulances screamed onto the field, horses shied all around, women swooned.

Okay, maybe women didn't swoon. Maybe just one woman. I thought the guy was dead. He looked like a rag doll on the ground. But a few minutes later, he walked off to catch his horse. Cowboys are tough, I tell you.

And sweet. A horse was down on the ground, sick. A dozen cowboys gathered to help. They picked it up and put it on its feet. Um. Do you know what a horse weighs? Me, neither, but it's a lot. Those cowboys were S-W-E-A-T-I-N-G.

Made for a nice view.

I hope you all are having as great a Labor Day Weekend as I am. More soon.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Yesterday afternoon I decided on an adventure. A cousin, rather distant but beloved, is racing in the National Chuckwagon Races held this weekend in Clinton, Arkansas. He's the 7 time national champion, big mule division. Seriously. So on Thursday I'm going to pack up my little car and head to Arkansas to watch him race. There will be music, rodeos, something called a "Snowy River Race," and who knows what else.

Heber Springs, the town where I'm going to stay, is 40 miles away. Google advises me the drive will take an hour and a half. Knowing the roads in that part of the world, I believe it. My mom's brother lives in town, so I'll go see him and his daughters, maybe even his ex-wife, who remains my aunt in my heart if not on paper.

It's a good time for an adventure, a good time to hear old family stories and make new ones. I'm taking a still camera, a video camera, and a digital voice recorder. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 25, 2008

No F'n Idea

In the wake of Katie's departure, my little house feels cavernous. At the close of the work day, I decide on dinner out, a ridiculous extravagance. But it feels necessary tonight.

 I grab the only book in the house that I haven't read at least once: Long for This World by Michael Byers (Jess's cousin). The back cover describes a "family drama that hinges on a riveting medical dilemma." The protagonist "can save the life of a critically ill boy he has grown to love—at the cost of his career—or he can sell his findings for a fortune...."

The managing editor of a magazine calls. He had a writer failure and needs an article written by end of day tomorrow. Can I do it? "Sure," I hear myself say. We arrange an interview for tomorrow morning. I've got the rest of the day to write the piece. "Don't worry. It won't be a problem," I assure the editor.

What the hell? I've written exactly two magazine articles in my life, both so recently that neither has been published yet. What am I saying?

Ten pages in, I know Henry will choose the boy's life. 

I. Know. This.

I eat salad and drink wine on auto-pilot, absorbed by the story. I chew the last bite and turn the last page of the third chapter. I cannot stand to leave the characters, don't want to drive home without knowing what happens. I flip forward, skimming enough to soothe my curiosity without ruining the story.

As I walk out, a little boy—two years old, I'd guess—waves at me. "Bye-bye," he says solemnly.

"Bye-bye," I answer. Tears pool in my eyes, but I hold them in until I get out the door.

What makes me think I can do this?

How in the hell does one say good-bye to a child?

Stamps of Approval

We had a wedding party at the salon Saturday morning, so I was up before dawn even thought about cracking, preparing food and making things pretty. 

I paused in the midst of that whirlwind to write a letter to the adoption agency, asking them to forward Katie's letter to her birth mother. I put the letter in a large manilla envelope and addressed it. 

Katie is perfectly capable of writing such a letter for herself. After all, she spent most of the summer in Australia, writing marketing copy for an international environmental agency. She could manage "Please forward this letter."  It was not about her needing my help, it was about her needing my support. 

After the salon run, after breakfast with my folks, after almost all our goodbyes were said, I handed her the envelope. "Hey. You even got stamps," she said.

"Yeah," I said. "It's ready to go. All you have to do is write your letter and drop it in." 

"So it really is okay with you?"

"More than okay, Babe. It's good."

She put the envelope on the passenger's seat, gave me a quick kiss, and drove away. I didn't break down until her car was completely out of sight.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Buoyed by our success with peaches, Katie and I decided to can salsa—her favorite of her four personal food groups.

It is 8:00 pm by the time we put the water on to boil and get out our knives. The spots and specs on the organic tomatoes creep Katie out, so I'm on my own for the peeling portion of the program.

Skins loosened by a quick dip in boiling water, tomatoes look oddly vulnerable. Naked. Poke them with one finger, rake out their seeds, cast them aside. No longer shaped from within or without, they become something else: pulp.

Earlier we talked about the next step in the search for her birth mother. Laughing, we agree who'll do what. Laughing, Katie tells me that when she finds her birth mother, she won't need me anymore. Laughing, I say, "Yep. I'll be Skipper and you'll have a brand-new Barbie."

Katie stops laughing. "I won't do this if you don't want me to, Mom."

Katie drops naked tomatoes into the Cuisinart and pushes Pulse. Onion, jalapenos, cilantro, mustard seeds. Pulse. Pulse. Pulse.  Together, we transfer the salsa into a dutch oven waiting on the stovetop and check the jars waiting in the dishwasher. Good. They're still hot. The lids and rings dance in boiling water at the back of the stove. Here's the ladle. There's the funnel. The salsa's boiling. Everything's ready.

I step to the stove and start to pick up the ladle. "I'll do it," Katie says. She takes the lead, ladling hot salsa into jars then handing them to me to be wiped and covered. When we're finished, she checks the lids, tightening a few just like I did with the peaches.

We submerge the jars in boiling water, set the timer, and retreat to our usual places in the living room to watch a classic movie, Stand By Me.

35 minutes later, the timer dings. River Phoenix freezes mid-sob as we return to the kitchen to pull eleven jars of blood red salsa from the scalding water. Lined up in rows on the counter, they're beautiful. 

Back in our chairs, we restart the movie. The room is dark other than the moonlight streaming in the windows and the flicker of the television. Four boys run across a bridge, desperately trying to outrun a freight train. 

Plink! It's the unmistakable sound of a seal forming as the jars cool. (That's one.)  On the screen, the boys eat $2.37 worth of dinner, apparently enough for a feast in 1959. (Two!) They get covered with leeches (Three! Four! Five!), find the body (Six! Seven! Eight!), and face down a gang of older boys (Nine! Ten!). 

The movie fades to black. Katie and I sit in the dark, waiting for that last plink, the last signal we've succeeded and our salsa is perfectly preserved, safe for years to come. 

Finally, we decide one jar failed. It will have to be used immediately or thrown out. "We have plenty even without that one," Katie says. We put our glasses into the dishwasher and straighten things up a bit, then head to our bedrooms. Katie crosses the living room, then turns and crosses back. I stop at my bedroom door, waiting to see what she needs. 

My daughter throws her arms around my neck and says, "Thanks for everything, Mom. I love you."

Plink!  The sound of the last jar sealing reverberates through the darkness. We laugh and hug again.

"I love you, too, Sweetheart. For always and for ever."

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Peach of a Day

 I got up early yesterday and worked til noon or so, when Katie woke up. We had lunch with my mother at Chipotle, which Katie adores, and then went to down to the Plaza, to the Apple store. Mom and Katie both love computers and tech-y stuff, so they both were happy.

I worked for several more hours in the afternoon while Katie watched the Food Network, which she misses terribly (her college-student budget only stretches to basic cable). Then we made pasta for dinner, a recipe we made up together based on a picture she saw in Real Simple magazine. Scrumptious.

After dinner, we picked up Mom again and the three of us went out to a little fruit farm just past the edge of town. We picked a gallon of blackberries and bought two boxes of peaches. It was tremendous fun. Oh, look at this one!     Here's a bunch.    I found a berry bonanza down here!

Later that night, Katie and I canned the peaches. At one point, she was dipping and I was peeling. From time to time, we  sang along with the music blaring from her iPod. Our little dog, Cassie, flopped right in the middle of the kitchen floor, determined not to miss a thing. 

While the cold pack processed, we watched Walk the Line and worked on one of my trash projects, which Katie has adopted for her own. 

It was a magical day, one I want to wrap in soft cotton and keep in the top drawer of my memories. This was the day we started looking for Katie's birth mother. 

In the cold light of day and with normal business hours upon me, my phone practically glowed on the desk. You promised, I thought. Not yet. I can't do it yet. 

I imagined ways to get out of it, ways to avoid the starting the search. It could be kind of expensive, according to the information we found on the web site, and I can't afford that right now. I could just tell her that.

Eventually, I picked up the phone. A promise is a promise. A wonderful woman in the post-adoption department helped me work out a three-fold plan. Katie woke up and came into the room just as I was finishing the call, and the look on her face as she realized we're on our way was priceless. Payment in full for the strength it took to dial those numbers and say those words. 

The rest of the day was precious. We may be on thin ice at the moment, but let me tell you--we are dancing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's Finally Here

It's here, a day I've wondered about many times, one I've dreaded and maybe sort of looked forward to, in an odd way.

Today, Katie asked me to help her find her birth mother. She asked a couple questions about her baby years and the conversation morphed into a couple questions about her birth mother. She said, "I'd like to find her before I get married someday."  And then, in an instant, she leaped past someday to now. "There won't ever be a perfect time," she said. "I've always thought I was too busy or whatever. But there's always going to be something. It might as well be now."

I pulled out my computer and got busy. The agency's website explained what we need to do to start the search. I agreed to call tomorrow and get the process going. 

I'm excited for Katie and curious about how it will all work out. I believe that knowing Katie's birth mom will add to our lives, not take away from them.  There is a tiny edge of fear, but it is tiny. 

I've always known this day would come. I've promised myself that when it did, I'd act in my daughter's best interests, that I'd trust her and myself and the love we share. Now that it's here, I pray I won't let her down. Or myself.

Stay tuned.

About Yesterday....

Katie arrived Monday evening. It's wonderful to have her here, but Tuesday was not a nice day. 

No, not a nice day.

Before 9:30 am, I had:

backed into Katie's car in the driveway;
discovered the salon's doors still locked 30 minutes after time to open;
thrown the bank bag into a covered trash can in front of the grocery store/bank;
dug through a public trash can to recover the bank bag;
handled an unhappy client who wanted a full refund for her services.

By the end of the day, I had also driven 60 miles (roundtrip) only to discover the store was out of the fabric I went for and said some things to my dad that I wish I could take back. 

 I'm hoping for better things today.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Foolish Pride

Generally, I subscribe to the concept that the customer is always right. As a freelance writer, this means that the editor is always right. When you've got as much experience as I do (read: you're as old as I am), it's not always easy, but it's necessary and right.

This morning I had to sort of jiggle the cage of an editor who hasn't responded to material I submitted almost a month ago. Her response indicated that, although most of the project was complete, I had not yet submitted the main text. In a panic, I checked my "sent mail." 

Thank God, the e-mail and attachment were right there, clearly sent. So was my reply to her response indicating she would read the text soon.

I was left with a choice between leaving the impression that I was almost a month late on a deadline or contradicting an editor.

A Solomon's choice. 

I am not Solomon. 

In the end, my response referred to the date and time of the original submission and included the text "in case it went astray in cyberspace," despite the editor's response, to which I did not refer.

It's done, but I still don't know whether not accepting full responsibility for an error I did not commit was good business or foolish pride.

We'll see.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

When I was at Mom's house yesterday, she told me she filled the car with gas when she went to Costco.

"You put gas in the car? Yourself?"

"Sure," she said. "I went to the bank, too. I can do things for myself. I don't usually because your dad likes to do that stuff for me."

And there, my friends, is the heart of the problem. For 57 years, they've been the first and last things in one another's days, in one another's lives. They've fought; kissed and made up; surprised each other with quilting machines and peanut butter cookies; raised kids and Cain; loved without question.

Dad will be 77 in two weeks. Scars from a dozen surgeries trace a map of his world across his body.  He has COPD, skin cancer, two hernias that defy repair, high blood pressure, heart issues, asthma, and glaucoma. Oh, and he only has one lung and about half of his standard-issue intestines. 

Mom is 74. She has well-controlled diabetes. 

See the problem here? 

Mom just called. She's on her way to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for Dad's favorite dessert. He's coming home today and she wants it in the frig waiting for him. 

Tonight, she'll hear him tell her good night with her ears rather than her imagination. How long can that last? How long will her imagination hold when that's all she has left?

I know, I know. Don't borrow trouble. They're fine now. Concentrate on that. I try. But with Dad's birthday coming around again, I keep hearing the hoofbeats of time's horsemen, and it scares me. For both of them. 

And myself.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

I just closed my eyes....

My dad is out of town for the weekend. He called Mom this morning while I was at their house. In the middle of their conversation came this:

"I just closed my eyes and heard you tell me good night. Then I rolled over and went to sleep."

Later, in answer to my question, she explained. 

"He asked how I went to sleep without him here to tell me good night."

And was that true?

"Sure. I heard him say good night, then I said 'Good night, Honey.' I didn't open my eyes again, so it was just like he was there."

For almost 57 years, they've shared good nights and good mornings and everything in between. They're together always, even when they're not. 

Don't know whether to laugh or cry about that.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Still Playing with Trash

Hey, you guys. Do me a favor? Tell me what you think. Honestly.

I'm making belts with these charms I put together from bottle caps and images cut from old magazines. Totally fun to make, but would you wear one?  And if you have or know teenagers, would they think something like this is cool? 

Also, the first picture shows the charms on a leather belt, but I'm working on ways to link them into a chain belt.

Which style would be most appealing? Which images?

Please leave a comment. I really want to get this right so I can keep playing with trash.

A) Renaissance Faces

B) Animal Prints
C) Pucci-style Prints
D) Dog faces

Thanks for your help!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What Can That Be?

You know I've been working on a book proposal about stuff made from trash. What I haven't told you is that I've gone totally nuts over this stuff. 

A couple of times I've stayed up half the night cause I just can't let go of an idea and haven't figured out how to make it work yet. Other times, half a day slipped away while I puttered, loving every single minute.

I woke up in the night with the idea that I could make a shower curtain out of plastic bags. Yeah, I know. Where does this stuff come from? I have no idea but I love it when my right brain makes leaps my left brain can't quite follow.  I'll let you know how that goes. Might be cool. Might be a disaster. We'll see.

I've got everyone I know saving bottle caps and Altoids tins and pizza boxes and pop cartons and jar lids and plastic bags and liquor bottles and wine corks and. . . . 

I would love--LOVE--to get this book sold. It would be fabulous to   infect other people with inspire others to look at their trash and wonder, What can that be?

*I made this lamp from a vodka bottle. The base started out as a tin box from spicy meat rub. Who knew?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Stress Relief

I cried yesterday. A. Lot.

Pulling some writing samples this morning, I noticed a little curriculum piece I did about tears. Did you know that the chemical make-up of reflex tears (the kind that form when your eyes are irritated by fumes or foreign matter) is different from the chemical make-up of emotional tears (the kind that form when you're sad or lonely or frustrated or ...)?

Yep. Emotional tears contain water and salt and stuff PLUS a boatload of proteins created by stress. 

I've decided to look at yesterday's snotfest as merely the removal of excess protein. Yeah. That's the ticket. I wasn't being a baby. I was removing harmful toxins from my body. It is a temple, you know.

ps: Actually, I was being a baby but I'm fine now. 

Monday, August 11, 2008

Proof of Life

Spent the weekend working on projects for another book proposal. Tons of fun. Really. And I discovered something strange: a lot of people collect bottle caps. 

I needed a bunch and asked my family to hang onto any they used. Turns out that every one of the younger members of my family knows someone who hoards bottle caps by the buckets full. Not for any purpose, exactly. Just to have them. 

My friend Bryan says people are constantly trying to prove to themselves that they truly exist. Maybe a bucket filled with beer caps proves that somehow: I came. I twisted. I drank. Or, maybe:  I twist. Therefore, I am. 

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Tiny Little Man

I'm not very concerned about John Edwards. He's proven himself to be quite small. A tiny little man, really. One who screwed his wife and kids, a woman-not-his-wife, his political party, and the nation. One who locked himself in a public toilet when Karma made him its bitch. Pffft.

My heart is with Elizabeth*. If what John said on Nightline is true, he told her the affair happened and claimed it was over. Then he told her the Other Woman was pregnant, but still claimed it was over. Then he told her the Enquirer caught him coming out of the OW's hotel room at 3:00 in the morning and still claimed it was over

When you're lied to like this, it feels like the earth beneath your feet has become a bowl full of Santa's belly jelly, like you're walking on a giant red Jello Jiggler. It slips and shakes...bounces and rebounds...quivers. You think you've found your balance at the low point, then the damn thing flops again and you're back on your knees in thick, sticky goo. 

Elizabeth deserves so much more from her husband, from the man whose dreams she worked for and supported in sickness and in health, for better and for worse. 

Apparently, Elizabeth is not going to get what she deserves. I hope John does. In this life and several more.

*What's that you say? Well, yes. I AM projecting. Astute of you to notice.

Friday, August 08, 2008


This morning's Yahoo headlines included a story about Ken Smith, a criminology lecturer at Bucks New University who wants university professors to accept common misspellings.

Um.... No.

I'm a girl who likes certainty. I've given up most black-and-white notions as I've matured, but surely we can agree that spelling is a binary system. Right (on). Wrong (off). 

What was I doing all those years in elementary school if not preparing to be right once in a damn while? I memorized thousands of words for hundreds of spelling tests. Tell me that wasn't a waste of time. Please.

Once upon a time you could rely on grammar for the occasional opportunity to be right, but that's headed right down the tubes. I spent a lot of time learning the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, and now people just throw thats and whichs every which way without a care in the world. Participles dangle off the edges of correspondence. Infinitives get split just to see what's inside. 

Spelling is one of the few absolutes we've got left in this crazy world, Mr. Smith. Leave us that one, could you?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Alive and Well

Haven't posted much lately, but I'm alive and well and living in outer suburbia. Will be back soon with stories.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


I did not go to a museum. I did not lie in green grass. Those things would not have cured the near terminal case of self-pity I had going on last week. 

Instead, I went to a small truck farm 15 miles outside the KC metro area and picked a gallon of blackberries. Cows bellowed in the distance, wasps buzzed in the foreground, and berries glistened in the setting sun. It was 95 degrees, so before long I glistened, too. 

This little farm was really a very large garden beside a suburban-style house, maybe 5 acres or so. Peach and apple trees on one side of the driveway, strawberry and blackberry patches on the other, tomatoes and a good sized stand of corn at the back. Linda, the lady of the manor, stands in the garage handing out Blue Bunny ice cream pails and bug spray, the essentials of berry picking, I guess.

Linda must be about 65, a little apple dumpling of a woman whose round torso perches  on top of  tan, muscular legs even the most committed young gym rat would envy—not one wrinkle or ripple or vein in sight despite her very short shorts. The hair near her scalp is pure white, but an inch out, it shifts to the color of the pulp inside a walnut hull. 

Linda's eyebrows are drawn on in distinct auburn arches, perfect despite the sweat streaming down her face. Her mascara does not fare as well: tiny black rivers flood the wrinkles around her eyes. She fans her face with both hands, like alternating windshield wipers at the end of her nose.

A gallon of blackberries goes for $13 if you pick them, $15 if Linda braves the heat and bugs to collect them for you. Before she lets you pick, she makes sure you're going to use the berries yourself, not take them to a farmer's market and "rip people off" by selling them at $4 a pint. 

You gotta love a woman like that. Her, and her berries, too.