Monday, October 29, 2007

Sweet Old Bob

Dear Hearts and Gentle People,
It is essay & letter time again. All our time and effort and energy have been devoted to moving out of one house and into another the last few weeks, and to that I attribute my lack of focus. I ended up writing about the book I’ve been reading. Oh well.
Still, I hope you enjoy this modest offering.
We are gradually settling in here at Casa Tuel Nuevo. Day by day I uncover more floor space. I throw things away, and give things away, and move things around, and then it’s time for lunch and after that I start over. The process of going through each box, and looking at each scrap of paper in each box, is as slow and tedious as I expected and it sounds, but I’m getting on with it. Some days I think, “I need a break,” and go crazy and drive up to town and pick up the mail at the P O boxes. Woo hoo. Oh, and Reva, your toilet brush has made it into the trunk of my car and I will bring it by one day this week, I promise.
Yesterday my childhood pen pal, Judy, came by for a visit. Our correspondence began when we were both about ten years old, which would be, oh gee, almost 50 years ago. Yesterday was the first time we met face to face. Wow. She and her husband Mark (who is in Seattle for a business conference) came out and we did a walking tour of greater downtown Vashon and then came down to the house. They are lovely, down-to-earth people, and it was great to meet in person after all these years. Hope you had a good flight home, Judy, and that you get a little sleep tonight!
Sad news: Cathie Fisher, who was the organist at our church for about seven years, passed on last Saturday morning. Cancer. She was younger than I am and this was one of those, “God, this just isn’t fair,” situations. There will be a memorial for Cathie at our church at some as yet undetermined date. You can email Church of the Holy Spirit for that information at:
OK, back to work. Wishing all of you a Happy Halloween and a Blessed All Saints’ Day ~
Blessings, love, peace & grace to you

Sweet Old Bob

I’ve been reading Robert Benchley’s book, Love Conquers All (©1922 by Henry Holt and Company, and re-issued in paperback by the Akadine Press in 1999). I would like to thank whoever gave this book to whichever thrift store in which I found it.
Reading a piece by Robert Benchley is, for me as a column-writer, like listening to Malvina Reynolds’ songs as a songwriter. The works of either one make me think, “What’s the point? They did it so much better than I could ever hope to do it.”
They did, too, but I keep writing all the same. The reasons I don’t give up trying to write columns and songs are simple: (1.) I’m alive. My idols, Benchley and Reynolds, are not; and (2.) They wrote for their time, I write for mine.
During a week like this, when inspiration has blithely passed me by (inspiration thinks it’s a real joker), I read Robert Benchley and think, oh, it would be easier to call in sick and re-print one of his pieces. People would enjoy it, and I wouldn’t be stuck here trying to beat a column out of a brain which has hung up the “closed” sign.
Unfortunately, the heirs and assigns of Mr. Benchley still have the copyrights to his works, and I can’t grab a column and paste it in here. Too bad. You’d enjoy Benchley.
He wrote things like “How to Watch a Bridge Game” back in the 1920s. It isn’t really about bridge, of course, or watching. It’s about how cluelessly annoying people with nothing to do can be to people who do have something to do. Bridge may have passed its heyday, but annoying people and being annoyed never seem to go out of style.
Benchley’s gentle albeit barbed whimsy may be out of style also. It’s hard to be gently barbed when you’re contemplating the recent sanctions imposed upon Iran, and the further erosion of everyone’s civil rights in America. Nothing gentle or whimsical about either of those topics.
But he tackled tough topics with not a small bit of acerbic irony. He reviewed Darkwater, a book by W. E. B. Du Bois. That is the specific piece I wish I could reprint here, but I cannot. It is razor-sharp. I will take a chance by quoting this much: “Justice in the abstract is our aim – any American will tell you that – so why haggle over details and insist on justice for the negro?”
For all politically correct people who have lost sight of the fact that substance really is more important than form, I point out that this was written in or before 1922, at which time “negro” was the correct and polite term for what we were calling “African-American” the last time I looked. Please forgive me if that is not current. I don’t get out much. All I know is that racism is the cancer that rots America at the core, however you want to say it, and I believe that is the salient point.
Racism, war, the loss of our civil rights – these are not things I can write about with gentle whimsy. I wish I could channel Sweet Old Bob.
“My friends call me SOB,” Benchley said. “It stands for ‘Sweet Old Bob.’ They see me coming and say, ‘There’s that SOB.’”
I wonder what he would say about the current state of the world, the country, and the human race. I know it would be great. I wish I could say it myself, but we moved house a couple of weeks ago, and I have been sick, and to these things I attribute my brain’s total lack of cooperation with the writing process. Better luck next issue, kids. Meanwhile, you might try laying your hands on something by Robert Benchley. Trivia answer to question you didn’t ask: yes, it was Robert Benchley’s son, Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws, and there wasn’t a teaspoon of whimsy in that.

Further notes: Rob Lopresti, Bellingham-based author (Such a Killing Crime), songwriter, and librarian, writes:
”If it's any comfort, back in the thirties when James Thurber and EB White shared an office at the New Yorker, one would finish a piece, hand it to the other and ask "Did Benchley already do this?" So that problem has been around a long time.”
You can read all about Rob, his book, his CD, his blog & MORE at:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Moving Experience

So. We moved.
Thirty years in one place, and we moved.
Our first-born son was born in that house, and we moved.
All the work we did on that house over 30 years, all the life lived in that house, all our children’s growing up years, the waterfall you can hear through the bedroom windows, the view of trees and water, the neighbors who are also friends, the squirrels and raccoons and occasional bear, all left behind, as we picked up everything we owned and moved it about seven or eight miles, depending on whether you take the Westside Highway or the Main Highway.
I came down with mononucleosis, and we still moved.
Why? Oh, it has to do with money and surviving in retirement. That sort of thing. Even knowing that it might all be in vain, we’re trying to lighten our load and reduce our financial demands.
In thirty years we accumulated several truckloads of stuff. Because the opportunity to move and the need to empty our house arose so fast, we did not sort and toss before the move. We tossed everything loose into boxes, including some things I wanted to leave there, and moved the boxes to the new house. Now we’re living in what feels like a warehouse full of furniture and books. I know it will get better, one box at a time, and we’ve made incredible progress in a few days, but most of our stuff is waiting to be re-discovered and put back to work, or culled out.
I have no idea where the remote controls for any of our electronic items are located. It’s been OK – as I write, Laurie, the Cable Woman, is hooking up our televisions (yes, plural) to the outside world, so tonight we won’t have the peace and quiet I’ve kind of enjoyed the last few nights. It’s OK. I don’t think my husband could bear missing another week of Bones and House.
The dog is beginning to calm down a bit, but still doesn’t like to let us out of his sight. He follows me from room to room with a worried expression on his face, and when I sit on a couch he curls up next to me and snuggles in. He is feeling secure enough now that he has stopped stress-panting, so the overall air quality is better, although my grand daughter let me know this morning that my own breath could use a little work.
I lived in Burton back in the early 70s, and it’s nice to be a Burtonista once again. I love the drive along the water south of Burton – it soothes the soul, and brings back memories of being a young hippie, swimming in the harbor with Ed and Boo and Nina and their Great Dane, Cossack. Cossack did not especially like swimming; Great Danes are short-haired dogs who like to be close to the woodstove, and the cold water of Puget Sound was not his idea of a good time. He did go in, though, and I remember holding on to his sides as he pulled me through the water. He didn’t enjoy that as much as I did. Ed always said that when the tide came in over a sun-warmed beach the water was warm, but in my perception “warm” Puget Sound water meant that it took a few more minutes for the hypothermia to set in.
I have to thank people, from the bottom of my heart, who lent their hearts, hands, and vehicles to the move: Kate, Tara, Mary Beth, Steve and Julia, Deborina, Roy, Becky, & Maggie, the loving and generous people of the Church of the Holy Spirit, and especially Sonya, who saved our sorry exhausted butts by showing up and cooking dinner for us for a few days on top of packing, unpacking, and directing the placing of furniture. Gracias to Lenin and Luis (“Let go and let Lenin”) who did all the heavy lifting, and huge thanks to Reva.
The old house is for sale; the best deal on a 3 bedroom, 2 bath, stick-built house on Vashon Island. For heaven’s sake, somebody buy it.
Oh, and I’ve started a blog, and realized I’d probably get more feedback if I actually told someone it existed.
Here’s the address:
You can email me at: and I wish you would. I’m up here surrounded by boxes and would love to be distracted from unpacking.

Monday, October 1, 2007

This House

It is an auspicious moment in our personal history. After thirty years in the same place, we are moving, to a bright and airy manufactured home up on a hill south of Burton.
This has not been an easy decision, as you can imagine, and we’re doing it for several reasons. It’s time, apparently.
When we moved into this house thirty years ago, it was not really a house. It was a wreck. The roof leaked, but the floor had sagged and separated from the bottom of the wall on the south end, so the water had a way to drain, and that was good.
Rick says that the first time he went into the crawlspace to jack the floor up level and reattach it to the wall he put a hydraulic jack on the ground under a joist and began cranking it up. When it contacted the joist, it began to sink into the mud.
So then he got out from under the house and dug drainage channels to dry out the crawlspace. After he’d done that he was able to jack up the floor.
He got here in January, 1977, and I came down to visit him in his new home. The front door was a double door that stood open and when I walked in it was to a large room full of old lumber, old doors, windows, chairs, boxes, tools, cobwebs, and garbage.
“Oh, my, God,” I said. And I hadn’t even encountered the large population of rats that were in residence yet.
That was my introduction to the house I would move in to the following December. Later, when our older son JD was small, he called this room, “the room that looks like the attic.”
The living space was the other two-thirds of the house. The kitchen was located to the right of the room that looked like an attic, and took up the rest of that half of the house. In the other half was the bedroom, roughly the same size as the kitchen, and then the living room, roughly the same size as the entry room.
The building had been the mess hall of the Danish-Methodist Conference Beulah Park Chautauqua grounds. It had also hosted the Epworth League.
The original owners and builders had followed the contours of the land when they built. There was a large field in front of the church. On either side of the field there flowed a stream. These two streams fell into a deep ravine and joined into one creek at the bottom. The Chautauqua hall and church was a rough-hewn building, clearly built by volunteers, and it sat on the point of land between the two Beulah Falls.
The church building is long gone now, but the land and the streams remain.
In November of 1977 I did a three-week tour in British Columbia, playing concerts in the interior of B.C. It was cold there. I learned what it was like to use an outhouse at minus 12. Cold, that’s what it’s like. I was leaving a bad boyfriend, and it was an emotional time, and the cold suited my many moods. On the plus side, I found my first Lynn Johnson cartoon collection, David, We’re Pregnant, in a bookstore in Smithers, I think, and I’ve been enjoying her work for the last thirty years.
When I came back to Vashon, the day after Thanksgiving, I came home to the oh-my-god broken down, leaky, dirty, dark, windy wreck of the old mess hall in Beulah Park. I’m sitting here almost thirty years later in that same building, writing this.
I have said more than once that I was young when I moved in to this house, and it was living here that made me old. When I arrived, there was that room full of clutter to walk through to get to the real house, and once inside the walls were dark brown, and the fireplace, which must have been a huge focal point of the old mess hall, smelled of creosote. Rick had plugged a cheap metal woodstove in to the chimney, one of those oval-shaped thin metal ones that you had to replace every year or two because they burned through. That kept us warm, at least when we were close to it.
There was no bathroom in the old mess hall. The toilets, and the shower, were in the other building, the old dormitory building, up the hill from the mess hall. I became adept at peeing into coffee cans, and walking up the hill for serious business.
The shower terrified me. You had to walk through a doorway from one of the two bathrooms into utter darkness, and feel your way to the stall which was located a few feet in. There was a light once you got to the shower, and the hot water heater was right next to it, and I was always afraid of getting electrocuted because I could see electrical wiring dangling around the shower stall. In response to my whining, Rick put a bathtub and hand sink into the house in 1978, and it’s a good thing, too, because I don’t think I would have taken a shower for years if he hadn’t.
In the winter when you walked through the house, you could feel the heat being sucked right out the bottom of your feet. The winds blew right under the house, unhindered, and there was no insulation under the floor.
We lived like that for almost ten years, with no toilet in the house, and the wind blowing through. I put up plastic window seals on the windows in the corner of the bedroom, which slowed down the breezes, and I painted the living room white, which brightened it up considerably. Rick built closets for our clothes, and we had cantaloupe crates for our kitchen cabinets. We had an old wood-burning range we could cook on when the power went out, which it did more often in those days. There was a sign written in felt marker next to a round brown light switch on the kitchen wall that said, “DON’T USE THIS SWITCH.” Next to that Rick had written, “Ignore this sign.”
The house had two electrical circuits. They ran from a square four-socket plug with two circuit-breakers on the kitchen wall. The two sockets on the left were one circuit; the two sockets on the right and the entire building were the other circuit. You couldn’t have the stove and the burners and the lights on all at once; a circuit would cut out and leave you in the dark. We limped along with that system for ten years or so. Early in 1986, the winter after our second son was born and we spent most of the winter nights walking the floor with him and his ear infections, the breaker clicked one night, and when I went to snap it back on, sparks jumped from the box.
That’s it, I thought.
There was block grant money available from King County, and we applied, and got it, and in the fall of 1987 we moved out and the entire place was gutted right down to the outer shell. Our contractor was Lotus, and her helper was Kate, two right-on womyn who did beautiful work. Other contractors did the solid foundation on the east side of the house, and Lotus sank piers down to bedrock on the ravine side. The crawlspace was sheathed, and insulated. Wiring contractors came in and put new wiring in the whole house. Insulation went into the walls and up in the attic over the ceiling. Two guys from Seattle came out and sheetrocked the whole space in one day. Two island guys did the wall taping and mudding. My friend Velvet’s son Lance sealed the walls, and we painted. I think I did some of the painting, but Rick and others did more. We got it done.
We moved back in at the end of January, 1988. The old mess hall was no more. We had a new floor plan, two bedrooms, a kitchen and dining room where the attic room used to be, and, centerpiece to the whole shebang, a FULL BATHROOM with toilet, sink, and shower/tub right in the center of the house. I could turn on two lights without blowing a circuit. It was warm for the first time. Hallelujah. We were home.
That was almost twenty years ago, and it has been a wonderful home for us. It’s warm, and dry, and everything works, mostly. OK, the dishwasher’s a little wonky. In 1993 I received a family inheritance, and we made the attic into a room with a second bath.
JD was born here. We have lived our adult lives here, raising the kids, welcoming the teeming masses of cats, dogs, rats, mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits which came to us. I sit here and remember thirty years of tears, laughter, song, anguish, joy – this house has been the container for our lives, and it’s not easy to leave.
But we are leaving. This week, now, tomorrow, we’re packing up and getting out. Or at least someone is packing up and getting us out – I have mononucleosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinusitis, sort of a bacterial-viral grand slam, at the moment, and am not up to doing all the actual moving. The last time I moved, in 1977, I packed all my worldly goods into the trunk and back seat of my ’58 Chevy, and drove down here. Kind of a bigger proposition this time around.
Come back to my blog again. Maybe I can write up the Rat Wars that Rick conducted when he first moved in here. Stay tuned.