Flying over Fonda

The only other Americans living in El Estor were Annie and Dell, bush pilots from the state of Iowa.  Dell was a giant of a man, glasses thick as magnifying lenses.  Annie had the energy of a song bird, soft spoken and unflappable.  She went to school to get her pilots license at 55, after she’d met Dell.  They flew medical emergency missions, taking people from remote villages to the hospital in Puerto Barrios. The jungle valley rose at sharp angles to both the north and south, ringing the lake with mountains, so there were a number of landings and takeoffs that required a great deal of panache.  They’d flown pregnant women, burned children, men both living and dead, shoot through and slashed by machetes.  They drove an old Land Rover that Dell was perpetually working on.  And when they came over for dinner, they brought beer from town and talked about their Iowa no-till farm.

More than three years after leaving Guatemala, we were driving through Iowa so decided to take the back roads to Fonda.  Dell and Annie had a ranch house in town.  Hanging on the wood panel wall was a framed photograph, an 8 x10 aerial view of the farm.  “I took that,” said Dell.  “And see those two white specks there?  That’s a goose and a little blind horse.”  And he told me the story of how they came to be best friends.  “Like a story from a kid’s book, don’t you think?” 

We drove to the hangar, built at the edge of the cornfield Dell’s father used to farm.  Dell unhitched the latch and rolled the doors open.  Annie helped wheel the plane out.  We walked the bumpy strip, Annie pointing out the craters best to avoid.  And then we climbed in.  Dell got the propeller spinning.  It was louder and bumpier then I'd imagined it would be. I gripped the seat, Annie yelling that she hoped she could avoid the biggest of the holes, the plane pitched so high, all we could see was sky. 

Just when I sure the plane was going to rattle apart and crash into a bank of trees, the world turned smooth.  Suddenly, we were floating.  We soared up, circling the farm.  I waved at Dell who had agreed to hold the baby.  Our son hid in the cab of Dell's pick-up, his hands clasped over his ears.  

We leveled off and Annie took us along the county line, Iowa flattening out like a quilt.  She told me about how she often flies alone to Seattle, to visit her sister.  Aren't you scared? I asked.  

"Goodness no," she smiled.  "It's the most peaceful feeling in the world." 


Notes from the Nightstand

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I dream a poem or short story or movie.  I laugh uproariously and think I must wake up and write this down.  My lazy self tries to convince my industrious self that I won't forget.  My industrious self chides my lazy self, of course you will never remember.  Many times, my lazy self wins, and I do not get up and write down the idea, and I fall back into the marvelous dream that in the morning I never remember even dreaming.  But sometimes, my industrious self manages to kick my lazy self awake enough to grab a pen and paper, and scribble down the superb idea, which in the light of morning is a jumble of nonsense that was only brilliant and funny within the context of a nonsensical dream.


A Four-Year-Old's Wisdom

"Death is like magic," she said one day from the back seat of the van.

"Why is that?" I asked.

"Because when you die, you disappear."


Important Stuff

I'm not sure where the footlocker came from.  Growing up, it was always in our attic.  After I got married, I packed it up with important stuff and took it with me.  We used it as a coffee table in our first apartment.  Before our next move, I opened it.  I couldn't imagine why I had wanted to save that stuff so I cleared it all out and repacked it with some truly remarkable things.  We never opened it in Santa Fe.  In Chippewa Falls, we used it as an end table.  I forgot what I had packed in there and when I opened it one day I found my wedding dress and a bunch of stuff I threw in the pile for Goodwill.  Before we moved to Appleton, I realized it was the perfect size to fill with all the photos and letters I had collected over the past seven years, all the art work and postcards I had tacked to our bedroom wall, all the kids' memorabilia from their first years of school.  As I packed it, I imagined opening it, years from now, and instead of being disappointed, being full of joy, all those lost memories, coming back to life.

Friday, we left for the weekend, the kids having a couple days off school.  We drove across the state, to visit our friends in their new house in River Falls.  We spent the sunny days walking around town and the evenings lounging in our friend's living room, laughing and playing with their 18 month old.

We didn't drive back into town until almost 8 on Sunday night, so I had my husband take me directly to the kora concert at the university.  By the time I came home everyone was already asleep.  The smell in the kitchen made me realize I had forgotten to take out the trash before leaving for our weekend.  I went down to the basement to turn up the hot water heater and discovered that the basement was flooded.  Apparently, I had also left one of the toilets running.

The next morning I thought about the footlocker.  We put on rubber boats and waded through the basement.  A. helped me carry it to the stairs but we couldn't get it all the way up because it was too heavy.  So we set it down and opened it up, many years before I had thought we would.  A few things on top were dry.  The rest was soaked through.

We filled the living room and dining room with photographs we peeled apart and set out to dry.  They curled like fallen leaves.  The kids ran about, pointing and laughing and fighting over them, saying wouldn't that be cool if we taped them all over the walls.  The rest of the stuff from the footlocker I dumped in a black plastic bag that I'll take to the curb for the garbage truck to pick up on Thursday morning.  I lamented the loss of a few love letters from the early days of marriage.  And a little book I'd made with my second child, one day when we had nothing better to do than draw pictures together.  Of course, if I hadn't found it, soaked and bled through, if that foot locker would have just disappeared, I wouldn't have remembered what I had stored there, and probably would have assumed, like the other times, that I had out-grown the need for whatever I had thought at one time was so important to hold onto.


artist's fortune #2


It is difficult for artists to describe 
where their ideas come from.
Regardless, creativity is neither luck nor magic.
You can not afford to wait for inspiration to strike.
You practice your art everyday.
You learn how to lull yourself into a creative state.
You teach yourself, over the course of a lifetime,
How to find inspiration in all that surrounds you.


Yiddish Lesson #1

My father once had a famously excellent sense of direction.  When my mother and I were by ourselves we often got ferblondjet which made us laugh and irritated my dad even though he wasn't there.  Just hearing about it later made him upset because he couldn't understand how anyone could be so dim, that if we only paid closer attention we wouldn't have gotten lost, which may or may not be true.

Even though I have a terrible sense of direction, often I am so convinced that I am right about what direction to take, that I insist we follow my lead, that despite all the times in the past I have been wrong, this time, I am right, even though every time I convince my husband of this it proves to be the wrong direction to take.

These days, my dad's sense of direction is not as famous since he is sometimes wrong, or at least it takes him a while to figure out what direction to take.  He gets a little discouraged by this, but I try to tell him. It could be worse.  Better to be ferblondjet than to be fercockt.


Vision from The Happiness Plan

I begin to see the symbol everywhere, but always in flashes, so I can never identify its source.  It has even penetrated my dreams.  I feel there are others like me out there, but I have no idea who they are or how I can contact them.  I sense that I am on the precipice of a great discovery that I know nothing about.  


Spousal JiuJitsu

It seems that the husband and wife are enjoying themselves at the adult party, a rare treat among their sect, parents of young children.  Unfortunately, their elation is marred by the ticking of the husband's wristwatch which the husband watches furtively, though not furtively enough that his wife does not notice.  She finds his behavior appalling since it is clear that he is not paying attention to their circle of friends as they bounce around witty remarks, but rather on some future point that will arrive at exactly the same rate, whether he watches his watch or not.  She scowls at her husband trying to silently signal her disapproval.  As always, he does not notice.  Instead, one of the other wives does and scowls at her, obviously disapproving of the wife's disapproval of her own husband.  This the wife finds extremely irritating and seethes at her husband while she smiles insincerely at the other wife.  What the wife does not know is that her husband is acutely aware of his wife's annoyance with him.  But what is even more annoying than her annoyance is that she is not concerned with the time, pushing all the responsibility off on him.  Of course, he would love to be merrily laughing away the evening with friends, but there is the matter of the children.  They must be picked up at the gymnasium at 10 which means that one of them has to leave by 9:45 which means that whoever is leaving to pick them up will need to begin saying goodbyes by 9:30.  It is already 8:45.  And they still must settle the dilemma of who will be leaving the party to pick up the children.

Earlier in the day, when the sun was out and the coffee was hot, after their stomachs were full of freshly baked scones, and the children were quietly occupying themselves in another part of house, far from the breakfast table, when the subject of the party came up while reading the morning newspaper, each spouse happily deferred to the other.  "I'm sure I'll be ready to leave the party by 9:45.  Why don't you stay, Dear," the husband had offered.  "I've had such a long week at work," replied the wife.  "And you hardly get a chance to be out.  You stay.  I'll pick up the children."  But of course, this was not a true decision since the party was still hours away and much can happen to even the most content couples in the course of a day.

There was the long forgotten lentil dish, which the husband removed from the refrigerator and left in the sink without bothering to dispose of the rotting contents.  There was the wife dropping the mail on the dining room table instead of filing it in its proper place.  There were the children, peeing in the vicinity of the toilet rather than into it.  At some point, the husband left his favorite gadget exposed in the living room where the children took the opportunity to break it.  Someone had left the closet door open and the odiferous ferret had spent the afternoon sleeping on the sweater the wife was planning to wear to the party.  The dishwasher flooded. The children drew blood while fighting over a paperclip. The grandparents called to complain that their children never call them anymore.  A large fly buzzed the kitchen table evading the swatter. Etc.

There had been worse days, though no one in the family could recall exactly when.

Dropping the children off at the gymnasium provided the wife and husband with a much needed respite from their domestic situation.  They went to their favorite restaurant.  The wife decided to look past the facts of her husband chewing too loudly and checking his phone while they were conversing. The husband ignored the facts of his wife repeating each thing she told him three times while aggressively scratching his calf with her naked toes.  The salmon was dry and the salad overdressed. Still, they had to agree, it was a lovely dinner.

But now, at the party, the husband decides to punish his wife for being so annoyed with him.  He resolves to ignore the time altogether and waits for her to take responsibility for the children.  He glares at her, becoming more and more agitated as the minutes fly by without her even once checking the time.  He refuses to believe her claim that since she is a doctor who charges by the hour, she knows what time it is without having to check her watch. But as the time ticks away and the clock hands inch toward a quarter past the hour, and the wife makes no indication that she has any idea of the urgency of the situation, pretending to be enamored with every enlightening detail a rangy and piliferous economist is imparting about some quack named Schumpeter, the husband's blood pressure rises to a dangerous level.  How he hates to interrupt. "So, who is going to pick up the kids?" he squeaks, sliding between his wife and said economist.  "Oh, I'll go," says the wife.  He is so shocked by her sincerely generous tone that all resolve to win the evenings duel dissolves.

"I'll go," he gambles.

"No, really, it's okay. I'm ready to leave."

"No. You stay.  I'll go."

"It's fine. I'm tired. You stay."

"But you are having such a good time," the husband whines.

"Oh, I don't mind at all. Really."

"No, I insist."

"That's silly."

"Why don't we both go," suggests the husband, valiantly.

"Maybe you can drop me and the kids off at home and come back," volleys the wife.


The husband hums as he drives, imagining what a great time he will have at the party, finally, absolved of all responsibility, wife and kids tucked away safely at home.  He heard rumors that there would be dancing at 11.

"So, going straight to sleep?" the husband asks as the wife and children are getting out of the car.

"Actually, I thought I might watch that documentary about the collapse of oil dependent society."

"But we were going to watch that together," the husband moans.  The wife shrugs.

The husband imagines his wife, curled up on the sofa under a blanket with a cup of hot tea. Doomsday scenarios always make her frisky.  His will crumbles.  He puts the car in park, turns off the engine, and follows his wife into the house.


Good Times

A. saw K. in line with her Cosmo.
A's mom predicted K. would never make it in the P.C.
R. saw K. and knew he'd never make it without her.  
K. ignored R.
R. was relentless,
Pursuing robbers who snatched his daily planner.
K. relented.
They both made it. 
K. moved to Arizona.  R. moved to New Mexico. 
Proved to be a challenging arrangement.
A. persuaded R. to become a planner.
R. moved to Arizona.
K. and R. got married one hot day.
We parted ways.

Back in the Midwest, reunited. . . . 

Camping trips, winter parades, late night charades.
But K. and R. got wanderlust. 
Off again, to far off lands.
But never fear dear friends,
Our paths will cross again.


A Love Letter of Sorts

Who knows how old I was when I heard the neighbors complaining to my parents about how there just wasn't time to paint the trim on their house. My parents were sympathetic.  I was not. Of course you have time, I wanted to say. You could be doing it right now. Fortunately, I wasn't bold enough to actually say such things. I'm guessing this was probably the same weird period in my life, after learning of my own mortality, that I was very concerned about wasting time. This worry manifest itself in a compulsion to read, not for reading sake, but as proof that I wasn't wasting my limited time on earth.  It got so bad that my mom, a professional reading specialist who at one point paid me to read books because she was concerned about my slow progress, begged me to put my book away while she was driving so that we could have a conversation for a change.

Fortunately, this period did not last too long and I was back to wasting time in high school, hanging out with friends everyday after school, to the point where my mom, who wanted me home, said that if I really wanted to be an artist I better stop spending so much time hanging around my friends and get to work.  (This was probably one of those things that popped out of her mouth, a throw away comment that stuck fast to my brain and never let go. It gives me great pause as a parent every time something pops out of my mouth.  My god, I think.  They are going to remember that forever.)

You know you're an artist when certain people look at what you've been up to and say, "Well you certainly have a lot of time on your hands." Which was exactly what A.'s Peace Corps supervisor said when he saw the wall of wire sculptures I had hung in our El Estor house.  How true it was!  I had no job.  I had no prospects.  In the mornings, I lay in a hammock, reading and writing and daydreaming. In the afternoons, I made wire sculptures. In the evenings, I walked around town with A., trying to pick up a new phrase or two in Spanish. Sometimes we went to see a Jean Claude Van Damme film at the movie house.  I called it grad school.

Having kids gave my reputation a boost.  I was now a Mom. No longer was my art frowned upon as evidence that I had "too much time on my hands."  Rather, it shocked and amazed, not for the quality, mind you, but simply for the sheer output.  How do you possibly find time for it? was the new question. And that's where time gets funny.  It is not so much a thing that contains us, but a choice we make, a choice about how we want to live out lives.  Here's the choice I make everyday.  There are lots of things that don't get done.  Just ask my husband.  But through it all, despite all the husband bashing, A. has been silently and solidly supportive.  He never questions how I choose to spend my time, though he does occasionally present me with a "challenge," to fold the laundry by Friday, for example.  It is a testament of his acceptance and good nature that I am able to have time, even with three kids, to do what some people might consider a grand waste of time.



The mobile homes are lined up facing the sea like docile mammoths.  By the wheels of one, a woman and a man sit in the sun, tanning and reading paperback novels with strong young couples embracing on the covers.  They spend their days sipping coffee from plastic mugs and going for walks on the beach and trying to fix the broken shade that hasn’t rolled out properly over the double windows for six months now.  In the evening when the sun sets, they sit inside and watch sitcoms on their satellite TV and cook macaroni and cheese.  One morning soon, they will pull up the stairs, crank in the broken shade, start up the motor and be off, slowly rolling down the paved street out to the highway, arguing over the map, gassing up at Texaco, squinting to keep out the sun and the dust, replenishing the macaroni and cheese supply at the Super.  When sadness creeps in, on seagulls’ wings, or with the earnest sweep of an elderly man’s piece of greasy newspaper across the windshield while they wait for the light to turn green, or with the receiving of the news over the scratchy telephone connection that their grandchild started to walk, they become testy with each other, bothered by all those microscopic habits formed together over the years.  Silently they will each retreat to their windows, watching the road roll by and wonder what it would have been like to marry someone else - not because they really wish it, but because they like how the fantasy is edited in surround-sound and Technicolor - with singing and dancing in every scene.  But for now, they are here, on a hot afternoon, reading pulp novels.  When it cools, they plan to fix the broken shade.  Meanwhile, they turn to each other and say, "We're so lucky," and peck at each other's lips, two, three times, as their skin turns red in the blazing sun of another town whose name they have to mention several times a day, least they forget where they are parked.


Party # 57

Catfish played his twelve string on State.  He wore turquoise jewelry and cowboy boots, a shy man who lowered the brim of his hat to cover his eyes.  I got up the courage one day to ask between songs if he would be willing to come to our place to play, just a few songs for Chuck D.'s birthday.  We'd pay him, of course.  Chuck D. honored the man like a mythological hero.  We couldn't think of a better birthday present.  Catfish said he'd think about it.

Four of us lived on the second floor of the carriage house on Gorham. From the porch we could call out to friends who lived on Gilman. It was a small place and filled up fast. The party was rolling along. We hadn't said a thing to Chuck D. not knowing if Catfish would show or not.

Right around 11, we heard Chuck D. yelling, "You guys are never going to believe who is walking up the driveway right now with his guitar!"

Catfish told me years later, that he remembered that party because he was afraid the floor was going to cave in after we all started dancing.  R. did the candle dance.  Chuck D. couldn't quit smiling.


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Tooth Fairy

When our second child lost her first tooth, she was in kindergarten at a new school in a new town.  Many of our things were still in boxes.  So, it's not hard to imagine that the tooth fairy had a difficult time remembering to add our daughter to her route.   By the time she did finally remember, she must have felt a little guilty, because she left this note under my daughter's pillow.

Some weeks later, when I was sifting through the mounds of paper that tumble into the house every day, my daughter's name caught my eye.  There on one of the newsletters that the kindergarten teacher sent home to all the parents every week (which, evidently, I had not paid close enough attention to), was this message:  "Eleanora lost her tooth this week.  But the tooth fairy still hasn't come yet."


Scene from a Cafe in Paris

In the magazine that arrives with the mail is a short story by a writer whose name I recognize as the same name printed on a novel that sits on the shelves behind my desk.  It's a book one of my mothers-in-law gave me several years back.  I remember the weight of the book in my hands, the thick pages smooth enough to lick.  I also remember being fascinated with the first hundred pages or so, a young poet chasing around Mexico City, if I remember correctly, which I may not.  But I do remember that the novel abruptly changed, the narrator I so liked, disappearing, replaced with narration that was much more confusing and chaotic, which, flipping ahead, appeared to last the rest of the book.  So I put the book down, and it sat unread for many weeks until I moved it to my shelf where it still sits, waiting for a time in life when I may be better equipped to weather the challenge.  More recently, I've seen this writer's name in a well known literary magazine, bylining a short serial novel the magazine was publishing posthumously.  I didn't read the serial, maybe because I was afraid, or maybe because I was put off by the accompanying illustrations.  I don't know which.  But here is his work again, in a famous and highly respected glossy.  So I take it that he is very much in vogue right now, even more so, perhaps, because he is dead, the mystery of death always seeming to cast its hue, for a while at least, over the life that preceded it.

The short story is not so much a story as a very detailed description of a black and white photograph of eight people sitting around a table in a chic-looking cafe.  It takes only a short bit to realize that the photo he is describing is in fact the very one accompanying his story, noteworthy because most often, the art accompanying the short stories in this and most other magazines have no real connection to the writer or the story except that they have been selected by an art editor to accompany the story, in order to provide some visual relief from the text, which may or may not enhance the experience for the reader.  As I drink my coffee and read the detailed description of the photo, my eyes dart back and forth between text and photo.  I am enthralled at how his descriptions make me notice things about the photograph I never would have noticed and, in the same right, how manipulative his descriptions are.  Such and such a man has eyes more intelligent than the others. Yes!  How true, now that he mentions it.  But if he would have said that another's eyes were the most intelligent of the eight, would I have been equally as agreeable?  Either way, I decide the piece would be completely unreadable if the photo did not accompany it, though I'm not sure why that is.

The author gets two things very wrong.  He speculates that the man in the center of the photo is wearing a leather jacket, which he obviously is not, and that the woman on the right who is looking off to the left has short hair which is obviously long hair pulled back into a bun.  But since he has gotten so many things right, I wonder if these are not gaffs so much as tricks, purposely placed, to add some element to the text, though what that element is, I have no idea.

By the time the description is complete, my coffee is cold, but the story is not yet over, rather has hardly begun.  I flip ahead and see it goes on for five more pages.  Suddenly I am exhausted.  I put the magazine down and leave the house.  Later that day I come home to make dinner.  I clear the table and toss the magazine in a pile of magazines and newspapers we clear from the table before meals.  I make a note of where I've put the magazine with the story about the photograph so that I may finish it later, if I so choose.

Later comes, but I am well into a novel by I.B.S. in hardcover, and I like the way the book feels when I am holding it, so I decide to read that instead.  And later comes again, but now the Sunday N.Y.T. appears on the table which later gets cleared from the table and put on the pile with the other magazines and newspapers that get cleared from the table before meals.  The next day, or the next after that, the mailbox is stuffed with magazines, one of which is the next issue of the same glossy where the description of the photograph was published, this one with a new story and a new photograph accompanying the story, though, most likely this one with no true connection to the text. But instead of reading this new story, I decide it best to go back and finish the story I already started. But while I am rummaging through the pile of magazines and newspapers that we clear from the table before meals, the phone rings.  It's a friend from far away who I haven't talked to for a long time. So I forget all about the magazine I am looking for.  Later when I remember, I am already in bed and don't want to go downstairs to look for it and so start a new book that's been sitting by my bedside waiting to be read.  It is so absorbing, I don't read anything else for the next week.

Today, I sit down at the kitchen table with the my coffee.  I idly pick up a magazine and flip through it.  The pages fall open to the photograph of the eight people sitting around a table in a chic-looking cafe accompanied by the story that starts with the long detailed description of the photo. Here is my chance. But I study the photo and find it no longer interests me the way it once did.