I’M AFRAID OF MY CLOCK, VCR, AND MY REFRIGERATOR

Every thunderstorm reminds me of the night when the troubles that keep me awake didn’t wait till three A.M. They started at four in the afternoon when, on a day the thermometer hit 100 degrees and kept rising, my electricity went off. It stayed off for 12 hours.

I’ve known electricity is important to me. My whole life is plugged into some wall socket or another. The food I eat is plugged into an outlet behind the freezer that’s filled with Lean Cuisine dinners and meat. The meat, raw beef, bison, and venison, is for Mr. Magoo and costs about the same as caviar. It’s not insured. Its loss could mean I’d need a second mortgage.

Do I Iook happy?

Do I Iook happy? No! It's hot in here.

My entertainment runs on electricity. My laptop had just enough battery power to give me YouTube for an hour. Reading wasn’t an option because when I lit enough candles to read they smoked up my contact lenses. Sleep was my only choice. But I’m a night showerer and I can’t fall asleep without it. The water was frigid because the instant hot water heater I normally love for its unlimited hot water, needs electricity. How could water be so cold in a heat wave? Forget washing my hair. Without a blow dryer I was better off with dirty hair than hair that slumped down to ends frizzed as though they’d been electrocuted.
WHEN WILL THE AC BE BACK ON

WHEN WILL THE AC BE BACK ON?

Finally Mr. Magoo and I looked for the coolest place to try to sleep.

MACKIE IN THE COOLEST SPOT IN THE HOUSE

Do something!

He found his on the ceramic tile floor under the kitchen table. I considered it, but my back wouldn’t let me, so I chanced opening the freezer long enough to grab a cold pack to cool my neck and took the couch in the living room.

It was a rough night but there was a larger problem. The thought that sent bile to my throat the minute the lights went off was not the loss of TV and web, or the fear of food spoiling, or even sweltering in the steam bath that was my house. The worst thing was the dread of knowing I would have to reset clocks and reprogram things. There it is. I suffer from chronic fear-of-programming.

THE LOCKERS THAT STARTED MY FEAR OF TTECHNOLOGY

THE LOCKERS THAT STARTED MY FEAR OF TTECHNOLOGY

Like so many phobias, I can date mine back to a traumatic experience. It happened my first day of junior high school. Starting a new school, changing classes, and having different teachers every period were all intimidating enough, but something worse was to come – I had to learn to open a combination lock.

The experience taught me two important things:

First, when people say, “Please feel free to ask all the questions you want,” they don’t mean it. And when they say, “It’s simple. Just follow the instructions,” they mean they are going to judge you based on your mastery of the “simple” task.

At first, I was excited at the idea of having a locker. I accepted the lock with its accordion-folded instructions with enthusiasm. Then I unfolded the tiny paper and began to read it.

#1. Turn the dial to the left for two complete rotations and stop at four. I had a question already: “Should I start it at four to be sure the rotations were truly complete? And if I have to start at four, should I spin it twice first?” She made me repeat the question twice. Then she said, “Just spin it.”

#2. Turn the dial two times to the right and stop at seven. I raised my hand again. “If I started at four and turned it two times to the right, I wouldn’t be at seven. I’d have to make two and a half turns to get to seven, or should I stop at the seven that’s just one and a half …”

The teacher grabbed the paper out of my hand and pulled me to my locker where she made me do it over and over again, even after the bell rang for first period and kids flooded into the hall. For the rest of the year I was sure whenever my name came up I was sure the kids laughed and said, “You know who she is – the one who couldn’t do her locker.”

Eventually my electricity came back on. I had lights again. I cooled down. No food was lost. But until I can get someone in to reset them, my televisions allow access to all million or so available channels, including the porno channels. And as for the clocks on the stove and coffee maker, no happy ending either. The time is still blinking 0:00.

DREAM WITH TRUCKSTOP AND THE 3 PIGS BBQ

I woke up late this morning. Outside my bedroom window, I could see the red sun had already come up and streaked the clouds a fiery salmon. I got up and looked down on my garden and thought what a long way this is from Petain Street, the red-dirt street in Prichard, a paper mill town in Mobile County where I grew up. As far back as I can remember, my one goal, pushed by my Daddy, was to get off Petain Street, to get out of Prichard.

Petain Street today. My house was where the black mailbox stands.

Petain Street looks much the same -- except it was paved with Alabama red clay when I was a child

Correspondingly, my biggest fear was that I would not get off of Petain Street or out of Prichard.

That’s the kind of fear that makes for success. It drives you to keep going, milestone after milestone, because you can never get far enough away. It’s one of the themes of the book I’d get published if I could write a query letter.

A while back I had a dream that took me back to blue-collar Prichard and into the middle of the life I’d been afraid could happen to me. It was a dream I couldn’t go back to sleep and forget. I had to write about it.

In my dream,

I’m sitting at a truck stop counter, smiling

I have one leggy leg crossed over the other

swinging a come-on

to men on the road,

men far from wives and girlfriends,

men who know how to rotate tires on 18 wheelers,

how to tighten breaks,

and pull carburetors,

their wrenches crusty with grease.

A waitress laughs at a bearded man’s joke

and her Marlboro bobs between sugar-pink lips.

The bobbing cigarette stirs me to flop about on the bed

trying to wake myself up, to escape.

Suddenly the truck stop is gone.

I’m back in Alabama, in Prichard.

I’m taking in the action

at The Three Pig’s Bar B Q

that used to stand on the corner

where Craft Highway meets Paper Mill Road.

Men from the paper mill, their shifts just over,

sit at linoleum topped tables,

sticky with hot sauce and old grease.

The light is yellow from the jukebox and the Jacks Beer clock

that hangs on the back wall

over a door with a picture of a winking pig in a cowgirl skirt.

Two good ol’ boys stand near me.

I think I remember them from junior high school

One man leans on the bar, grinning at me blurry-eyed,

As he takes a slug of his Jacks beer,

tanking up before he heads home

to see about the wife.

I WAS A PRISONER OF THE COURT SYSTEM

I have another fear and it borders on phobia. I’m terrified of being trapped, imprisoned, restrained. Then it happened. I was trapped, imprisoned, and restrained. This is my story as I wrote it, minute by minute, as it happened.

9:07: It’s been minutes now since I was free, outside, in the sunshine. That was before I was forced through the machine that x-rayed my belongings and scanned me. I’m being held against my will! They put me in a huge room, the lounge, as they call it. But names don’t matter here. There are a couple of hundred of us in the lounge. I look at the faces around me. Most are heavy-eyed, their minds numbed by the monotony of imposed inactivity. Those of us lucky enough to have laptop or Blackberry are allowed to escape to a smaller cell called the business center where we sit in chairs that are adaptations of the medieval rack, but we don’t complain. We know we are better off. There are only a handful of us.

We don’t speak. The quiet in our cell is interrupted by the slight clicking of nails tapping keyboards. There is a rustle as a newspaper page is turned, but it doesn’t happen often because the owners of these journals milk every word from a page before moving on lest they be left with hours of no distraction to keep them from going mad.

One man has a folder of what looks like legal briefs and contracts with miles of small print. He attacks it hungrily. Speaking of which, I’m worried about the possibility of starvation, scurvy, my hair falling out from malnutrition — even though it’s been only an hour since breakfast, and I smuggled in a biscotti. I’ll call my friends to arrange a break. I’ll go on the lam, hide out with distant relatives I don’t even like.

Too late. They just called us from our cell for a roll call. The lounge is stuffed now. There’s a man who looks like Allen Ginsberg. He stands apart, intent, as though he’s studying the room to find there the truth in words he wrote long ago. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” and so on He alone seems unperturbed. The rest of us are plenty perturbed! Who would be called? I listened, and with every name called, not mine, I breathed a little prayer of thanks.

Suddenly and finally the roll call is over and I’m one of the spared. I watch as the wretches whose names had been called are marched, single-file to their fates, and I know their faces will haunt my dreams for years. For those of us left, there will be other roll calls, and with every one intensified tension. As they go on, I begin to see something like relief on the faces of those whose names are called. At least the not-knowing is over.

It’s 10:47 and it’s happened. My name was called, and it’s possibly the last time I’ll ever hear it. The guards force-march us to another wing where I learn Ruthi is gone. I’m prisoner number 063. I hope they don’t give me a tattoo (or tat as they call it here in the joint). We’re commanded to stand in three lines. I’m at the head of one line. Is that bad? The man who looks like Allen Ginsberg breaks in front of me. It’s okay. I like his poetry.

My legs start to hurt from standing at quasi attention. Shin splints? Is my circulation slowing? Stopping? Just as I think I might faint, a man comes to call us, by number, to form yet another line. Another single-file forced march into a different room. At least here we are allowed to sit. The pain in my legs eases a bit. But will there be permanent damage?

An icy blond woman, probably the warden, speaks to us. “You were handed a piece of paper as you came in.” I looked at the paper in my hand. I’d not even realized it was there. “Write your number on the top right. The guard will pass out pencils. Write nothing else until I order you to do so.” I write my number and go on to start answering the questions because I’m not good at following directions. But something’s happening. I stop writing.

A man in a suit approaches the warden, whispers to her, and steps back. She turns to us and says we can go. Does she mean it? I practically leap over the tall man with the cane beside me to obey her and go before she can change her mind! I’m free, I almost shout it. But, wait, the warden commands. Had she been merely taunting us? Wait, she says again, before you go, return those pencils! I’d dropped mine by my chair, so I stay in the line, marching back to my cell where I’ll wait to learn what they’ll do with me next. A few of us are out the door. A guard chases down the man walking next to me. One pencil nearly got away.

It’s 11:43. I’m still here. Maybe I should keep up with my time by drawing hash-marks on the wall. They just had another roll call. By now I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I don’t hear my number. A sad song wails in my head. “All my trials, Lord, will soon be over.” It’s 11:56. I’m pretty sure I’ll starve.

What’s this in my pocket? It’s the crumpled paper I’d stuffed there as I ran from the warden’s office. I read the list of questions I’m sure they never meant for me to keep. It seems there are things I can do avoid imprisonment in the future. I can comb the newspaper and form strong opinions on every criminal matter that could come to trial. I can become a defense lawyer. I can become a victim of a criminal attack. Here’s one that seems the simplest and least painful. I can join an anti-gun advocacy group. My lap top is already open and Googling its way to the nearest group. I wonder if I have to march to be a member.

More hours have passed. It’s 11:59. There’s an announcement telling us to come back into the lounge. Another roll call? No. The guard looks angry. What will they do to me now? He says something to the group. My mind doesn’t take in his words. Did he say I’m being freed? I can leave? No. There’s a catch. He said before I can leave I have to stand in a line that’s already forming in the hall. Why? To collect wages. I’m to insert the paper with my number and 15 dollars will pop out of the machine.

Another line. No! I’m going to run. I look at the paper in my hand and remember what happened to the man who tried to make off with the pencil. Forget it. I’m going. I look around. Neither the guard nor the man I suspect could be a prison snitch seems to be watching.

I kneel as though to pick up something from the floor and stuff the paper into my shoe. Then I stand and walk toward the exit as quickly as I can without drawing attention to myself. I’m nearly there. Don’t look back, I tell myself. I’m there. I’m out. The air never felt so good. Sweet freedom!

I’M BLOGGING BECAUSE I CAN’T WRITE A QUERY LETTER

Three A.M. and I’m at my laptop blogging. Why am I up blogging? I’m blogging because I can’t write a query letter. I know I can’t because I tried to write them to literary agents to convince one to represent my book. It’s my second book – second and a half if I count a half-finished book of poetry, but this book I believe in. It’s inspiring. It’s funny. And it needs to be published.

I had no idea how to write a query letter, so I Googled, “how to write a query letter.” Oh boy! I was already stumped at step one, setting the margins. They had to be 1 – 1 ¼ inches. I’m no typist. How do I measure? Should I hire somebody? And if I do 3 inches or 1 ½ inches, will my query be tossed away in disgust?

Finally I made a wild guess about the margin-setting and went on to the instructions for paragraph one.  Start each query, “with something that shows you researched the agent.” Then connect the book to the agent’s interests. My voice, that was clear in my book, cracked and croaked as I wrote and rewrote that paragraph I don’t know how many times. My finished letter began:

Dear Literary Agent:

FEISTY SOUTHERN FEMALE, MY GRANDMAMA RUTH OZELL FOLSOM RICHARDS VAN ORMER

FEISTY SOUTHERN FEMALE, MY GRANDMAMA RUTH OZELL FOLSOM RICHARDS VAN ORMER

I read in Agent Query that you have an interest in Southern culture and appreciate feisty female characters. As the writer of a book that is based in the deep south and has plenty of feisty characters, both male and female, I am writing to you in hopes you will be interested working with me on my memoir, Coming From Petain Street; Blue-Collar Lessons For Success.

That didn’t sound a bit like me. But I sent off a dozen or so of similarly personalized letters, each with its obligatory SASE. Rejections were sent back practically by return mail as though the agents couldn’t wait to have the offensive document off of their desks. I’ll bet they blogged about my letter as an example of the worst query letter ever.

What would my voice have said?

 

MAMA, 12 year old tomboy

My mama, 12 year old tomboy who played marbles with the boys till she won all their marbles.

You like feisty female characters, do you? You don’t know from feisty till you’ve met my relatives. And as for Southern culture (should that be capitalized?), does growing up on a red clay street in a paper mill town count? How about a Daddy who was a tugboat captain or a mother who was a born-again liberal and a leader in the effort to unionize grocery stores in south Alabama? If they count, we were as cultured as buttermilk.

No! I had to stop. I was making myself crazy. Night after night I was awake thinking of the words that would work. But in the light of morning, those words had about the same appeal as buttermilk, cultured or not.

How could I make an agent see what a great book I have? And how could I do it in a one-page, single-spaced, 1 ¼ inch margined letter that started with talking about the agent. How do I tell them my book’s about more than female feistiness and buttermilk, about more than deep south culture and some poor girl’s journey from blue-collar Petain Street to a corner office on K Street in Washington, D.C. ( it’s a big deal in case you’re not familiar with DC). I wanted to tell them … I don’t know. If I could write it here, I’d have written a query letter and my book would be in bookstores already. I can’t and I want to write, so I’m blogging.

A JOB INTERVIEW IS A LOT LIKE A FIRST DATE AND I WAS A LOUSY DATER

Last night I woke up thinking about some of the funny, awful, or bizarre things I’ve had candidates do or say on job interviews. I own a staffing firm in Washington, D.C. and have been in the staffing business for over 25 years. I can’t imagine a career that would be any more entertaining — matching people with jobs, and trying to help them through the hurdles of interviewing for those jobs.

I found out early that I’d better say the things that you might think would go without saying. Don’t chew gum. Sit up straight. Look people in the eye. Wipe your hand before you shake hands. Don’t tell them personal stuff. But once the obvious was covered, candidates (and employers as well) came up with new and more inventive ways to lose those jobs.

A woman interviewing for a receptionist position sat down with the human resources director and took out her knitting. She really did. How could I have anticipated that? How could I have headed it off? Why did she do it? It made her calmer, she explained. It did not make the director calmer.

Another young woman went into the interview, slapped her hand on the interviewer’s desk and claimed the job, “in the name of Jesus.” Okay. That one worked. Last I heard she was still there.

I used to wonder what possessed these people to do the dumb things they did. Then it occurred to me — the interview is a lot like a first date. That put it in perspective. I was really bad at dating.

It’s likely I was the worst date any high school or college boy in south Alabama ever had. I have enough stories about my dating failures to fill a short, sad book. But even the worst dater has one very worst date. I remember mine in vivid color. He was handsome. He was popular. We were sitting in his car and he was looking into my eyes. I was pretty sure he wanted to kiss me. Then I did the inexplicable. I started quoting poetry. Remembering poems is a talent of mine. I can quote dozens of them by heart. But what made me think this was the right moment to quote them? I don’t know.

The handsome boy’s expression went from amorous and slightly lecherous to wide-eyed incredulity when I launched into an e e cummings poem – and not one of his romantic ones. But it’s still one of my favorites, so I’ll quote it for you, even though you’re not actually a first date, or a date at all. I’m not sure what you’d call a first blogging relationship.

what time is it?it is by every star

a different time,and each most falsely true;

or so subhuman superminds declare

-nor all their times encompass me and you:

when are we never,but forever now

(hosts of eternity;not guests of seem)

believe me,dear,clocks have enough to do

Time cannot children,poets,lovers tell-

measure imagine,mystery,a kiss

-not though mankind would rather know how than feel;

mistrusting utterly that timelessness

whose absence would make your whole life and my

(and infinite our)merely to undie

He didn’t kiss me.

I suppose it was fortunate I didn’t quote Death Of The Hired Man by Robert Frost, or that I had not yet discovered the man who’s still my favorite poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I might have decided the boy would want to hear I Am Waiting. And it’s four pages long – but a terrific poem! I recommend it.

Misery loves company, and so do I. Post your worst and most embarrassing first date stories – the clean ones. Confession is good for …. and might make me feel better about myself.