I’ll Keep my Laptop, Thank You

Yesterday, a friend tweeted this article on The Guardian, “Unthinkable? Bring Back Typewriters.” While the author makes some great points about how using a typewriter slows the writer down, thereby making writers more intentional about word choices, and how typewriters remove the distracting allure of the internet, I’d have to say, “hell no!!” I’ll keep my laptop thank you very much.

In fact, I wonder if the author ever had to actually type something that mattered on a typewriter, like a research paper or even an important letter. If so, I think the nostalgia for the click of the keys would quickly wear off.

I still have my antique ribbon typewriter. It has lived buried in the back of my daughter’s closet for years. When I was seven or eight years old, my Dad brought it home for me to write my stories on. It made me official. I was a writer.

I never use it, but I’ve lugged the thing with me for my entire life. It weighs around 50 lbs. and represents my youthful attempts at writing, my dreams to become a writer someday.

My ancient typewriter that made me feel like a true writer.

My ancient typewriter that made me feel like a true writer.

I actually don’t remember writing that much on it. I remember spending more time trying to get it to work so I could write. The ribbon would come unwound, little mechanical metal pieces would get stuck. I remember jamming more than one butter knife in to get it going again.

You also have to hit the keys hard to get them to work. Fingers don’t fly over these old keyboards. Nope, typing a sentence gives the fingers a pretty good workout. One letter at a time.

If you hit more than one key at a time, the little letter bars fly up at the same time and stick to each other, creating a mess and nothing gets typed. It’s the equivalent of your computer screen freezing, but in this case all you have to do is reach a hand in and unstick everything. There are definitely days that I wish I could do that with my laptop.

All the keys stuck together in a wad. This happened a lot.

All the striker bars stuck together in a wad. This happened a lot.

Typing is a sensory experience unlike writing on a computer. There is the sound of the letter striker bars (or whatever they’re called) hitting the paper and the carriage. You have to watch where you are because at the end of each line, the typewriter doesn’t automatically “wrap” around. As the typist, you have to reach up and move the carriage back to the left margin. It’s labor intensive. Mistakes cannot be fixed.

The letters are also quirky, with each typewriter having its own “fingerprint.”

The Letters

The Letters

I loved reading mysteries as a kid (and still do), and I remember typewriters often providing clues. Detectives would study typewriter fonts with the forensic intensity that today’s CSI investigators go after DNA evidence.

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No MS Word conformity here. My typewriter has a definite style. The “e’s” are all red. For some reason it dropped down a half a line halfway through the word “kind.” If I had committed a crime and left a clue on my typewriter, I’d definitely be caught.

Perhaps it would be good to create clues for a mystery on this, but I think that’s about it. I won’t be cranking out any stories on this old thing, but I also don’t think I’ll get rid of it. It’s comforting to know that even though I haven’t used it since the early 1980’s, I still can. My computer would never work like that. I could not shove it in a kid’s closet, have kids sit on it during games of hide and seek, leave it there for 20+ years, pull it out one day, write something on it and then print it to paper like I did with my typewriter this morning.

I have no idea whatever happened to any of the stories I wrote, or even if I ever finished a whole story on it due to all of the issues with actually using it. Even so, when I think of my typewriter, I think of my 8 year old self imagining stories, and for that alone, I’ll hang on to it. It reminds me that yes, I am a writer.

Tree Trash

My Daughter’s “Trashless” Dream Tree

Despite the fact that my fourteen year old daughter never stepped a foot out of the truck to participate in our annual tree hunt this year as it was “way too cold,” she still managed to give us quite a few instructions on the size and shape of the tree we should get.  It needed to be tall and narrow, not “bushy.”  Living in Northern Nevada, we get pinion pines and finding a tall narrow one can be harder said than done, but we managed.  She approved of our find and then asked if she could please be in charge of the Christmas decorations this year. “Really,” I said.  “Why?”

“Because last year it looked like Santa puked Christmas all over the house, and this year, I want it to look pretty,” she replied.  Hmmm, Santa puke? She followed this with, “Why can’t we have a pretty tree with ornaments that match? Do you have to cover it with all your ‘tree trash’?”

Yep, tree trash.  That’s what my kids call the treasured ornaments and decorations that they spent countless hours creating.  The tongue depressor reindeer, the glitter and glue angels, the red and green chains to count down the days until Christmas, it has all been reduced to “tree trash,” and much to their dismay, I saved it all. Every single bit of it. They’re my favorite decorations, but apparently their dad and I are the only ones in this family who consider them decorations and not . . . trash.

Which begs the question, what is a holiday decoration? A box of fancy matchy bulbs from a store or a pile of faded construction paper, glitter and glue? My teenagers would choose the former; I’ll take the latter every time, but what are they decorating for?  I would say that at fourteen and sixteen, they’re still overly concerned with appearances, and they don’t really want all their friends to see the lovely ornaments they made in preschool despite the fact that most of their friends made the same exact things they did.  They’ll figure it out someday.

We spent one evening this week dragging out all the holiday decorations, but a full two-thirds of them went back into the garage as I decided to go ahead and let my daughter be in charge of the decorating.  I’ve always thought of myself as something of a minimalist in that I don’t like clutter, but when it came to decorating this season, she put me to shame.

She surveyed every decoration and decided what could come out and what had to stay put.  I did insist on most of the handmade ornaments for the tree, but none of the handmade pictures, cards, or large creations made the cut unless they went in my bedroom.  She informed me I could decorate my bedroom however I wanted it, and since my husband and I are the only people who like all that stuff anyway we could put it in there with us.  “That’s awfully generous of you,” I said.  She didn’t answer.  Sadly, her brother agreed with her.

I have to say that she did an impressive job, and now I know I have prepared her to handle the Christmas decorating responsibilities as an adult.  It was also a good compromise.  I have enough tree trash to make me happy, and she doesn’t feel like Santa puked on us . . .  though I do miss the reindeer one of them made out of a hanger and pantyhose that I usually hang on the door to the office.  I might just have to sneak that one in.

The Taste of Fall

Fall brings with it Halloween, falling leaves, football and piles of unripe green tomatoes stacked in our windowsills and piled in bowls on the kitchen counter, all rescued from the impending first frost.  Some of the tomatoes ripen enough to eat or can, but many never make it that far.  Instead, they turn into fried green tomatoes.

I never knew this was an actual food and not just a catchy name for a book and movie until I married, and we planted our first garden. My husband grew up eating these little treats every fall when he helped his grandfather harvest the garden.  I apparently led a much more sheltered life and grew up without ever even hearing of a fried green tomato until the movie came out in 1991.

Now, every year in September before the first freeze, my husband brings in a box full of green tomatoes and reminisces about his Grandpa.  The first time he brought in his box, I thought he’d set them in the window to ripen, but he didn’t.  He cut them up, fried them, and gave me one.  I had never even seen a sliced up green tomato much less a fried one, and I had never tasted anything quite like it.

To make them, my husband slices them about a quarter inch thick, dredges them in seasoned flour, and fries them up in a little butter and oil.  He then salts them like French fries right when he pulls them out of the oil and serves them either plain or with a little ranch dressing on the side.  Sometimes he spices them up with some Tabasco, but I don’t care for that.

I’m not sure how to describe them other than they’re acidic but sweet with a bit of tangy-ness.  They’re yummy.  Now that I’ve eaten them every fall for the past twenty years, that is what they taste like, fall.

I don’t know that I ever realized this until I started writing and became hyper-aware of such details.  What does fall taste like? Smell like? Feel like?  These are the kind of questions I’ve been asking myself, and this past week, I answered one of them.  One thing fall tastes like is Fried Green Tomatoes.

Fly Season

Every fall, fly season opens.  Unlike hunting season or the holiday season, it is not a season I look forward to.  The nasty pests congregate in groups,  slow, disgusting and fat, and then they magically multiply.  How do they get into my home in such droves?  I have screens on all the windows; I don’t leave the doors open all day.  I clean my house, and I do not live next to the dump like the Ewell’s in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I can only imagine poor Mayella’s fly problem.

Last week, I left a spoon on the counter that I had been using to stir some soup on the stove.  When my husband went into the kitchen, no less than six flies were on that spoon.  Eeeeewwwwhhh!    Even he was disgusted.

This is a problem that happens every fall.  Starting around the beginning of September through the first or second week of October, the flies come in.  At no other time of year do they behave like this.

Several years ago, my son went on a fishing trip with my Dad.  For the trip, my son used my husband’s fishing creel to store his daily catch.   Each evening, they would take their catch and clean it, except for one lone fish.  Somehow my son, who was around ten at the time, didn’t reach all the way to the bottom of his creel to collect all the fish on the last day of the trip.  Instead, he packed to go and shoved his fish filled creel into his duffle bag, with his clothes.  When he got home, he unpacked and set the creel, with the now rotting fish inside, onto a shelf in the garage.  When I started his laundry, his clothes smelled especially fishy, but I just figured it was because he was ten and had been wiping his fishy hands on them all weekend.  I washed them in hot water.  Problem solved, or so I thought until something began to smell in the garage.

This was the middle of July, and the stench kept getting worse.  Finally, we had a family “search the garage for the stink” party.  Lucky me, I was the one to find the creel.  I opened it up and peeked in only to be assaulted by a sight from a horror movie and an even worse stench.  Flies had found the fish before I did, and maggots covered it; they crawled up the sides of the creel, in and out of the half rotted trout.

I, of course, did what any self-respecting woman would do:  screamed, threw the creel on the ground, and ran.  Then, I got to be a mean mom and make my son go take care of it.  This only entailed picking it up with a shovel and depositing it into the garbage as we decided that we would rather get another creel than try to clean that one out.  (I guess that makes us typical Americans living in a consumable society, but that’s another post.)  I wasn’t touching the maggots filled creel regardless of how wasteful throwing it away was.

That’s the only time in my life I’ve seen maggots up close and personal.  For that I am thankful, but that leads to the question of all the flies.  Maggots are fly babies.  If I never see the babies, where do the adults come from?  In truth, I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question.  I do know, that this is the only time that I can’t wait for really cold weather to get here, decimate the fly population, and put a solid end to fly season.

Want to people watch? Hold a yard sale.

Last weekend, a friend and I got inspired to clean out our closets and garages and hold a yard sale.  We set up some tables on the driveway, loaded them up, priced all our goodies with little round neon stickers and were ready to go.

The morning was a study in people watching, not quite as good as a Nascar race (the ultimate place to people watch) but still pretty good, especially for a writer.

The first observation I made is that yard-salers drive like crap.  They’d fly up the road, slam on their brakes to drive by really slowly craning their necks out the window to check everything out from their car as if they could really see the cool fish shaped shower curtain rings all the way from the street.  This is worse than texting while driving.  They were not watching where they were going, and those who chose not to park missed out on some truly cool stuff.

Those who deemed the tables of treasures adequate for further perusal fell into five clear cut categories.

  • The Discerning Shopper – this person would question us on every item.  They would pick each treasure up, turn it over, and completely check it out.  One woman undressed every one of our daughters’ old baby dolls to make sure . . . well, I’m not sure what she was checking, but she didn’t dress the dolls that she didn’t buy back up.  We had to.  That was annoying.  Another guy opened up every single CD to make sure he wasn’t purchasing an empty case.  I wanted to tell him just to get an ipod but then I would’ve lost the sale, so I kept my mouth shut.
  • The Haggler – This person refused to pay full price, even on items marked .25¢.  One woman actually asked if I’d take a dime instead of a quarter.  I get that people are looking for bargains at yard sales but really?!?
  • The Browser – This person would circle the entire driveway checking out every item on every table.  Then they’d do it again . . . and again.  I’d ask if they were looking for something in particular.  They never were, but they’d usually circle one last time before leaving empty handed.
  • The Talker – The talkers came incognito as shoppers.  They acted like they wanted to shop, browsing away and slowing down when they got near our chairs.  As soon as one of us said, “good morning” their true nature emerged.  They were really there to talk.  Total strangers told us their life stories.  One man talked for over twenty minutes.  I can tell you his kids’ names, the breeds of each of his eight dogs, which ones are nice and which ones fight, why he needs a lawnmower, his job (he was a truck driver) etc. You get the idea.  Thankfully, we only had a handful of talkers.  They were the most exhausting of the bunch.
  • The Boss – These are the laziest of the yard sale people.  They sit in their air conditioned car and send out scouts, either their spouses or their kids.  The scouts then report back either by cell phone (even though the car would be parked, maybe, 30 feet away) or by actually walking all they way back to the car to let the Boss know what they had scouted out and if the sale was worthy of their presence.

Since I’ve started writing, I’ve found that I tend to people watch with a more discerning eye.  I’m not sure if this is a good thing.  For my writer self, it’s good for character development, but then I also find myself highly entertained by random details which makes me wonder if I’m being an “observant writer” or if I’m actually just overly judgmental and bitchy.

I think I’ll go with “observant writer.”

Un-learning – “If it’s too easy to create, it can’t be any good.”

My mom started back to college in 1975, the same year that I started kindergarten.  She graduated in 1981, with a degree in Art from the University of Nevada, Reno.  When my sister and I were on summer vacation, spring break, or whatever random break we had from school that she didn’t, she would take us to the University with her.

Some days, depending on the class my mom had, we could sit in the back and participate.  I remember her setting us up at a giant table with a huge pile of clay and tools that looked like those at the dentist’s office.  We made all kinds of bowls and vases.  I have no idea what happened to those projects.  Maybe they just got mushed up and put back into the giant bucket of clay.

One project that I made didn’t get mushed up.  In fact, I think my mom still has it.  Her whole class was outside the art building, and there was a big pile of junk, old pieces of rusty metal, wood, bricks – all kinds of stuff.  I have no idea what my mom’s official assignment was other than to create some sort of sculpture, but my sister and I got to play with all the stuff and create a piece right along with the rest of the students.

I remember one student, Mick. He was a huge man with a long, bright red beard.  He pulled objects from the pile and stacked them up.  Then he’d stand back and adjust something.  He looked very official yet very artsy and also like he knew what he was doing, so I did the same thing.

I pulled a out a piece of thick wire that had been bent into a  triangle shape and a rusty pipe maybe 7 inches long.  I pulled the bottom wires of the triangle through the pipe.  It took maybe five minutes to do this.  Then I showed my Mom and Mick.

They were thrilled!  Apparently I had created a piece of art, and I had no idea that I had done it.   My mom loved my triangle metal thing.  I remember thinking, “but I didn’t really do anything?” I had no idea why they found my creation so great.  I thought it was kind of lame.  I remember looking at it, wondering what they were seeing that I didn’t, even though I had made it.

I am just now un-learning the lesson I learned from this experience as  I actually learned the opposite of what my mom and Mick intended me to.  They encouraged me to put random objects together, to think outside the box, to create something new with old objects, to value my creative attempts.  I did what they asked and found it unworthy of their praise, so I somehow decided that if something is too easy, it is not art, it’s a child’s attempt at art.  In order for creations to be worthwhile, they must be difficult, time-consuming.  Otherwise, they’re just something I pulled from a pile of junk and they’re still junk, just in a new form.

It’s taken daily writing and reflection over the past eight months to discover this core belief that I’ve had for so many years, and also to realize where it came from.  It’s woven its malevolent fingers throughout every aspect of my creative life, and its time to put it to rest, to get out the shovel and bury it again, but this time not in my unconscious where it can lurk and strike at will, making me tackle giant “worthwhile”  projects when all I may want is something small and fun.

Quilts that took me longer to make or challenged my skills more have always had a higher value in my mind.  I have been thinking of my novel as a more valuable writing exercise than a short story or this blog though this blog is what makes me write and view life as a writer.

I’m finally learning the lesson that my Mom wanted to teach me all those years ago.  Playing with words or fabric, creating of any kind, regardless of the level of difficulty, is worthy . . .  of praise, time, energy.  It’s what I feel called to do.  It satisfies my soul.  If I only work on “hard” things, I never hone my craft.  I can’t play and let loose, and playing is so much more fun than just working on “hard” stuff.  I’m finally getting it, it just took 31 more years than my mom had anticipated.  Sometimes, despite attending college at such a young age, I’m a little slow.

Road Trip in 1847, 1982, or 2011? I’ll take 2011.

In 1982, my parents decided to take a road trip to tour our beautiful home state of . . . Nevada.  We headed east from Carson City in our 1978 Scout II. It was a spectacular vehicle – orange with simulated wood paneling on the side.  The interior was an army green color with plaid brown and green seats.  It was the kind of vehicle that, by the time I drove it in 1986, built character.

My sister and I, at the ages of 12 and 14, could think of nothing we wanted to do more than drive across the desert for six hours with our German Shepard, Fearsome, sitting on the seat between us.  All the windows were open as the dog stank, and we had no air conditioning.  We also had no music, as the eight track in the Scout worked for maybe six months after we got it.  And, obviously, we had no DVD’s, Ipods, or laptops.  My kids have no idea what a road trip used to be like, but I digress.

One of the highlights of the trip was my mom’s valiant effort to add an educational component.  The highways in Nevada were seemingly littered with metal signs shaped like the state.  These are located wherever somebody decided there might be something of historical interest.  My mom, somehow, located a book that had the text of all of these signs.  She spent the entire trip with this book in her lap, yelling historical tidbits about the great state of Nevada at us over the roar of the Scout and the open windows.

She would holler, “Here comes another sign.  Do you want to stop?”

“Nooooo,” we’d yell back.  My sister and I would roll our eyes before returning to staring out the window in misery, and my Dad would either stop at the sign to please my mom, or blow by the rest stop or viewing area or whatever it was.

“Isn’t the subtle beauty of the desert lovely?” My mom would try again.

“Nooooo, it’s boring!” we’d yell back.  Finally she gave up though she did keep the book in her lap the entire time, reading the information for herself.

The inside of a wagon - not a lot of room!

I hit the road with my kids yesterday.  I now live on the Eastern side of the state, and we were heading west, backtracking on I-80 in the opposite direction from my first trip across.  I have since made this 300 mile drive hundreds of times, and I did something I swore I’d never do.  I turned into my mother and stopped at a place of historical interest.

The supplies for the trek west.

Two years ago, just outside of Elko, Nevada, the state opened a California Trail Interpretive Center to share the history of all those “road trippers” in the 1840’s-1860’s.  Part of my novel project takes place on the Oregon Trail, so I wanted to see the exhibits; it was research.  My kids, both teenagers, humored me and went in without complaint.  Their only somewhat negative comment was that everyone there was older than us by at least 30 years, but they were right.  It was definitely an older crowd.

The center sits right where the Hasting’s Cutoff rejoined the main California Trail.  The Hasting’s Cutoff is the “shortcut” that actually added 130 miles to the Donner party’s journey and caused them to get caught in the Sierra’s, resort to cannibalism and freeze to death.

The most interesting exhibits to me were the wagons.  I had no idea they were so small.  They were narrow, only three feet wide by ten feet long.  The wagon beds were also at least three feet deep which surprised me, and full to the brim with supplies for the journey.

I’ve driven across the state hundreds of times, and it is not a journey I would want to take in a covered wagon.  They made 10-20 miles a day across the hot desert.

My "Wagon"

As I drove my “wagon” today, I decided to enjoy the four hours it took to cross the entire state.  I especially enjoyed the dry segment between the Truckee River and the Humboldt Sink, where the water just disappears and sinks into the desert.  This part of the journey took the emigrants 24+ hours of non-stop walking.  They usually did it through the night to avoid the heat of the day.  Sometimes the animals would stampede when they finally reached the Truckee River they were so thirsty.

We blew through it in about 20 minutes with the air conditioning on and the satellite radio going.  And, if something had happened, my “wagon” has enough supplies to keep us alive for weeks.

The journey has changed immensely over the past 160 years.  I’ll be interested to see what it entails in thirty more years, when my kids drag their kids out for a “road trip.”  Hopefully they do hit the road, and maybe they’ll even hit a point of historical interest or two.  It would make my mom proud.