Joke, No Joke

by Gail Ouimet

I could have avoided all the trouble had I remembered to lock the car. I rushed around all day running from one end of town to the other. The end was in sight: Brunelli’s Bakery and Deli. I parked the car in the lot across the street, jaywalked over and entered the small specialty shop, anxious to see the cake I had ordered for my husband’s surprise birthday party. The aroma of baked bread eased all the tension out of my shoulders, as I eyed the Italian cookies, the cannoli display and the panna cotta with fresh berries. My stomach rumbled. I summoned all my will power, asked the smiling blond clerk for my cake order and turned away from the tempting morsels. It was four o’clock and I could grab a snack while getting the party organized. Jason would be surprised. It was almost impossible to pull one over on him. Almost.

I had gotten the best of him during last summer’s vacation when I asked the hotel manager in the Anchorage Sheraton to pretend they were all booked up and didn’t have our reservations. The fellow really played it up and Jay was furious, inflating to his full six-foot four stature. His well- chiseled, African God good looks were about to explode. That is, until he saw me laughing and the manager smiling, while rolling his eyes toward me.

“Sorry, honey, but this was just too easy,” was all the sympathy I could muster between giggles.  He’s been warning me ever since, “Two can play that game!” This will make him forget all that! The cake’s top had a photo of Jay posing with a large halibut, a beauty he’d landed on his first ever fishing trip. I don’t know how the bakery does it, but it sure looks good on the top of his multi-layered cake. 

Package in hand and paid for, I let the door slam behind me as I exited the shop. My day of endless errands was almost over. In the parking lot, my stomach tightened into a knot as I realized the car was not there. Oh God, how could this be? I locked the car when I left it, didn’t I? I set the cake box on the ground and dug into my purse for the phone. What was Jay going to say? Some surprise for his birthday!

I dialed 911 and gave the dispatcher the details of my apparent car theft. He took down the car description and license plate number, then said they’d send a squad car over to talk to me. Next, I dialed Jay’s cell. He picked up right away, listened patiently, then asked a few questions. He didn’t seem upset at all. Then he started to laugh. 

“Uh, remember last summer when you got me at the hotel?”

“Yeah, but what does that have to do with…. oh,” my voice trailed off. Relief washed over me.

“Revenge is sweet, honey. I’m parked around the corner, sitting in your car. I saw your ‘to do’ list and figured out when you’d be here. What were you getting at the bakery, anyway? Well, never mind. You fell right into my trap! I switched our cars, took yours and left mine. I’ll bet you never even noticed it.” He was laughing. “Gotcha!” 

Just then I saw a police cruiser with its lights flashing, siren whining, speed past the lot and around the corner. The phone line picked up the siren, followed by a gruff, male voice saying “Get out of the car, sir. Get out of the car. NOW! Hands above your head.”

“Jay…Jay!” I screamed into the now silent phone. 

I dropped everything and ran. I reached the corner in time to see the love of my life, surrounded by four policemen. I began screaming as I closed the distance between us. Jay turned to look at me when a sudden, sharp zap filled the air. The father of my two beautiful girls, fell to the pavement writhing in pain.

Copyright © 2021 by Gail Ouimet

To Sharona

It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to Sharona Welton, our friend and writing companion.

Sharona’s recent passing has reminded us that our lives can be defined by two important things—our friendships and our writing. Sharona cultivated both in abundance and we count ourselves lucky to have experienced her creativity and her companionship.

We celebrate Sharona’s life and work in the words that follow, some from those of us who will miss her and some from Sharona herself.

This is our tribute to Sharona Welton, the love she gave and the words she left behind. 

Sharon Welton 1943-2021

~.~.~.~.~

From Gail Ouimet

My introduction to Sharon was to see her sitting in a car, behind the library, an hour early for the literary coffeehouse. She was nervous about sharing her beginning memoir pieces. I found her to be friendly, with kind words for the other writers. As we took part in the Little Town Writers Guild, she shared her frustrations with technology. We found the Thomaston library was a good meeting place to work out some of the kinks. She was brave in her writing, and grew better and better, as she carried us with her on the written journey of her life’s path. I will miss her.

~.~.~.~.~

From Jane Bailey

Remembering Sharon

I had the blessing of being in two writing groups with Sharon—The Litchfield Writers Guild in Litchfield, CT and The Little Town Writers Guild in Bethlehem, CT.

My memories meander through the mist of time, with details morphing Sharon’s truths into nuggets that are less about fact and more about heart

I remember a quiet, gentle Sharon bringing her smile to the table along with her pad of yellow lined paper filled with Catholic school penmanship. The threads of her growing memoir were stitched with laughter and heartache, with love of family as redemption. She wrote of past pains as a child who didn’t want to disappoint. She wrote of a favorite aunt, funny times and sad times. Times of fear, times of loss, times of joy. Revealing herself bit-by-bit in her quiet voice to our writing groups was like hearing the beatitudes of life being read to us.

When Sharon read, she sometimes turned the pages of her pad back and forth to find a missing word or to change a sentence or paragraph, as if making sense of her life through her words. As if asking, “Was my life well-lived?”

Yes, Sharon. Your life was well-lived. A life of love is always a well-lived life.

How lucky your family is to have had your love bestowed on them. A mother and

grandmother who was brave to the end.

At the June Litchfield Writers Guild Coffee House, Sharon came in just before the

readings began. She looked wan and weak and was first-up on the program. The strength it took for her to get to the microphone was evident. It was a mean microphone that spat squealing feedback as if wanting to take Sharon’s words away from us. With grace and courage, Sharon patiently waited until she could tell us her green couch story. A story told with the bravery of someone who knew this might be the last story she’d be able to tell. Hopefully, her yellow pages will live on, carrying Sharon’s memoir of love into the future.

Thank you, Sharon.

~.~.~.~.~

From Carmen Neale

The Lovely Sharona Welton

It is extremely hard to imagine a world without Sharona. The beauty and elegance of her soul poured through her eyes, her smile, and her writing. She never raised her voice, and yet she spoke with eloquence. I could probably recite from memory much of what she said to me. Although she carried a sadness deep in her soul, she also had a sense of humor. She had the strength to continue with her life and to encourage others to go on.

As a writer, she preferred to write her memoirs. However, she could be persuaded to take on some fictional writing.

One of the latest pieces she ever wrote was about a doctor she met. It implied that something could have happened between the two of them, but she didn’t get there. On a dare I suggested for her to have a romance with him. A couple of weeks later she had done just that. She had written about a fast romance between the two of them. Even though everything was fictitious, I loved that she had followed the advice, taken a risk with her pen, and for a moment, she had performed some mischief that made us all smile. I heard in those lines a fun side of her I hoped she could still find occasionally.

I will miss her so much!

~.~.~.~.~

From Amy Nicholson

Sharon Welton

I met Sharon at the Litchfield Writer’s Guild. I think I was only going to their meetings part-time at that point, so I didn’t get to know her well, but Sharon was one of those people you like as soon as you meet. She really listened when you talked. She was attentive, perceptive, and sensitive. This always came through in her writing. She wrote memoir pieces that were honest and vulnerable, and, when she read them, she was always poised. 

When she came to read her piece “Green and Go” at the LWG June Coffeehouse this year, it was clear she was not feeling well. It seemed she was there solely for everyone else’s benefit. I don’t think she even partook of the refreshments. In addition, there were issues with the microphone, and at first, we in the audience couldn’t hear her well. Still, Sharon persevered and delivered her story with grace. As always.

She did what good writers do. She conveyed a universal message in her deeply personal stories. What I learned from Sharon: Be brave. Write your story. If you are brave enough to share it with others, stand tall, read at an appropriate pace and volume. If you share your truth, most likely it won’t be fairytale perfect. It will shed light on dark corners. But as long as you speak your truth in love, don’t apologize for it. If you hoard your stories, they remain buried treasures. But if you share them, they can enrich someone else’s life. Hidden treasure or treasured gift, you choose.

Thank you, Sharon, for the gifts you gave. 

~.~.~.~.~

From Richard O. Benton, author and Past-President of the Litchfield Writers Guild

We knew Sharona Welton from the get-go as “Sharon,” and were quite surprised when she insisted on adding the “a” at the end of her first name when we were about to publish the LWG Anthology V, our last work as a group. Not a problem, but an indication that this self-effacing woman who came to her first meeting of The Litchfield Writers Guild (LWG) on February 22, 2018 would be as low-key as she turned out to be. She kept much within, including the fact of her cancer. To her it was a private matter, so she didn’t share. I wish she had, but that would not be Sharon.

She came to us from her home in Thomaston to grow as a writer. Asked what she wanted to focus on within the group, she told me she was interested in writing family stories, anecdotes and memoirs, all of which contain elements of each, and that is what she produced. Her work was sometimes pointed and sometimes poignant. She did not write volumes, but got to her subject, aired it and was done with it. She had a nice, readable style. Should one wish to sample her work, I would recommend obtaining a copy of the fifth LWG anthology, which it is my hope will be published within the next two months.

~.~.~.~.~

From Maire Greene

Sharon was unfailingly kind and generous in her comments. Watching her writing unfold and deepen was one of the blessings of our group and her growing richness of sharing was emblematic of the trust we have in each other. Sharon surprised me one day with two brand new, gorgeous Aran Isle sweaters that I cherish. This was such an unexpected and delightfully warm gift! I have worn them every day over this past, long, COVID-imposed separation. 

~.~.~.~.~

From Jennie Nimtz

Being part of the Little Town Writers Guild is not only participation in a writing group, it is an extended family experience. Sharona was one of our beloved family members. I learned much from her wit, her ability to convey so much with so few words and her insightfulness. She was a brave writer—tackling both happy and painful subjects. She will be greatly missed, but lessons learned from her writing style, critiques and love of the craft will remain with us. 

~.~.~.~.~

From D. Margaret Hoffman

Sharon was one of those writers who knew what she wanted to say, said it and then got on with her business. I was always encouraging her to elaborate and sometimes she would—by adding a word or two or maybe a sentence. This was more to appease me, I think, than anything else, because, as I said, Sharon knew what she wanted her work to be. She came to the Little Town Writers Guild not for guidance, or even, like so many of the rest of us, for validation. She came because it was a group that encouraged the writing to happen and that’s what she wanted—a reason to get the stories out of her head and onto the page. Being in writing groups kept the juices flowing. It took me a while to realize that she wasn’t looking for a critique from me at all. Not really. Providing the assignment (which she often ignored or addressed in completely her own way) and then being there to listen to the product was all she needed from me.

She had a lot to say, most of it autobiographical, some of it philosophical, much of it deeply personal. She was full of stories. The ones that we saw were often written in longhand on lined pads in handwriting that was a work of art all on its own. On those pages was an honesty that became her hallmark. We always knew that when Sharon read her work, we were going to hear truth from someone who was brave enough not only to write it, but to stand by it.

I hope that there is a chest full of Sharon’s stories tucked away in her things just waiting to be found. If there is, to the lucky one who finds it, I say, hold onto your hat! You’re in for an avalanche of honesty, integrity, candor and love. We know. We’ve heard it. And we’ll miss it.

I wish I thanked Sharon for the important lessons that I learned from her. Lessons about being steadfast in one’s goals, about writing from that deepest of places without fear, about plowing through adversity with grace and dignity and about presenting one’s work bravely and unapologetically as all real writers should.

She left an impression on me for sure, one that I won’t soon forget. I’ll miss her.

We all will.

~.~.~.~.~

Green and Go

by Sharona Welton

Originally Published on June 1, 2020

The long, pale green Naugahyde sofa sat in the family room of our home on Sharon Lane. There it stayed until the night before the house was sold.

This brand-new behemoth was unusual in our family of four kids and two parents. Most of our furniture were antiques.

Through the growing-up years I bemoaned the fact that our furniture didn’t match. Classmates of mine at St. John Grammar School had matching sofa, chairs and end tables. In other words, predictable and normal.

The first clues that my home was quite beautiful came as my friends visited. “Wow,” they said as they came through the kitchen and examined the sunken living room seen through the dining room’s circular table settings. If a fire was burning in the old-brick fireplace and the Saturday cleaning had been done by me, the effect inspired either, “Gosh, you’re rich,” or a reverent silence of the 11-year-old kid visiting.

Standing in the kitchen doorway the polished round dining table held a fruit or flower bowl. At dinner time placemats were set around with plenty of room for guests.

Our living room dropped down a step. Its length was heightened by the fireplace built by my grandfather, Ed Coon. On either side were bookshelves filled with a hodge-podge of reputable and disreputable volumes.

One of the latter I used for a Latin II project as a sophomore at Sacred Heart High School. The paper was returned to me by Mr. Rice. He noted that my reference book was banned by the Catholic Church. Indeed, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE made the list of forbidden reads for a practicing Catholic. No, I didn’t get excommunicated, but I was embarrassed.

The year I became fourteen we added on to our home. A family room with a fireplace, bathroom, hallway and two-car garage.

Grampa built this fireplace even though he had long since retired from masonry. He laid out the bricks for the family room and a fireplace in the basement.

In 1959 The Rubber Company in Naugatuck produced a product touted as being better than leather for covering furniture. Well, discussion completed over this, Mom went shopping–in Naugatuck.

Soon we possessed an extra-long sofa bed couch, covered in the very desirable Naugahyde covering, etched with a raised design, and green–sage green. The shade was used in colonial style homes; it was also a favorite color of my father’s.

From that time on, the green sofa served as a back- drop for most activities we engaged in. After all, when something spilled, we wiped it off, unlike most upholstered furniture. This was much better than plastic. Stylized, and practical, appealed to our mother.

Graduations, birthdays, rainy Memorial Days, were now held in the new addition sporting the green Naugahyde sofa serving as back drop. Sturdy, immovable, and wipe cleanable; no matter how many little (or big) kids had made sticky messes on its surfaces.

Teen-age necking and “rocking around the clock” were now happening on the watch of the green Naugahyde sofa. ‘Course that was probably me at sixteen years of age.

Sisters Alison and Kathleen had parties for their girlfriends aged ten or so.

The life of our family seemed to revolve around the family room, fireplace, and the green Naugahyde sofa. My mother relaxed; most of her antiques were elsewhere in the house. She did not worry over the fate of the sofa. It kept its place, and demeanor, no matter how many kids piled on it, or spilled food or drink on its sage green countenance.

Another of its attributes welcomed overnight guests. If weather turned to snow and ice and roads were tough to navigate, friends stayed over on the sofa-bed.

Not until a few years later, as a constantly vomiting pregnant daughter, did I sleep on the huge sofa- turned-bed. As cutting edge it as was purported to be, with its simple classic lines, and touted as the latest innovation of the Rubber Co., it was the devil to sleep on. The company’s work hadn’t looked at the innards of its black knife-like springs or the too thin mattress.

I stayed at my parents’ home for three months then, and again four years later in the first trimester of the pregnancy with my son, as I was too sick to stay in our apartment. The family room did not have central heat, only the fireplace. Chilly, and quite uncomfortable as the bed gave rude jabs on my increasingly skeletal body. Fifty pounds came off my frame in three months of pregnancy, not fun.

Gestations and births over and now time for more parties. Grandchildren of my parents had baptisms, birthdays, assorted get-togethers held in the family room, with the ever-present green Naugahyde sofa holding it all together.

Years went on with occasional rained-out picnics held in the family room, or a holiday overflow of guests. Sometimes I simply wanted a quiet place to sit and listen to “Tom Dooley” or Gale Garnett singing of her “sunshine” while my gaze was on mesmerizing flame in the stone and brick raised fireplace.

An especially poignant day was September 2, 1966, the day we memorialized my cousin Douglas; he died aboard ship in the south China sea. Later that same day, being Cousin Gretta’s 8th birthday, we quietly celebrated her young self. She was the youngest of Aunt Peg’s brood of five–the only girl. Her parents were reeling on that hot, humid, and sorrowful day. We put together a little party. Family surrounded our little strawberry blonde girl with attention, cake, and presents for her. Lower Sharon Lane, and the green Naugahyde sofa, along with family loving her, gave Gretta, and all of us, a lovely closure to that wrenching day.

A few days before this, on the day that Douglas died, I sought relief from the grief on the green Naugahyde sofa. My youngest sister, my mother, Aunt Peg and I had just learned of the tragedy when we came back from a long day in New York City. Picking up the baby and making our way to Sharon Lane we came into a home full of quiet sadness. My parents latched onto “the Baby” in their room. Where my husband went I have no idea. Kathleen and I sat on the green Naugahyde sofa, deriving no comfort from the stiff couch, only from each other’s attempts to cry away the sorrow raining down our cheeks.

Through the years, the sofa held laundry piles from the nearby clothes dryer in the bathroom. My mother was not a housekeeping type at any time that I knew her. When she began working at Timex in her fifties this became more pronounced. We kids were gone but she had Grampa and Dad home all      day.  Neither of them  in good health but they gathered enough strength to argue ‘til the cows or Mom came home, but not to do any keeping of the house. One day Mom asked me to go up and see that they each ate something for breakfast.

Found my very private Dad walking around in boxer shorts and a t-shirt looking woebegone and full of general anxiety. I had seen my father and his extreme anxieties many times, but never had I seen him in such a state of undress.

Once my shock wore down, I looked for Grampa. Where the heck was he? In his room? No, I moved all the blankets on his bed. He was not on a chair or sofa in the living room. I even searched upstairs in the large bedroom space there. No, and no.

In years past he would walk the three miles into town. At this point his legs couldn’t carry him. His heart rate had slowed considerably, and he refused to get a pacemaker.

Searching outside and in the garage, I could not locate him. Shouting his name could not help, he was stone deaf since I knew him. Going outside was a stretch since it was late in the fall and Grampa did not like being cold.

On my path back from the outside, passing through the family room, the laundry pile on the green Naugahyde sofa seemed to move.

Apparently, Grampa had gotten up earlier and gone into the kitchen. Wearing his year-round long underwear, he looked for his breakfast. Grampa then ambled into the family room. He laid down on the mountain of clean laundry and nestled in for warmth.

Having witnessed both father and grandfather in their bare necessities, I made breakfast, having decided that true adulthood had arrived for me. Grampa ate his gratefully, while Dad refused all but coffee.

Grampa died in that November of ’76. Dad lasted until early in ’79.

Mom carried on with work and trying to keep her home. So much time, skill, and care had gone into the house on Sharon Lane, she was wont to leave.

When she passed away in 1987, the four of us kids put the house on the market. Either none of us wanted it, or else couldn’t afford it. I was barely keeping a much smaller home on Edward Avenue while raising my two children. Working for the state of Connecticut, going after degrees; I worked as much overtime as possible.

Finally, the house sold. We three girls spent lots of time splitting up the contents. But the night before the signing and move-in came, we four frantically went through what was left. The house was to be broom-clean!

Mom didn’t throw things away. Consequently, Nanny and Grampa’s belongings were also stored everywhere. Have I mentioned the house had lots of storage area? Finally, we looked around and were pleased with the emptiness.

Oh, God, there it sat. Impervious to our chagrin, the green Naugahyde sofa held itself regally, and large. None of us wanted it; it was huge and looking every bit its age and use. Through hard wear, dirt had built up again. As we viewed the green elephant in the room, it just looked disreputable.

George opined that “the trash pick-up won’t take it now. What the heck do we do with it?”  Various people had been asked if they want it already, no takers.

George left to get some equipment, a bucket loader. He drove it down to the “swamp,” a wetland on the property, and dug down to China. Coming back up, we got the sofa out of the family room. He lifted it and carried it to its new station. Down in the “swamp” he lifted the green Naugahyde sofa in and covered it well.

But was this the right way to send off a member of one’s family? Of course, that feeling was in hindsight.

Brian, son of my cousin Marty, is the latest owner of the property.

Currently, he, like my father George, runs a tree service business from the Lane. Brian’s business trucks find their way to the “swamp” on a regular basis. Someday, someone may have the notion to dig a little here or there. Who knows? Resurrection may yet cometh one day.

Copyright © 2020 by Sharon Welton

Goodbye, Sharon. Farewell, Sharona. We will miss you.

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Lake Effect

by Jennie Nimtz

I wake an hour before the alarm clock launches its monotone reveille. Cobwebs of worries crowd out all happy, hopeful thoughts. I groan aloud. Not again. These past two weeks, troubles reach out from unsettled dreams as I wake up. I don’t hear the birds chatting in the weeping beech or crickets humming under the roses. Instead, I hear the wordless jumble of concerns: unreasonable work deadlines, state of things with a loved one going through a vicious divorce and its effects on them and the kids, another close family member’s struggles with mental illness and the recent revelation that a dear friend is hospitalized because of liver failure complications. The negative musings, great in number, weave their stronghold. Normally, I’m an optimist–hopeful and expert in successfully finding a glint of joy in every day, no matter how bad things are. However lately, the bad stuff is holding me captive, starting even before I am fully awake. I must to find a way to untangle myself from the worry woes. I must.

Several friends meditate first thing in the morning and I so try some simple meditation instruction they give me. Picture yourself in a tranquil, happy place. The shore of Lake Champlain is the first location that comes to mind. Waves lap a cobbled beach and the vast body of water reminds me there is a much bigger world out there; my worries are but a cupful of lake water. However, without warning, a fast-moving storm muscles into the picture. A ferocious storm that transports me back to reliving a walk with my son and daughter on the Mallett’s Bay causeway.  A section of rail trail that curves way out into Lake Champlain like a rubber arm, stretching all the way to South Hero Island except for the gap where there once was a turn bridge. Massive blocks of white marble piled up higher than the waterline with a fine gravel walking/running/biking trail in the middle. It is sunny when we start that walk. I am so happy being out so far in the lake, waves slapping both sides of the protective blocks of Vermont-quarried stone, that I almost start humming. That mood changes in an instant. Out from behind the high peaks of the Adirondacks on the New York side, view-blockers of everything, including sky, west of them, appears a rumble of dark green-black thunderheads. 

“We need to turn back NOW!” I shout to my son and daughter. 

Tired and hot we run in spurts—run then walk then run. The massive clouds, with no remaining mountains to slow them down, regain their momentum. They fly over the flat lake valley and are soon over the New York side of the lake. 

“Faster!” I don’t even try to hide my fear as jagged spears of lightning lead the charge of the storm. 

The booms get louder. We three make it to where saplings grow between the marble chunks close to the mainland. Hunters use this stretch as duck blinds. Should we just stop and crouch among the trees? The wall of rain that we’ve been watching tells me otherwise as it changes course and heads right at us. We run with abandon, the last sprint for the car…

Stop! Abruptly, I try to shake myself out of this image, my breathing labored as it was back then when we piled into our vehicle just as the worst of the storm bowled overhead. This is definitely not an effective visual for relaxing my thoughts. My chest feels tight, as if a spider wraps a strand around and around me so I can’t get free. 

A happy place, I admonish myself.  Switch to a happy place. 

My mind pulls me into a different lake memory. Now I am with my then college-aged son traveling to the Champlain Islands in Vermont. We exit I-89 and turn onto Route 2. As we near the long causeway connecting the mainland to South Hero Island, my son remarks, “I can’t wait to smell the lake.”

I know what he means. A combination of damp, earthy, mustiness that for us is like pinching ourselves to make sure we are really here. It’s an odor many find repulsive but for us, it validates we’ve finally returned to an area we love so much.    

As we start across the bridge, my son lowers his window a little. That muddy, slightly organic smell slips into the car, the smell that, for me puts all things right with the world. My son turns and grins at me then opens his window full throttle. 

“Whee…!!!” His shoulder-length mass of wavy red-auburn hair triples in size as the wind seizes the opportunity to whoosh into the car. His coif looks like the inflated cap attached by hose to a running 1960’s hair dryer. He pulls down his sun visor and flips up the mirror cover to take a look at himself. And then starts laughing–gleefully, with abandonment. Harder than he’s laughed in a long, long time. He turns to me so I can glance of the full lake effect on his hair…and his facial features. It’s contagious and I can’t help but press the button so my window also goes down all the way. My son rescues a map that goes airborne, folds it and tucks it under his seat. The rush of air envelops me, tossing my fine straight hair every which-way. How much conditioner am I going to have to use to untangle this mess? I don’t care. All I can do is laugh. I glance at my son who erupts in another fit of laughter as my hair blows straight up then straight out, partially waving out the window at a fisherman on the side of the causeway. By the time we reach South Hero, we’ve laughed and smiled so much our sides and mouths hurt. Finally, we close the car windows and continue on.

My mind slowly pulls away from this memory and I am back to the present. I’m smiling. Concerns slip away and joy spreads through me as I throw off the bedcovers and sit up. The webs of worry are gone–it’s as if they flew out the car windows as we crossed the lake.

I make it through another day but this day is different; I don’t let the worries take hold. As I drive home early evening after watching my grandchildren, I take a detour and head up a country road to enjoy the acres of fields fringed by wildflowers and stone walls. Should I? Why not? I give in to abandonment, turn off the air conditioning and lower both front windows. Inhaling the freshly mowed hayfield, I turn my head right and left to take in the “sea” of grasses. Birdsong replaces the car radio as the clouds look on. My hair, still long, is tossed this way and that by the air whooshing in and out of the car like the movements of a swallow I see near a barn. I grin. I don’t care. I have plenty of conditioner at home.

Copyright © 2021 by Jennie Nimtz

IMHO

by D. Margaret Hoffman

Everyone I know has an opinion about the COVID-19 vaccine. Some say it’s the only thing that we can count on to save us. Some say that it’s too new to trust. Some say that it’s going to rearrange our DNA, make us infertile and inject us with microchips so that the government can track us like a giant litter of lost puppies. Some say that we don’t need a vaccine at all because the pandemic is over—or never existed in the first place.

How is it possible to arrive at such disparate views?

IMHO is internet-speak for “in my humble opinion.” Regardless of what humble opinion one holds about COVID-19 and its resulting vaccines, it’s hard to deny that we’ve been living under the thumb of this pandemic for much too long. Things seemed to improve this past spring and then too many of us refused the vaccine, ripped off our masks and breathed in each other’s faces—and the whole thing slipped backwards. Thanks to the new Delta variant, cases, flat for months, have now risen again. Hospitalizations have increased too, just when we thought we were out of the woods. Variants like Delta, caused by mutations that occur when a virus has lots of hosts to infect, have given rise to new strains more virulent than the original. We can’t seem to get over the hump. And just when we should be banding together for the good of us all, we are at odds with each other, engaged in a war of opinion. TV pundits, vying for ratings by taking sides, rally the rabble. Social media is full of diatribes prefaced with IMHO, even though many don’t sound humble at all.

It seems to me that the battle lines have been drawn in the wrong places. Political interests have used the virus to pit liberals against conservatives—humans against humans—in order to win elections. But science, a more objective entity, clearly places the virus on one side of the line and all of humanity, regardless of political leanings, on the other. And now that we have the means to defeat our common foe, an effective vaccine, we are in a position to eradicate the virus and declare victory for humanity. But we just can’t seem to get there.

So why don’t we all just get the vaccine, save some lives and be done with this already?

It might have something to do with whose “humble opinions” we decide to listen to.

*****

I’m a writer. As a writer, I can Google a little here, social media hunt a little there, call it “research,” throw some carefully chosen words together in an essay and put that essay out there for a lot of people to see. If it’s focused and coherent, that essay can easily create the illusion that I know what I’m talking about. Even when I don’t.

It doesn’t take much these days to pass yourself off as an expert. People do it all the time. All it takes is a platform, a search engine and some chutzpah. With today’s technology, anyone can do it.

Literally anyone.

Before we base our opinions—and our decisions—on what others say, we really need to be checking their credentials at the door.

And if those “experts” affecting our decisions on vaccines are public people— politicians, clergy, TV and radio personalities, pundits, partisans, social media writers, real-estate moguls, billionaires, movie stars, or anyone else but actual doctors and scientists—they do not have the proper credentials. And if what they are telling you to believe is based on opinion instead of fact, it is 100% invalid.

But that’s not their problem. It’s ours.

Real science doesn’t care if you trust it. It has nothing to gain—or lose. Certain conditions will make it rain whether you believe in it or not. If you refuse to carry an umbrella when those conditions exist, you’ll get wet. That’s a fact.

In the interest of full disclosure, here are some more facts. First, I am fully vaccinated. I wear a mask when I am in an indoor, public place. I wear a mask, stay outdoors and maintain good social distance when I am among people whom I know are unvaccinated—for their protection as well as mine. This is not always a popular decision, but I do it anyway. Second, as a writer and an educator, I’m aware of the necessity of checking the credibility of the sources of information that I act upon—especially when that information concerns the health and the well-being of my family and me. Third, as a rhetorician, my goal in this essay (and every essay I write) is to establish myself as likeable, dependable and knowledgeable so that you feel you can trust what I say and then, perhaps, do what I do. But whatever I say about the importance of the COVID vaccine and however reliable you may think I am, the final and most important fact I have to share is this:

I’m an English major, people.

You can accept my opinion on writing—grammar, mechanics, spelling, structure, technique, advice on revision and even the basics of blogging and independent publishing. You can accept my opinion on rhetoric—the use of rhetorical devices, what they are, how they have been used (since long before Aristotle so astutely outlined them) to manipulate you and affect the way you think. I’ve studied this, I’ve taught it, and I have a couple of diplomas, a thirty-six-year teaching career and a growing body of work to certify that I have some credibility in the field.

But I’m about as scientifically oriented as a Shakespearean sonnet.

So when it comes to opinions about getting vaccinated for COVID or anything else, I wouldn’t listen to someone like me. There’s only one opinion that I seek—my doctor’s.

When I asked my doctor back in January if she was going to get the vaccine, she said, “Yes.” When I asked her if I should get the vaccine, she said, “Yes.” Based on that conversation, I got the vaccine and have not regretted it for a moment. 

When I saw her again in June, I asked her what I should do about people close to me who decided to remain unmasked and unvaccinated. She said, “Entertain them outdoors. Mask indoors. Keep your distance.” Even though this has been met with some resistance from those in question, I do what she says. I know, at least, that it will do no harm. Our doctors are the ones with the credentials and the experience to offer not just a humble opinion on this issue, but a medical one. And what’s the point of having a doctor if you don’t take her advice? Whether or not you like it is 100% irrelevant. Viruses don’t care what we like.

We have been encouraged by some sources to do what makes us comfortable instead of what needs to be done to defeat the virus. We have been persuaded to engage emotionally instead of logically. (This is a particularly effective rhetorical technique, by the way.) But the science says that our level of comfort with certain behaviors doesn’t matter. Viruses perform in ways that are quantifiable. Once we know what those ways are, we are the ones who must adjust our behavior to suit the circumstances—and then, perhaps, readjust and readjust again. Otherwise, we are vulnerable, regardless of our opinions on the matter.

So, when it comes to anything having to do with the COVID-19 vaccine, my best advice is this. Don’t take my advice. Or the advice of anyone else who is not qualified to give it. Don’t be swayed by pundits, politicians, presidents, preachers. Know your sources. Avoid the cajoling of anyone who is not a bona fide expert. Follow the credentials. If you are hesitant to get the vaccine, isolate the person whose advice has most influenced you. Then find out if that person is an MD—an internist, an immunologist, an epidemiologist, an expert in the field of infectious diseases or anything even close. If not, what you are getting is rhetoric and hearsay, the blather of those who think they know or those who have something to gain by your acquiescence to their views. Do you really want to base your health decisions on that?

Follow the science. Engage with a real doctor, someone you can trust. Face-to-face. Then, do what he or she tells you to do—because in a world where everyone has an opinion and charlatans intentionally mislead us in return for power and personal gain, our own, home-town medical professionals are our best sources of truth.

IMHO, that’s a fact.

Copyright © 2021 by D. Margaret Hoffman

Love Songs in the Night

by Carmen Neale

Today, the LTWG once again welcomes guest contributor Carmen Neale of the Litchfield Writers Guild with another wonderful story about growing up in Colombia, South America. We know that you’ll enjoy this charming reminiscence of tradition and innocence.

I had just fallen asleep and was half-awakened by the tuning of guitars outside our front door. I smiled against my pillow while my heart filled with hope. “He remembered me!” I told myself. It had been exactly two weeks since we started dating. I waited to see what tune would be the first he played. And the seconds became minutes of impatience. When the young, male voices intoned a melody I did not expect, I began to doubt that the serenade was for me. But the sound of the serenade filled the night with music.

I grew up in a small city hidden in the Andes Mountains in Colombia. In the late 1960s, when I was a teenager, one of the ways for young men to express their love was through serenades. A teenage boy very much infatuated with a girl would hope to win her heart by gathering his one or two friends who played the guitar well and the one or two who had a good singing voice, treat them to a drink or give them a few pesos, and convince them to go with him to serenade his love. It was a display of male camaraderie perfectly accepted in this part of the world. It was perhaps something we inherited from the Spaniards.

When our father left for the United States, my mother, my six siblings and I moved into my mother’s family home. It was a large old house in a nice neighborhood. It had several bedrooms, a couple of indoor, Spanish style patios, and one very large backyard with a variety of fruit trees. We shared the house with two of my mother’s sisters, aunt Ines and aunt Hilma, and a few of our cousins who lived with us while attending private schools in our city.

As a teenager, I didn’t need to have many outside friends because my cousins, my teenage sisters and I had great fun together all the time. When we started dating and receiving serenades, it became quite complicated to know, simply by the sound of the songs, who was being serenaded.

A serenade?  For whom? Sometimes we could figure it out by the song selection. Most serenades opened the same way. “Despierta, dulce amor de mi vida… Wake up, sweet love of my life, wake up, if you are asleep. Listen to my voice singing under your window….” Boring!

Usually by the second song we could guess for whom the serenade was intended. The musicians would play four or five songs and leave. Seldom would the girl come out and greet them. Other times an angry parent would come out and chase them away. I knew that adults sometimes had formal serenades with professional musicians. In our case, we would not dream of going outside to see our boyfriends in the middle of the night. We considered ourselves lucky that our very conservative adults did not complain about our quite frequent serenades.

One night I heard the first strums of a guitar as I was just falling asleep. After the first few moments, I jumped out of bed and turned on the light to wake my cousin up. Cristina and I shared our bedroom and our love secrets.

“Pancha!” I whispered, using her nickname. “Pancha, listen!” She usually went to sleep before me and by now she was sound asleep. Turning on the light didn’t move her.

“Pancha!  It’s a serenade!  Wake up!” I shook her. She jumped out of bed as if a scorpion had stung her. I laughed. “Let’s go!  Maybe Carlos is giving you an early birthday present.”

“No,” she said, rubbing her face to wake up. “It’s not him. He went out of town with his father. He won’t come back until Friday.” It was Wednesday. “Let’s wake your sisters up! Most likely it’s for Teresa. She is the one who always gets serenaded. And she doesn’t care for any of them.” She laughed, and we went out of our room and into my sisters’ bedroom. Teresa was asleep, as usual. She loved to sleep. Martha was already up and brushing her hair — as if anyone would see her at that hour. 

“Teresita!” I whispered into her ear in a singsong. “Someone is playing your song outside,” I said. 

She half opened her eyes and said, “Good! I hope he does it quickly so I can go back to sleep.” She put her pillow over her head.

“Okay,” said my cousin. “She’s not interested. Let’s go to the living room and look through the windows. We have to find out who’s doing the serenade.” She started to leave the room.

“Wait, Pancha,” I said. Then I turned to Martha, gesturing toward our sleeping sister. “Wake her up!”

Martha smiled, moved slowly to Teresa’s bed, and said in her ear, “Fire!  Your dolls are on fire!”

At this, Teresa jumped out of bed, still groggy, and said, “Where? Where?”

I put my arm around her and said, “Nobody is burning your dolls. But I think one of your admirers is hoping you hear one of the songs he is dedicating to you.  Come on! Let’s see who it is.” I guided her towards the living room. We tiptoed in the hallway because we didn’t want to wake up our aunts or our mother. We could never predict their reaction. They were not fair judges of our young suitors.

Martha opened the wooden double door to the living room gingerly. We entered in the dark. I closed it behind me. I was holding up the rear. The four of us split into twos, climbing onto the two spacious windowsills of the front windows. Then, quietly, we opened the shutters, pressed our faces to the glass panels, and looked out into the garden. 

Unlike previous enamored musicians, these guys in front of us were shy. They had entered the garden in front of the house but had stayed just inside the gate. Normally the singers got close to the entrance door so they could be seen. Their location presented a problem for us. Some trees shaded their faces making the streetlights insufficient for us to identify our troubadours. 

“I know who that is,” whispered Teresa. “It’s that stupid little kid who sent me flowers with the maid last Saturday. Look! He’s the one playing the maracas. He’s wearing the same shirt he had when I first met him at Rita’s party.”

We remained quiet, still trying to recognize the face we saw in the shadows next to the singer.  “I came to look for you.  I can’t stand another day without seeing you….”

“No! Hold it! Hold it a second!” Martha whispered. “That’s not him!  Do you know why I know?” We all shook our heads in the dark. “I’ve never seen him in this group. This is Ricardo’s group. These are some of his friends. That means this serenade is for me.”

“Yes, yes,” said Pancha. “I can see the face of the guitar player. That one seems to be Ricardo’s friend.” 

“The one with the big head,” added Martha.

We all had to stifle a burst of laughter. 

“You are sooo bad, Martha!” said Pancha. 

I wanted to say that I thought it was my serenade, although I didn’t know if he, my beloved Luis, would dare deliver me a serenade. My parents had forbidden me to see him for reasons I didn’t understand. I had been born into a family full of snobs. That was the real reason. This was a sore point in my youth. 

Even though I was the oldest, the only acceptable boys in my house were my sister Teresa’s rejects. She attracted the guys from the best families in town. They didn’t have eyes for me. Every guy who saw her fell in love with her, instantly. I didn’t see the big deal of her beauty. She had long, dark hair, big olive-green eyes, thick lips and, I must admit, a pretty smile. But she never smiled in front of guys.  She looked at them and blushed. They loooved that! Idiots!  

I thought I recognized the singer’s voice. He looked like Alfonso, one of Luis’ friends. But I kept this knowledge to myself. Sometimes my sisters and my cousin said they liked Luis, but other times they took the grownups’ side, and said that I could find someone from a better family.  

“I am anxious to have you in my arms, murmuring sweets words of love….”

“You know what?” I said instead. “The one playing the guitar looks a lot like Pepe, the guy who phoned Pancha a few weeks ago, just to say hello. I think he likes you, Pancha! And he is cute! Watch out, Carlos!”

Pancha, who was the one sharing my windowsill, gave me a hard slap on my arm. I almost fell from my seat on the windowsill. As I recovered, I turned my face towards the entrance to the living room, and this time I did fall – but from shock. My mother, my two aunts and Gloria, our youngest maid, were inside the same room we were, quiet, arms crossed, just taking in everything we said. We had been so attentive listening to the musicians and dreaming of the possible guys responsible for the corny serenade that we hadn’t noticed their presence. The fourth and final song was ending anyway, and now the adults turned on the living room lights. We could be in trouble.

“Good night my sweet love. I will dream of you….”

We were totally exposed.  Caught “in flagrante,” as Sister Saint George used to say. We looked at our judges, unable to speak. 

“Well?” My mother said.  “Whose is it?”

We all looked at one another, and Martha, who was still up by the window, simply said, “They just left.” She smiled. “They left something on one of the rose bushes. Let’s go see!” She jumped down and went to face the adults.  Martha was always the fresh one, the one who dared say things we didn’t. 

“So, you don’t know who brought the serenade?” Aunt Hilma said.

“No. We don’t know,” I said and looked at my accomplices, who in turn shrugged their shoulders.  

“Fine,” Aunt Inés said.  She led us all, including the adults, to the front door and out into the garden.  Gloria and I were last, and I stopped her with my hand.  She looked at me, and I shook my index finger at her.

 “You woke them up,” I said. I assumed my mother and aunts wouldn’t have heard the musicians if Gloria had not alerted them. 

“I didn’t. I swear!” Gloria whispered back at me.

Meanwhile I turned to see my mother, my aunt, my siblings, and my cousin laughing. I had missed the joke. 

“What? What happened? Who was it?” I asked impatiently.

“Look,” said Martha handing me a card. 

“Aurora Quartet,” said the card. “Fine and refined musicians. We sing of love to your loved one. Mauricio, Tony, Chino and Esteban.” It also gave their contact information. 

“And the best part of this whole event is that they did not trample the flower beds,” said my aunt Inés who was always making sure the flowers were cared for. 

We went to bed laughing.  We didn’t know any of those guys!

Copyright © 2021 by Carmen Neale

Peas Porridge Hot

By Maire Greene                                                            

Mom believes that letting a kid refuse to eat what’s put in front of her undermines parental authority and ruins the child.  My own stand-off comes when I’m six.  Over pea soup. Mom has been cooking it all morning and she’s proud of her soup. To be fair, her soup is usually killer, so good you just want to keep eating it till you’re sick. Not this time. I take one look at it and it confirms my secret belief she really wants to kill us all. What I see is a pot full of green sludge with suspicious pink lumps floating through it. It bubbles ominously.

Mom says, “It’s so good for you. I put a whole leg bone in there.”

She means a ham bone but all I hear is leg. Brendan is already half-way through his first of three bowls. This proves nothing. Brendan has a perverse taste for the medicinal, the pungent, the gamy tastes that make the average person shudder. I have no trust in Mom’s intentions. I know her motto is “Waste not, want not,” which makes sense if what you are wasting is something you actually would want. But this soup is made of peas, boiled into sludge, and flavored with an old ham bone, still clinging to the bits of salty, smoky flesh that we had to choke down last night. That dinner should have been long forgotten, but no, she’s dredging it back to life as zombie soup. She really does want us dead. Well not me. I’m not eating one bite of that evil poison.

Mom tightens her lips and raises her eyebrow—her signal that she’s ready to fight to the death over this. The battle is on. Neither one of us will give in. The soup is first served for lunch. I flatly refuse.  

“You will sit there until you eat it,” Mom hisses.

I sit. Through the afternoon and into the evening I sit. I am Stone Face. But Mom will not be moved.

“I have to go to the toilet,” I wail. I’ve been sitting at the table for hours.

“Eat your soup,” she replies.

I sit.

“I’m gonna wet my pants,” I sob. I can’t believe she won’t even give me a toilet break.

My tears begin to splash. I’m already ashamed at the inevitable turn of this battle. I knew it was a fight to the death. As tired, bored, frightened and desperate as I am, I’m also fascinated that I might beat Mom at her own game.

“Wet them and you’ll sit in it,” comes Mom’s reply.

 I hold out for another half hour before I can’t hold it any more. The hot gushing flood splashes over my legs and onto the floor. The relief is almost worth the shame I feel. 

Declan and Brendan are watching the battle from their fort behind the couch. When I finally let go, they clap their hands over their mouths to keep their silence. They both recognize this is the critical moment. Dad will be home from work soon. He won’t want to sit and eat at a table surrounded by a moat of piss.

 “The Yellow River by I.P. Daily,” Dec whispers to Brendan. They collapsed in loud snorts of laughter. Mom snaps.

 “All right. Get up!” she said in a voice flat as death. “Clean up this mess and the go wash yourself. You stink.”

I scramble to do it. I’m thinking “I won! I won!” I should have known better. When I come down for supper that night, I see that everyone else has my favorite, fried pork chop and mashed potatoes. I have a bowl of cold pea soup.

 Dad sings, “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold. Peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”

I sing back, “Some like it hot. Some like it cold. Some like it in the pot nine days old.”

A chill settles in my guts as it occurs to me that Mom is probably the one who served it nine days old. It sounds like one of her tricks. Supper passes with me keeping up a steady stream of bright chatter, entertaining my father with my entire store of riddles, rhymes and snippets of songs. Mom sits as still and grim as a stone. After supper she takes out her ultimate weapon. Hershey bars! Declan and Brendan and even baby Rosie whoop and holler. Declan flashes me a guilty grin, thanking me for this unexpected treasure.

I nod, the queen of the castle. I look at Mom. I too am stone. She and I lock eyes.

In that moment I see a flicker of doubt, some deep, untouchable pain. I know that I have won. We get up and I take my place in front of the T.V. I stand on my head on the couch, my preferred position for watching. Within the hour Mom comes over to where I stand, my head against the wall, watching the family from a distance of a million miles to the moon and back.

“Brigid, you can come down. I saved a candy bar for you,” she says.

In an instant I’m on my feet, tearing the wrapper off the candy and cramming the chocolate in my mouth. I’m laughing at the same time.

“I knew you couldn’t make me…” I start to mumble, chocolate leaking out my mouth down to my chin. I don’t finish the sentence. Her backhand knocks me ass over teakettle across the room, lip split, the outline of her fingers printed on my cheek. I realize with a start that you really do see stars when you get clobbered.

 Dad drily observes, “You forgot the eleventh commandment, Brigid—Quit while you’re ahead.”

Copyright © 2021 by Maire Greene

Tater’s Gift

by Chris Armentano

Sometimes you think you’re getting one thing, and in the end you get another, better thing than you could have ever imagined. It’s been like that with Tater, the little black rescue dog that came to us about six months ago. Though Tater had a  broad handsome face, a noble snout and warm chestnut-colored eyes, he was still an odd looking little guy with serious issues: mostly with his hind end which didn’t cooperate fully with the rest of him. His white-dappled front half was muscular and sturdy, while his back half, slender as a chihuahua’s, was cockeyed and bordering on feeble. When found on the streets of Ocala, Florida, he’d lost the full use of his tail end and was dragging two injured feet behind him. He was in sad shape, but his tail wagged and his worried and intelligent face seemed ready to engage a friendly human. The rescue lady said it was neurological problems that kept his hind end tilted to one side and tottering. Given his physical problems, I wasn’t eager to adopt him but my wife liked how well he got on with our other mutts, and saw something in him that told her to give the eighteen-pound critter a chance. I’m glad we did because over the past six months, as the little guy’s physical problems have lessened, he’s kick-started my growing wonder at the canine mind and spirit. Golf balls and sunsets figure in too.  

I don’t know what mix of breeds he is but there doesn’t seem to be a bit of retriever in his DNA, not by looking at him anyway. Those genes pop out when in the presence of balls, especially golf balls which, thankfully, are tough enough to resist immediate destruction by Tater’s rapid chomping, something he does about as quickly as a woodpecker drilling an insect-riddled tree trunk

Tater’s golf ball hobby is fine with me because I’m able to give my pitching wedge a workout without having to tramp around the horse pasture looking for balls in the tall grass. The game often starts in our fenced-in yard when Tater deposits one of his golf balls at my feet. Yes, he has his own paw-full of well-gnawed balls. While I set up for a chip shot, he dances excitedly while yelping encouragement, which he keeps up until I chip the ball a short distance in our yard. Often, he’ll pick up the ball and head straight for the gate that leads into the pasture where the real action takes place. He prefers the longer distances, say fifty to seventy feet, which gives him a chance to rocket his stout little body at full speed over the turf.

If he loses sight of the ball, he’ll dart back and forth with his nose to the ground defining larger and larger circles. I figure most dogs are near genius when it comes to odors, while their owners, me included, are severely challenged in this regard. Imagine trying to pick up the scent of a golf ball that’s recently landed in a tuft of grass. Your success depends on honing in on the few molecules that have become airborne since it landed. Once he’s picked up the scent, he’s quick to grab the ball and dash back to my feet, his frail back legs hopping and skipping at double time to keep up with his powerful front legs. Sometimes when his back end outpaces the front, his body becomes a “C” shaped torpedo. Back at my feet he’ll give the ball a half dozen rapid chomps before dropping it, which I imagine is how he puts his scent on the ball.  

I’m not thrilled with where he stands when pleading with me to give the ball another whack. Usually, it’s so close that I’ve got to maneuver the club-head to avoid hitting him with the ball. So, though he hasn’t figured out that by standing in front of me he risks a painful confrontation with a golf shot, he learned pretty quickly that the direction the ball takes when hit is determined by the angle of the club face, regardless of which way I’m facing. He knows that the club face turned to the left will send the ball in that direction. If turned to the right, it’ll head in that direction. I know adult golfers who still struggle with the concept. 

He also knows that golf takes place after dinner, something he doesn’t let me forget. I suppose I forgot to mention the little fellow’s sizable vocabulary. Not content with barks and growls that emerge from our other three rescue dogs, he states his case, makes demands and pleads with a collection of lively yips, snorts, squeaks, whines, whimpers, cries and a few sounds mankind has yet to name—for example, the sound “ermf.”  

Then there’s the toy for horses called a Jolly Ball, a durable ten-inch red rubber ball with a handle substantial enough for a horse to grab with his teeth and fling. Of course, Jolly Balls are tough. They have to be to survive horseplay. Although the balls are considered indestructible, Tater has proven otherwise. The other day, he was busy jawing and shaking the ball like a predator might do to snap the neck of his prey, when he decided to bring it into the house. About half way, I told him, “Not in the house,” which caused an immediate return to his favorite spot in the shade where he continued to tear at the ball. 

One of his lesser passions, not shared with any other dog we’ve had, is biting the stream of water that comes from the hose. His full body pursuit of the end of the stream is something to see whenever we’re filling buckets and watering plants. Unlike most dogs, he doesn’t skedaddle when the hose comes out. He attacks it with such enthusiasm that he couldn’t get wetter if he jumped in a swimming pool. I can’t say we ever had a dog as excited about running water as Tater, though we did have a rescue that loved the sound of whipped cream whooshing out of the can’s nozzle. Don’t ask me how, but I discovered she’d snatch the cream out of the air mid-flight if I squirted some in her direction. 

Though Tater isn’t as handsome as our other three dogs, nor as good looking as any of the twelve or so rescued mutts we’ve had over the last twenty-five years, he has qualities the others lacked starting with his seemingly high I.Q. He catches on very quickly. I had to yell at him only once about trying to steal food from the other canines. “Outside” didn’t take him long to learn either. 

I have to say the best thing he’s done takes place when, at sunset, he gets me away from TV’s intellectual holding pattern to head outside to hit golf balls. Our place is dead flat with west facing views, perfect for the magic that fills the sky with deep cloud canyons, towering cloud mountains, ever-changing vaporous shapes and calligraphic streaks dashed spectacularly overhead. Everything painted the colors of emotion. Tempestuous reds, soothing purples, sentimental blues, audacious yellows: all children of the sinking fire. Afterward when the sky darkens and the air cools, and Tater and I head back to the house, I know I’ve seen some of the Creator’s best ideas—the spectacle of sunset and the four-legged intelligence that got me off the couch to see it. 

Copyright © 2021 by Chris Armentano

Marīa

By Sharona Welton

“Marīa, blow my love to me,” belts out Frankie Laine in those long ago 1950s.                                

I was a childhood fan of Westerns and the genre of lonely and forlorn lyrics sung powerfully. To me, Frankie Laine was a master of the spirited and virile style of delivery.  “Marīa,” as he sang it, became a clarion call for me to hear the high and low pitches of the wind, prairie or otherwise.

At that time of Western dramas and the wide-open prairies on film, cowboys rounded up the cattle for the drive to the markets. “Git along little dogie” was their mantra keeping the steers grouped and safe from rustlers and other mishaps along the way. Once settled for the night the cowboys sat around their campfires and felt the loneliness of the long drive, missing the girl back at the ranch, and hearing the whistling wind whipping across the mostly flat grassland.

“Ghost Riders in the Sky”, “500 Miles”, and “Tom Dooley” lent themselves to my search for melancholy sounds as I played the Hi-Fi in the family room. Flames danced in the fireplace (no, not at the campfires) as I sank further into the soothing hypnosis of the teen-age spirit.

Soon, in the 60s, “Blowin’ in the Wind” spoke of the power inherent in cannonballs, and in doves, as a counterpoint.  Dylan spoke to the tenor of the era, and I was with him in that time and space. Further, his mood-inducing lyrics made me an enthusiast for life. Vocals of Bob’s whined and wailed of the human condition.  Indeed, “Blowin’ in the Wind” would be a perfect accompaniment as one’s ashes are to be freed.

I came to know and accept loneliness and listened for its plaintively blue and beautiful sound of the natural force of nature. The power of the howling wind initially frightens as the dust bowls and sandstorms throughout time are witness to this apprehension and fear.

We cannot see the Wind, only hear and feel its manifestation. Thus, the ghostliness and supernatural further scares us as we cannot see it.

Emanations over the years, the whisper and wheeze, the whine and wail, swoosh and swirl, whistle and warble, shriek and skirl along with the power and playfulness send the message of this year, 2021.

The third month in our calendar has allowed the whistling wind to find its way into my psyche again. Some complain of its volatility; I rejoice hearing its siren song.

Home to the harbingers of spring, the Ides of March and St. Paddy’s Day celebration firmly in its grip, I celebrate these times in the third month.  A spiritual connection with the Wind, Marīa, grows each spring.

Nights in this year of our Lord 2021, I hear the teasing and taunt to play with the Wind. I place the bedroom window in position to allow the Wind to play with me. Warm under the comforter, I smile as each eddy offers itself to me. I greet my friend.

The wind is powerful and tantalizing in its ability to eventually lull me to dream. Marīa comes to me in the otherwise silence of the night.

And I listen.

Copyright © 2021 by Sharon Welton

Uncorking Wonder

by Amy Nicholson

The Little Town Writers Guild is happy to welcome Guest Contributor Amy Nicholson to our site. Amy is a freelance writer who lives by a waterfall in northwest Connecticut. Finding grace in ordinary places, she hopes to encourage and inspire others through her work. She belongs to Word Weavers Berkshires and has been published in Ruminate Reader’s Notes, Country Woman, The Old Schoolhouse, and others. Visit her at www.amynicholson14.wordpress.com.

I substituted in a second grade class yesterday. They are studying non-fiction books. For a portion of the class, they were to read non-fiction books and write sticky notes on the new facts they learned. One little boy came up to me very excited to tell me about the Terribilis frog. Did you know this frog’s skin is so toxic it could kill twenty thousand mice?

My young friend was fascinated by this fact and, although diligent in his work to continue reading the book and writing out new facts, he kept coming up to me in amazement. “Can you believe it? Twenty thousand mice! I just can’t believe it!” His excitement about this tiny yellow frog in the rainforest got me excited.

“I’m glad they don’t live in Connecticut,” I said.

“Me, too!” he replied.

His curiosity was contagious. As we talked about the frog, I found myself wondering, too. If this amphibian is so toxic, what are its predators? Are they immune to the toxin? How did scientists learn this frog could kill twenty thousand mice? Did a brave and gritty group of them have that many mice to spare one week and say, “Hey, let’s give this a try?”

I went home and did a little research of my own. Sure enough, the Golden Poison Frogs (Phyllobates terribilis), even though they only measure about two inches,are the world’s most deadly frogs. They are indigenous to Columbia (so my young friend can rest assured he won’t find one in his backyard sandbox). The alkaloid toxin on their skin is toxic enough to kill two grown men. Again, how did they learn this? And is one grown man equal to ten thousand mice? In what way? Would it be the same for a woman? The native Embera of Columbia used this venom to tip their blowgun dart. Oh! That’s why they call them Poison Dart Frogs! How do they capture these frogs and use them without harming themselves? Would it be enough for them to just wash their hands afterwards? Where do they find soap in the rainforest? Because curiosity begets curiosity, one question led to another.

When I work with older kids, their fascination usually revolves around maybe sports and dance and then video games. The older they get, though, the more they seem to talk about other people. Their friends, who their best friends are, and then, unfortunately, how this person upset that person and this one’s not talking to that one. We never seem to get back to the topics of things like poison dart frogs and how no two snowflakes are alike.

My husband is a high school science teacher. He loves science, and he loves teaching, but it is disheartening for him that so few students take an interest in the subject matter. They are more interested in social media and what they’re doing after school.

This shift from wondering about the world and all the creatures in it to focus on people, social lives, and, later, finances, politics, policies, and systems is normal. It is to be expected that as we age we spend less time watching caterpillars transform into butterflies and more time pursuing gainful employment. Otherwise, no one would pay taxes to fix potholes. But I believe if we returned, at least partially, to wonder, we as adults would be a lot less stressed.

What if instead of logging onto Facebook for the umpteenth time today we went outside and took a walk? Looked up at the leaves. Watched a squirrel scurrying up a tree. Noticed that it descended upside down. What does the world look like to that upside down squirrel? Have you ever wondered why the leaves change color on the trees in New England? I always thought it was because the weather was getting colder. The real reason is there is less sunlight in the fall. I only learned that a couple years ago while subbing in preschool. Preschool. Wait, what? Let me see that book. Let me read that again.

I promise you, even as an adult, the world is still AMAZING!

I’m glad I work with young children so I can be reminded of that. My husband is a scientist. When he sets aside adult concerns like cleaning out the gutters, changing the oil, and repaying student loans, he marvels at the world. That joy bubbles over so he has to share it. One night he spent twenty minutes just talking about cork. We were at our friends’ house. They had opened a bottle of wine. My husband grabbed the cork from the counter and, although he had encountered corks on numerous occasions, he observed it as if for the first time.

“I wonder where cork comes from,” he said.

I was surprised he didn’t already know. He did, after all, major in Biology in college. When he looked it up, we were all astonished to learn that all cork stoppers come primarily from one tree species, the cork tree (Quercus suber). It grows in southwest Europe and northwest Africa. The cork is harvested every seven to ten years. The tree is not cut down, but workers have to be careful not to damage the inner bark and destroy the tree. The first cut is taken from a twenty-five-year-old tree. He went on and on telling us fascinating facts about this ordinary item we had no idea was so interesting. In fact, like my friend in second grade, he continued to think about it. He even shared what he’d learned with our kids around the dinner table the following night.

Perhaps our natural state is a state of wonder. We should be amazed at things like how ice is a solid and yet it floats on liquid water. Honeybees build the hexagonal cells of their comb at an angle so the honey doesn’t spill out. Our brain’s neuroplasticity enables it to change and grow throughout our lifetimes. We don’t have to remain stuck in a rut; we can forge new neural pathways, gaining new insight and hope.

As humans we are at our best when we stand in awe of the beauty and the goodness of the creatures and people in our midst, whether it’s the four-legged creatures that intrigue us or the child who reminds us to pause for miracles or the not-so-young one who heeds that wisdom. When we release our grasp of the to-do list for a moment and ask Why? and How?, we will most likely rediscover Wow! And remember the joy of discovery. That’s something we can enjoy at any age.

Copyright © 2021 by Amy Nicholson

Oscar Quest 2021–Pandemic Edition

by D. Margaret Hoffman

For someone who’s not in the movie business, I take the Oscars very seriously.

It began many years ago when I was tapped to teach a film class to high school students. It was a learn-as-you-go proposition for me as I had never taken such a course myself and had no formal training in the art, craft and business of film. But, as a member of an English department, one is expected to manage any course offered by said department, regardless of one’s area of expertise. So, when the film teacher retired and the orphaned course just happened to fill an empty block in my schedule, the challenge was on.

As it happened, film and I clicked. The course became a cornerstone of my schedule and a bright spot in my day for the rest of my teaching career. Over the years, I developed a practical understanding of film history and basic film techniques—not enough to be a filmmaker myself, but enough to be a teacher, an educated viewer and an enthusiastic cheerleader for the benefits of watching films and studying them as art.

As a way to tie our studies of film history to modern times, my students and I would use the annual Academy Award season to check the current pulse of the industry and to see how it compared to the periods and genres we were studying. We’d follow the nominees and winners of the awards that preceded the Oscars—the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts)—and use that information to temper our own preferences and make some educated guesses as to who might win the coveted golden statue.

It was this project that really got me going.

I obviously couldn’t assign kids to go out and see all of the nominated films in an awards season. It was time consuming and expensive and not all films were parent-approved. It was too much to ask.

But somebody had to do it. So the task fell to me and Oscar Quest was born.

I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve been doing this, trying to see ALL the nominees and making predictions before Oscar night. A lot. Some years I get on a tear early enough to weigh in on the Globes and the SAGs. Some years I get started so late that I think about just bagging it all together. But then I feel like a slug, like I’m letting the entire movie industry down or something, and I try at least to see the Best Picture nominees before the acceptance speeches start.  Some years I blog nominee film reviews as if I were the second coming of Roger Ebert. Other years, a few Facebook posts. Other years, like this one, radio silence.

But silence is not an indicator of inactivity, and, after a slow start, Oscar Quest 2021 found its stride.

This was one of those years when I was tempted to let it go. Pandemic inertia, I guess. I use that excuse for a lot of things these days.

The irony here is that, while COVID has upended so much our lives, the film industry’s response to it created the best conditions for Oscar viewing ever. First of all, COVID pushed Oscar Night from its February time slot until April 25. Two extra months to view! And, to make matters even more optimum for viewing (if not much else), COVID rendered theatrical releases out of the question, so most films were released directly onto cable networks. Imagine that! First run, Oscar-nominated films, right on my TV! With two extra months to watch all the films I wanted from the comforts of my own couch, all I had to do was to hunt down which films were on what networks and get the popcorn popping. Easy!

But tracking down, scheduling time for and justifying the cost of fifty-six films is wildly overwhelming. And if you, like me, stumble along in the ranks of the easily overwhelmed, then you also understand the common (albeit ill-conceived) remedy for this condition.

Procrastination.

So it was with the best of intentions that I printed the Oscar ballot, procured lists of Globe and SAG winners and started to compile a list of networks sometime in late March. Not an earth-shaking beginning, but at least an ice-breaking one. Hey, I did some research and even made a folder to hold it. Everything would fall into place, just like always—as soon as I could carve out the time.

Thing is, I’m retired. I have nothing but time. But managing it is not my forte and somehow weeks had gone by before I realized that weeks had gone by. There’s something about not having to leave home that makes it feel as though life is just one big long day punctuated with snacks and naps. So, imagine my surprise when the calendar leaped to mid-April and I realized that I had left myself less than two weeks to see all those movies.

Talk about overwhelmed.

I knew I blew it. So I decided to just let myself off the hook. It’s not like anything, anything at all, was riding on it. I could let it all drift by and pretend that I just got too busy this year. I could use COVID as an excuse in case anybody asked, though I knew no one would.

But then, a local community theater, shut down now for over a year because of the pandemic, made me think again. Their annual fundraising gala is a wonderful Oscar Party where everyone gets dressed up, eats fancy hors d’oeuvres and desserts, drinks a little, bids on silent auction and raffle items, watches the Oscar show on a giant screen with a roomful of like-minded enthusiasts and enters one’s predictions in the annual Oscar pool for a prize and bragging rights. Movie-geek heaven! Cancelled due to freakin’ COVID, the gala this year took a new direction. “Oscar Party in a Box” packaged up enough hors d’oeuvres, desserts, cocktails and party favors for two and took its show on the road. The auction went online. So did the pool.

Well, if they could adjust, then I could, too. The pool was on and I was energized. You can’t win if you don’t play.

So I made my contribution to the theater, ordered my “Oscar Party in a Box” for pick-up on the afternoon of April 25, cleared my calendar, lined up my TV remotes and got ready to roll ‘em.

Did I get through all fifty-six films? No. But not for lack of trying. By the end of the second week, thanks to Netflix, On Demand, Disney+, Hulu, Prime Video, Apple+ and YouTube, I was watching three feature films a day in an attempt to complete the best picture, acting, directing, cinematography, editing and screenplay categories. If I could check off at least the favorites in the other categories and then do a little Oscar buzz research, I would be in a decent position to make competitive predictions all around. The thing to remember here is that personal preferences don’t matter. You have to learn to think like the Academy if you want to put stars in the boxes instead of Xs on Oscar night. You have to get serious and do your homework if you want to be competitive.

And once I finally get myself started on this, I am nothing if not serious.

In the end, I watched twenty-nine films. On Oscar night, I was tied for first in the pool until the very end when I stumbled on both Lead Actor and Lead Actress categories. But so did the person with whom I was tied. (In our defense, the lead actress performances were all magnificent and the lead actor prize was a shock to everyone—including the winner.) So the two of us fell to a tie for second place as we hares got passed out at the last minute by a tortoise who trailed us all evening. I ended nineteen for twenty-three for the night (also missing original song and editing) and tied for second out of a field of fifty-three participants. Not bad for two weeks’ work.

Unfortunately, there was no prize for second place. But that’s not why I do this.

I could be fussy and say that I do it because movies, as an art form, are an important chronicle of our culture. While this is absolutely true, it’s not what makes me spend my money on them. I do it because I love the way that movies tell stories. I love the way they show me the world and open my mind to new points of view and stir my emotions. I love how the camera moves and how the frame defines and how a good editor juxtaposes clips of film to make a world. I marvel at the collaborative nature of the art form and how many working parts there are to even the dumbest of films. It’s amazing to me, given the number of people, decisions, concessions, dollars and technological aspects involved, that movies get made at all. It’s kind of a miracle, actually—and proof that some level of cooperation and compromise still exists among us.

I do this because, while not all good movies get nominated, the ones that do are always worth seeing. They tend to not be the blockbusters or the predictable genre films, but films that are nuanced and technical and thematic and sensory. They are not necessarily the most commercial of films and some are movies that I would not have sought out on my own. There are some that I wouldn’t have known existed if not for their nomination—films that don’t get wide releases or relentless marketing, like the international films, the documentaries or most of the shorts. I am always better for having seen them, even the ones I don’t like. Watching them carefully, thinking about them seriously in terms of content as well as form and technique, make me that much more discerning, that much more aware, that much more a part of something larger than myself.

When I was teaching that film class, my excuse for the time and effort and expense of Oscar Quest was that it was part of my job. For the kids. That was only partly true. I knew it even then.

I did it then and I do it now because I love movies. And because real life makes it easy to forget how much. Every year, Oscar reminds me.

And to think I almost missed it.

And to those who complain that the Oscar broadcast is elitist, self-involved and boring, let me just say that when you arrive prepared, it’s the most exciting broadcast on TV. Try it. You’ll see.

Oscar Quest 2021 is now in the can. It gave me permission to spend time parked on the couch, juggling remotes, trying to squeeze a year’s worth of movie viewing into a fortnight. It let me neglect the laundry, skip my walks, turn off the news, geek out and spoil myself a little. It was instructive, enlightening, inspiring—and fun.

And that’s worth taking seriously.

Copyright © 2021 by D. Margaret Hoffman