Saturday, July 26, 2014

"I prefer the errors of enthusiam to the indifference of wisdom."               ~ Anatole France


Can you imagine a perfect little two-story brick Tudor house, complete with diamond-paned windows in the tiny entry room and a huge full-grown pine tree in the front yard, along with the best neighbors you could ever ask for right next-door to all that? Well, I don't have to imagine it, because that was our first house!

C'mon inside... 

Our little house was based on a much smaller floorplan of a medieval cathedral with just a few differences. The living room was based on the nave of a cathedral. It had a vee-shaped ceiling nearly two-stories high, but, instead of an altar, the focus of the living room was the brick fireplace, just perfect for the snowy winters in Omaha, Nebraska. The windows on either side of that fireplace weren't stained glass, but they were situated perfectly so you could see that glorious pine tree standing guard outside. 

Turning around and looking back towards the opposite wall, you'd see a very small, arched window midway up that 2-storied wall called the "leper window." In medieval cathedrals, lepers were allowed to kneel at that window up-stairs there and watch the church service. They were far enough away from the congregation not to give offense, that way.

In our house, though, you could go up the stairs to the second floor hallway, sit on the floor if you wanted to, and look down on the entire living room. It would have been lots of fun for kids to do when their folks had parties, I suppose.

I loved that house! Richard would push back in the big leather chair and read, while I'd sit cross-legged on the couch grading my students' artwork, writing encouraging commets on the back of each one next to the grade. Every night Clancy would back up to the couch right next to me, sitting down carefully, with both front feet on the floor and his hind end touching me... Clancy was a big Old English Sheepdog! I've never seen a dog, before or since Clancy, who sat comfortably on a couch, exactly like a human being! I knew he was comfortable because, as I graded the art work, he would turn, look at at me, and sigh. Clancy was the smartest dog whoever owned me!

There was one big problem for me, though ~ asthma! What a stupid thing to invade me when I was 7 months old. Many a night, I'd have to sit straight up to sleep if I wanted to breathe for the rest of the night.  Eight hours of sitting-up-wheezing sleep isn't nearly as good as lying-down-quietly sleep, let me tell you...

One day after school, as I wandered through the corner drugstore, I saw a new product. It said that if you took it, you'd be wheeze-free. It was worth the money to get to hear pure quiet for a whole night, so I bought a big bottle. The directions said that I could take 1-2 pills, so I dashed back home, grabbed a big glass of water, and washed 'em down. Then I sat down on the couch with pen and paper to write a long overdue letter to my Mom and Dad. Clancy nudged me over a little bit so his bottom would be in a more cozy place, and I began to write about something funny that had happened in one of my art classes that day. 

As I wrote, I found myself giggling, and then I started to laugh, and then...  well, something came over me... enveloped me... and it was wonderful... euphoric... I suddenly understood the whole world and all the people in it... I LOVED THEM... every last one of the people in the world... You see, people just didn't understand that everyone was good... really G O O D... people just didn't understand how wonderful every single person was... I, on the other hand, DID understand... I... it... they... oooh, it was so much fun sitting on this fluffy-white cloud and just floating...

Then I looked down from my "cloud" and I found that the letter-writing I was doing to Mom and Dad had drifted off the paper and wandered across my jeans and dribbled onto the couch! And it wasn't human writing at all... it had turned into loops and scribbles and gibberish - artful, but gibberish, just the same.

This writer whose story you are reading had always been secretly proud of the fact that she had never done drugs or even smoked a cigarette in her life... a beer or two or three in college, yes. But nothing more! But I was pretty sure that I had just been a true "druggie" for a little while! How long? I have no idea... not long enough, though. It had been so unreal and I had been so high!

I got up off the couch, walked into the bathroom, grabbed the bottle of the "new-and-improved" asthma symptom relief medicine, and realized that I'd "had a trip, man... a real trip!" It had to be thrown away right then and there! It had to be! But do you know what I did? I didn't throw it away. No! I actually put it in a far-away corner of the medicine cabinet, just in case. "Just in case" what, Terry Ann Kingston Waldron?????? 

To allow you to stop surmising, I found that bottle about a year later and I DID throw it away, un-re-opened. And they DID take it off the market about 6 months later.

But that night, when I walked back into the living room, there was Richard, still sitting in his chair reading the newspaper. And there was Clancy, wondering when I was coming back to sit on the couch and grade my papers so he could do some more sighing... And I guess that makes you, readers, the first to know that I, Terry Ann Kingston Waldron, had "tripped out"... Oh, it was a trip, man!" 
     

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"First he wrought, and afterward he taught." ~ Geoffrey Chaucer 


Some of you kind people have said that I ought to write a book. Some of you have even asked me if this writing is going to become a book. Dunno... I do LOVE words. I LOVE writing. And, no, Papa Hemingway, I don't "open a vein" to do it! 'Course I'll never even touch the toes of your shoes, "Papa." And, no, writing isn't "hard," as you said last night on your TV show, David Letterman. It does take hours and hours... at least 4 - 5 hours for me to write just one entry in this blog. But it's a joy... a kind of joy a person can get lost in. It's another form of art, isn't it. 

Once I almost had a book contract! Every year a friend and I would go spend a week at a large conference up north, and the head of acquisions liked my art, I guess. I just liked her as a person, and we'd become friends. The last day of the conference she said that I ought to send them a submission for a book. Now, I'd been published a few times in national magazines, and I was teaching writing to AP Lit seniors and had been named a Fellow in the UCI Writing Project. Writing my own book was a dream, deep down inside, though, one that I'd never spoken about, ever! 

Now, every single Fellow in that specialized UCI group was talented. I found that out in our writing groups. We each had to produce a piece of writing 3 times a week for presentation in our indivdual writing groups, besides reading at least 3 books a week to prep for the amazing writers who came from all over the country to teach us that summer. I still have a picture of the 30 of us all standing on a narrow, outside stairwell, crowded together, step upon step. A more disparate group of people you'd never see again! We looked like a cross-section of "your tired, your hungry, your poor," and every other possible category making up the U.S.A. In that official photo I am standing on the top stair, with a kind of shocked look on my face in profile, but with laughter just about to erupt. The Fellow next to me was 1/2 my age and already a assistant professor of English there at U.C.I. He had just told me something so funny that the two of us were looking at each other, just beginning to laugh, oblivious of the cameraman below shouting, "SMILE! SMILE!... EVERYBODY SMILE! PLEASE SMILE!... Oh well..." SNAP!

The secret in writing... well, one of the secrets, is to have your own "voice." I think "voice" in writing is the music in the words. And you have it or you don't. It's not teachable. My father used to sing in church, but as I grew up, I realized that my Dad knew the words, and he thought he was singing, but he only knew one note... just one! He thought he was making the up-and-down sounds that the rest of us were making, but he wasn't. I think they used to call that a "one-note wonder." He had gusto, though.

Well, when I came home again from that Northern California conference, I had gusto! I wrote the book submission with all the precision in me, hoping that there was also a lilt in my "voice," and I shoved the thick sheaf of papers into the envelope, and off it flew to the publishing house.

You are told from the outset that much time will go by before you hear anything from a prospective publisher, and, boy, are they right about that! My time was slathered, though, with reading and grading my students' writing, and teaching all the days, and leading meetings or attending them in the afternoons, and working on new fiber pieces that I was dreaming up in the evenings. I never quite forgot that I'd sent my manuscript, but it wasn't the first thing I woke up to every morning.

Then, one late afternoon it came... The phone rang, and it was the Acquisions Editor. I steeled myself for what she would say. Whatever, it was my best work... couldn't do any better... out of my hands... it was their call...

"Terry, I've never done this before..."

Oh, no...

"I'm calling you to tell you that they read your proposal and they all LOVED it! But this isn't an official call! I'm not supposed to be talking to you yet, but I just had to tell you! They'll take the final vote on Friday to make it official. But I'll put it like this... Tell your husband to go out and buy a big bottle of champagne!" Then she giggled, and I giggled, and we hung up.

I didn't sleep all night, juggling in my head the whole idea of having a published book with my name on the cover... with my work inside of it in full, glorious color, with my own words strewn throughout the book. I'd carefully whack away at them until I'd have just the right amount of words, saying exactly what I wanted them to. My book would help other people create their own masterpieces... help them see the world through new eyes... or something like that... 

Well, of course the call came on Friday. I grabbed the phone, said "Hello!", but all I could hear was crying... crying?

"Ter-Ter-Ter-Terry... I'm sooo sorry... I never should have called you Tuesday... (sniff, sniff... sigh...). They decided not to publish it because they already had met their quota before they read your manuscript... Oh, Ter-Ter-Terry, I'm sooooo sorry I called you on Tuesday...  I never did that before, but this time it was such a sure thing... Terry, you have to send it in at the begining of the next acquistion cycle... Please, say you'll do that... they really did LOVE it... they just... (sob)... had already met their quota for this cycle... I didn't know... your champagne... I'm sooo sorry..."

So I don't have a pubished book, and I don't have an end to this little piece of writing here. I was hurt, I was angry, I was shocked, and I'm embarrassed to tell you that I didn't "take it in stride" like adults are supposed to. In fact, I'm kind of ashamed of myself. But after moping for two days, on Monday morning at 6:30AM I had 220 high school students to go back to teach, and nearly every single one of them had a lot more to deal with than a silly book deal gone bad... 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"People need trouble - a little frustration to sharpen the spirit on, toughen it. Artists do; I don't mean you need to live in a rathole or gutter, but you have to learn fortitude, endurance. Only vegetables are happy."  ~ William Faulkner


I found a junior-sized Daddy Long-Legs in the sink this morning, trying sooo hard to climb up and over and out. I tore off a paper towel and put it in his way, and he jumped right on. As I walked to the back door to set him free, he crept over the edge of the paper towel and clung to the underside. When I set him out on the patio, he seemed disoriented, probably trying to find a way to get back into our house.

I love Daddy Long-Legs! I read about them once. It seems that they can inject a deadly dose of poison into their prey with just one bite. Luckily, their tiny mouths are way too small to bite into human beings! And that's what makes them so curiously loveable... They can't hurt us, and they have those precariously long, skinny legs holding that tiny body up so high in mid-air. To their enemies, though, they are lethal.

I'm pretty sure I had a human Daddy Long-Legs in the first class I taught after we moved here to California. It was the middle of October, and I'd inherited 6 junior high art classes and a filthy art room! The art teacher before me had taught in that room for a few years, and, suddenly, on October 1st, he walked out of the class, out of the school, and out of teaching all together! 

I'd seen him once before I was hired to take over teaching his classes for the rest of the school year. It was a day in Sepember and I was substituting for an English teacher. It was her conference period, so I was walking across the campus towards the Faculty Lounge. I heard loud rock music coming from the art room, and I saw a tall man coming out of that room with a female student perched high on his shoulders. They were both laughing hysterically, as he paraded her around in circles before setting her back down on the cement. I'd never seen anything like that at a school in my life! 

But I was in the right place at the right time that day in the middle of October, it seems, because the principal called me into his office, and asked if I'd like to apply for the art teaching job. Well, yeah! It was just a job for the rest of the year, did I understand? NOT for the following year... Uh huh...

"Where's Mr. D?!"

"Yeah!  Who are YOU?"

"I'm your new art teacher, Mrs. Waldron. Now sit down at your tables, and we'll get started. By the way, what were you working on before Mr. D left?" 

The laughter started with stifled giggles, but it grew pretty quickly to open-mouthed hee-haws.

"Nuthin! We weren't doin' nuthin."

"Well, you are now!" I said as I passed out drawing paper to each student. 

"You don't understand... We don't do NUTHIN' in this class, except listen to the radio and talk!"

"HEY! Where's the radio? It's all quiet... What's goin' on?"

I'd stayed after school the day before until 6PM, looking through all the art room's drawers and cupboards and the back storage room, too. It looked like the kids were right. I couldn't find much in the way of art supplies anywhere. What a difference between this and the art room I'd left back in Omaha, Nebraska where I'd been the department chair. One of my duties there was to order all the art supplies for the 3 art teachers each year, and I loved that! All 3 of us had everything any art teacher could want. But that was then...

Well, my first day I taught my new classes how to make a contour drawing... a very important thing to teach first because drawing is LINE... fluid line... not EVER that chicken-scratching that passes for "drawing." It is the beginning lesson for all true art classes. It helps students understand the discipline of learning to see, and without it, there can be no real art... only adolescent scribbling. It's like first graders learning the alphabet so they can learn to read. I thought everyone knew that...

The next day, when the first period class came in, I was told in every conceivable way that those students hated me! They didn't just dislike me, no... They hated me and wanted Mr. D back, NOW!

By the end off the day, I was ready to fall in a heap on the floor and let the tears fall with me. I would have too, but the floor was soooo dirty... My classes had been so popular back where I came from... Here I was hated, absolutely HATED! If you think I'm being dramatic, well, imagine yourself "teaching" 220 young teenagers in that one 7-hour day, and each one of them scowling at you, wishing they could make you disappear! 

Only one thing to do! Calligraphy was just getting really hot, and teenagers liked working with "mechanical" sorts of things at their age, so I went to the art store and bought 40 pen holders and 80 pen nibs and enough calligraphy paper for at least two weeks. It was the 40+ bottles of India Ink that ready thinned my wallet, though, but I was ready for them the next day.   

"What's cally-graffy?"

"YEAH! What are these pen-things, anyway?"

"Gather around me, all of you! Closer... I used my Arrid this morning! Get CLOSER!" And they DID!

They watched me, and then they began to actually learn themselves... I'd begun with the Uncial alphabet because it was the easiest, but when we moved to the Old English alphabet, they SMILED... at ME... SMILED!

It was a LOCK! They wanted to come to my class everyday now, especially big, bad-guy Ernesto, a 14-year-old guy I had assumed I'd never reach. He'd come into class early to get the "best pen," and to start before the bell even rang for class to begin! He LOVED the Old English alphabet. 

About a week into this wonderful turn-about, it was early morning and I was on my way to school, happily thinking about the next project I'd introduce to my wonderful art classes. Life was goooood! I stopped for the red light, right there where the line of stores began, and there it was!  ERNESTO  

His name was spray-can grafitti-ed in perfect Old English calligraphy all over every wall of every store for a radius of one square city block! My Ernesto had been very, very busy that night practicing his new artistic bent that I had taught him!

Oh, but it gets better...  Back in Omaha where I'd just come from, city gangs hadn't been invented yet. However, my Ernesto was the LEADER of one here, it seemed. And yes, I'd taught him sooooo very well. 

The next morning when I drove to school, I saw that Ernesto had been busy teaching his boys all that he'd learned from me. There were new names stuffed into the spaces between Ernesto's perfect Old English letters. And you know, it looked like Ernesto could have become a darn good art teacher if this pesky other group hadn't been first on his mind.         

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Nature is what we know / Yet have not art to say / So impotent our wisdom is / To her simplicity.  ~ Emily Dickinson


I've admired Hale D. Tharp since I was a little kid, ever since we went camping in his forest. He let us go into his house and sit at his only table, made by his very own hands. The two chairs he made for his table were substantial, not pretty, but they fit my fanny perfectly. His stone fireplace let me imagine a roaring fire with several branches loaded with marshmallows toasting, nearly ready for me to eat. I loved his home and his forest!

Out in front of the hollowed-out Sequoia tree/house that had fallen to the ground a hundred or two or three years before Hale decided to live in it, there is still that same sign I saw when I was little: 

 "Hale D. Tharp, pioneer resident of the Three Rivers locality, first visited Giant Forest in 1858 accompanied by two Yokuts Indians. He lived in this rustic cabin each summer from 1861 until Sequoia National Park was established in 1890. He used the near-by meadows as range for his livestock.

Tharp, recognized as discoverer of Giant Forest, died at his old Three Rivers Ranch home on November 5, 1912 at the age of 84 years." 

Mr. Tharp lived in that Sequoia log every single summer, and it was probably difficult for him to be told that he couldn't live there anymore when Sequoia National Park was "born." Sad... Sad for you, too, because no one is allowed in Mr. Tharp's log anymore. You can see why, too. When you peek through the doorway, you can see the graffitti scrawled on the back wall of his summer home. Sad...

It wasn't that way when I was little, though. Aunt Mary, Uncle Bill, Mike, and Cathy jumped out of their car, and Dad and Mom and Jack, my little brother, and I jumped out of our car, and we all scrambled up towards the perfect rock campfire pit right next to the river! There was plenty of room for the two tents Dad and Uncle Bill were ready to set up for us all. There was even a wooden table with benches where we would eat our meals. The rush of the river water couldn't quite drown out the music of the birds. Heaven!

That night, after eating all sorts of things roasted over the warming fire, it was time for us kids to go to bed. Dad and Uncle Bill had one more job to do, though.

"Come on, kids. Let's walk over to the bathroom," Dad said as he and Uncle Bill grabbed their flash lights. 

We walked into the darkest dark I'd ever seen. The flashlights showed us the path, but no more. When we reached the "out-house" in the clearing, I could see huge shadows walking near us, lifting their heads - their antlered heads! There was a small herd of deer surrounding the "out-house." Dad and Uncle Bill had a short conference that we couldn't hear, and then Dad said, "They're deer, and deer won't hurt you." Dad knew everything, I thought.

It was interesting to go into the narrowest square hut in the world and sit down on a wooden plank with a hole in the middle in the absolute dark, but there it was. And that was our nightly routine for the whole week.  

After tramping back to camp, we kids got into our sleeping bags and listened to the talking and laughing of our parents. I was still awake when Mom and Dad came into the tent and got into their cots. I was still awake when Dad started to snore. I was still awake for hours after that because I was scared!

As I lay there in my sleeping bag, I kept looking at the tent "wall." It was cloth. My clothes were cloth. I'd torn cloth thicker than this tent. Bears lived in the forest, Dad had said so. Bears had claws and long teeth, and could tear things lots stronger than these tent "walls." I was scared... too scared to sleep.

But morning came and I could smell bacon and coffee outside, and I could hear Mom and Aunt Mary, too, with her Southern drawl, laughing and cooking and giggling some more. And I heard the magic word, "Pancakes!" All was well.

Mike grabbed my arm and said, "We're going on a hike, Terry!" And off we went, with Cathy and Jackie trailing behind us, whining loudly all the way. They would surely scare away all the bears in those woods.

Our "hike" was approximately the length of a football field. We'd reached the edge of the river, and Mike's eyes were twinkling with ideas. 

"Terry, let's build a dam!"

We waded into the shallowest part of the river...it was kind of a wide, lazy river right there. We found the narrowest part of that river, grabbed the biggest rocks we could find, and plopped them into the water, one on top of another. Our slave-laborers whined and mewed, but we knew what we were doing... Well, Mike seemed to know... Well, the water did get stiller as the dam got taller. Fairly quickly we found ourselves in a deepening, but quiet, perfectly clear, pool of water. Success! Mike started searching, and suddenly he whooped and gallomped over to me, yelling, "GOLD! GOLD! I FOUND GOLD, TERRY! We'll be RICH!"

Gold was tucked into tiny pebbles on the floor of that river, so we submerged our faces looking for as much as we could find. It kept us busy for a long while, and Jackie and Cathy even stopped whining when they finally got into the spirit of gold-gathering. We actually had a little pile of GOLD to bring back to camp and show off to our parents. We were RICH!

"YOU KIDS! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

The uniformed man with a shiny badge was huge and stern and loud! "YOU CANNOT BUILD DAMS IN THIS RIVER! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE... BEAVERS? PUT THOSE ROCKS BACK WHERE YOU FOUND THEM!!!"

Well, that took longer than the fun of building that dam, that's for sure! But we marched truimphfully back to camp with our handfuls of "GOLD." Of course, Uncle Bill and Dad told us it was only "fool's gold" that we'd found... very fitting, don't you think?

Days passed... There were real hikes with our parents, car trips to General Sherman and the other "old man" trees, and even lunch in a little cafe - a special treat. Days were fun, but then the nights came, and it seemed that I was the only one awake, trying to listen beyond the snoring and into the forest... listening for bear paws plodding along the trail to our tents.

It was our last night in camp. Tomorrow morning we would pack up our things, make sure the fire was absolutely out, and stuff ourselves in the cars for the long ride back to Southern California. We kids were with our Dads on the nightly trail to our "out-house." When Cathy finally came out, slammed the door, and grabbed Uncle Bill's hand, we heard yells... shrill yells... yells that sounded like our Moms... It WAS our Moms!

"BEAR! BEAR! DICK! BILL! IT'S A BEAR!"

As we ran to our camp site, our Moms were screaming and pointing to the campsite next to us. Dad and Uncle Bill turned their flashlights towards the wooden table, and there was a bear, sitting at that table eating all the food that the people had not put away before they left for somewhere that evening! He looked just like my brother would have if he'd owned a bear costume! I can see that bear now in my mind's eye. He certainy had better manners than my brother did at our dinner table, and I swear the bear had a smile on his face. That bear was happily eating everything that was put before him!

Naturally, the flashlights, the shouting, the screaming, and the laughing drove him away. He was running away for dear life down the river's edge, and we never saw him again.

We all sat around the campfire that night talking about that bear as we toasted the last of the marshmallows. When it was time for us kids to go to bed, I had the only gooood night's sleep I'd had all week. I bet I even had a smile on my face!

Through the years I've wondered why that night I could suddenly sleep so well. All I can come up with is that when you finally get a real-life look at what terrified you for so long... well, it's just never as bad as what you thought it was going to be... never... Sometimes, it can even be down-right funny!