Friday, October 30, 2009

Tricks and treats

When our daughter was little, we would follow her around our dark neighborhood as she gathered about 20 pounds of candy in a pillowcase. We’d lived in the same house since she was two, so she developed a long timer’s knowledge of the neighborhood, knowing and remembering the best-decorated houses and the houses with the best candy.
I was jealous of the neighbor who went all out, piping creepy organ music through external speakers and setting up an entire yard of plasterboard tombstones. I was impressed by the couple who dressed up like scarecrows and sat, motionless, on their front porch, jumping up whenever a group of trick-or-treaters approached. And the entire neighborhood was awed by the family who gave out “FULL-SIZED CANDY BARS.”
So one year, we went for it. We decorated the front porch with sticky plastic spider webs; brought out the strobe light (left over from our rock ‘n’ roll days – that’s another story), and played spooky music on a CD player in our garage.
We thought it was the high point of our Halloween attempts, but the lights caused some of the parents to stumble drunkenly in the driveway, and the littlest kids were a bit scared by the music.
The next year, we took a new approach. We kept the strobe light packed away and bought FULL-SIZED CANDY BARS. We had done it – become legends among trick-or-treaters. Word of our generous treats traveled fast, and costumed children flocked to our door in large, boisterous groups.
We had tried to balance our supply according to demand but we were woefully under stocked, and after we ran out, the doorbell kept ringing. We raided the cupboards and came up with tiny boxes of raisins. We raided the change jar and started tossing quarters into the bags of those who still came.
But our shot at becoming a neighborhood legend was over. We were instead branded as “the house where they give you raisins.”
The next year and every year after that, we’ve handed out those woefully unimpressive snack-sized candy bars. No matter how many we buy, we run out. We aren’t about to improvise (we still remember the raisin debacle). So we are forced to turn off the yard light, close the blinds and wait it out.
This year, two feet of snow blanket the ground. Trick-or-treaters are going to have to work hard to fill their bags and I’m thinking it might be time to impress the crowds once again.
I wonder where that strobe light is.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Snow day

It’s been snowing all day today, and I wish my sister was here. She lives a thousand miles away, but if she were here, we would celebrate the deep snow and treacherous roads the way we always did: With a road trip.

When I lived in Iowa, she and I would wait impatiently each winter for those nasty blizzards that closed schools and work and made many roads impassable. We would make a plan and head for the mall.
We didn’t really like the mall when we could get there without adversity. But if we had to really work for it, it became an adventure. And if it was open when we got there, we rarely bought anything. Instead, we wandered the quiet halls in our snowboots and heavy coats and treated ourselves at the food court.
“It’s our Norwegian heritage showing,” we would tell each other. “Yeah, we’re not afraid of a little snow.”
I’m not sure why we celebrated that “heritage” at Sears instead of on cross-country skis, but it seemed right. And afterward, we waited for the inevitable question from family and friends: “You went out in that?”
Oh yeah.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Respite on the highway

I returned last night from a 1,500-mile road trip. It should be about a 10-hour trip, each way, but it took us 12 hours to get to my parents’ house in Iowa and 12 hours to get back. Those extra two hours? Don’t tell my mother, but we wiled away those extra minutes at highway rest areas. Before we left, my mother had warned me to stay away from them. “Bad things happen there,” she said ominously. “Really?” I asked. “What kinds of things?”
She went on to regal me with stories from her friends who had heard about vague rest stop horrors from their friends, or read about them…somewhere.(All predicated with “They SAY…”)
I was traveling with my daughter and my dog. Our traveling days were warm. The sun shone brightly. So we stopped at rest stops, unfolding our stiff legs out of the car and exploring the tiny park-like parcels of land. After stops along I-76 in Colorado, I-80 in Nebraska and I-29 in Iowa, we began to feel comfortable with the rest stops’ sameness – sensible concrete buildings where unrecognizable music played on some hidden sound system; lobbies where the furnaces were already turned on; well-kept grass lawns; and a smattering of original touches – a modern sculpture gallery in one, a plastic dinosaur in another; a well-raked sandbox in another. The centerpieces of the rest areas – the bathrooms – were uniformly clean and quiet. Along the way, we found small treasures – a cattail-fringed pond glowing in the sunset; an elm dropping acorns to the ground.
The stops provide a welcome respite from the hum of the highway and endless mazes of road construction cones. They are a throwback to the past; to a time when towns near the interstate highways weren't all built up with Wal-Marts and McDonald's.  And they are disappearing - Arizona recently announced it is closing its rest areas to save the state money. 
Yet, when I saw my sister during our Iowa visit, she echoed my mother’s concern. “Don’t ever stop at rest areas,” she warned. “People disappear.”
“Really?” I asked her. “What happens to them?”
“I don’t know,” she replied in a hushed voice.
I don’t either. We exchanged greetings with other travelers. We did see one car with Oklahoma license plates that had been painted with the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (why would you do that?) and countless strangers smiled at our beagle, who always steals the show.
I don't feel any more endangered at a rest area than I do at, say, a shopping mall or an airport. They SAY bad things can happen there, too.
And on our rest area tour, we had no close calls, no scary encounters, no 911-moments, except for these: that cheap tissue-paper toilet paper that tears when you try to pull it, and one unforgiving vending machine that took our dollar and kept our Sweet Tarts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The adventure continues

This is it. The end of my writer’s block. Oh, I’ve been writing for the past two weeks, but none of it ended up here, on this blog.
But it’s been a tumultuous two weeks, and each time I sat down in front of my computer to write about it, I drew a blank.
How does a writer write when she’s dealing with a seemingly never-ending stream of e-mails and letters informing her that her services are no longer needed?
It’s kind of strange – you would think that if I had more time to devote to the blog and I needed less time for work that pays me, I could sit all day, expounding on all sorts of topics in elaborate detail.
But it doesn’t work that way. With each announcement, accompanied by predictable explanations that include the words “monetary concerns,” “cutbacks,” and to put a little spin on it, “transformation,” and the usual platitudes like “I hope we can work together again some time,” and “we loved your work,” I got more frustrated.
More frustration? Less productivity.
Since I started working full-time as a freelance writer, life has been unpredictable but enjoyable. One job would end and another would begin. Several provided steady, reliable paychecks, something that’s really unusual in the freelance world. And I supplemented our income with strange little jobs – the kind I would have thought about in whimsical terms (“I could be a …”) but never pursued when I had a full-time job.
But about six months ago, everything started falling apart, and in the last month, my schedule really began to deteriorate. I started hearing from colleagues who were also supporting themselves freelancing, and their experiences were the same.
I shouldn’t be surprised – one of my long-term projects had to do with cars and newspapers (couldn’t see that coming!) Another one was a dream job with a promising future, but when the owners sold out, the giant conglomerate that took over obliterated the local content.
And so on and so forth.
I’ve gotten used to living month-to-month, not knowing what’s coming up. It’s an exciting life. Adventurous, even.  The dictionary defines “adventure” as “an undertaking involving danger and unknown risks.” Dangerous? I’m not sure of that. Risky? Perhaps. There are inherent risks in not having a reliable income.
But it is an adventure, nonetheless.
Right now, one of my friends is in the midst of a three-month adventure, traveling though China, Bali, Australia and New Zealand. I know another woman who is moving to Helsinki, Finland, because of her husband’s new State Department job.
I don’t have any travel or relocation plans in my future, but, like them, I have the thrill of not knowing what will come next. My life will continue to be an adventure