Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hang Up Your Own Shingle

Several years back when I was unemployed I sat in a downtown coffee house surrounded by less fortunate souls, and talked with a woman who had an online language translating business. I was hoping she would hire me. I think she had one other employee besides herself. She explained she wasn’t hiring, but encouraged me to set up my own business. ‘Anyone can hang up their own shingle,’ she encouraged.
I didn’t heed her advice. I needed security. I needed a secure salary, a 401K, health insurance, a nine to five. This was important to me because it had been elusive over the past decade to achieve it. As a freelance teacher in Germany and part-time teacher in the States, I had for years yearned for a higher salary, and for a job I felt would add meaning and purpose to my life. But that isn’t how it works is it?
I think several generations ago pretty much everyone was expected to hang up their own shingle. My grandfathers certainly did so. My mother’s father raised a family of eight children, and supported them through running a delivery service in the countryside, then later on by operating a dry goods store in town. My father’s father was, according to his nephews, a beef peddler during the depression years, supporting nine children as well as nieces and nephews. Both managed to support large families during times of economic depression and national crisis through their determination and steadfastness. This has just recently started to really sink in with me. It trivializes my worry about being able to buy gourmet cat food before the next paycheck.
I think the key concept here is risk-taking versus risk-aversion. In the past, surely risk-taking was the only option for most people. Nowadays many of us, including myself, seek job security through risk-aversion, hoping to establish a small hovel and expect to actually thrive thus. Such illusions quickly dissipate, don’t they?
Hang up your own shingle, if you feel so inclined. You may fail or succeed, but in either case you will add momentum to your future

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thrift Store Finds

I spend weekends trying to bide my time and hope they pass as quickly as possible. This often starts with a lunch of beef phở at the local Vietnamese restaurant. Next a grande cappuccino. Then on to Golden Gardens Beach on Puget Sound. I find it nicest there when the sky is overcast and the wind is up, as there aren’t so many people crowding it. This usually gives me my first chance of the week to truly relax and let go of all my worries. My lungs breathed in the salty air with gratitude. This air is as refreshing as a cold glass of water in July. If the Olympic Mountains are visible I stand in awe of them for some time. This reminds me of why I have stayed here in Seattle. It isn’t the climate which has kept me here, nor is it the happening music scene. It is the dramatic vistas that slam me in the face whenever I turn a corner.

Last weekend I included a trip to goodwill in search of bargain home décor and accoutrements. I started with a thorough scan of the books in search of treasures to add to my unread collection. It is interesting to note the books people easily part with. I see lots of biographies and memoirs. Sultry romances and detective novels. Virtually every book Jimmy Carter has ever written, as well as Henry Kissinger’s exegesis of our present geo-political conundrum. I came across a Malcolm Gladwell book which I quickly stuffed under my armpit. This was a successful hunt so far. The cd section offered a tired purview of those girls ululating about ex-boyfriends and I decided it was time to move on to furniture.

I walked past the ratty couches. There were some sturdy rocking chairs, but I had no need for one. I thought back to my older brother when we were growing up. He was a rocking chair enthusiast. He was always seated directly in front of the t.v. due to his sight impairment, rocking away in the green chair. It was a fixture in the living room. Noone else was to sit in it, especially me. But there were also other uses for it such as cracking walnuts and peanuts under the rockers. I would sometimes get into trouble for attempting to slip them under the rockers as my brother watched his favorite shows: Sanford and Son and M*A*S*H*. Redd Foxx elicited peals of laughter from him that no one else could. I suspect he was also a great admirer of Hot Lips Houlihan though he would never have admitted it.

So on back to pictures. The Monet was still there. I saw a woodcut print of Hanover, Germany, my abode of three remarkable years. I hesitated before it for a couple of minutes. Should I get it? Should I pass? I had enough memories of Hanover that could not be complemented or enhanced by it. I passed it up and started rummaging through other pictures. I found the one I needed--a picture of downtown Seattle at dusk with a violet glow. The glacier of Mt. Rainier hovered in the distance, drawing the eye away from the space needle and skyscrapers in the foreground. I couldn’t pass it up for $4.99. Plus the picture was taken from the vantage point of Lower Queen Anne, where I lived previously and it struck a chord of familiarity.

Who would ever buy used shoes? Who would offer them up for donation? There was always a line of SUVs backing up to drop off items that had surpassed their usefulness to the owners.

A quick stroll through the housewares section. Somali and Hispanic women perused partial dish sets as Boy George lamented lost love. Perhaps time to wrap up.

Back to the house to the insatiable feline, Coltrane, and chilled sake.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Labor Day Family Reunions

Today, Sunday 5, 2010, the day before Labor Day, is when the annual Odle family reunion is held in Westville, Oklahoma. I spoke to my mother on the phone on Friday and discussed it with her. She isn’t attending this year, because her limited mobility and stamina due to cancer prevents her from making long trips. However my sister and brother-in-law are attending.

These reunions have been taking place sincebefore I came on the scene. If I recall correctly they were initiated by the infamous Charles Wilson. Charles is the oldest son of the eldest daughter in the Odle family, consisting of my mothers’ nine siblings and their offspring. I am only really aware of this most prodigious branch of the Odle family, and wouldn’t recognize other relatives of my maternal grandparents.

So Charles Wilson decided at some point in living memory that since the Odle clan had grown so regionally disparate--moving on to such distant locales as Colorado (for some reason Kansas was passed over), Missouri, and Arkansas—that in order for the nine siblings and their families to keep in touch, an annual reunion back in Westville, where no one lives anymore, was the solution. And what a great solution it was!

My father, who was a cattle farmer and factory worker, spent his meager allotment of vacation on this trip out to Westville for his wife’s family reunion. He put the camper on the Ford Explorer, we loaded up the coleman cooler with cokes an bologna, and headed out onto the open road for this cross-country trek from Arkansas to Oklahoma. We would stay with relatives in the distant metropolis of Van Buren. As a young child and pre-teen, this was the furthest I ever ventured from our rustic domicile.

I was a bit envious of our more worldly Van Buren cousins. It was amazing to me that you could drive—or walk!--a couple of blocks from your home to a bustling supermarket, where a world of provisions awaited your selection. There were heretofore unknown soft drinks, like Dr. Pibbs, which, I was later disappointed to learn was simply the generic store version of my favored Dr. Pepper. But this to my young mind was undiscovered country!

We would drive on up to Westville on Sunday morning, moving through the verdant hills of western Oklahoma. This is where my mother spent her childhood. We were often the first to arrive. The reunion took place in the Westville City Hall Public Events Center. I guess that is a fancy way to describe it. I am sure there were lots of Masonic fish fries and the like held there. The most intriguing part of this building to us kids was the jail cell, which was always empty. Had we stumbled upon Mayberry?

Eventually folks would start trickling in. We would set up rows of tables. Some tables were designated for dining, others for the dozens of casserole dishes that were soon to arrive. The older boys would drag in the coolers packed with store-bought ice and cokes of all kinds. We were set. Then the aunts would come in and each would have to hug me and exclaim how much I had grown over the previous year, but point out that I was way too thin and needed to eat lots of their casserole. A folding chair was set out and centrally located for Grandma Odle to sit in, and everyone else to gravitate around.

There were lots of us. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, the siblings’ kids were at their apex. Lots of long straight hair, bell-bottom jeans and over-sized collars and polyester slacks.

Uncle Randolph, the eldest brother, would drive up in his vintage station wagon, coming all the way from Oklahoma City where he ran Odle’s Grocery. Each Christmas season we could expect a nice fruit cake from him. For the reunion, he always brought the largest cheddar cheese wheel I had ever set eyes on. It was covered in red waxpaper. Was that also to be eaten? I did not know, but inquired further. Did they make those cheese wheels in Oklahoma City? We were never afforded such commodities in Plumerville, where we made due with boxes of velveeta cheese. My mother loved that stuff and thought we should too. A wedge of velveeta placed on a slice of bologna or spam and popped into the toaster oven for a couple of minutes and voila, a delightful meal.

Uncle Randolph—Randy--was the star among his sisters. He never got the end of ribbing about the old beat up station wagon which he drove for nostalgic reasons. I recently found out that he was a WWII marine who fought in the South Pacific, the events of which he never spoke.

Charles Wilson would finally arrive. A shrill whistle from Uncle Gerald announced that a prayer of thanksgiving was to be offered, either by himself or other menfolk. Only then would the feasting commence.

Sibling rivalries must have long since melted away before I arrived on the scene to witness those reunions, if they had ever existed at all. There seemed to be a general consensus of well-wishing and celebration. Uncle Cletis got on the piano and banged out hymnals, and if we were lucky, he would get out his fiddle. I once watched a reunion video of my mother’s siblings standing in a row singing a Cherokee nursery rhyme. Both my grandparents spoke Cherokee well if not fluently, and my grandmother sang Cherokee songs to her children.

This family. This family of nine children I was peripheral to. I was the lastborn son of the lastborn daughter of this family that sprang up from the verdant hills of western Oklahoma. How did they manage to prosper? My grandfather died before I was born. My grandmother was a gentle matron in her late eighties and early nineties when my memories of her were made. Was it a hardscrabble life bringing up this family? My mother was born in 1932, so neither depression nor dustbowl prevented her from coming into the Odle hearth. There always seemed to be room for one more. I cannot imagine this family was run like the Von Trapp household of whistles and commands, but maybe more like a joyous calamity as described by Frank Gilbreth Jr. in Cheaper by the Dozen.

Memories are re-creations of past events with a twist. When we recall the past, we do so with a burgeoning of new feelings which we didn’t necessarily have when the events took place. To jealousy and competition is added regret. Nervousness and angst bring up embarrassment. Confidence and enthusiasm wane to reticence. Happiness accompanied by her dear friend heartache. On this Labor Day as I recall these past reunions I feel nostalgia and sadness.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Driver's License and registration, please.

Last Friday was a particularly beautiful sunny day. I drove to work, so that I could drive to Capitol Hill that evening to eat at the Polish House with co-workers and friends, rather than have to take the bus. As I drove down Jackson Street in the International District towards work, I noticed there was a police car behind me. I thought nothing of it, since the police routinely patrol the area. I was driving to Airport Way, in search of free parking. It did strike me that the police kept following right behind me as I turned on to different streets, but I had not committed any traffic violations so I was not so worried.

Finally as I got to the area where I usually find free parking, I was disappointed not to find any spaces. As I slowed to a crawl looking more closely for spaces, the lights finally started flashing. Well, it took him long enough. So I slowly pulled over to the curb. What could this be about? Had I swerved in the lane? Switched lanes without signaling? That was all I could think of. I rolled down the window and took in the fresh summer breeze. A brawny black gentleman stepped up to my window and got to the point.

“Good morning, sir. I pulled you over because your tags have expired.” My jaw dropped. That certainly could not be. Tags expired? That has never happened before in my twenty years on the road. I was the person who quietly chuckled to myself at the folly of my friends as they relay their experiences of expired tags and exorbitant fines. But now me? There must be some misunderstanding.

“Let me look at my registration.” I must have simply forgotten to put the tag on the license plate. Or perhaps someone had peeled off the tag and put it on their own vehicle. Scoundrels! As I opened my glove compartment and the stack of papers fell out the gravity of the situation became evident. I know it must be here somewhere, ah here it is.

I proudly presented my registration to the officer to prove my innocence. He looked at it and kindly pointed out that it had expired in November 2009. I looked at the previous registrations going back to 2006. They were all there. 2010? No. Aha! I found a Midas receipt dated Oct. 2009. It looked like the emissions reading. I showed this to the officer with slightly less confidence but he did not respond. I looked again at the Midas receipt. Transmission flush.

He requested my insurance card. I resumed the shuffling and pulled out a couple, all of which were expired.

“Ok, I am going to take your word that your insurance is current. I will be back in a couple of minutes.” He took my driver’s license and expired registration and walked back to the police car. Oh but isn’t this the worst part. The waiting. Me sitting in my car. He sitting in his. Cars passing by. Luckily this was Friday morning, so everyone was in a serious tone on their way to work and no one paid me any mind. No smarmy teenagers with their grins and hoots of mock support. Not even the homeless people camped nearby cast a sympathetic glance. Typical pacific northwesterners.

Found it. Current insurance card hiding in the stack. Finally the police officer returned. He must be coming back to tell me that he checked my registration and found that I was current. I was still in denial. “Yes, they’re expired all right. But you look like a nice young man who just forgot, so I am going to give you a fine for expired less that two months. ”Well, talk about my lucky break!

‘You look like a nice young man.’ I knew what he was implying. Despite me there in my snazzy polarized glasses--as I shuffled through the registrations and receipts dating back to the late nineties there was no way I could conceal the fact that I was a bona fide scatterbrain. Nice young man, indeed. Mostly harmless. Drives a 1994 Nissan Sentra that has been t-boned, totaled, the finish is coming off the paint job. Miscellaneous receipts and items strewn around on the seats and in the floor board. He probably does this every year. The kind of guy who would drive off with the baby carrier still on the hood and the dog tied to the fender.

How could I have forgotten? I always pay as soon as I get the renewal in the mail.. A housemate must have gotten it and thrown it away. Or maybe the landlord. He once threw away my rent check.What was I doing in late November? Working overtime. The cat? Maybe. Well now to try and find a parking space. Perhaps I should tidy up the desk a bit when I get to the office and see what I will find.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


I went out today to run errands. I don’t know why it is so difficult to find an 8x16” picture frame. Evidently they are scarce in north Seattle. I often go shopping or ‘run errands’ most Sunday afternoons. I suppose some things I really need to do, e.g. grocery shopping. I must replenish my supplies of sustenance. However long I shop I have a feeling of dread. Like the going out and looking around is just a way for me to avoid those four walls back at home, because when I am enclosed within them I so easily slip into languor. So I walk up and down the aisles, looking for things I might need.

On the way home I spontaneously turned into Home Depot. Something drew me into the store. I walked down the aises. I looked at refrigerators. I looked at cabinets, shower heads, shower racks, and then I began to think, this is something I could buy for momma. She might need this brass shower rack. Then it really hit me why I was there. It isn’t fair. What has happened to her. It isn’t fair what is happening to her now.

She put up with an unpleasant husband for most of her adult life. The last four years he was essentially housebound and she was bound with him, dutifully caring for him without complaint. After he died she finally got a long overdue respite, and was able to go out into the world again and absorb the sounds and colors. ‘I wouldn’t bring him back for anything, ‘ she announced to everyone within earshot days after her funeral. She was finally free. But this turned out to be only a short window between tribulations. A five year window before she herself has become essentially housebound and dependent on others for basic care.

Finally that is what I have been seeking all these weeks and months and years. This realization. But there are selfish motives as well. This seeking was also motivated by the hope for her approval. This started in a concrete fashion when I moved back home in 2005. Things were in a general state of disrepair around the house. I found myself frequently heading to Home Depot looking for home improvement projects to start. Since I had a limited income, a lot of it was just wishful thinking.

Therefore I did a lot of improvising. One project was salvaging and restoring an old porch swing and hanging it on the front porch. It turned out to be a big hit with everyone. Early risers could always greet the sunrise swaying in the swing. When I went home last March the swing was covered in dust. I gave it a thorough cleaning so momma could sit in it. When I went into the living room to announce that I had cleaned it for her her silent face beamed. Although she didn’t sit in it the whole time I was there—she complained it was too drafty on the porch—I knew that my effort had met her approval.

So is that what I have been seeking in a convoluted way in retail home improvement stores? The acceptance of my mother? The prime motivation of every child? In essence, yes. Everyone knows how a look of approval from a mother can send a surge of elation through the heart. A look of disapproval, however, can cause indelible devastation. We go off on fool’s missions in retail havens but occasionally the undercurrent of truth manages to well to the surface and make us keenly aware of what we have really been pursuing all the time. Today that happened to be in the bath accessories aisle of Home Depot.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Just had Korean bbq prepared by housemates Ethan and Yeong i. Nice conversation. Can’t imagine serving in the South Korean army. Evidently according to Ethan it can be a traumatic experience.

I woke up today at 2pm. The cyclobenzaprine evidently has a very strong sedating effect, and I probably also needed the extra sleep. Nonetheless for the rest of the afternoon and early evening so far I have felt lethargic and have had an ennui I can’t shake off. Occasionally I get this, whether I am under the influence of a medication or not. I is a feeling of waste and purposeless in my life. I wonder if this is a common experience or if I am unique in having it. I think those who are parents and are manual laborers perhaps don’t to the same exent, since their purpose is laid out for them each day. Perhaps that is the burden and blessing of being an independent unattached adult, the extra time to assess ones’ merit and position in the scheme of things. I will hold off on the cyclobenzapine for a while.

I have thought of what I can do to get out there in the world and see what Seattle really has to offer. Perhaps I will attend the Buddhist meditation again tomorrow evening. That will be relaxing. I’ll call Genevieve. I have also thought of attending the Episcopal church again. But how very dreadful. The ceremony and music are nice, and after the communion I feel I might be redeemed, but attending the service is the next worse thing to actually being English. When I go I always make the mistake of thinking that it might be nice to stay after the service for the coffee social. It is like attending the funeral of someone whose relatives you don’t know. I always get stuck at the table of the matron of the church who was present at its founding back in the 1920s. She will inadvertently ask me where I am from and I will have to explain that I am from Arkansas, after which there is a cold silence. This always flummoxes them. What is this Arkansan doing in our universe?

Or perhaps I could go down to the freak show that is the Fremont Summer Solstice Fair. I missed the parade today, as I was still sound asleep. It must have been quite chilly for the naked bicyclists, but I don’t pity them. Some of them I do envy.

I could sleep in again. It is still the weekend after all.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Golden Gardens at Dusk

On February 24th 2010 I walked along the beach at Golden Gardens at dusk. The tide was low. The lowest I had ever seen it in my many visits there. The waves rolled the pebbles along as they advanced and retreated. Occasionally they rolled over my shoes soaking them with briny water. The sun set over the Olympics painting the sky a mandarin hue. The jagged peaks silhouetted the fading glow. I looked out over the gray water. The threshold between the water and the beach seemed uncertain. This gave me the stirring unease that with one step I could become submerged.

About thirty minutes prior I had had a brief conversation with my mother. I had called her to find out what the results of the MRI scans had been. Over the past couple of months she had complained about persistent pain in her hips. When she answered the phone her tone was weak and muted contrasting her usual ebullience. I asked what the results of the scan were and she told me that they had found cancer in her stomach. I tried as best I could to keep my composure and be as strong and supportive as possible.

In 1996 she had had breast cancer which was treated with no subsequent reappearance until now. It was a tough time, and I can recall the fear and uncertainty we had then. This was one of the most difficult telephone conversations I had ever had, and for those of you who at a loss for words in such situations you can understand my trepidation. I told her I loved her and that I would be home to visit her soon. This conversation was one of the briefest we had ever had but also the most meaningful. For the first time we said our goodbyes without an upbeat tone.

The beach is where I often go to regroup. The saltwater air expands my asthmatic lungs and clears my attention-deficit mind. Although this is a family beach I always go spontaneously and alone. I often feel somewhat out of place as I am not throwing a Frisbee, pushing a baby stroller or being tugged along by a bounding retriever. I usually have a cup of café Americano to try to blend in as best as possible. I get lots of Seattle smiles. On this particular evening it was mostly deserted since it was late. The wind was quite strong as I recall. A few yachts and sailboats returned to the marina.

As I walked along the beach it was impressed upon me very vividly the impermanence in life, the constant introduction of new people and departure of those I have known since childhood. I remember several years back getting a phone call from momma telling me, ‘we lost Farrell Ray’ who was one of my father’s closest friends. She had probably known him for around fifty years. Farrell Ray had been a stalwart in the community. She sent me the newspaper clipping of the obituary. She was also oft reminded of this impermanence, as she sees those in her generation die one by one. This impermanence is something many of us try desperately and fail utterly to avoid facing.

People come and go in our lives. Some we miss sorely whereas others we are quite glad to be shod of. Our parents, on the other hand, act as a locus and tether in our lives. They are the first people we know when we came into this world. They guide our early development and shape who we become. They anchor our lives which are often tossed to and fro. Their presence or absence often determines the course we take in life. No matter how old we are, the threat that a parent can be taken away from us sets us adrift in the dusk.

The driving wind convinced me my reflection could just as easily be continued indoors. I would call my brother Philip. He took her to get the results of the MRI. He would fill me in on the situation.

And he did. He told me that the doctor had informed them that there were tumors in her femur and pelvis, rather than in her stomach. This was not quite a relief, but did give me pause as to the possible prognosis. Metastatic cancer in the bones might more readily respond to treatment than cancer that had spread in the organs and soft tissue. This situation was still dreadful, but slightly less dreadful than the specter of stomach cancer.

March 15th? Yes, March 15th. This was the date of the appointment with the oncologist. This he tells me on February 24th, mind you. Nineteen days seemed like an eternity to wait to get an official diagnosis of cancer. I knew that there would have to be a biopsy scheduled as well to ascertain what we were dealing with.