Saturday, September 17, 2011
A couple of writer friends long ago told me that if they'd been rejected when they sent out their first story, they would have been too discouraged to continue to submit. I mentioned this to a realtor friend who started to laugh. He said, "That's ridiculous. I get turned down every day. But if I stopped showing houses, I'd never make a sale. You just smile and move on to the next potential customer."
I remember, too, my late husband's favorite motto, "Never, ever give up."
So I keep a little orphanage in my stories file. Here's where all my poor rejects dwell. Periodically I see a call out that reminds me of a story that's languished in the orphanage for years. That's what happened when I saw that the Writers Abroad group of ex-pats and ex-ex-pats planned an anthology based on a theme of food, drink and cooking from all over the world.
When I lived in Guatemala back in 1990 to 1992 I'd written a story, "The Marvelous Mexican Parsley of West 59th Street." I'd sent it out to some publications at that time, but it never got accepted. A few years ago I resurrected it and sent it out two or three times again. It didn't seem quite right, apparently, for some of the food-related collections I'd hoped would adopt it.
Then this morning I surfed through my junk mail and found a congratulatory note from Writers Abroad that says my piece will appear later this year in Foreign Flavours.
My story actually takes place back in the early '50s in a southwest Los Angeles neighborhood when a neighbor sent us some specially-seasoned chicken soup when everybody in our family had the mumps. I remembered the incident one evening when my old friend and roommate, Kelly Presley, and I returned from an evening at one of our favorite Antigua eateries where we'd feasted on caldo de real. I'd recounted the incident from my childhood and Kelly urged me to write about it.
Kelly died a few years back, so I'm disappointed I can't share my good news with him, that this story about cilantro, the popular Mexican herb, finally will see print! I'm delighted that my orphan finally got adopted. Kelly would have been, too. A talented writer, he continued to revise his three unpublished novels until he got too sick to sit long at the computer.
So, Kelly, this story is dedicated to you.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
In 1987 before I left Long Beach, CA, to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I gave away most of my library, except for autographed books. I emptied out drawers, cupboards, and closets, destroyed old financial records, and stashed what I couldn't bear to part with in a filing cabinet and a few cardboard boxes, which I left with my son, Steve, thinking I'd retrieve it all when I returned home in a couple of years.
As it turned out, I didn't go home to Southern California, after all. Instead, I lived overseas for ten years, in Belize, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Seychelles. When I came back to the States in 1998 I worked first in Little Rock, AR, and later in Washington DC. Finally I retired to the country near Colville, WA, in 2004.
Over the years I've visited Steve many times, and always remembered the stash in his garage. Finally, last October I located some of the things I'd wanted to keep, repacked three post office priority mail boxes full, and mailed them to myself. When they arrived, I stuffed them in a closet, promising myself I'd sort through them soon.
Soon doesn't always mean tomorrow. With obligations, deadlines, boards and commissions, three cats, two dogs and three and a half acres to look after, sometimes rummaging through boxes doesn't get to the top of my priority list.
It finally did today. I intend to write about my long love affair with London. Back in 1980 when I'd visited England for the first time, I wrote a piece, "Literary London and the English Countryside," that artist and Uncle Jam publisher Phillip Yeh beautifully illustrated. I thought I'd find it in those boxes in the closet. I didn't. Instead I found:
- the October 1967 copy of Woman's Day, with my short piece "Rabbit Habit" in the Neighbors column...bylined Mrs. Robert L. Elders...as was fashionable in those days.
- a framed check for $25, payment for the above article, the first piece of writing I ever sold to a national publication.
- an essay, "Fitzgerald and the Plight of the South," about F. Scott Fitzgerald's haunting short story, "The Last of the Belles," submitted on May 20, 1963, with a note from my Modern American Lit prof that says, "This is an excellent explication of the story, and rings quite true. If I were you I should certainlly send this out," with a list of possible literary quarterlies, now long out of business.
- a dozen novels by Herbert Gold, with his autograph.
- a copy of Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, together in one volume, autographed to me by Laura Huxley and dated Nov. '79, "For Terri, from her admirer, affectionately, Laura." I'd written an article about Laura and her Project Caress earlier that year for Uncle Jam, after I'd visited her at her home just below the Hollywood sign, and spilled coffee on her white living room carpet.
- several autographed books by authors I'd interviewed in 1980, including Julia Braun Kessler and Herbert Cohen.
- poems and short stories and about fifty pages of a novel I'd written for a 1961 creative writing class...some I don't remember writing at all.
- a newspaper clipping of an interview with me when I was teaching journalism at Jordan High School, 1964.
- copies of newspapers and magazines that had published the articles I wrote while I lived in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic from 1990 t0 1994...Transitions Abroad, Mature Living, International Living and the Costa Rica Times.
But it's hard to just plow through these boxes without getting sidetracked. I spent a good fifteen minutes rereading a paper I'd titled, "Structure and Meaning in 'Cliff Klingenhagen'." It's not dated, but it must be circa 1962. It still strikes me as a perceptive analysis of a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, from Tilbury Town, which I'd long forgotten.
And even though I'm nearly fifty years late, I still think that analysis of the Fitzgerald short story needs to be published. Dr. Hugh Smith noted that there were some irregularities in diction and construction that needed to be cleared up, and a couple of lines that needed rephrasing. That would be a daunting task to type a fresh copy on my old Smith Corona portable. On my Toshiba laptop it should be a snap.
I'm gonna do it...soon.
Friday, September 9, 2011
In July 2006 Governor Chris Gregoire appointed me as a public member to the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Commission. As a member of MQAC, I'm also a part time employee of the Department of Health, hence a government employee once again.
My first husband, a career police officer, used to say his entire family "fed at the public trough." His parents were nurses at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, CA for over 30 years each. He himself retired after 35 years of service with the Long Beach Police Department.
First as a school teacher, and then as a social worker, I worked for municipal governments, the city of Long Beach, CA, and the county of Los Angeles. As a Peace Corps Volunteer and Peace Corps health specialist at The Center for Field Assistance in Washington DC, I worked for the federal government. As adolescent and school health coordinator I worked for the Arkansas State Department of Health. Now I'm an employee of the Washington State Department of Health.
So when people rant about fat cat bureaucrats, well, I've fed at the public trough much of my life, on the home front and overseas, here, there and everywhere. I've never become rich, but I've always earned a living...and some of those earnings, in Peace Corps and AmeriCorps*VISTA, were well below the federal minimum wage. Nonetheless, I've tried my best to earn every cent, whatever my salary was, and have always remembered my real employer was not a fellow bureaucrat, but my fellow taxpayers, citizens just like me.
Today, as a state employee, I received a thoughtful thank you from Governor Gregoire which I'd like to share. It brings back my feeling of pride over a lifetime of community service, and gratitude for having had the opportunity to serve. Here's the note that Chris Gregoire sent to all Washington State employees.
We all stood still on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 — 10 years ago this Sunday. In many ways we’re still catching our breath.
We awakened Sept. 12 somber and scared. Yet we also awakened to a new calling. We rose to a greater good, we vowed to rebuild New York, we pledged to travel again. We stuck together and felt closer than perhaps any other time in recent history. Countries around the globe rushed to our side as the world shared in our loss. For some, that newfound feeling of commitment and purpose changed over time. We settled back into our old habits, our old prejudices. The cloud of two wars, the ever-changing presentation of facts to the American public, the use of 9-11 for political gain changed what that day meant and what it should mean.
Today, 10 years later, we can change it back.
First, realize that the world is a much different place than it was. The nature of global threats, both natural and human caused, has intensified. Our best response lies in preparation. In the event of a large- scale emergency, it’s important to prepare yourself and your family to survive unassisted for 72 hours. While governments work hard to mobilize in advance of and during disasters, the events of 9-11, the Japanese tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and recently, Hurricane Irene have proven that the more prepared you and your family are, the more quickly recovery will take hold.
Second, know the neighbors in your area who may need help or special assistance during and after a disaster. An elderly person or the family with small kids may require checking in on or a little extra help.
Third, become involved in your community. Give back to local organizations, read at a school, organize a neighborhood event. Explore another culture, introduce yourself to a stranger. Realize that our strength lies in our diversity. Remember that feeling of civic responsibility you had 10 years ago — wondering what you could do to help your fellow Americans 3,000 miles away — and act on that now. The stronger your resolve, the stronger our communities become.
Finally, to repeat a simple message shared by our federal counterparts, “If you see something, say something.”
As state employees, each of you plays an important role in assuring the safety and security of our citizens: from the Department of Health, where we have stepped up monitoring and tracking of potential health hazards, to the Military Department, which has admirably served overseas as well as provided homeland security and domestic preparedness on the home front, to the State Patrol, which monitors our highways and ferries. The collective work and collaboration of every agency has not gone unnoticed in the past decade.
Our nation’s biggest weakness lies not in what the terrorists can do to us or what the economic markets may bear, but in our increasing divisiveness, lack of civics and general isolation. Today, take a moment to remember those who perished 10 years ago. Be proud of our country, and be just as proud of your neighborhood, your community and your service to the state.
Thank you for that service.
Monday, September 5, 2011
Suds and Solace
By Terri Elders
On September 11, 2001, I had just opened an HIV/AIDS seminar for Peace Corps Volunteers in a shabby hotel two hours north of Port-au-Prince. We paused that morning to stare in silence at a generator-powered television set in the adjacent bar, tears trickling down our cheeks. Several of us joined hands and whispered The Lord’s Prayer. The Haitian counterparts would be arriving the next morning, many walking miles across rugged rural terrain to bus stops. We prayed for strength to get us through the week.
Incredibly, the training went forward without mishaps, and US Embassy and Peace Corps managed to get me aboard my scheduled return flight to Miami the following Sunday. Even more improbably, American Airlines had rerouted an extra flight to Dulles, given that Reagan National, my destination, was closed for the duration. They assigned me the one remaining seat left on it.
As soon as the taxi dropped me off in Silver Spring, my husband and I hugged, shared our concerns about the safety of our nation, and then addressed an immediate question. Should we or shouldn’t we cancel our postponed honeymoon?
In our sixties, we had a millennial wedding the previous summer, but since I had to begin immediately my new job in Washington DC, we waited to schedule a honeymoon until I accrued vacation time. When I asked Ken where he’d like to go, he chose Germany. He pined to revisit the towns he’d lived in during his Air Force service in the ‘50s, and wanted to take in one more Oktoberfest.
“This would be my fourth, and the best, since you’ll be with me. And I want you to learn to love German beer, just as I do.”
Never much of a beer drinker, nonetheless I had agreed.
But now I hesitated. We were scheduled to fly out on September 22. Would we be safe? Would we be foolhardy to travel at such an uncertain time? On the plus side: our rental car would be waiting at Franz Joseph airport in Munich, and Ken remembered enough German to ask for directions as we headed for Neuweire, the Black Forest, Meersburg, Garmisch and all those other magical-sounding towns I’d heard Ken describe. On the minus side: new travel regulations were in effect and airport security lines would be long and arduous.
“Let’s do it,” Ken finally said. “We’d probably be safer in Germany right now than we are right here in the outskirts of the capital. Plus you’ve been working hard, and really deserve a break.”
So we went. And on October 1 we finally settled in at Oktoberfest’s Hofbrau Haus, socializing with young people from New Zealand and Australia, raising our litre mugs as we sang along with a brass band that pounded out “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Roll Out the Barrel.” We ate salted radishes and pretzels as big as our heads, and toasted every English-speaking nation on earth, including Belize, Guyana and Seychelles, countries that would have gone overlooked if I hadn’t a personal Peace Corps knowledge of them. Then the Aussies and Kiwis joined us in a chorus of “Blame Canada” when a trio from Ottawa asked to sit with us.
Ken and I listened appreciatively as our new friends poured out their sympathy for our country, and accepted their gracious good wishes for a safe return home. We left Oktoberfest carefree, flushed with lager and love.
A few days later, though, we learned that the United States had begun to bomb Afghanistan, and that all American citizens abroad had been warned to contact American embassies and consulates. We heard talk of terrorist attacks against tourists in European countries. I began to shiver.
“Should we try to return home early?” I asked my husband.
“I don’t want to leave Germany until you’ve seen Andechs,” Ken replied, shaking his head.
As he explained it, Andechs Abbey, just an hour south of Munich, is a Benedictine monastery housed in a castle that dates from the twelfth century. Its brewery or kosterbrauerei, produces lagers with an alcohol percentage ranging between 11.5 and 18.5, some as strong as fortified sherries.
“We need to sit in the beer garden, have a basket of the fresh-baked dark rye bread and monastery cheese, and heft a beer and contemplate the frescoes and stuccoes. We’ll get some perspective on historical awareness at Andechs,” he insisted.
We drove along the eastern shore of Lake Ammersee until we spotted the castle looming on a hill. For more than half a millennium it had been a cherished destination for pilgrims, and now as we headed up the hill that frosty morning I felt as if we, too, were on a pilgrimage.
The beer proved just as delicious as Ken had promised. Then after lunch, we toured the ground floor of the church and I sat for a while in the Chapel of Sorrow, praying for the United States, for Washington DC, and for our marriage. I especially prayed for a sense of serenity. As soon as I asked the Lord to instill peace in my heart, I felt an enormous sense of relief. The fear had vanished.
This chapel, originally consecrated in 1470, houses the grave of Carl Orff, the 20th century composer of “Carmina Burana.” Then we crossed to the St. Anthony Chapel, with frescoes by 17th century artists. I reflected on how past and present seem to come together at Andechs. As we prepared to leave I picked up a brochure that quoted the Andechs’ Abbot, Dr. Johannes Eckert, on the purpose of the monastery. One phrase hit a chord: “to relish the present and the moments which go by so quickly, yet indeed not forgetting that which went on before.” Exactly what I had been thinking.
Then I remembered that September day in Haiti, when we all decided to move forward, to avoid becoming paralyzed with fear. As we strolled to our rental car I turned to Ken. “In the chapel I asked the Lord for help in giving up fear,” I said. “There’s no room for it on our honeymoon. My prayer seems to have been answered. I feel more peaceful now.”
“Good decision,” he replied. Then he grinned. “But don’t ask Him to make us give up German beer.”
I agreed that I wouldn’t. Suds and solace seemed perfect mates. Just like us.
(This story appears in The Harsh and The Heart: Celebrating the Military, available now.)
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Nami will be nine on September 24. To celebrate I'm going to try to get a new mouse pad made from the photo, since my old one has faded over the years. Nami's mellowed, but not faded. She's as radiant as ever. Please check out my story, "The Great Who-Nami" at HandPrints on My Heart...and give it a comment and vote. Marlene's blog promises something new to feel good about everyday. And who doesn't need that?
I have two other stories on that blog that you could comment on, as well, "Light of My Life" and "Pop's Old Pedestal Desk."
Wishing everybody a glorious labor-free Labor Day!
Friday, September 2, 2011
I love Pinchback Press, and the chance to cross over to the dark side. As much as I enjoy writing inspirational stories for series such as Chicken Soup for the Soul and Cup of Comfort, there's been some not-quite-glorious episodes in my life as well. So Pinchback gives me a chance to clean out some cobwebs. Tarnished, which appeared a couple of months ago, carried my story, "A Pair to Draw To," about my parents' best friends, people who led lives of deceit.
Now Pinchback has a call out for a new book that really appeals to me. When I worked as a psychotherapist I learned everybody had secrets. I'm not certain everybody's committed a crime, but I suspect from listening to people share their fears that most of us have nudged the letter of the law a time or two. I just finished reading Ghostwalk, a mystery set in Cambridge, that reveals that even Isaac Newton kept a list of dozens of sins, written in code because of his shame. He never got arrested, though. But I did. So I've got a tale to tell for Pinchback's new title.
Caught: True Crime Tales of Scamming, Scheming & Sliding By
Deadline: October 31, 2011
Whether you’ve stolen, conned, lied, or cheated here is your chance to come clean. Tell us about the times you’ve ripped someone off, the five finger discounts you’ve taken, the little white lies you’ve told. Confession is good for the soul and we want to hear every crafty detail of yours. Tell us the tactless, the tricky and the downright terrible and we may want to publish it.
We are interested in unique personal essays that will disgust and delight readers. We want to hear from everyone, from petty criminals to hardened cons. Submissions might play with the nurture vs. nature theme, could be mastermind masterpieces, or may even be ‘anti’ crime; the collection as whole will evoke strong emotion and stand out in this popular genre.
All essays should be nonfiction narratives, written in the first-person. Focus on one or a few selected events; do not send rants or political speeches. Stories should be titled. Essays should be between 1000 – 5000 words, double-spaced, paginated and word-processed. No funky fonts, please.
Please include a brief bio (1-3 sentences) at the end of your submission.
Deadline: October 31, 2011
Please send your submissions to: email@example.com
Each contributor receives two free copies of the finished book.
Now I'll finally have the chance to tell the story about the night I spent in jail, thanks to my first husband who got a little too merry at a Christmas party when I was just 22. As a result I had to list this incident on every job application I made for decades...as I applied to be hired as a teacher, a social worker or a Peace Corps Volunteer, not professions usually associated with an arrest record. I'm thinking of calling the piece, which I hope to write this weekend, "Arrested Development."