Monday, August 30, 2010

Easy Does It

The writing that's the easiest to read is the hardest to write.

  1. Avoid cliches. Instead of saying "She's pulling her hair out!" say "She had clumps of eyelashes between her clenched fingers."
  2. Use colorful language. Say things like "Vivid pink splotches danced over her computer screen late at night, like Pepto Bismol for her eyes."
  3. Conflict is all important. "She ripped the spine out of her thesaurus when it refused to give up its secrets."
  4. Show, don't tell. Instead of telling the reader "She was losing her confidence as a writer," let them discover it themselves: "Her stiff neck could hardly support her head as it drooped under the weight of leaden ideas, too dense to express in a drizzle of words."
  5. Don't be afraid of being too obvious. If your character is scared, for instance, don't be subtle. Say, "She rubbed her churning stomach, wondering what would happen when she vomited chunks of her heart."
Writing fiction is very deceptive. Like riding a bicycle, it looked easy until I tried it. Now I feel like I'm learning to ride a bike on a narrow railroad trestle with a train roaring up behind me at full speed. (Picture Stand By Me.) I'm peddling as fast as I can, and I can't look down. Wednesday I turn Son of a Gun over to my editor.

I'm spitless.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Son of a Gun

Photo by Jay Dusard

These are my cowboy sons. I gave them life, doesn't that count?

To catch you up on what's been happening at Barlow Ranch lately. Ruby, our beautiful prostitute turned respectable by marrying Leo, and the handsome, forgiving hero, live on a cattle ranch in Texas where they are raising their sons JJ and MJ with the help of Turk, the grandfatherly cook (with a mysterious dastardly past.)

Jack is Ruby's old one-night stand (JJ's father) who ditched her. He's the bad boy she pines for, who was in a gunfight defending Ruby's reputation and we think he's dead (maybe or maybe not. We shall see.) Her old "boss" Sam was furious when she dropped out of the tricky business he runs in the saloon, and accepted the good life at her rich, new husband's ranch. Sam's out to destroy her.

The Barlows have had all sorts of adventures—a tornado, a grasshopper plague, fires, threats, a-near affair, etc. and many successes—a school, church, sawmill, growth of the herds, etc. All these have been exploited or ruined by Sam's men. Leo is a Quaker and will not turn to violence against these violent attacks. (Leo and I are working through his qualms for a satisfying surprise ending.)

That's a tiny synopsis so you'll understand this scene.

Last night Sam sent his cronies out to vandalize their property and put the Barlows in mortal danger. MJ was awakened by the bad guy's jingling spurs and looked outside to see them, under the moon (one's a Mexican who wears a long Indian blanket over his shoulder, belted by his buscadero rig of criss-crossed guns over his chest) smoking their cigar-eets, creeping around. Half asleep, MJ didn't know what he'd seen. The next morning at breakfast this scene unfolds:

Excerpt from

Son of a Gun

Marty Halverson

The kitchen was warm from the fire and there was a fine smell of bacon frying and coffee steaming. Eight-year-old MJ was a good eater and he leaned into his food, downing an egg and five strips of bacon, plus a couple of hotcakes. Dipping a sugar cube in her coffee, Ruby sucked its sweetness and dipped a couple more. “Here, Sugarmouths,” she said to her little boys, who loved this morning ritual.

MJ could not have presented a more appealing picture as a wide-eyed, wandering, barefoot boy. His beaming, slightly bucktoothed smile would have melted the heart of a limestone head marker. “I saw some ghosts in the yard last night,” he said matter-of-factly to his younger brother.

“Did not!” JJ scoffed, alarm mixed with suspicion. “You never!”

“Did so. They was scooting ‘mongst the trees, jingling, like their death chains was rattling. One of ‘em had a long, dark cape flowin’ around him, and their faces glowed, light flickering by their eye sockets.”

“Mama.” JJ interrupted her musings. “Are there such things as ha’nts?”

“Don’t know, JJ. Your pa believes in ghosts, he says. I wouldn’t want to meet up with one.”

Turk was just starting in on a chicken. He was at his story-telling best with feathers flying from his greasy hands.

“I remember when Bud Thompson’s face was plastered with his own brother’s brains. Horse stepped on his head.” He had the boys’ attention.

Ruby muffled a gag. “Turk! You say the most unappetizing things while you’re fixing a meal!”

“Bud went to bed that night, and a ghost came calling, all empty headed and bloody. ‘Give me back my brains . . . Give me back my brains!” He wiggled his gelatinous fingers in JJ’s petrified face, and laughed.

“Turk, was that true?” the boy asked.

“Truer than an outright lie,” the old timer answered.


Today I sat in my computer chair (Dee and I both use a special brand of Bum Glue that keeps us stuck to our seats for hours on end) from 8:30 to 10:30, then from 11:30 to 3:30, and then again from 4:00-9:30 and of course my 12:00 midnight to 2:00 a.m. shift when I do a little of this and a little of that, but at least 30 minutes of editing the ten pages I wrote today. I've never worked so hard at writing (I can feel my brain stretching, and my eyes straining and my back hunching over) but I've never had so much fun writing in my life. The hours fly by, and I forget to eat, to go to the bathroom, to get a drink . . . I get totally immersed in my make-believe world.

My deadline for the manuscript is September 1. Then Dee and I are swapping manuscripts for a week, and we'll both edit the very different 200 page tomes we've each (hopefully) finished. After the re-exchange, we'll then go back to our separate corners and weep quietly over all the red ink bleeding all over our masterpieces, and have a last week to make the corrections. And then . . . AND THEN . . . we're going to CELEBRATE!

How would you celebrate the grand conclusion to an impossible goal?
Fantasize and give us some ideas.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Our Heroes

Face Painting

Where were the superheroes? We needed saving. A year in England without income, not to mention root beer, heat, showers, Oreos, peanut butter . . . it was taking it's toll. We were broke, basically running out of everything. And we couldn't tell anyone our plight. (That's the problem with flaunting your self-confidence in the face of everyone's advice.)

By February Dee had finished his class work and was beginning his dissertation. He had to write a document of a few hundred pages, longhand, in our bedroom, next to the drafty window in order to have light. Forty watts doesn't cut it during a drab and dreary Yorkshire winter, where it gets dark at 3:30 in the afternoon. With the requisite cardi (cardigan sweater) over his sweater vest, he wrote in the frigid room wearing fingerless gloves. It was a scene out of Dr. Zhivago.

The hot air was leaking out of our balloon and we were starting to feel adrift. Remember all those meddlesome folks who thought we were nuts? What if they were right? Was it just the weather that was giving us cold feet? It wasn't like we had a plan. Dee was now capable of restoring stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals, and replicating mortar from the 13th century, but there wasn't much call for that in Salt Lake City. What had we been thinking? Starting over in a different country and culture was bold and daring. Starting over again a year later in front of everyone we knew could be total humiliation.

The Mohawk

It was a little late to re-think it. I read from my journal and we rehashed our old conversations, trying to recall the faith, hope and inspiration we had felt at the beginning. Dee started sending resumes, but doubt and worry crept in. Blessings kept coming, though. A couple of miracles buoyed us up.

One Sunday afternoon we were sitting on our bed in York, and the phone rang, which was extremely unusual. Nobody called us. I answered and it was one of our SLC neighbors. He was wondering how we were doing, and wanted to tell us what great neighbors we had always been. Blown away by his kind words, we talked for a while. Then he said he had sent us something in the mail and wondered if we'd received it. We thought back, mentally thumbing through our Christmas cards from three months before and said we didn't think so. "Watch for it," he said. How thoughtful, we thought. That call was just the encouragement we needed. What a great guy.

Gabi and Josh in phone box

Within a day or so we got his envelope. Inside was a check for $1,000!!! He had written a lovely letter saying he hoped this would come in handy, and that he admired our nerve. "Please spend it with the pleasure I got from sending it." Unbelievable!

A good friend from home wrote a few weeks later. "I've always loved your diamond ring. Would you consider selling it to me?" Who asks a question like that? It was so unexpected, yet perfectly timed! Mutual friends were coming to visit us, so she sent a check with them. I packaged my ring carefully in a tube of Smarties (M & M's) and they took it home to her. This infusion of cash saved our bacon—bought our bacon, actually.

We were still unsure of what we'd do once we got home. Out of the blue, Dee was contacted by a university professor who needed some research done for a book. He had heard from so-and-so, who had heard from so-and-so that we were in Yorkshire. What started as an interesting project ended up to be life changing.

Gadfield Elm Chapel

The research required us to travel a few times a week throughout the spring and summer. Following two hundred-year-old maps we went in search of ancient mills, barns, churches, houses and other ruins. We explored all over England and parts of Wales on twisting back roads, peering through hedgerows, and climbing through scrub. Most of these were day trips while the kids were in school; other times we took them along. Local histories and journals written during the period gave us our itinerary, and we followed paths described in the 1800's. The stories were fascinating and the people came alive to us.

Slowly it dawned on Dee that this was what he wanted to do: chronicle the lives of everyday folks, document how they rose to the challenges they faced, and place those events in historic perspective. Anticipation came rushing back.

Roofians from the neighborhood

That year in York was when our kids earned their hero status. Dee relates it to an experience he had at summer camp when he was in the ROTC:

His platoon was running in formation when Dee had an asthma attack. Unable to catch his breath, he started to lag behind, slowing the whole group. His arms were bent so the two guys on either side of him (who were both tall) lifted him from under his elbows, and carried him the rest of the way. Dee compares our kids to those two soldiers. They ran in formation, lifted us up and made sure we finished the run.

Cute new school clothes

It was an amazing family project. Without all the usual props—phones, malls, cars, sports, lessons, clothes, TV, friends—we became our own foundation. Other years before and after were filled with the paraphernalia of life, but that year set a new tone. We protected, sustained, comforted and fortified each other. We all gave up everything, and we discovered that we still had everything we needed. It was worth it.

The Heroes: Micah, Heidi, Amy, Gabi, Marta, Peter, Josh

York: August 1985-August 1986.

I'll be forever grateful for that year.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Great British Education

My school bus.

Everybody in the family went to school when we lived in York—except me. However, I got a British education that year, too. Every time I stepped outside my house I encountered a situation that made me think. Teachers were around every corner (although they seemed like regular people.) Here's some stuff I learned:

~Yorkshire folks live their lives in the rain. We flew kites, went to the beach, had picnics in the park . . . none of the locals batted an eye. Josh went spelunking with the scouts for a week with torrential rains the whole time. He and Micah did a 45-mile hike in the rain—it started at midnight—across the moors in muddy bogs filled with frogs. The weather report was always "bright at times, showery at intervals."

Life Lesson #1:
You'll miss life if you wait for perfect conditions.

Lyke Wake Walk Marker

~In York, the beauty of a home has nothing to do with square footage or interior decorating. Friends lived in cramped row houses, with minuscule yards on narrow streets. Pete played with his friend in a pub the father managed. The family lived upstairs. Neighbors ran a bed and breakfast, and lived there. Our house had originally been the servant's quarters.

Life Lesson #2:
Don't confuse a house with a home.

Dale Street, across from the kid's school.

Blossom Street, across from our house.

~In York, parents don't all look like parents. I waited for my kids everyday outside their school with people I was scared of at first. It was 1985 and punk had not arrived in my Salt Lake City neighborhood. Tattoos, mohawks and piercings signaled danger to me. That was before I saw how they interacted with their kids, swooping them up, carrying them on their shoulders, examining spelling tests and essays. Before long I realized I was naive, arrogant and condescending. They, on the other hand, were friendly, interested and hospitable; in other words, nicer than I.

Life Lesson #3:
Don't judge a person by their hairstyle.

Punk Rocker Parents

~In York, ancient is normal. Our primary school was Scarcroft. It was built in about 1840, and looked like a haunted house. There were still gas masks on the shelf from World War I. We'd been warned the school was in a "roof (rough) neighborhood," but the teachers were wonderful, the kids were taught Bible stories and they opened each day with prayer! The headmaster took our kids under his wing and made sure they were integrated into the school quickly. They were each inundated with friends and invitations.

Scarcroft Primary School

Our three teenagers took unfamiliar subjects like Latin, and were placed in 4th year French classes, although they'd never studied French. They learned cricket in Games and now understand the British education system and terms like O Levels, and Firsts.

Dee's school was the King's Manor, built in the 1600's. His labs and workshops were in the York Minster (built about 1100) where they studied architecture and the restoration of stained glass, among other crafts.

Life Lesson #4:
Modern doesn't mean better.

Kings Manor, University of York

~In York I learned to "try it." Our kids jumped into experiences just because their friends were doing it. I'd always said, "Well if your friends walked off a cliff, would you do it, too?" I'll let you judge for yourself:

Micah in the panto (3rd one over)

Peter in the panto

Marta in the Community Christmas Panto
A Pantomime is a very traditional play w/ cross dressing leads.

Dee and Marty in the community Dance Festival (we're on the right.)

Life Lesson #5:
It's OK to try things you've never done before, and might never do again. Don't compromise your standards, but occasionally jump into something new.

Major Life Lesson:
There is a world full of hard-working, God-fearing, family-loving people who are very different from me. They are trying to make the world better by living decent lives, that are different from mine. The world does not revolve around me, or the USA. I am not better. Differences make us interesting, and similarities make us strong. Other people don't want to be like me, any more than I want to be like them, so I won't presume to force my ideals on them. I will cram myself full of all the goodness they share with me, and I will be a better person.

I consider that a pretty good education.

To be concluded . . .

Monday, August 23, 2010

Clotheslined in York, England

Our retractable clothesline

An interesting contraption dangled from the rafters of our lofty kitchen ceiling, in York. It was attached to a cord that hung down and wrapped around a hook on the wall. With a little experimentation, we unwound the cord and lowered a folding clothes rack. It was designed so you could hang your wet laundry and then raise it up out of the way while the clothes (drip) dried overhead. Even so, nothing ever really dried in York. The towels were still wet the next day, even when I draped them over our radiators.

That was because the radiators didn't work. Our house was like a giant barn and there was only one source of heat: an electric fire that sat in the living room fireplace. During the frigid winter months we did everything in that room. It was like living in a log cabin. The kids changed their clothes in there because it was the only warm space. Climbing into chilled sheets numbed them and they pleaded to stay up. Now we understood why there were hot water bottles and warming pans in every bedroom.

Our only source of heat

Dee got a little propane heater for our room. He'd go upstairs and turn down his side of the bed with the heater right next to it thirty minutes before bedtime; I would sneak up and move the heater over to my side, just to take the edge off. Our three boys lived in the attic, with a window pane missing. Peter was six, and every night he begged to sleep in our bed, with the heater. His little body warmed our bed nicely, so we let him fall asleep there, and then later Dee carried him up to the frozen north.

Cowboys refer to being clotheslined. That's when a rider gets hooked by a low-hanging branch while the horse continues at a gallop. We got clotheslined regularly during our year in England. Life kept clipping along but we ran headlong into experiences that caught us unaware.

There were doorbells in every room that rang a loud bell upstairs. Back in the day they'd been used to summon the servants. The kids discovered them long before I figured the system out. So for the first week or so, I was running down three or four flights of stairs several times a day to answer the door. When nobody was ever there, I got a little paranoid. Were we being doorbell ditched because we were foreigners? Was the resident ghost (we were warned by the estate agent) really in residence? Could I be hearing things in my frenzied mind caused by moving across the world with seven kids?

When that got straightened out it was my cooking that tangled me up. I brought a few cookbooks from the USA so I could cook the familiar stuff. Nothing turned out right. I mastered the oven, adjusted for the altitude difference and still I baked cakes that were puddled in the middle and cookies that were hard and crumbly. It was very nerve-wracking to fail at every meal, especially when it was so much trouble to make it.

Well. Did you know that teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups are a different size in England?? I didn't either. I was measuring everything in the wrong increments! I had my mom send me some US measuring spoons and cups and my recipes worked.

Our loo. The door had a large, clear window in it.

Imagine going into an old gas station bathroom. The toilet is stained, has no lid, and flushes with a chain. The floor might be clean deep down, but looks mildewed and grimy from your perspective. Plus there's a plate glass window in the door, that clearly focuses on the activities within. The wall window hasn't been opened for a hundred years. Enough said. Dee claimed the biggest blessing of the whole year was that he never had to throw up in that bathroom.

Not that I'm counting, but we've been clotheslined regularly in the twenty-four years since we came home, too. Somehow it seems more boring to get tripped up by regular American clotheslines—here they seem like irritations. Nothing to record for posterity.

Why not? Make sure you record the times you're clotheslined, tell it in a funny way, as if it were story-worthy, and it will be. Times and customs change from year-to-year. You don't need a new country to look dumb. It works in the USA, too. You'll be laughing with your grandkids about how your phone rang in the temple, how you forwarded your friend's email accidentally to the person she was ranting about, or how you set off your own car's alarm and didn't know how to turn it off.

A most exciting thing I learned while we lived in York,was that looking for adventures, enjoying the day-to-day quirkiness, taking pictures and writing down memories is just as fun and valuable when you live at home. Just hanging clothes outside on a clothes line could qualify as being clotheslined!

Get caught up in something unexpected while you're trotting through life today.

To be continued...

Friday, August 20, 2010


Our Heroes 1985
(somebody always pulls a face)

Mrs. Norman, our new landlord, came over to welcome us with a set of silverware. It had eight place settings. Since she was our first visitor, the whole crew ran to answer the door. "Oh, somehow I thought you had four children!" she said. (Hmmm . . . I guess I had just mentioned the four to the estate agent . . . hmmm . . .)

"Well, after thinking about it, we brought the other three," I responded. I could tell how thrilled she was. Good thing the British have a stiff upper lip. We were already making our presence felt in York.

These English sweets were made at Rowntree's Chocolate Factory, just down the street from us. The air smelled like warm chocolate cake. Then you walked in our house. There was a distinct ancient mothball odor from all the cupboards, drawers and closets. It took me a good month to adjust to that. We discovered other unique quirks in our first few days.

Our Victorian mansion was built in the time of Queen Victoria, which meant there were many add-ons that weren't part of the original floor plan. One of these was the bathtub. It was huge (if I held my breath I could actually float) and horrendously rust stained. None of us was anxious to touch our bottom to the bottom. After scrubbing it with everything imaginable, I finally let bleach just sit in it for a few hours. It didn't improve the staining at all, but at least I knew it was clean. We kept a big bottle of bubble bath at hand, and filled the tub with bubbles so we couldn't see what we were getting into.

The drain for the tub was a spout that stuck out a few inches from the third story of the house (no drain pipe.) Directly underneath the bathroom was the front door. I was walking toward the steps one day when somebody unplugged the bathtub. Gushing bubbly water landed in torrents on my head! It happened every time one of us took a bath, and a few visitors got doused.

This is where our bubbly puddle would form.

Electricity had been added to the house in bits and pieces. Outlets were all of different vintages. Luckily there were some lamps of each era, and although they were fire hazards and took only thirty watt light bulbs, they gave us some illumination.

When I purchased a few small appliances (an iron, hair dryer, hand mixer) I bought them without plugs attached, buying plugs separately to match our only modern outlet. We ended up with a very l-o-n-g extension cord that reached up four flights of stairs so we could iron, dry our hair and vacuum somewhere besides the entryway.

Each of the basins, as well as the bathtub and sink, had a separate little spout for the cold and hot water. How could we wash our hair? I bought a hand-held shower that was invented for this problem, but it wouldn't fit on the old-fashioned taps. The kids sunk down in the tub to rinse off, and I filled a cup over and over from both taps. Dee used icy cold water all year long.

No mod cons (modern conveniences) in the kitchen—not even a double sink. Washing up became an old-fashioned bonding time, or bondage time from some points of view. I adjusted to not having a disposal, and I learned to light the oven and even determine the temperature by sticking my hand in for a second. But our mini-fridge was a challenge. It had an icebox big enough for one ice cube tray, and that was crusted over with deep frost all the time.

Mini Fridge

With seven kids, I was used to a big refrigerator plus a freezer in the basement. I had always doubled every recipe I made to freeze half, plus, at home we bought meat and frozen foods in bulk. I wondered how I'd store anything. No worries—nothing was sold in bulk. I learned to shop every day like the locals did, and we were fine. Except for milk.

The morning after we moved in, we discovered a pint bottle of milk on our doorstep. We hadn't ordered it and it took a few days to even catch the milkman in the act. I told him we needed a gallon each delivery. Catching his breath, he said, "You can't have a gallon!" I tried to explain our situation and he finally declared, "I'll leave two pints. That will do you."


In Yorkshire,
the customer is not always king.

You pretty much do what you're told.

Even so, we were learning to love Yorkies!

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Moving our Family Abroad

York is up north

Our impulsive decision to move our family to York, England for a year was made while our 13-year-old son was at Scout Camp. The news had gotten around the neighborhood, and as each scout was dropped off, Josh heard more of our plans. He burst into our house yelling "I'M NOT GOING TO ENGLAND!!"

The other six kids had similar reactions. Heidi, who was seven, sat on our porch with her best friend for an hour, both of them sobbing out loud into their hands the whole time. Gabi was fifteen. She would miss her sophomore year, and driver's ed, postponing her driver's license. Amy, ten, suddenly started having bad dreams, and developed strange blinking, and coughing tics. Oh, yeah. This was a great idea.

My parents begged us not to do it. Mom took me to lunch and cried, declaring it the worst mistake we could make, while my dad was trying to convince Dee it would be disastrous and irresponsible to put our family through it. Who quits real life and drags their kids around the world on a whim without a job, a future or a plan?? Dee and I were resolved when we were together, but doubts would creep in during conversations with other people. We had to reassure each other on an hourly basis. As it happened, one of us was always up when the other was down. We never faltered at the same time.

The kids eventually got excited. One Sunday we had a special dinner, and explained why we had made this choice, and how we thought it would benefit our family. We presented it as a chance to do a Study Abroad together. (I was the only one who didn't go to school while we lived in York.) Dee told them that we had prayed about it, and felt confident it was right for us. Then he asked them to trust our decision. They weren't voting, they were sustaining and supporting us in this huge endeavor. They all raised their hands. After that if became a family project.

Imagine herding 7 kids & collecting 27 boxes at the baggage claim

The airline would allow each of us to take three pieces of luggage of a specific size. We got 27 moving boxes with those exact measurements. Each person got two boxes for their stuff, and the extra boxes were packed with household items, everything from scissors to band-aids, to towels to winter coats. Our renters agreed that we could use the bedrooms in the basement to store everything else. Tables, chairs, sofas, beds, china, linens, bikes and toys were stacked to the ceiling.


The day before we left was very traumatic. We couldn't take our dog, Peaches, so some friends volunteered to tend her for the year. (Peaches sent us regular letters, always signed with a paw print.) Josh took her over to their house. He came home in tears, saying Peaches had cried when he left. He'd had to push her inside the door and close it while she scratched and whimpered, surrounded by a strange new family.

All the other good-byes were just as heart wrenching. Vows of best-friends-forever, and "I'll write every day" were heard from every corner of our now empty house. I know families move all the time, but we hadn't, and none of us could imagine what was ahead.

To be continued...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

York, England

Bootham Bar, York

"It will be difficult to find housing for your enormous family," the letting agent said. "Would you consider living in the depths of the country? There would be no central heating, of course, and it can get bitter in the thick of the winter."

Yorkshire Dales in the thick of the winter

Dee and I were in York, England to secure a place at the uni, and a place to live. Yorkshire has a delightful and picturesque language all it's own, to match it's beautiful countryside. Although we'd been to London a few times, and visited the south coast, we had never ventured anywhere else. York is a medieval, walled city, sometimes called the Capital of the North. The center of town is pedestrian only, with quaint cobblestones and ancient buildings. It's a fairytale setting and we felt like we were in one.

The Shambles, York

We were there for twelve days and visited several estate agents, but as soon as we said we had seven kids they declared us "impossible." One of them suggested we rent two flats next door to each other, "one for the children." We poured over the newspaper to no avail. At the chippy (fish and chips shop) we were advised to visit Nigel Naisch. "He'll have something brilliant." We only had two days left.

Did they leave out the "i"?

Feeling desperate and scared of his reaction to the whole truth, we told Nigel we had four children. (Well . . . we did have four . . .) He told us he was just ready to let a house to "some Saudis" for two months, but since we wanted a year, he'd rather let us have it. It turned out to be a Victorian mansion built in 1850, a ten minute walk from the center of town, and just outside the walls.

The couple who owned the house lived part-time in the main hall, and most of the time in London. They had turned the old servants quarters into a huge apartment. It was fully furnished down to the silverware and a hoover (vacuum), with an entry way like a small hotel. Actually, after you came through the front door, there was a small entryway and then a set of double doors to the main entry. From top to bottom there were six flights of stairs.

Our house was from the drainpipe to the left.

All the rooms were huge, with very high ceilings. The kitchen, formal dining room, and cloak room were on the entry floor. Behind the cloak room was a loo. It was a little room with a pull-chain toilet and basin, similar to a bathroom on a European train. It was lit by a skylight to a tiny window high above, so it was very dim at best. You had to be frantic to go in there!

Our kitchen

A few steps down from the kitchen was a box room. It housed potting and gardening supplies and had a big old-fashioned sink with counters all around. More stairs went down to a very spooky basement with a frightening boiler. I only went down there twice.

The backyard

Up a flight of stairs from the entry was a giant living room with a veranda leading to a park-like backyard. Another two flights of stairs took us to three bedrooms, all with basins and fireplaces (that weren't in use) and hulking carved wardrobes for closets. There was a bathroom for the bathtub, (no shower or toilet) and a separate water closet with a pull-chain toilet.

Pete in the WC

Two more flights led to the attic loft, off a little landing. This room had a strange, tiny basin with only a trickle of water, and was also missing part of it's window. (It was July, so we didn't notice that til later . . . we didn't notice a lot of things til later.)

Dee, wondering what we were doing

We could rent this massive place for £250, which was $320 a month! We signed it up. We didn't know about it's quirks.

To be continued . . .

Twenty five years ago this week we set off on a year abroad. It had always been our dream to take our family and live in another country, but we'd planned it to happen after we were rich. Luckily, we didn't wait.

When Dee decided to change careers and go back to his original plan of being a historian, we realized he'd need another degree. Going back to school with a family of nine sounded totally depressing. Since our circumstances would be changing anyway, it seemed a perfect time to create a family adventure; we sold everything and went off the grid.

It was an experience that defined us as a family. This week I'm remembering what we learned.

Monday, August 16, 2010

English as a Second Language

Aliens, 1985

Quiz Time!

Do you know what these words mean in English?

  1. Trolley
  2. Carrier bag
  3. Hob
  4. Doorstops
  5. Lollies
  6. Chippie
  7. Minced beef
  8. Torch
  9. Jumper
  10. Plimsolls
  11. Trainers
  12. Pillar box
We lived there, but we didn't speak the language.

In 1985 our family of nine crossed the border to a different country, where we got free health care, subsidized transportation and an education. Our dress, manner and accent gave us away as foreigners, but EVERYONE was nice to us anyway. Never once did we feel anything but welcome during our year in England. Nobody scuttled away in fear, or insinuated that we were there to take advantage of their lifestyle (even though we were) when they heard our R's. In fact, people sought us out because we talked different.

Classmates invited our kids to tea from the first day, their parents offering to come round for them—which they did—in taxis, because they didn't own cars. Shop keepers offered free sweets to the American children, and asked where we were from. Most of them had never heard of Utah. When we explained it was in the west, we were always asked if we knew their brother/aunt/second cousin in California. Neighbors didn't know why we were there, how long we were staying or if we were there to steal their job. Without knowing our circumstances or intentions they just acted neighborly.

They came for Thanksgiving and tried cranberries, and for a 4th of July barbecue, where they ate chicken marinated in 7-up. Why would we change our family traditions because our neighbors didn't share them? And why would we suddenly embrace Guy Fawkes Night as a major holiday when we'd never heard of it? Sure, we went to the party and ate beans and chips around the bonfire, but no one expected us to understand the Gunpowder Plot just because we lived there. And no one asked for our passports when we called our chips French fries.

Our year in Yorkshire was nerve wracking enough without persecution. I was embarrassed to ask for Q-tips (cotton wool) and molasses (treacle) and then not understand the replies. How was I to know their apple cider was alcoholic? Or that polite friends offered to pay petrol money for a ride to church? That a few pence should be left next to their telephone when you used it to make a local call? We committed faux pas after faux pas: wearing an inappropriate Halloween costume, expecting restaurants to be open on Christmas Day; swearing when we didn't even know it . . .

I can't imagine how horrific our year would have been if our kids had been frightened that our names were on a list of possible illegal immigrants. Or if we were suspect because other Americans had smuggled drugs. While we lived in York my tooth broke. After the dentist made me a crown, I asked for the bill. His office staff was not set up to take money or insurance, so I was treated like a Brit—for free. What if it was in the newspaper the next day that hoards of Americans were coming to England just for free dental work? Some might be, but I wasn't. My denial could have been lost in translation.

We searched out people who were like us, people who talked our language. We went to church to find them, discovered a restaurant that served decent hamburgers, found a store that sold root beer. The familiar was comforting. It seems logical to me that any immigrant family would feel more secure moving to an area where they would be understood, where they could communicate.

Axel (my grandpa) came from Sweden when he was 17. He met Agnes (my grandma) when he moved into her mother's Swedish boarding house. Agnes taught him English; eventually they married and moved away from the local Swedish community. Twenty years later he was called on to offer a public prayer in church. He was so embarrassed by his accent that he stopped going to avoid being humiliated again.

While I agree that new immigrants should learn our customs, culture and language, I think we need to be patient and not pass judgment on first generation immigrants. English can be tricky, even for Americans.

Quiz Time Answers
  1. Trolley: Grocery cart
  2. Carrier bag: Shopping bag
  3. Hob: Stove
  4. Doorstops: The ends on a loaf of bread
  5. Lollie: Ice cream on a stick, like a Creamsicle
  6. Chippie: Fast food joint
  7. Minced beef: Hamburger
  8. Torch: Flashlight
  9. Jumper: Crew necked sweater
  10. Plimsolls: Indoor gym shoes
  11. Trainers: Running shoes
  12. Pillar box: Mail Box

Pillars of the community, 1982

Coming up: A Year in York

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Raise Your Expectations

"If we did all the things we are capable of,
we would literally astound ourselves."
—Thomas Edison

My new best friend is Ruby. I'm with her 24/7 and I really like her. Maybe it's because I made her up. Anyway, I've learned a lot from her.

At eighteen she fell for the wrong guy. Most of us did that, but she thought he was her ticket out of a boring life, and literally fell for him, hoping that would keep his attention. It did, for a few hours—just long enough for him to leave her with a souvenir of their, um . . . friendship.

Trying to do the right thing by her new little guy, she left the baby with her mother so she could go to a new place and start over. Back in 1873 there weren't many career choices for an untrained young girl, so, sad to say, she fell back into her area of expertise.

Now, as a soiled dove, she has forgotten who she really is. Stuck in The Fat Chance Saloon, she accepts the lie: "You think you're capable of something more? Fat Chance!"

On the surface, Ruby and I don't have much in common. But I have stayed a few times at the Fat Chance Saloon, and I know how it feels to wonder if I am capable of something more.

Ruby might be rescued if someone sees her potential and helps raise her expectations. Time and again, I have had that experience. Lucky for me, I fell in love with the right guy, and he didn't ride off with all my hopes and dreams. He keeps handing them to me, over and over and over.

I hope Ruby finds a guy like mine. Maybe I'll make one up!

(Here's a scene I worked on today.)

Excerpt from
Son of a Gun

Marty Halverson

Jute started a small fire. Pre-empting the conversation, he said, “I don’t think we ought to talk about you and the woman, Boss. It ain’t really fitting. There’s things that won’t stand a straight answer, and what’s between a man and a woman is one of ‘em.”

“You liked her, though, didn’t you?” asked Leo.

“Sure. She seemed a right nice lady.”

“You call her a lady. That’s sort of funny under the circumstances.”

“No, I don’t reckon it is. Not the way I see things.”

The wizened cowboy fussed with the coals, shifted his legs, and finally got out the rest of his reply.

“Well, let’s just put it this way, Boss. I’ve knowed whores I’d take my hat off to, and respectable women I wouldn’t spit on.”

“I know what you mean,” said Leo soberly. “It’s the kind of thing where people are more what they think they are, than what they really are. You know what I’m trying to say, Jute?”

“Yes, sir, I do. It’s what I meant about Miss Jewel.”

“Her real name’s Ruby, Jute . . . Ruby.” They sat still again, watching and listening to the flames.

“I reckon most of us don’t get a second chance,” mused Leo. “We don’t get to be our better selves. Folks just expect us to keep on being, and we live down to their expectations. It’s a shame.”


~Who is someone you know who's staying at the Fat Chance Saloon? List some achievements you've observed, and send them a note of congratulations. Raise their expectations by reminding them who they already are.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Waiting for Opportunity


From Where the Sidewalk Ends
Shel Silverstein

Opportunity rarely drops out of the sky.
It strolls by wearing a disguise.
It's up to us to recognize it, catch up with it, follow it and tackle it.

What opportunity are you waiting for?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sink Your Teeth In

Illustration from Dinosaur Roar by Paul and Henrietta Stickland

I've always admired people
who bite off more than they can chew,
and then chew it.

Here's a scene I been chewin' on today:

Excerpt from Son of a Gun,
Marty Halverson

“You gotta take a bath, mister,” Black Pearl told the man standing by the bar next to Ruby. “There’s a tub down the hall, and Tequila’ll scrub your back and give you a shave. Wash your hair, too. I don’t want no lice in my pillows. This is a clean house.”

Tall and graceful, Black Pearl looked like she'd been carved out of melted chocolate. The girl turned her brown eyes on Ruby. Round as they were, the whites softened her appearance, as did the fleecy crown of black hair. “You’re Jewel?” she asked.


“We don’t go by our real names, much. Most of the fair sisters are eluding the law, or at least a peeved husband.” Black Pearl picked up Ruby’s suitcase and walked toward the stairs. “I read an obituary of a sprightly young bird called Louise in Dodge. Died of tuberculosis it said. And then, she turned up in Fort Worth, as rosy as a peach, going by the name of Lulu. She begged me not to tell a soul, since her daddy said he’d disown her after he killed her if he heard of her sharing her virtues again.” Her teeth flashed a dazzling white when she laughed.

“How’d you end up here?” Ruby asked.

“Husbands. When I find one, I end up running away. I didn’t have any in Sam’s Town so I figured it was safe.”

“Didn’t think anyone would want to marry a soiled dove, meaning no offense,” said Ruby.

“Everybody wants to marry us, Honey,” Pearl told her. “We understand men, know how to make ‘em feel special and loved. Course most of them drink too much, lose their shirts regular in poker games, and frequent places like this, so they don’t deserve decent women anyway. And we aren’t the kind of girls they want to take home to meet Grandma.” She chuckled, then added wickedly, “Especially if we already know Grandpa.”