I’m a sucker for word games. I love playing Scrabble and doing the mini crosswords and puzzles in the NY Times. It must be hereditary. A couple weeks ago on Zoom, I asked my sisters if they had joined the latest word craze. We spent the next ten minutes sharing strategies. For the record, I’ve played 63 times and struck out only twice. If any of you play Wordle, I’d love to hear your approach. The poem below, an ALOUETTE, is in response to my WP friend Muri’s annual poetry challenge. If you’d like to participate, click HERE for the details and join in the fun.
TO EACH HER OWN
The first words I play are PIOUS and TRADE, see what turns orange and lime Sis One does the same but she starts the game with STORM and ADIEU each time
Sis Two drags her net through the whole alphabet, POUND, LIGHT, BRIMS, WAVEY, and FRACK taking a gamble that she can unscramble the answer in only one crack
Sis Three plays it loose, like WACKY or JUICE Weird letters a help or a hurdle You know, without doubt, what I’m talking about if you are addicted to WORDLE
A few days ago, heavy wind caused the power to go out 6:00 am. No biggie, right? But our house is like Motel 6, where they leave the light on for you. An illuminated clock face, a nightlight in the bathroom, a soft table lamp in the living room. It felt eerie to close my eyes in the total darkness and I didn’t sleep a wink. At 7:00, I got my fidgety self out of bed to phone Ohio Edison and report it. That turned out to be unnecessary as the lights came back on while I was brushing my teeth, but it brought to mind an outage that occurred a few years ago. We were sitting at the dining room table, hubby and I, playing Scrabble, I think, when the house went dark. I waited to see if the power would come back on quickly, as it usually does. Hubby, however, grew antsy. Ninety seconds in, he said, “Are you going to sit there all day? Or help me find an extension cord and get the generator going?” Before we could locate a working flashlight and the key to the generator, power was restored. If you wait patiently, many problems solve themselves. Like this BOB AND WHEEL poem, which practically wrote itself once I figured out the subject. If you would like to participate in my buddy Muri’s NPM Challenge and want the details, click HERE.
No power! Lake wind in its sharpness has downed pole or tower. We squirm in full darkness, the minutes like hours.
CALLING IT IN
I dial, hold for operator. Eager husband, meanwhile, fires up generator. Waiting isn’t his style.
My friend Muri hosts a poetry challenge every April. If you’d like to participate and want the details, click HERE. I didn’t recognize most of the poetic forms on her list, so it’s going to be a steep learning curve for me this year. This first poem is a DECIMA. Years ago, I had a coworker who was a real practical joker. She lived for April Fool’s Day and got one over on just about everyone. No matter how determined I was not to bite, she would reel me in. My determination may have made me an easier target. Pranking isn’t complicated, but it requires two essential things: a poker face and a plausible lie. I got her once, almost by accident. I took a message for her from the school principal, asking her to call in about her son. She agonized about it all day. Had he picked a fight or gotten himself suspended? It turns out he had been selected for induction into the National Honor Society. Without further ado…
I’m feeling like an April Fool, sitting here hoodwinked and bumming, too naïve to see it coming. A plausible lie, her only tool, told straight-faced, her manner cool. “There’s a policeman on the phone, a stoplight camera thing, he said…” My heart speeds up… I ran a red? With shaky hands and a sickly groan, I say hello to Sergeant Dial Tone.
To celebrate my (hard-won eventual) success at learning to use Block Editor, I thought I’d share my Christmas letter with all my WP peeps, a summary of the ups and downs that contributed to my hiatus. If you already received a paper copy via snail mail, you are not obligated to read it again.
THE HARRIS CHRISTMAS CHRONICLE 2021 EDITION
Christmas is fast approaching, family and friends, and the drawing at the top of this letter pretty accurately sums up our year. Think of those spinning plates as physical, mental, and dental health, caretaking of husband, pets, and other family members, keeping our hundred-year-old house and aging cars in working order, doing Zooms and coffee dates, adjusting to new technology (computer and Bluetooth hearing aids), getting vaccinated for COVID, figuring out what to make with the oodles of bell peppers arriving weekly in our summer farm share, submitting poems and filing rejection letters, while doing the things that normal people do—wondering if eating potato salad at a family picnic is a bad idea, getting blisters from wearing new sneakers to Cedar Point, hoping my use of the word “sneakers” doesn’t brand me as old, enduring haircuts at Great Clips from stylists who graduated beauty school last month, sitting outside wearing two jackets and gloves to pass out trick-or-treats to ten kids wearing winter coats under their costumes, and pondering the mysteries of life, like why I think Callie is tan and Peaches is orange when, in fact, my dog and cat are the same color.
Age eventually catches up with all of us. In April, after years of relative peace with his diagnoses, Brian had to be hospitalized for a mental breakdown. In their zeal to get to the bottom of things, the doctors ran a lot of tests. These unearthed low thyroid and Vitamin D, mild sleep apnea, and pre-diabetes. One day, he took no daily meds—the next, he was filling the biggest Pill Minder on the market. His vision became blurry. Stronger reading glasses helped with small print, but I still do most of the driving. Ten hopelessly decayed teeth were extracted. By comparison, my health problems—worsening hearing loss, a persistent sinus infection, and weekly chiropractic adjustments and allergy shots—seemed almost trivial. When our 11-year-old dog Tailor fell ill, therapy was my salvation. At each session, I poured out another chapter in the unfolding story. How the vet examined his lame leg, said he had torn his ACL, and referred him for surgery. How by the day of his Ortho appointment, he had lost 13 pounds. How x-rays showed an intact ACL, but also a shadowy mass in his pelvis that turned out to be colon cancer. How he went to the Rainbow Bridge on June 21, the first day of summer. He is survived by his heartbroken dog parents and two tan (or orange?) fur-siblings, co-Alphas in the new household order. A few weeks into autumn, my invincible mom fell and broke her leg, just below the hip joint. On the fourth of October, my surgeon gave to me… four Oxycontin, three rods and pins, two weeks of rehab, and a walker with tennis ball feet!! She is currently convalescing at my sister Judy’s house, doing physical therapy and outrageously difficult jigsaw puzzles.
Between appointments, we coped with smaller crises, like a burned-out attic fan, a sink with a hairball, and a relentless supply of farm share vegetables. I used my stimulus check to have a crown replaced. A week later, my aging computer, whose touch-screen had been overly touchy for months, conked out. I drove to Best Buy on the hottest day of summer and plunked down $1500 for a shiny Dell laptop. On the way home, the AC in my Honda breathed its last. For a minute there, I questioned the Lord’s judgment regarding how much I could handle.
In times of doubt, it’s helpful to count your blessings. Like having an attic, access to farm-fresh produce, and hundreds of gratis government dollars to spend on things you need. Readily available COVID vaccines with nothing but minor arm soreness afterward. An end to wiping down groceries with Clorox towelettes. The safe return of our nephew Chris from his overseas AF assignment followed by a blow-out homecoming party in the park. The safe return of Brian’s lost cell phone… Twice. Strolls along the Cedar Point midway. Julie’s summer visit, including outings to the Carousel Museum and Toft’s Dairy. Sharon’s birthday visit, a whirlwind of autumn leaves, food truck gyros, and tea cart conversations. A new Ohio driver’s license that doesn’t expire for eight years! Finding Christmas gifts in this, the Year of the Back Order.
As for what I’m writing? You’re looking at it. I submitted a few pre-pandemic pieces to the local 44839 contest and, at a live reading in September, was awarded first prize for my poem People of Greyhound. A month later, a fellow poet who attended the event brought me a Greyhound badge he’d come to possess when his friend, a career driver, passed away. It resides in my Special Box, a tangible reminder of the connections I’ve made through my writing. An unexpected email from Team Erma (Bombeck) had me LITERALLY jumping up and down. It said 2020 essay winners had been granted free admission to their 2022 conference. Did I want to attend in-person or virtually? That morsel of good news put me back in the black in the Giant Ledger in the Sky, but doing the Happy Dance caused me to pull a muscle and smell like Ben Gay for the rest of the day. Please don’t say that’s the “new normal” at my age; I’ve really come to hate that expression.
Phrases like “new normal” are eye-rollers in my book. Whatever this is, it ain’t normal. That’s exactly what Jesus must have thought when he woke up in a manger on Christmas morning. Just when he got used to swaddling clothes, warm milk, and naps, he had to flee to Egypt and live on the lam, then move to Nazareth, learn to be a carpenter, turn water into wine, feed a crowd with provisions from his disciples’ knapsacks, and finally, die nailed to a cross. Makes spinning those plates seem like child’s play, doesn’t it? Maybe I’ll up the ante and try it with my Christmas china! Just kidding!!
May the Ringmaster watch over your circus, at Christmastime and always.
The deadline for entries to the 2022 Erma Bombeck Humor Essay Contest was yesterday. They’ll accept only one essay per person, so I had to choose between two of my favorite pandemic-related pieces. Below is the one I didn’t submit:
How do I love our hometown grocery? Let me count the ways! Local produce. Freshly roasted coffee beans. Housemade tortilla chips. Twenty-piece buckets of fried chicken for $11.99. Real, live cashiers. Paper bags. It has only two drawbacks. One is the international aisle, sponsored by La Choy and Old El Paso, which lacks key ingredients for every ethnic recipe I’ve ever clipped from the New York Times. Ask the stock boy where to find umami paste and he’ll say, “Um… on Amazon?” The other is having to dodge horny widowers who think “Senior Hour” means “Tinder for the Elderly.”
A few days before Halloween, I pop in first thing in the morning to grab some necessities. I’ve forgotten 7-8 am is Senior Hour. I’m not technically old enough to shop then, but I quit coloring my hair years ago, so no one is the wiser.
In canned goods, a player in a buttoned-up cardigan pushes a cart with a marked-down grapefruit in the front that is already attracting fruit flies. “Excuse me, pretty lady,” he winks. “Are these the beans that are on sale?” He points to a tall pyramid of store-brand baked beans next to a fluorescent yellow sign that reads SALE—59¢. I nod and watch him load eight, ten, twelve cans into his cart. He clears his throat as if to continue the conversation and I skedaddle, as would any sensible woman who finds herself too close to a cheapskate who might spontaneously combust.
In the snack aisle, I’m approached by a casanova with bird legs and a low-hanging belly not fully covered by his shirt. He appears to be cheating on Lorna Doone. With Little Debbie. He leans in close and stage-whispers, “Are you gonna eat all that candy corn by yourself?”
Two more are prowling in Frozen Foods. The one wearing a flannel shirt has a stack of Hungry Man fried chicken dinners in his basket and says, for no apparent reason, “I’m a breast man.” Not to be outdone, the other one squints through his bifocals in the direction of my cart and says, “I sure would like to get a closer look at those pot pies.”
Me and my pot pies sprint to the end of the aisle and squeal around the corner so fast we almost bump into the stock boy, who’s arranging tortilla chips and jars of salsa on an endcap.
“Hey, ma’am!” he says brightly. “Did you ever find that tsunami paste you were looking for?”
I can’t tell if he’s clueless or a comedian-in-training, but it’s the best line I’ve heard all day. Hey, I might even share my candy corn.
It’s natural to feel hopeless when you are surrounded by inequality, political corruption and unrest, and economic uncertainty, not to mention slow-but-sure destruction of the planet from pollution and global warming. A fav self-help book offers this advice: “Don’t let all the things you can’t do stop you from doing the things you can do.”
Recycling is one small thing I can do, but commercial recyclers tend to be picky about what they will take (#1 and #2 plastics that are bottle-shaped). Reusable shopping bags were my go-to until COVID-19 hit. Many stores don’t offer paper, and I end up with more throwaway plastic bags than I could ever reuse. In response to push-back from environmentalists, some chains have initiated take-backs. The Kroger near us expanded their program to include all sorts of flimsy plastics. Clean, dry items can be dropped in a dedicated container in their lobby to be recycled into composite decking and lumber. It took time to train myself to check their list and not just toss bags and wraps and packing materials willy-nilly into the trash. I saved up my plastics for six months before I dropped them off, and I was astounded to discover that my cache filled three 39-gallon lawn and leaf bags! Yikes!
PLASTICS THEY’LL TAKE
(sing to the tune of My Favorite Things)
Bags from my shopping and bread and dry cleaning
Bags made for boiling and microwave steaming
Liners from Cheerios and Frosted Flakes
These are some plastics reclaimers will take
Overwrap binding those by-the-case bargains
Ice Mountain water and Bounty and Charmin
Wraps on cheese singles, between minute-steaks
These are some plastics reclaimers will take
Air-pillow packing and bubble-wrap mailers
Ziplocs and food wrap and sleeves from newspapers
Film from Hot pockets and Hostess cupcakes
These are some plastics reclaimers will take
Now that I know,
it will all go
to the Kroger store
to be hauled away,
then compressed and remade
into plastic 2 x 4’s
This season, I was gratified to discover a few Millenials embracing an old-fashioned tradition, writing and mailing out Christmas letters. My nephew Sam, an aspiring artist and musician who toiled at Walgreens by day and performed at open mikes by night before COVID interrupted his life, did a phenomenal job with his letter, closing with his “playlist” for 2020:
Will You Miss Me When I Burn? (Palace Brothers)
Say Valley Maker (Smog )
Out of Tune (Real Estate Band)
Jubilee Street (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)
Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes)
Sister (Angel Olsen)
Weyes Blood – Bad Magic (Mexican Summer)
It Seemed the Better Way (Leonard Cohen)
Shelter From The Storm (Bob Dylan)
Pretty Eyes (Silver Jews)
He sent me a YouTube link, so I spent a morning listening to his picks, trying to imagine the impact of the pandemic on the young… Living alone or with roommates in tiny apartments, going to scary essential jobs or scraping by on unemployment, alienated from friends, dating, and most social venues. There is some overlap, certainly, but I am 52 and married, introverted, and retired. I am my own landlord, have my own washer and dryer, and enjoy the company of two dogs and a cat. I’m content baking cakes and reading the newspaper and assembling jigsaw puzzles. In fact, I may continue living this way after COVID has passed. 52 is quite different from 25. Immersing myself in his playlist was like journeying to the past in a time machine. When a particular lyric spoke to me, I jotted it down on an index card. Strung end-to-end, with a little rearranging, these lyrics became a “found” poem:
SORTING IT ALL OUT
It is longing that you feel, to be missed, or to be real. The world outside is so inconceivable, often, you barely can speak, a ten ton catastrophe on a 60–pound chain. The one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn. At least there’s nothing more you could really lose, now is there?
You wonder what it was… You wonder what it meant… You know we can’t cop to the frequency of your inner debate so you learn to take it as it comes. You fall together, fall apart with the grace of a corpse in a riptide. Make the best of death and love what’s left.
Do you still believe stars are the headlights of angels driving from heaven to save us?
Ta-da! Turns out poetry isn’t all I can do. It took me a few weeks to finish our 1966 VW Bus mailbox, cobbling together stuff from Amazon, Dollar General, and ACE Hardware with odds and ends I had around the house. Just in time to mail in our ballots! Our carrier loves it, and cars slow as they go by to get a closer look.
Remember a few months ago when I posted about winning the Erma Bombeck Humor Essay contest? I got word this week that, due to COVID-19, the awards ceremony is going to be conducted virtually on Thursday, October 8 from 7 – 7:45 pm EST on a site called Crowdcast. Erma’s daughter, Betsy Bombeck, will give the keynote address and winners (including me) will read their essays. You have to register at https://www.crowdcast.io/e/erma-bombeck-awards-ceremony if you wish to attend. You must provide your email address and confirm it by responding to an email they send you. If you’ve always wondered what JustJoan looks like, now is your chance to find out. I look forward to seeing all of you in the audience.
One of the high points of my life was receiving a reply to my letter to the Car Talk Guys. It was published in the Dayton Daily News, allowing anyone who could identify me (how many Joans could there be with a 1966 VW Bus?) to have a laugh at my expense.