Saturday, March 24, 2012

Teen Voices, Stephen King, and a Big-time Bonehead Moment

As Bonehead Moments go, it was a doozy.

I was ecstatic to learn that Stephen and Tabitha King awarded a grant to the “Teen Voices” program at UMF so they could buy dozens of my Young Adult novel, Grumble Bluff, for their curriculum. It was thrilling to think that maybe—just maybe—one of the world’s most famous authors read something I wrote–and that he liked it enough to donate money so that other Mainers could read it, too.

Mt. Blue Middle School students added Grumble to their program, and I was asked to go to UMF to speak to the group of teenagers and their mentors at a Teen Voices dinner. I enthusiastically agreed. The coordinator asked if I’d consider speaking to the full student body of Mt. Blue Middle School in an end-of-the-day assembly, first. I said I’d be happy to.

The time and date were set last fall. I noted the details on my calendar. It was on my mind. On my ‘list’ of things to do. I was good to go!

I went. Last Tuesday at 1:15 pm, just as I was passing Jack’s Trading Post, I was filled with confidence. Excitement. I was early for the 2:00 appointment. I’d have plenty of time to set up my simple Power Point Presentation. I’d meet with the school’s librarian and establish a rapport. All was well.

My cell phone rang. I answered it.

A voice said “Karen! Are you okay? Have you been in an accident?”

Oh…my…God. You have no idea how badly I wanted to say “Yes”!

My confidence disappeared in a puff of smoke. Jody wouldn’t have asked me that question unless she believed I was late! But… I WASN’T late!

Was I?

Oh, my God! OH MY GOD! There were a hundred students sitting in a gym waiting for me! I was sure—positive!--my appointment was for 2:00 pm! But she was telling me that the middle school principal was preparing to send students back to their rooms to prepare for their TWO O’CLOCK BUSSES unless I could get there, PRONTO!

I told her I’d be there in five minutes.

I wasn’t sure where Mt. Blue Middle School was. I’d asked Jody for directions, and she told me it was located on “Middle Street, very close to downtown”.

I turned off Main Street and onto South Street. There were UMF students all over the place. They lived in Farmington! Surely they’d know where Middle Street was!

Nope. Clueless. After the fourth “detain and question” session in the middle of a crosswalk, one young man finally said, “It’s up there.”

And it was. I turned by the Legion Hall. I was still relatively calm. Still marginally cool. Still somewhat collected. I turned into the school’s driveway and parked the truck. In a hurry, I grabbed a copy of Grumble but left everything else and fast-walked to the school’s front doors.

Locked. The doors were LOCKED! But… they were expecting me, right?

I hurried to the next set of doors. One opened into a glass-enclosed vestibule. I could see real live humans on the other side. They could see me. There was a buzzer, of sorts. I pushed it. The woman within magically unlocked the door and…voila! I was in.

Triumphant, I stood before them, Grumble Bluff held before me as proof that I was a respected author and not some threat to students’ safety.

“I made it!” I crowed.

They stared at me in silence.

“Um…aren’t there 100 kids waiting for me in the gym?”

I was at the wrong school! It was the right road, but the wrong school. How many schools does one town need? I wondered—while feeling a pang of jealousy. We lost our precious Central School in New Portland school a few years ago, and yet--Farmington had more schools than you could shake a stick at!

I was told the school I wanted was a mile further down the road. A tingle of panic niggled at me. I ran back to the truck…and discovered I was parked on a one-way driveway. Naturally.

I maneuvered over and around speed bumps, raised crosswalks and snow banks until I reached Middle Street again, and drove the extra mile to Mt. Blue Middle School. In my hurry to get there I overshot the first driveway, so I took the second entrance and parked at the rear of the building.

Grabbed keys. Copy of Grumble. And trotted in high heels and skirt from one locked door to another! What was up? Since when had schools become fortresses? They were expecting me! WAITING for me! Sitting on bleachers anticipating my arrival! Why was I locked out?

Oh, man. By now I was hot. Sweaty. Upset and embarrassed. I spied a single steel door marked “Administration” and yanked on it. To my relief, it opened and I stepped inside.

A man looked up as I came to a halt in the middle of the room, out of breath and slightly agitated.

“Hi! I gasped. “I need to get to the gym!”

He raised his arm and pointed to the window…

“Okay. You go outside and…”

“NO!” I hollered—not really meaning to shout but definitely intent on getting my point across. I held my book in front of me, as if one glimpse at it would explain everything.

Taken aback by my spontaneous shout, the gent led me into the hallway.

“Follow these stairs up and around and when you get to the top, you’re there.”

I could have kissed him, but I saved my breath for the climb. Four flights of stairs brought me—gasping—to another steel door.

Which was locked. What the heck was up with that? And who puts a gym upstairs, anyway?

At that very moment, I came close to crying. But I was LATE and didn’t have time for such foolishness. There were 100 kids sitting on bleachers, waiting for my words of wisdom and inspiration! I trudged back down two of those flights of stairs. I looked at the door I’d passed on my way up. What did I have to lose? Tentatively, I reached out a hand and pulled.

Holy cow. The door swung open…

And revealed a dozen children practicing dance steps in the middle of the gym. The bleachers were empty. I sighed and walked across the hardwood floor.

A teacher separated himself from the dancers.

“Are you the author?” he asked, as if uttering a dirty word.

“Yes.” I nodded, despondent.

The teacher shook his head.

“You’d better go to the office,” he said, pointing to a door on the other side of the gym. “It’s down the hall and to your right.”

Oh, sure! NOW I got good directions!

It’s been 30 years since I was sent to the principal’s office, but it’s a feeling I hadn’t forgotten. I’d screwed up. It was unintentional, but that didn’t change the fact that I’d blown it. And for my sins, I was sent to the office in humiliation.

On the bright side—the program at the University later that night was amazing. Great attendance, wonderful feedback and participation, and I left there feeling like I’d really helped a group of young adults find some inspiration and hope. Afterwards, I’d been surrounded by a mob of young women with questions—questions about bullying, and about death… and life. It was an awesome experience.

And I made sure I was 2 hours early. Just in case.

Having a Village

Trantens' Too, Kingfield, Maine
On Tuesday my truck died in the parking lot of Tranten’s Too. I was on my way to work. I stopped to get a newspaper, a sausage biscuit and a Diet Mt. Dew (‘diet’ to offset the sausage, you see…) and when I came back outside and hopped into the truck, it wouldn’t start.

Just like that.

Vince was presiding over the Porch Crowd.

“Sounds like the fuel pump,” he proclaimed.

That’s what it sounded like to me, too

It takes the better part of a village to get a truck repaired when you live in Lexington and work in Kingfield. I called the Credit Union and Amy zipped down to pick me up and haul me the last half-mile to work since my skirt and heels weren’t conducive to hoofing it along the gravel ditches of Rt. 27. Once there, I called Poulin’s Garage, and Rick immediately drove up to town. After briefly playing with my truck, he called to tell me that he thought it was the fuel pump.
My Dodge...210,000 miles and every one of them is mine!
I was inclined to agree.

Rick said he couldn’t tackle my truck repairs immediately and that he understood if I took the Dodge elsewhere. What a guy! What a family! I called Hight’s Dodge dealership in Skowhegan to see what they could do for me. They said they couldn’t repair it for a day or two, either… but they COULD give me a loaner car to get me to and from work. That clinched the deal.

I called another Poulin man for his rescue services. Chris told me he’d send someone down from The Mountain as soon as possible with a tow truck to take my pick-up to Hight’s. My truck was in good hands.

Now, to get myself situated!

I tried to call my folks to bum a ride to Lexington after work that afternoon, but they weren’t home. I’m a fortunate woman, however. Like small-town folks all across Maine—I have a Village. Amy offered to take me to my mother-in-law’s house in New Portland—halfway home--and mother-in-law Celia said she would be happy to take me the rest of the way to The F.A.R.M.

That afternoon Mike, Hight’s service manager, called me.

“We think it’s your fuel pump, Ma’am,” said Mike, who has called me “Ma’am” every single time we’ve spoken over the course of the last 6 years. Whether we’re comparing notes about butchering hogs, discussing our teenagers’ driving habits, or hashing over the price of fuel pumps, Mike calls me “Ma’am”. I can’t talk him out of it.

“It’s your fuel pump, Ma’am…”

I tended to lean toward the same conclusion. I asked the polite young whippersnapper to order the part, to put the truck on his repair schedule and to please leave a loaner available for me.

When my mother finally returned home and listened to the message I’d left on her answering machine, she called me. She agreed to pick me up at seven a.m. the following morning and transport me to Skowhegan so I could pick up that loaner car…so that I could get to work on time…so that I could earn the money to pay for the fuel pump, and the repairs, and the towing.

The loaner car was a Chevy. It was gold. A sedan from 2004 with 4 doors…and electric everything.

I’ve never done the “electric everything” bit.

The first characteristic to strike me was the fact that the car’s under-carriage clearance was in the neighborhood of six inches. Maybe seven. That’s the depth of a small rut on the Back Road…and a wrinkle on the Spruce Pond Road. This could get interesting.

I unlocked the driver’s side door and lowered myself into the rig. The key Mike had given me fit into the ignition…but it wouldn’t turn. Nope. Not at all. Until I finally inserted it upside down, there was no starting that gold-colored car.

Once I got it started, I fiddled with the bells and whistles. I wanted to know where the wiper controls were, the front and rear defrosts, the headlights. The vehicle even had “cruise control”. Later, as I tried out that option, I managed to toot the horn a half-dozen times in a half-mile while having no control whatsoever of my cruise.…)

At last, I felt comfortable enough in the strange automobile to drive it from Skowhegan to Kingfield. It wasn’t until I was at the top of “Dump Hill” that I realized the loaner was running on fumes…and wishes…and a prayer or two, as well. I coasted to Tranten’s Too and parked in front of the store once more. I would have gone directly to the pumps, but I’d looked out each side mirror for an indication of which side the fill-up spout was on—and hadn’t seen it. So I figured I’d take a gander from the outside.

But I couldn’t get ‘outside’. Little did I realize… the car Mike had fobbed off on me was a Chevy reincarnation of “Christine”, that haunted and possessed Plymouth made famous by Stephen King.

Even with the key removed from the ignition, the radio continued to play. Seriously… the key was OUT. The car was OFF. There was no juice to the radio, but it played. And… the door wouldn’t open.

I pulled on the handle—and the whole lever mechanism threatened to fall out of the door. It would not open. At all. I was stuck.

I experimented. I played with the locks. I locked the doors. Unlocked them. It appeared that the passenger door might open, but that would mean I’d have to crawl over the console. In a skirt. In front of Tranten’s Too… one of the busiest and most populated little locations in downtown Kingfield.

I tried the window controls. I could open the drivers’ side window from the driver’s side controls—but I could only open the passenger side window from the passenger side door. It wouldn’t close from the same controls, though. The passenger-side window could only be closed from the controls on the driver’s side door. Would it be more acceptable (or graceful) for me to climb out of a car window (meaning I’d have to climb back in that same way) or over a console?

I didn’t have to make that crucial decision. By pressing the lever which locked ALL FOUR of the car’s doors, I could open mine! And by taking the key with me, I could unlock it from the outside to get back in, too.

I made it to work in the demon Chevy, and I made it home again. I learned how to placate the car so it wouldn’t lock me in while torturing me with endless Taylor Swift music. Mike eventually called me from the garage and told me “It was the fuel pump, Ma’am.”

Just like I’d figured.

From the breakdown of my pick-up to its picking up, a dozen people helped me. From Vince, with his sage words of wisdom, to the Trantens Too crew for letting me leave the truck parked in a prime spot for half a day. From Rick Poulin, who jumped to my assistance and then was such a gentleman when I didn’t hire him to do the repairs, to Chris Poulin and crew for promptly delivering my truck to the garage in Skowtown. Amy, Celia and Mum carted me here and there. Mike and the Hight’s crew did a great job with the repairs and loaned me the (evil) car free of charge, and Bobby Baker re-attached the rear-view mirror for me when I opened the truck door and found it lying on the front seat.

Yep, I’m lucky to have a Village, because that’s what it took to get my truck repaired.

That, and $640.00.

Plus the cost of towing.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cataclysmic Perverters

My friend KK (please note the words on her T-shirt...and then those on Grahame's corresponding T-shirt.  :o)
My dear friend Grahame lives with his wife KK in New South Wales, which isn’t in (or even near) Wales—which is in Great Britain. No, New South Wales is in eastern Australia. Go figure!

Grahame drives a Mercedes Benz “E 430”; affectionately referred to as a “Benz” for those of us who are lazy typists.

To help some of you place my friend--G is the mate who sent me the bumper sticker that’s in my truck’s rear window, which many locals have commented on over the years. That bumper sticker says “Real Men Like Cats” and EVERYONE has asked who the “real man” is, or why such a bumper sticker is in the window of a WOMAN’S truck, or why in the world I like (or why the man referred to likes) cats! I never would have believed that one small bumper sticker could raise so many questions or start so many conversations--but I’ve enjoyed telling folks about my wonderful friend. (I wanted G to put a bumper sticker in his Benz window that said “Real Women Drive John Deeres” but--according to him—the Australian government won’t honor a Mercedes Benz warranty if the vehicle is festooned with bumper stickers. Can you imagine that?? It (almost) defies belief, huh?)
Grahame's 'other' Benz.  Note the sticker on the bumper... Hmmmm.... :o)
Anyway, Grahame’s Benz recently underwent an inspection and his mechanic informed him that the car needed catalytic converters. The rig has a dual exhaust system, so two converters were required for the job. G was quoted an astronomical price for the parts…upwards of $1,200.00 to $1,400.00 apiece.




Being a frugal Yank, I took immediate umbrage at such 'highway' robbery and suggested he look into after-market parts, thinking he might be able to get a better price for ‘off brand’ catalytic converters. Ever industrious (and conscientiously saving money for a trip to Africa) Grahame did precisely that. He emailed me saying he’d found the parts he needed online…for only $115.00 each. That immediately raised my suspicions. I was sure he could find the parts for less-- but at less than 10% of the price he’d been quoted? It didn’t make sense to me, and I had visions of car theft rings and stolen auto parts. But Grahame, safely tucked away in Oz, wasn’t worried about such things. He ordered the converters.

This amazing company also offered free shipping–but only inside the U.S.–so G asked me if he could have the Benz exhaust parts sent here to The F.A.R.M. so that I could mail them on to him. Of course, I said “Sure.”

And of course… there were delays.

It always makes me nervous when a company claiming to be American is staffed by operators who don’t speak coherent English. Don't get me wrong...I love the North Dakotan accent, ay? And an “all y’all” from Alabama brings a smile. But the woman who called me to explain the delay in shipping my friend’s exhaust system was barely comprehensible. It took me several “what?”s before I figured out that the company was replacing “Gruh-hay-mee’s corpulistic combustors” with a different brand of cataclysmic perverters. But! I was assured (I think) that they would fit his Benz every bit as well as those he’d originally ordered!

This same woman called Grahame in New South Wales. He couldn’t understand her any better than I could. And...he called me to compare notes and to laugh at the incomprehensible way the operator pronounced “catalytic convertors”.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t home when he called and my daughter Josie answered the phone. According to her… she could have listened to Grahame talk ALL DAY because his accent was so dreamy. But, as cool as his accent was…she couldn’t understand a word HE said.

“Mama, one of your Australian friends called,” she told me when I arrived home.

“Excellent! Who was it?”

“I dunno… Peter Daily? Donovan? I dunno….”

“Peter WHO? I know two Peters in Australia—but those aren’t their last names. Not even close. Did he leave his phone number?”

“No, I gave him your cell phone number and he said he’d try to reach you on that.”

I was very disappointed. And confused. Disappointed because I leave my cell phone off while at work, so I wouldn’t have been able to receive his call--and confused because I didn’t know who ‘he’ was! As much as I would LOVE to receive a call from either of ‘my’ two Peters, I couldn’t imagine what would prompt them to telephone me out of the blue.

The puzzle was solved when Grahame called again later that evening. We got a chuckle out of the fact that he and I couldn’t understand (and were irritated at) the strong accent of the Asian woman who called us about his catatonic diverters —but Josie had a difficult time simply understanding G’s name. And yet—my daughter “could have listened to him all day”.

Despite moments of doubt, the canonistic contenders safely made the journey from Maine to Oz. And contrary to my assumptions (which were based on past history) Australian Customs didn’t open the boxes, irradiate them, blow them up or forward them to Ali g with terse notes outlining proper procedure for accepting foreign mail. They just… sent them on their way to New South Wales. I guess I softened them up with the contraband potatoes, the Bakewell Cream that looked suspiciously like white powder, and the cell phone with two bullet holes in it.

Australian-born Grahame received the catalytic, catatonic and cataclysmic parts for his German car, shipped from the U.S. but sold by someone with a strong Asian accent. And regardless of my doubts, his mechanic said they were top-notch. They weren’t made out of tin foil, and they appeared to be new, with no hint that a cutting torch has ever touched them. Grahame was able to keep most of his pennies in his wombat bank and now his Benz doesn’t sound like a John Deere.

All is well in Oz.

Grahame with the 2 catatonic combustors I mailed all the way from Maine. 
(Please note the wording on his T-shirt, which corresponds with KK's in the above photo!)