On Sale Now: Under The Same Sun

Under-the-Same-Kindle cover

“What happens in Unity, Connecticut could happen anywhere in America.

Under the Same Sun begins at a kitchen table on a school day morning in Unity. The novel paints a picture of a struggling rural town during the year leading up to the 2016 presidential election. A portrait of people familiar to all of us, it tells the story of their desires, disappointments, divisions and, ultimately, the beauty and the frustrations of day-to-day life in America’s forgotten places.

Leo Heaton is a widowed father who lives with his twin daughters, Emily and Amanda, and his mother-in-law Dori O’Neil. Their lives are interwoven with the townspeople, including an edgy, mysterious high school teacher who is a role model for the Heaton twins. Helen Tremblay has also attracted the attention of their father and they become involved in a secret romance.

The cast of characters includes teenage friends, a wealthy prep school boyfriend, an interracial family who own a a maple syrup farm, and a Mohegan Indian who hosts parties in his man cave and shares his native wisdom. The citizens of Unity cross paths in chapters set in the simplest of places: the local Dunkin’ Donuts, high school parking lots, auto repair shops and lumberyards, and hiking trails in the Berkshire woods.

When an avoidable tragedy occurs the small town of Unity becomes Every Town America. A place where nothing newsworthy happens and people feel relatively safe.”

http://bit.ly/buyunderthesamesun

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Labor Day Weekend: Stories From Higley Hill

On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Rich and I went on a ramble through rural New England. Our destination was the Nike outlet store in Lee, Massachusetts to buy sneakers with our family discount. Our oldest daughter works at one of the Nike stores in Colorado.

The journey could have started on Route 91 South but we like to take the roads less traveled and we needed to pick up a headlight at a junk yard in Greenfield so we headed south on Colrain Road out of Wilmington, Vermont.

Jacksonville, VT tattered flag

Tattered Flag, Jacksonsonville, VT

In Jacksonville we passed a house with a pretty garden and noticed our friend, whose name is also Richard, out on the front lawn. Vermont Rich is a stonemason and was there to help a widow who needed some repairs done on her chimney. He often helps her and doesn’t charge for his time. It was her husband who taught him the craft of stonemasonry.

Serpentine stonewall

A serpentine stone wall in Norfolk, CT

Labor Day weekend is the holiday that celebrates the American worker,  but here was our friend repairing loose bricks and sweeping the chimney.

~~~

In late August 2011, almost six years ago to the day, Hurricane Irene barreled into Vermont as a tropical cyclone. Downtown Wilmington’s Main Street turned into a raging river. The only other recorded hurricane in Vermont’s history was back in 1938. It has no name, back then they didn’t give hurricanes names.

Many people lost their homes and businesses. Many historic covered bridges were destroyed. Due to extensive road damage, dozens of rural towns became isolated. We were still living in New Hampshire at the time but our friend was everywhere with his backhoe and his chainsaw and his talent for many helpful survival skills. Six years later three prominent buildings in downtown Wilmington are still empty. One of them recently got an artistic facelift with the artwork of Chinon Maria, a local girl who is now a street artist in New York City.

Chinon Maria

Artwork by Chinon Maria ~  Wilmington, VT

A lot of Texans are spending their Labor Day weekend recovering from the mess Hurricane Harvey left in its wake. Helping your neighbors isn’t just the Texas way.  It’s not just the Vermont way. It’s the American way. The United States of America.

~~~

There’s a stonemason in my new novel, Under The Same Sun:

“Leo Heaton is a regular guy, a builder of stone walls. A man who pays his bills on time, enjoys a beer or two after work, and always uses his blinker. He’s lived in this small corner of New England all his life and believes in the American Dream along with the ideals of freedom and justice for all, despite the fact ideals don’t always ring true. His twin daughters are his pride and joy, although this morning they are not assisting him in his pursuit of happiness.”

~~~

The junkyard in Greenland was only open 10 to 12 on Saturdays. We got there at 11:30 but the place was locked up.

Junkyard Greenfield, MA

Greenfield Auto Salvage ~ Salvage the Best, Recycle the Rest

My stories come from the places I’ve traveled, the jobs I’ve worked, and the people I’ve met. Woody Guthrie once said, “You can’t write a good song about a whorehouse unless you’ve been in one.”

You also can’t write about a junkyard unless you’re familiar with one. I am. I was the bookkeeper at an Epping, NH auto salvage business for ten years. They were just one of many clients I had when I ran my own bookkeeping business. There was also an art gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. I’m familiar with it all, the high and the low ends of the American economy. At the gallery I worked at a desk surrounded by expensive artwork, including a few Salvador Dali’s and beautiful pottery made by Brother Thomas.

At the junkyard I sat at a desk in a large garage filled with old car parts, tires, and an auto mechanic’s tools of the trade. It smelled of oil, grease, dust, and wet junkyard dogs of which there were a half dozen or so on any given day. After a Christmas fire burned down the building and a good part of the junkyard, I worked in an old trailer salvaged from the wreckage. I had to rummage through smoked out paperwork and records, rusty paperclips and soot, to recreate the bookkeeping records and find the insurance policies.

Both of these settings, the art gallery and the junkyard, ended up in Life Is All This. 

The Epping junkyard owner was Hungarian. His hands and arms were covered with rough red patches and he always had a wad of cash in his pocket. On Fridays he’d peel off a couple of hundreds to pay me. Real life experiences often get mixed up and manipulated into fiction.

From Under the Same Sun:

Leo owes Carl money for a used transmission he found for the girls’ car. Dealing in used auto parts is only one of the skills on Carl’s long, checkered resume. He left his job at the casino a couple of months ago.

“The commute and the hours were killing me,” he said.

Years ago he owned a seafood shack down near the shore, close to the Rhode Island border, until he got into a twin lobster pricing war with the diner across the street.

“The guy kept lowering his price. When he got to $3.99 for twin lobsters and threw in a free bowl of clam chowder I was sunk. He was a lobsterman and I was buying my lobsters from him! No way could I compete with that situation.”

In addition to the used auto parts, Carl grows and sells Christmas trees, plows driveways in the winter, grows marijuana in his basement, and breeds boxers.

“How much do I owe you?” Leo asks.

“Five hundred for the transmission and thirty for the tree minus the beers you bought me last week.”

Leo hands Carl a wad of cash – a couple of hundreds, two fifties, and a lot of ATM twenties. Carl fans it then shoves it in his pocket.

“Aren’t you going to count it?”

“I worked the blackjack tables for years. I know it’s all there.”

Every line in the above excerpt is fiction but it has a connection to real life. Maybe some day I’ll share all the stories that led to that exchange.

~~~

 We had slept late on the Saturday morning of the three day holiday weekend. Rich had been working hard all week; climbing ladders to paint a house with high cathedral ceilings.

Rich and his work

Rich showcasing his work ~ Wilmington, VT

The owner of the junkyard probably gave up on us and decided to get a jump on his Labor Day festivities. So we continued on and took Route 5 South past Deerfield Academy, a prestigious private prep school where the well-to-do send their children to be socially polished and primed to enter an Ivy League college.

American flags on telephone poles snapped with the breeze. Trump signs tacked to a barn greeted us in the asparagus farmland of Hadley, MA as we rolled on through to Northampton where gay pride flags fly and Black Lives Matter.

Telephone Pole flags-Leeds MA

Leeds, MA

In Florence we stopped for a grinder – Italian for me, roast beef for Rich.

Miss Florence Diner Florence, MA

Florence, MA

 

Sunday we laid low. It rained all day and we had a fire burning in the wood stove. We reminisced about twenty years of Labor Day parties on Cape Cod’s national seashore and watched rock ‘n roll documentaries.  I was multi-tasking, reading New York Times  articles and other writings about work in America.  After all, it was Labor Day so the media was on topic. But brace yourself, one of the upcoming debates during the budget talks will be taxing our 401K savings upfront – when we have the contribution withheld from our paychecks. We won’t be hearing a lot about that from the media after the holiday is a sweet end-of-summer memory. So pay attention. If taxes are taken out at the time of the contribution instead of when we retire, that means that over the years we earn less money on our savings. Don’t let the bastards fool you.

~~~

We cooked a lot over the weekend. We made homemade pizza, grilled scallops, stuffies, and ahi tuna, had lots of fresh local veggies, drank bloody Marys, cold beers, and crisp Sauvignon Blanc.

I told my husband about a young boy I saw in the Nike store. The place was packed. Shoeboxes lined the floor and sat on half the seats people need to try on shoes. The employees were everywhere, straightening things out, smiling and helpful. I thought of our daughter working lots of hours on this very American holiday weekend.

The young boy was arguing with his mother. “Go ahead. Buy it,” he said, his lip curling into a surly sneer. “But I’m not ever going to fucking wear them. They’re fucking ugly.” I listened to them argue back and forth while I tried to find a pair of sneakers I liked. Then I waited for a seat. Two Indian women where standing next to me. One sat down to try on the same style sneaker I had chosen. She moved some boxes to the floor and in her lilting accent said, “Here. Please. Sit down.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“But of course.”

Meanwhile, the young boy kept swearing at his mother. The shoes were not the ones he saw in a magazine. They probably hadn’t made their way to the outlet stores yet.  His mother looked like she could burst into tears at any moment. Her hands were filled with shopping bags from The Gap, Sun Pac, American Eagle, and other outlet stores, most likely filled with back to school clothes that were busting her monthly budget.

The Indian woman shook her head and looked down, embarrassed by a stranger’s behavior.

~~~

Oliver Sacks once said, “The most we can do is to write —intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” 

Ever since I wrote my first novel and started blogging, that’s all I’ve ever tried to achieve.

~~~

We finished the weekend stacking firewood and listening to Dire Straits. Mark Knopfler writes lyrics like few other musicians. His songs tell heartfelt, real life stories. I once heard him in an interview share the story of all the jobs he worked at before he began to earn his living as a musician. He said was glad he had done all those things.

“It gives you sympathy for other people’s lives,” is how he summed it up.

Yes. But of course.

 

 

 

 

Stories From Higley Hill: It Wasn’t a Good Fit

“This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.”
~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road: From the Original Scroll

Paperwork

Notes From A Temp Worker’s Journal: Week Three – The Final Two Days

Moses sat across from me, his desk perpendicular to mine. He is an Alaskan Inuit with a mohawk, but not a crazy mohawk. It’s attractive, short, not shaved on the sides, longer on top and down the back of his head, like the tail of a coonskin cap. He also has a Fu Manchu mustache, a bushy beard, and, below his lower lip are two skinny green tusk-like piercings. In each ear he has two hoop earrings; one silver, one black. He is married and the father of two boys; one three, the other six months.

We discussed books while we collated and stapled. He recommended A Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I told him about Nickel and Dimed. I also mentioned it was The Grapes of Wrath and its powerful ending that made me want to be a writer. He told me he read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley to his wife when she was pregnant.

By the third week, I felt I knew Moses well enough to ask about the tusks. He told me about his grandfather, the last Inuit on a remote Aleutian island to have the tusk piercings. The island was where Moses spent his childhood. The tusks are a symbol of the walrus. Moses is named after his grandfather so he got the piercings to honor him.

One day during a fire drill we stood together on a hill – what was referred to in the temp manual as one of the grassy knolls where employees are instructed to gather when the alarm goes off. As we walked out of the building a supervisor called out, “Make sure the temps know where they’re going.” There are so many of us I guess she was afraid we might get left behind. There was always the possibility of an ammonia leak and we needed to pay attention to the direction the wind socks were blowing. Supervisors were in charge of leading us through the parking lot to the safest grassy knoll that wasn’t downwind of a potential leak.

The early morning sunshine was warm and it was nice to be outside. Moses told me he was planning to start his own IT consulting business. He also shared his philosophy regarding this mundane temp job we were both currently trapped in.

“I know this is not my fate. It is for a finite amount of time. It serves a purpose,” he said.

I agreed and tried to remind myself of that when we returned to our desks.

Werner Herzog believed all original art “must have experience of life at its foundation.” Well yes, yet still. I kept asking myself how did I get here? I’ve had a lot of experience with working in places from a junk yard in Epping, NH to a vape shop in Pompano Beach, Florida. I’ve been subjected to unfair work policies, mundane tasks, and unequal pay for equal work. I’ve written about it, I’ve blogged about it, I’ve lived it. I’ve got enough material for several more books.

I recently read an article about writing workshops in beautiful, expensive places. Mountain retreats. Caribbean islands. Mediterranean hillside towns. The author of the article wondered what kind of meaningful real life writing could come out of these workshops. And who were the writers who could afford them? In moments of despair, while stapling, filing, and copying, I told myself this was my writing workshop. I was here to share the stories of the people who rarely show up as characters in the books that make the New York Times Book Review. The stories that don’t often attract literary agents who respond with rejections like this:

“This has less to do with your strengths as a writer and more to do with my goals as an agent and the trends of the current literary marketplace.”

Do tell. What are these trends? More self-help? More addiction memoirs? Stories of wealthy New York millennials filled with angst after losing Wall Street jobs during the Great  Recession, or even worse, their inheritance?

I thought about the places I have landed, the people I have met, the places I have traveled. If I weren’t here what would I write about while attending workshops in Aspen and Positano?

That worked for awhile but when I looked at the clock only twelve minutes had ticked by. We were three hours into the Monday workday, and that included the unexpected recess for the fire drill. I already missed Pink.

She was not the only entertainment missing during my final days at the temp job. A funny, sarcastic young guy who had a cubicle near the copy machines was sent to Providence for the week to train his replacement.

He had a handwritten sign tacked to his cubicle. “Crazy Guy’s Cube”. He fed us work, all those invoices we copied and collated and stapled and filed. He would stop by our office several times a day and offer up ironic commentary on the difficult situation he and the other permanent employees faced during the “transition phase”.

Crazy Guy had been offered a chance to transfer but he has a serious girlfriend who has a child and she shares custody with her ex. Crazy Guy also likes where he lives. He grew up around here and doesn’t want to move. “I’m a local boy,” he told me.

One afternoon last week Crazy Guy was training Moses on the preparation of MPDs or CMDs or some acronym I didn’t know. Whatever they were, they were making Crazy Guy evener crazier.

“I’m sick to death of talking to everyone about CMDs. Explaining CMDs. Training people to produce CMDs. Thinking about CMDS… CMDs…. CMDs.” He was clearly emotional that day. Getting choked up he told us, “This is the longest job I’ve ever worked at.”

Despite the CMD crisis, Crazy Guy was kind and patient with Moses and always used a dash of humor when he entered something wrong on the Excel spreadsheet they were working on. At one point he swirled his chair around, leaned over, picked up a large paper clip from the floor, and handed it to me as if it where a rose. “For you,” he said.

One afternoon a handsome black man from Providence who was wearing neatly pressed trousers and a dress shirt joined us in our crowded little office so he could train with Alpha. I sensed her anger and frustration. I had nothing but sympathy for her situation. A recent divorce, twelve year old twins – a boy and a girl – and a handicapped brother who also lived with her. She and her husband sold their house during the divorce and she’s trying to find a three bedroom apartment she can afford. The rental market is difficult. One afternoon she had to leave early to move her brother into a nursing home. The search for a four bedroom apartment would have been impossible. And she’s about to lose her job.

Throughout the day we followed Crazy Guy’s progress in Providence. He checked in to Alpha’s cell phone via text message.

“Did he buy new clothes for the business trip?” Talks to Herself asked.

“He can’t afford new clothes on his salary,” Alpha replied.

As if by osmosis he sent a response. “”I look like an auto mechanic compared to everyone else here.”

Around the office, Providence has a reputation for big city sophistication.

There are so many people I met that I haven’t mentioned. A woman I was filing next to one day told me she met her husband when she was five years old.

“When I tell people that they don’t believe me,” she said.

She raised her children in a nearby town. They still live in the area and so do her grandkids. She and her husband have already downsized to a smaller house in preparation for retirement. They both planned to work until they qualified for Medicare.

“But we’ll manage somehow. Hopefully I can get on my husband’s insurance until I find something,” she said. “Not this kind of job, although it is an honest wage.”

She told me she had been distracted and worried that morning. Her husband must have sensed her anxiety. He followed her to work and when she got out of her car, she asked, “What are doing here? Is something wrong?”

“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” he told her. “You seemed upset when you left the house.”

There are more stories. I’m using pseudonyms but these are real people I spent a brief moment in time with. They have hopes and dreams, worries and concerns. I get angry when I think of the problems we aren’t solving while wasting time on a President who got himself involved with Russian interference in our election, can’t stand up to Nazis, and clearly doesn’t give a shit for anyone but himself and his own ego. We continue to fight old battles while the problems that effect people’s lives fester and grow larger.

But words are adding up here. Blogs are supposed to be short for the short American attention span. A lot of people don’t want to hear stories like this. People once fought and died for unions to protect worker’s rights, ensure safety on the job, negotiate for fair wages and a retirement with dignity. Now we’re told “You’re lucky you have any job at all.”

Workers are hired as temps so the employer doesn’t have to provide health insurance, workman’s comp, and paid holidays. Many voters are misinformed. They vote against their own interests. They tell you not to cause trouble. You might get fired. Unions are a thing of the past. They’re never coming back.

Why? If people fought and won this battle before why can’t we do the same? How did we ever let ourselves lose our rights to begin with? Did we as a nation learn nothing from the Great Recession? How fragile the middle class is. How important workers’ rights and collective bargaining are. Instead of working together to improve our plight, we judge others by claiming people in these work situations courted their own demise by making poor choices or not working hard enough or not acquiring the right skills and education. But isn’t this just making excuses for The Man?

I’ll stop rambling but please America, pay attention.

Anyway, this is how it went down. On Tuesday evening of Week Three, I checked my phone at a red light in Brattleboro. There was a message from the temp agency.

“They don’t need you to return to work tomorrow. Please call us in the morning.”

For the rest of the drive home I wondered what I’d done wrong. Was it that day I stapled the invoices incorrectly?

Notes From a Temp Worker's Journal Well! Apparently, I am not very good at stapling. I had a stack of invoices and a stack of backup info. I stapled the two together. Thank God we have electric staplers!!! The stapled piles get very tippy. No one told me we have to staple in the top left corner. I decided it would be better to shake it up a little bit – some in the middle, some halfway from the left corner and the middle. The pile ended up being neatly stacked and easy to transport over to Accounts Payable. Wrong!!! AP sent it back. They said they were missing some as they picked up an invoice and entered it. They said they needed to feel the staple in the left corner. Are they doing this with their eyes closed? So I got to to remove the staples with a handy dandy little staple remover and re-staple. Yes, I went to college for this. So here I am again ordering takeout. This time it's scallion pancakes and pad Thai @ThaiBamboo in Brattleboro #takeoutThursday #thejobfromhell #tempwork #workingwomansblues #workinamerica #thewritinglife #forsomeofus

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Maybe it was the occasional walk I took around the cubicle block to relieve my back pain? Or the stretches I did while waiting at the copy machine? I never talked politics and although I daydreamed about being a union agitator I kept my mouth shut. I offered encouragement and told Alpha how I too had lost jobs and maybe something better was coming her way.

The next morning I called the temp agency. The recruiter told me they gave no specific reason. They just said it wasn’t a good fit.

Well, I already knew that. I knew it on my first day of work. The rows of cubicles, the anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I was back at the cubicle job that led to my near nervous breakdown that only writing my first novel saved me from. I also knew it wasn’t the right fit when they photographed me twice. What’s coming next I wondered. Fingerprints? And even before I started the job I knew this wasn’t the right fit when the temp agency told me I had to return to their office to be subjected to a drug test. Let’s just say I fretted about it and drank copious amounts of water for two days only to find out I didn’t have to pee in a cup. Instead I sucked on a spongy lollipop and passed the test. I’d also like to point out marijuana is legal in both Vermont and New Hampshire.

One day during our fifteen minute morning break, Pink told me, “I was always the good employee. There was one time when I hurt my knee really bad but I came to work anyway. It was year-end and you know how crazy that is in the accounting department. I couldn’t call in sick and leave my co-workers with a heavier work load. So I didn’t go to see the doctor until three weeks after I hurt myself. By that time the metatarsal tear was worse. It required surgery and now, years later, my arthritis is really bad in that knee. And you know what? In the end, I didn’t get anything for my good behavior. Instead, I got laid off at sixty-four with one year to go to Medicare.”

And here I was bending over file cabinets and sitting in a shitty seat with no leg room under my desk. There was another woman I met at the file cabinets one day. She’d worked 34 years for a company that went paperless and laid off a lot of people when they needed fewer clerical workers. So now here she was, temping alongside me. One day at her old job, her back went into spasms. She couldn’t stand up or walk. She felt nauseous. Her boss wanted to call an ambulance. Instead someone brought her to the hospital where she spent seven weeks while they tried to manage her pain.

I had a few back spasms over the weekend. Maybe this was the silver lining. If I had finished out the remaining six weeks I too could have spent weeks in the hospital. In which case, my health insurance deductibles and co-pays would have negated my earnings.

If you live long enough just about anything that can happen will happen. I have been laid off due to mergers and lack of work and Ronald Reagan cutting the National Endowment for the Arts but I’ve never been fired. Or told I wasn’t a good fit.

I’m trying to avoid thoughts of the life not lived. Asking questions like, What if I had started writing sooner? Where would I be now? Jackson Hole? The Greek Isles?

But would I have been able to write the book I just finished and is about to be published?

I don’t think so. I think Simone de Beauvoir was right.

“Chance … has a distinct meaning for me. I do not know where I might have been led by the paths that, as I look back, I think I might have taken but that in fact I did not take. What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.”

***My new book, Under the Same Sun will on sale at Amazon on September 6th.***

 

 

 

A Book Review: Crapalachia

After being sorely disappointed with Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, I went in search of a better book about Appalachia. Vance’s conservative think tank solutions to the problems this region faces, his pick yourself up by your boot straps mentality, and the underlying belief these people don’t deserve help because they choose not to rise above their circumstances left me feeling cold and angry. I wanted something more.

What I found was Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan. A sympathetic and heartfelt depiction of Appalachia, including the title itself. In the appendix at the back of the book McClanahan tells us:

“My mother said this to me the other night. “Why are you calling this book Crapalachia? That’s not a good title. It’s a horrible title.” I told her, “No it’s not. It’s a good title. Shit makes the flowers grow.”

And the flowers certainly do grow. Scott’s stories of his Uncle Nathan, a fifty year old man with cerebral palsy, will make you laugh while you’re crying. I’m thinking of one scene in particular that takes place in the men’s room at a restaurant. The story is told through the eyes of Scott during his adolescence. His empathy in sharing this particular mundane and truly embarrassing, uncomfortable vignette is so real and heartbreaking it took my breath away.

The book does not offer opinions on solutions to the area’s problems but it did share some history of the region from the perspective of ninth grade Scott. He learns about politicians stuffing the ballot box and how it “goes on all day and then the men are paid in liquor. This is how you get them drunk and steal an election fair and square. This is democracy.”

And how you build civilization: “They used a bunch of poor people to dig it. A poor person means either their skin was dark or their accents were thick. That’s the best way to do anything—get a bunch of poor people to do it. So they cut and cut into the mountain but there was a problem. They didn’t wet the dust from the cut limestone—so the men developed silicosis. The men started dying by the tens and then the twenties and then the hundreds and then—the thousands? Since they were poor the company just buried them.”

Some of his family’s frustrations are the same as any us dealing with the bureaucracy of insurance companies or any other American bureaucracy but the response had me laughing hysterically:
”She told us the story about how he was trying to get his pension from the mines. But before he got it, he had to fight for a couple of months. He finally got a letter that went…”Dear Mr. McClanahan, we regret to inform you that we’re unable to approve you at this time. Please send your response within seven days and we’ll schedule another hearing.”
Elgie didn’t say anything.
He just took it down to the outhouse and wiped his ass with it. Then he put it back into the envelope, sealed it up, and sent it back.”

McClanahan wrote this story so these people would be remembered. They were people he knew and loved, and he wants us to know them too. He also wants us to know this place for what it is and what it meant to him. He wrote it from his heart. As a reader who is familiar with the rural places of New England where the Heroin Highway cuts through a much different region of America that shares some of the same problems and concerns it reminded me we are not stereotypes and although we have differences we all share the human condition.

61j028MbmRL._AC_US218_

In Rhode Island: Stories From Higley Hill

Me and Dad Brattleboro, VT

I started this blog over a week ago then abandoned it. I couldn’t find my way into the story. It is something that matters to me, but it’s also difficult to articulate so why was I writing it? Would it matter to anyone else? After all, that is why we share our stories, isn’t it? To connect, to not feel alone, to understand each other.

Sunday night, after all the hate in Charlottesville, and all the anger on TV news shows – pundits fighting with each other, right wing conservatives getting upset and testy when another pundit suggested there was even a hint of their culpability in all of this – I got a text from my Dad and it brought me to tears. So here we go, let’s try this again.

~~~

I slid into the pew next to my father as the organ music reached its final crescendo. My Dad smiled and leaned over to tell me my sister Maureen and I would bring up the gifts. He pointed to a small table in the aisle between the pews.

He knows I’m not a believer. He worries about my soul but I knew he was glad to see me. He knew about the high school reunion I attended that afternoon and even though the Mass was for my mother, who passed away a year ago, there was a possibility I might not leave the party. Because that’s the kind of girl I’ve always been. Rebellious, sacrilegious, not a fan of tradition and rituals. In gratitude and love for my showing up, he was bestowing this honor upon me, the giving of the gifts.

What I thought he didn’t know was how out of place I felt in church, how uncomfortable it was for me. I immediately fretted over whether I should bring up the large crystal decanter of wine or the two gold chalices. What if I did it all wrong? What if I dropped the decanter? Was I supposed to make the sign of the cross somewhere during the giving of the gifts? Would that be before I picked them up or after I gave them to the priest? All these anxious issues swirled through my mind like a tornado.

My Dad leaned over once again and whispered, “After you hand the gifts to the priest you wait until he returns to the alter. Then you genuflect and return to your seat.”

He knew! I nodded in acknowledgement as the priest, the commentator, and two alter boys marched down the side aisle and back up the center aisle. I think one of them was carrying a cross. I forget now that it’s days later and I am writing this all down. Maybe I was remembering my mother’s funeral, the last time I was in a church.

While the priest did things on the alter, sacred things, my family and the rest of the congregation in the almost full church followed along and made the sign of the cross, kneeled, stood, and sat as we made our way through rituals that are still familiar to me. I quietly listened and observed and wondered who might have arrived at the reunion after I left. It was taking place from two to seven and I left at four-thirty. I noticed the shorter alter boy stifle a yawn.

When I was thirteen I started skipping Mass. My Dad was a commentator back then and I’d purposely attend a different mass. I’d ride my bike the two blocks to the church, place it in the bike rack where it would be visible if he happened to drive by, and instead of attending Mass, I would walk to the back of the Catholic school with a book that was hidden in my large burlap bag on which were stitched the words ‘Paris Flea Market’. This was my substitute backpack at the time. A period in my life when my musical taste had finally turned from Bobby Sherman and the Monkees to Creedance Clearwater Revival and Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda da Vida. A time when I realized I did not believe in God. So I spent the time I was supposed to be in church hiding behind the school reading Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Salinger.

Sitting next to my Dad in church that day, I knew my father noticed when I didn’t cross myself or repeat the words to the prayers and responses. It has always seemed hypocritical for a non-believer like me to pretend for a day.

I wasn’t entirely listening to the sermon. So many thoughts ran through my mind. I admired the large cross. The carving of Jesus Christ was beautiful. His sinewy arms outstretched, nailed to the cross. The crown of thorns on his drooping head. The look of world weariness on his sad face. At the top of the cross were the letters IN RI. When I was younger I used to think it meant In Rhode Island.

During the sermon the priest told the congregation the Mass was dedicated to Pauline McGowan, my mother, and he also mentioned Kathleen Schusler, my cousin, best friend, former roommate, and traveling companion who passed away at the age of fifty-one from breast cancer. It was her birthday that day. She would have been sixty-one. The priest then went on to preach about peace and kindness. He called for an end to all wars. He also mentioned that civility is disappearing from our dialogue and our everyday lives. Our leaders no longer practice kindness for the poor and the less fortunate.

Then it was time for the gifts. My sister sat further down the aisle in front of me. I waited for her to lead the way. At the table I chose the wine decanter so I could hold it steady with two hands. She whispered, “You give that to the priest first.” Everyone knew I was a bumbling heathen.

When it was time to go to communion even a few relatives who are also pagans participated. I stayed in the pew. It’s always an uncomfortable moment for me, sitting there alone as if wearing a scarlet letter. A for Atheist. “Oh that, Sheila,” I imagine them thinking. “She was always the rebellious one.” And I’m quite sure they are thinking that because they’ve often said it out loud.

At the end of the Mass, the priest wrapped things up with a short message. “Respect our Lord, Jesus Christ. Go in peace.”

The organist played the final hymn and everyone picked up a hymnal and sang along. My father once again whispered out of the side of his mouth and said, “This was your mother’s favorite hymn.”

I always knew my Mom hated war and I realized my father must have requested that the mass be dedicated to the theme of peace and civility. I remembered many of the words and I did sing along this time because I believed in the message that was so very relevant at this moment in time.

The following weekend hate marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. I was reluctantly riveted to the news coverage. I was filled with dread and fear. My heart ached.

It had been a week since I’d talked to my Dad. My cell phone buzzed. A text message. My Dad has gotten better at texting. He now puts spaces between the words.

“Thanks for being at moms mass think more of you for not taking communion than some who do who shouldn’t”

I have often written about my Dad the U.S. History teacher who taught me everything I know about American history, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I’ve shared the stories of our summer vacations visiting Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and the homes of U.S. Presidents. I’ve also written about political conversations we’ve had.

Our personal history has not always been easy but I’ve chosen not to dwell on it. I’d rather remember the lessons he shared that had a positive effect on me. At times, he can be opinionated and is not always tolerant. We have had our differences throughout the years regarding my life choices. Some criticisms he has made have wounded me.

Years ago at a book club I attended with Kathy, the group was discussing a book about two gay men. The conversation got a little heated and we argued about Truth with a capital T. Kathy, in her usual way, said something so clear and true it stayed with me for years and finally made its way into my third novel. I gave Kathy’s words to my character Liz in a scene when she and her husband Sam visit their eldest son at college during a parent’s weekend and he tells them he is gay. His boyfriend’s parents don’t take the news very well.

“Mrs. Fairchild had lectured them that day in the brew pub about her search for Truth with a capital T. But it was Liz who had the final word that afternoon when she told Mrs. Fairchild, “Sandra, I think we all need to capitalize the word Tolerance before we can find the Truth.” ~ Life Is All This by Sheila Blanchette

I went to my mother’s Mass that day not out of any religious obligations or beliefs. I am not going to have some sort of religious epiphany one day or a deathbed conversion. I went to church to honor my imperfect, very human father and in remembrance of my mother, who I also had my battles and disagreements with. I am their imperfect daughter who understands that we are all human and tolerance is something that can be learned. My father reminded me of that on a very difficult weekend in America when the lack of tolerance was on full display and the world was watching.

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me
Let There Be Peace on Earth
The peace that was meant to be….

Brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With ev’ry step I take
Let this be my solemn vow
To take each moment and live
Each moment in peace eternally
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me

~ Songwriters: Jill Jackson / Sy Miller

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Fathers and Daughters: Stories From Higley Hill My father was visiting yesterday. We watched the Red Sox double header and had dinner in Brattleboro. We talked about things like Calvin Coolidge, a blip of a president my Dad called him. He came up because he's the only president from Vermont, and you know, we were in Vermont. That led to the Tea Pot Dome scandal. It was a bribery that took place from 1921-22 during the Warren Harding presidency – a "nothing" president. The secretary of the interior leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in WY and 2 locations in CA to private oil companies at low rates with no competitive bids. Before Watergate it was our nation's greatest scandal. Of course that led to Trump and kept us busy while the Red Sox lost the 1st game to the Yankees 3-0. These are the kind of things I talk to my Dad about. These are the things he taught me. #resist #be##speakup #storiesfromhigleyhill #fathersanddaughters #teachyourchildrenwell #vermontlife

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Pink Collar Workers: A Working Woman’s Blues

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” ~ Susan Sontag

Notes From A Temp Worker’s Journal

Week One
Pink and I spend our days matching invoices to backup paperwork and clip them together. Then we collate by remit number and once that is finished we take the paper clips off.

We bring the large stack of paper to the copy machine. My back appreciates this little bit of exercise because I have the worst seat in the room and my desk has a small refrigerator beneath it so I can’t slide my shitty chair beneath the desk. There is something about doing nothing really physical at all that is hurting and straining my back. By late afternoon on Thursday the pain is real. I begin to wonder if I have undetected bone cancer or Lyme disease. Or maybe it’s fibromyalgia.

For reasons unknown to me, over at the copy machine we make a second copy of the paperwork and also scan it to the person who generated the batch, as we call it here in this office which is like no other place I have ever worked. The reams of paper they go through is astounding. I feel my up to now, decent carbon footprint is being downgraded. I am contributing to the slaughter of thousands of trees.

When the copying and scanning is finished we return to our office to staple only one of the piles, then wrap both files, the stapled and the unstapled, with a rubber band.

Are you still with me on this or are you dozing off? Because I certainly am.

Pink is not my co-worker’s real name. I call her Pink because she is a woman of a certain age like myself and has white hair streaked with pink highlights. At sixty-four, one year away from Medicare eligibility, she was laid off from her bookkeeping job.

When applying for Affordable Healthcare in New Hampshire, the state looks at your last year’s income, which was when Pink was still working full-time so she earned a lot more money last year. Her insurance coverage was calculated to be $1200 a month, which she couldn’t afford, so she applied for early social security. In Vermont we use the estimated current year’s income but this is the way America chose to do healthcare, state by state, that is before it was then decided America wanted to repeal the whole thing. Currently the nation is in limbo and doesn’t know what it wants. When I was young my mother told me limbo was a place un-baptized babies went. I used to worry about these babies  all alone in limbo but now I worry about the babies born with preexisting conditions. And it is I who often feel alone in America.

Pink’s husband was in the hospital when I met her on my first day at work. He has diverticulitis and is older than Pink so he is covered by Medicare.

I was hired to replace Pink because she has to leave in two weeks.

“If I work past the income limit, which I reach two weeks from now, they take a dollar in tax for every two dollars I make,” she told me. “That’s what happens when you start collecting social security before the full retirement age of sixty-six and six months. But I needed the money and in hindsight I wish I’d known they were going to lay me off. I would have retired at sixty-two.”

I don’t see how it could possibly take me two weeks to learn this mind-numbing job but I don’t begrudge her the additional two paychecks she’ll earn while she trains me. We all have our goals. Mine is to earn money for advertising my upcoming fourth novel and to take the book on the road for readings and book club visits.

Almost everyone is a temp here. This is the way the company hires the majority of their employees. Pink is temping so she can take a vacation to Ireland. Her husband doesn’t want to go but that’s not holding her back.

“I’d rather go alone,” she told us. “I’ll have more fun without him. He doesn’t like to leave the house.”

Pink doesn’t have a cell phone. During our fifteen minute morning break, she uses the office phone to check on him in the hospital. On Tuesday he told her they were keeping him for another day.

“Oh good, I don’t have to make dinner. My vacation continues.”

The following day he told her they were releasing him. He had been given dietary restrictions; two weeks of no fiber, then two weeks of a high fiber diet.

“I guess we’ll have to stop at the grocery store on the way home,” Pink sighs. “And there’s probably a prescription to pick up. I don’t know what I’ll be making for dinner now.”

She shook her head and got back to flipping through a tall stack of invoices I had collated, making sure they were in numerical order. She wears a plastic thimble on her middle finger and it made a repetitive shushing noise.

Pink has been working here since January. She brought her own mousepad which has a picture of her two grandchildren printed on it. She also brought a small fan because sometimes management keeps the air-conditioning set on low. Her bottom desk drawer is filled with snacks. She arrives at work an hour before she punches in so she can read “in peace and quiet.” Otherwise her husband wants to talk and she likes quiet in the morning.

“When I clean the house on weekends I tell him if he wants to talk he needs to follow me around and keep up. I don’t have time for sitting around chatting.”

~~

It is Hump Day. Pink and I are pulled off the stapling and collating brigade to file. All the permanent employees in the Accounts Payable and Receivable departments along with Deductions are facing layoffs in October. Their jobs are being moved to the Providence office. Some of them have been offered the chance to relocate but the moving allowance is insufficient and most people have lived in this part of New Hampshire all their lives and don’t want to move to the city.

The filing area is a beehive of activity. Some people pull bills to be paid from the files. Other people, myself included, file bills to be paid at a later date. They are placed at the back of the folders. Today’s bills are an ironic joke. Stapled to the top page is a note to the vendor urging the payee to Go Paperless. It blocks the cover page with the Vendor Number which is how the filing system is organized. I had to lift the top page to find the vendor number on every invoice before I could find its file.

How many times in one blog can I repeat the words mundane and tedious without sounding repetitive and monotonous?

In the corner of one file tab, next to the vender’s name, someone had drawn a smiley face. It was a message from a former filer encouraging me to hang on.

“You can do this. Remember your goals,” I reminded myself as I contemplated walking out the door.

The folks over in the filing area brought food to share. One of the most popular items was the hamburger cupcakes, which were made from yellow cake mix and cut in half with a small slice of brownie placed in the middle. Those were the plain burgers. The loaded burgers had squiggles of green, yellow, and red icing for relish, mustard, and ketchup. The young girl who made them found the recipe on Pinterest.

These are nice, honest, friendly people. Taxpayers who don’t hide their money overseas in the Cayman Islands or Russia. They help their neighbors and bring cupcakes, pizza, and Mexican seven layer dip to share with their co-workers. They ask how your Mom is doing if they know she is sick. All they expect in return is a fare wage, good schools for their kids, and affordable healthcare.

No supervisors were around. Almost all of them went to Providence to train the newbies who will be replacing my co-workers who behave like a small family sharing days of difficulty and uncertainty.

The girl who made the cupcakes told us she also works at a bowling alley a few nights a week which led to a debate on Candlepin versus Ten Pin.

“At my bowling alley, it’s only a dollar a string plus the shoe rental. If you have your own shoes, which I do, it’s a cheap night out,” the Cupcake Baker told us.

“Do you belong to a league?” someone asked.

“No, I’m not that dedicated. If I hung out there all the time I’d get fat like the other bowlers.’” .

“Nah, you can bowl it off, right?”

“i don’t think so. Bowling is not that aerobic.”

Cupcake Baker’s Mom recently read in the local paper that the owners of the bowling alley just sold the place and will probably close it and sell the land.

“They got me everywhere,” she said. “It looks like I’m losing both my jobs. My Mom’s so worried about me starving to death she’s bringing food and stocking the pantry. My boyfriend said we’re running out of room.”

I think I was meant to be here. But why? I’ve written this story before, and not just once. In my third novel, Life Is All This, the underemployed Sam Ryder was a successful salesman who has been laid off one too many times and now finds himself writing novels at a reservation desk at a Fairfield Inn during the night shift.

Five years before the 2016 election I was compelled to write my first novel, The Reverse Commute, during my four year tenure in a cubicle working for health insurance. It was my roman à clef. One of the characters, a young girl, works a cubicle job and hears of an older woman who got fired. The novel includes passages like this:

“She thought to herself, “Wow. No cause at all. An employee at will.” She became concerned about sixty year old Joan. Where would she find a job now? And what would she do for health insurance? She was sixty, she would definitely need it. She thought she’d heard COBRA was expensive. She knew from hearing her parents’ talk that Medicare wouldn’t cover them until they were sixty seven or something like that. How can a sixty year old woman who just got fired find a job in this economy? She wished it had been her instead of Joan. At least she was young and could bounce back.”

Sound familiar? There is a distinct possibility it may be my calling to bear witness to working life in America and share these stories with others.

WEEK TWO

My second week on the job was Employee Appreciation Week. Temps are included because we make up more than half the work force. On Monday we all stopped by HR to fill out a raffle ticket and receive a free beach towel. The towel had the company name on it and was rather thin so I passed on that. Tuesday was Burt’s Bees Day. We could chose one free product. I picked a pink-tinged lip balm. Wednesday we get a free lunch box, bright green and once again emblazoned with the company logo. Thursday the raffle winners were announced. Some of the prizes were a dinner at the restaurant of your choice, a Linen and Things gift certificate, or a day off from work. I thought the day off was the most valuable as the gift certificates are only worth fifty dollars but the company employees told me they won’t be allowed to take it off during the transition to Providence and after that they’ll be unemployed, so really it’s worthless. Temps were not eligible for this prize. Most people chose the scratch ticket packet. Friday a snow cone truck pulled into the parking lot and everyone got a free treat. They had ice cream too and I ordered a frozen Snickers bar.

It was also Pink’s last day, so people brought in more food. Indian cuisine for lunch was provided by Siranya, a woman who works in a cubicle just outside our door. She made chicken and rice with cardamom, basil, and ginger. There were also Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins and homemade chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting.

The smell of the Indian food reminded Pink of the Brattleboro Food Co-op which led us to a discussion of Brattleboro during the 60’s and 70’s when the hippies arrived to live in communes.

“Did you know one of the supervisors caught wind of that discussion we had over in filing the other day?” she asked. “The one about music. They said I was talking too loud about my rock ’n roll boyfriends.” Her laugh was loud and sardonic. “What rock ’n roll boyfriends, I asked?”

“That was actually me I think. I told everyone about the time Dave Matthews kissed me, remember?” I said.

I wondered what makes upper management begrudge employees camaraderie and a sense of team spirit. The work got done that day. The filing bins were empty. If this were the good old days people might march out on strike during times like these. And why they’re not is beyond me. How did we get here? People once fought and died for workers’ rights and then they gave them up so easily.

The overdose of ice cream, cupcakes, and munchkins made us punchy. Pink lost her pen then located it on my desk.

“You stole my pen,” she laughed.

“No, it was mine. Yesterday you stole it from me,” I replied.

“Well now I’ve been using a pen from home.”

“Before I stole this pen from someone in payables, I was using a pen I swiped from a Days Inn in Nevada a few months ago.”

“Another stolen pen!” Pink shouted.

The saving grace in our little office is that we have a closed door between us and management. Another woman we work with in this small office space, the permanent employee Pink and I call Alpha, opened her pocketbook and fished around for her bottle of Motrin. Pink looked up and said, “I might need one of those.”

Talks to Herself, who works on customer complaints and often does talk to herself about the irate emails she receives from customers offered Aleve. “If you prefer,” she said.

“Oh my goodness,” Pink said. “It’s true! New Hampshire is a drug infested den.”

I swirled my chair around, laughing hysterically. “Yes, we’re all drug addicts and pen thieves.”

Life has always handed me an incredible cast of characters and an unsought after opportunity to practice empathy in uneventful, commonplace, neglected corners of our world. There are no starving children here. No war torn villages or natural disasters. Just lives of quiet desperation and small moments of human dignity, humor, and kindness. Maybe that explains my current circumstance. Maybe that’s why I’m here.

TGIF.

>>> To Be Continued>>>
***And Dear Pink, if you’re out there and you’ve looked me up and read this blog, I’m writing this on Saturday and although I’m not back at work yet, I miss you already***

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