August 23, 2019

Dog Days of August…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:30 pm


He stood upon the ramparts of his soul, before the lost land of
himself; heard inland murmurs of lost seas, the far interior music
of the horns. The last voyage, the longest, the best.

—Thomas Wolfe

Well, it’s August. Late summer. The dog days is what we called this time of year when I was a child. That phrase can mean one of any number of things, I reckon. But to me, it always meant that it’s too hot to fish. It was never a good month, August wasn’t, for the fish to bite. The ponds languished in murky and muddy despondence. Nothing moved. You could cast out the most attractive lure, and you’d drag it right back in. Nothing bit. Except at night, sometimes. It cooled off enough at night for the fish to bite.

It’s been a different summer. Not difficult, really. Just different. Mostly because I’ve been trying to get a book written. The book. Everything in my life comes in second to that reality. The book. It’s been taking up a good bit of my energy, this year. It’s just there, constantly, hovering close and at a distance, always lurking, always present in some form. I wasn’t sure about trying to blog about it. Still. A status update is a good thing, I think. Write from where you are. That’s what I’ve always claimed to do. Preacher, preach to yourself.

It’s been a long old slog, the book has. For a while there, last year, I despaired that the story would ever come. I remember soon after the first book came out, back in 2011. The Tyndale people were all like, hey, want to try another book, while the iron’s hot? Get out the second one while people are excited about the first? I grumbled around. Good grief. I had just come through a hard door, getting my story told. Now, they wanted me to keep going through that hard door. Still. This was rare air. I’ll try, I said.

And I did. Tried in early 2012. Tried to write a sequel. It did not work. I poked around suspiciously at the 20 or so pages of forced and unnatural words that came. No. Don’t do it. Now is not the time. And I told the Tyndale people. I’m going back to write on my blog. That’s my home, where my voice was born. That’s where I always return to, where my voice is always real. When I got something worth showing you, I’ll let you know. The Tyndale people looked resigned.

And life went on. This was during my heavy drinking days. In early 2014, I had a little fallout with my main Tyndale contact. I got yanked around pretty bad, no question about it. But I was also drinking hard, so my hair-trigger reaction of raw rage was not all that rational. It was real enough, though. I was livid. I swore to never write for Tyndale again. That’s what the whiskey did to my brain.

Life was hard, right then, mostly because of my choices. I seethed and bubbled and wrote and drank and wrote. And drank. And then my heart started acting up. A-flutter. I’d had it for years. Now it came knocking, encroaching, insistent. And now, I checked in at a hospital for the first time, ever, in my life. The doctors shook their heads. Man, you have issues. You’ve got to quit drinking. I hunkered down and made whatever promises it took to get out of that place in two days.

I got back home and went back to drinking. I look on those days now and shake my head. I wrote sporadically for this blog, through that time. But no book. No sequel. It was just not a thing that spoke to me as the next year passed. 2015. Late that year, my heart went haywire again. A-fib, this time. First came the flutter, then the fibrillation. This time, I was not in a good place in any way. I sank low and almost died. Swing low, sweet chariot, I could have sang, then. Because my chariot went swinging real low. Then, somehow, I battled my way back again. Back to life, and back to the whiskey.

I’ve written all this before. Just not for a while. In late 2016, I reached out to Chip MacGregor, my agent. I think I’m ready, I told him. I didn’t know that I was ready. I just figured to see if it could be made to happen. Chip was agreeable. I cobbled together around a hundred pages of stories and sent them in. Chip took my stuff and went off to shop his wares in the market. Would there be any nibbles?

The publishing world is a strange and brutal place. It just is. It’s easy to get chewed up and spit out, and you will be for sure, remorselessly, unless your mind is relaxed. And even then, you might be. I still think it’s true that a lot of writers are so busy telling you they’re writers that they forget to write. I mean, they don’t write as well as they could. My game plan was always about as basic as you could make it. If you just walk calmly with no expectations, you’ll be fine. You’ve been here before. Act like it. But no expectations. And so, I waited nervously as Chip went off to shop my stuff around. I wrote sporadically on this blog.

This was in 2017. Two years ago. And by the year’s end, I had a contract. With Virginia, and Hachette. And yes, I did reach out to Tyndale. Can we bury the hatchet? Do you want to try again, together? It didn’t work out. And that was fine. Keep walking forward. Don’t look back. I had a contract with Hachette. A Big Five publisher. That was a big deal, and still is. Last year, I got a lot of writing done. Still. I wasn’t wrapping it up. I was stuck. I spun my wheels in frustration for a while. Then I told Chip and Virginia. My story will never get told until I go home and bury my father. It just is what it is. That possibility seemed remote last summer. Dad was old, in his nineties, but he was in stellar health. The man was going to hang on until well past a hundred years, of that there was little doubt. There was also little doubt that if that happened, the book would languish. Or I’d have to find another direction to take.

Well. Late last year, Dad took sick. And I got to his bedside the day after Christmas last year just in time to see him pass from this world to the next. The ugliness of death. That’s what it was. A day of sorrow and a day of relief. I witnessed a lot, seeing the man die. The Waglers gathered from all around. And in the time-honored traditions of our forefathers, we buried the patriarch of our clan. In the proper sequence of events, we respectfully laid him to rest. I absorbed the experience. And then I came home to finish up my book.

And the writing came. This time, it did. Virginia and I agreed on a new date, to get the manuscript in. This summer. In June. This time, my face was set. This time, it would happen. That’s what I figured. And this time, it did.

It was strange, kind of. But not really. I remember getting home from Dad’s funeral on the last day of last year. Drove all day, I did, from Aylmer to my home. That night was New Year’s Eve. I didn’t go anywhere, just stayed home. And it didn’t take me long the next day to get started. Writing. The funeral of my father. The end of the road. The words poured from me in torrents.

A few weeks later, I posted the longest blog of all my blogs, ever, anywhere. Twenty-two pages, single-spaced. And it came to me even before the blog was finished. This is the missing part for the book. This blog. I thought it over, pondered the thing in my head. There seemed only one clear path to take. Make the blog about Dad’s funeral the outline for the book. The flood and flow of the overall narrative would fit right in. That’s what I figured.

And it did. I was astonished, except I wasn’t. This was what it should have been like all along. You need a nudge, sometimes, to make the words release. I hammered away at my writing forge, fitting and shaping and molding the manuscript. I emailed Virginia once in a while. This time, the deadline would be met. I told her that. As June slid in at me, I applied the final touches. And then one day, I sent it in. This is it. The book. Virginia was silent for a few days. Then she emailed back. She liked it. She was working her way through.

I latched onto those words. She liked it. That was just huge. As big as it gets, for an author. If she liked it, the narrative would work. You just never know if your offering will be pleasing. And I waited then, for a few weeks as Virginia edited the manuscript. The first edits. She shot it all back to me in due time. I scanned a few pages quickly. Felt relieved. She had “kept my voice.” Which means, she wasn’t into making any major changes. Just peripheral stuff. Clean it up here, clarify over there. It was almost a pleasant experience, to rework my words.

I sent my book back in the second time. And just got it back again. It’s down to the nitty gritty, now, for the final draft. And just last weekend, it was discovered that my family had not read the manuscript, yet. I was instructed to take a clean hard copy and get it printed up at Staples, or some such place. Last Sunday, after church, I meandered into the Staples over along the tourist trap row along Route 30. I talked to the nice attendant there at the publishing desk. Yes. She could do it, have it done by late that afternoon. I ordered ten copies, at fifteen bucks a crack. Stopped by later that afternoon and picked them up. The next morning, I mailed a bunch of them off to my brothers and sisters. And now, I wait.

A few housekeeping notes, here. The book cover. I’ve wanted to post it ever since I got it a few months ago. So far, I haven’t been able to get permission to. Next month, I will. I promise. It’s an astounding cover that portrays the mood and tenor of the book. They got real pros, there at Hachette, I must say. Next month. Promise.

Tyndale. I’ve got to hand it to them. They trundled out the eighth, (yes, that would be the 8th), printing of Growing Up Amish this summer. The book has sold over 185,000 copies. It’s major, that the original will be in print, ready to ship, when the next book comes out. I’m hoping the gamble will pay for Tyndale. I’m hoping the two books might perhaps churn each other. If you read one and you haven’t read the other, well, it’s available on the market. Fingers crossed, here, for my old publisher. I will always be grateful for all they did to make Growing Up Amish happen.

This blog. I had a little chat with my very capable webmaster. He did a facelift. Changed the pic at the top and got rid of that enormous list of links to earlier posts that clogged up the right side. The title is a new font, and a little louder. Or “more noticeable” might be the polite term. I don’t know. I just figured it was time. I had not changed that photo at the top since, well, since my first book came out. That picture made me look way younger than I am. I thought it would be good to tighten up the site a bit. Maybe there will be a new crop of readers soon. They have a right to know how I look, all dressed in black with a bright orange tie. That’s my thinking.

And speaking of the blog, it turned out that my friend Jerry Eicher pretty much nailed it, back at Dad’s funeral. He told me to write a book from my blogs. I was dubious. Still. That’s kind of what happened with the second book. I mean, I went back, way back to the early days, when my marriage blew up. I pulled over a lot of scenarios and adapted them to the flow of the narrative. And it works, I think. There are hundreds and hundreds of blog posts. I tapped less than two dozen. Don’t know if that’s what Jerry had in mind. Bottom line is, if you’re a faithful reader of my blog, you’ll see writing that you’ve read before. It’ll be strung together and connected and maybe just a little bit altered. But you’ll recognize some of it. That’s just how it is.

And I sigh dramatically, here. Tomorrow is my birthday. I’ll be fifty-eight. That’s astounding to me. When Dad was fifty-eight, he looked gray and distinguished. He’d been around a good deal, a veteran of the shifting political minefields of the Amish world. The man navigated that world with some skill and finesse. He left his mark on it. Now. Well. I’ve been around a good deal, too, just in a different place than Dad was. I can tell you a lot about a world he never knew because he didn’t want to. It’s kind of strange, when you think about it. Anyway, fifty-eight is just a number, I reckon. I’m feeling better than I have for years. I passed on the Garage Party again, this year. No big whiskey bash at my place. Too much going on with the book and all. I told my friends. Next year. Next summer, I’ll throw the biggest garage party you ever saw. I’ll invite half the people I know. So that’s where it’s at for now.

Next week, it will be two years since I’ve tasted a drop of whiskey. I never would’ve thought it, back in those days, that such a thing could be. I won’t pretend it’s always been easy. But I think less and less about it. It’s just not in the formula of my life at this time. And this year, it seems more like the norm. Not as big a deal as the first-year anniversary was, I don’t think. It’s my lifestyle, now. I don’t need to keep yakking about it. Life is life. Dry is dry. I feel good. And that’s about all I got to say about that.

July 26, 2019

Battlefields of Summer…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:32 pm


They rarely come alone. They march single file through miniscule cracks
around windows or under doors, looking for crumbs, water or a warm place
to make a new home. Often you’ll see them trooping up your walls or across
your counter, organized and on a mission.

You have an ant invasion.

—Mary Jo Dilonardo

It’s been a running battle every year since the first year me and Ellen lived here. Every spring the armies came marching. Usually in the kitchen, where the food crumbs fell. That’s where the vermin showed up. Well, maybe “showed up” isn’t quite an accurate term. Invaded is more like it. The house got invaded by great hordes of tiny black ants. Such was the reality of our world. And later, my world.

They were always a presence of some sort in the kitchen, the ants were, during the years Ellen and I were together. But only in the summers. They quietly vanished when it got cold. I don’t know. I think those things hibernate, somewhere far below the surface of the earth until the spring thaw warms the air. Then they wake up and get about the serious business of invading the nearest house. Which, to a great many ants over a long period of time, happened to be the house I live in.

I didn’t get all that perturbed about anything. We discussed our options. Should we get an exterminator? Those guys have some magic poisons that they set around. Ellen didn’t think it was necessary, though, to spend that kind of money. And she went and bought some Terro ant killer. Sweet stuff, that you set out as bait. We set it all around, on those little cardboard strips. It was very satisfying to see swarms of ants congregating and devouring the Terro. Thousands of ants met their doom that way. The problem was, what are thousands of ant deaths when there are hundreds of thousands of ants around? When one fell, ten took its place. Near as I can tell, that’s how it went. The Terro never did make a noticeable dent in the ant swarms. And I never was all that impressed with the stuff.

And that’s how it went, there for years. We’d get fed up with it all, and then the summer would end. Fall came. Cooler air. The ants went away, then. And we thought, oh, how nice. We got used to not having any ants around. Until the next spring. That’s how the circle went, until Ellen left. And then the problem was mine to deal with.

I don’t remember much about any invasion of ants that first year I lived alone. Probably because there were a whole lot of other more pressing things on my mind. And when I got around to paying some attention, I went out and bought a can of wasp spray. The kind that fogs up. It killed ants on contact. So, when the great marching armies of ants got to be a bit much, I just unleashed my spray bomb. Whole regiments of ants froze on contact, instantly petrified. Often, I left them right there for a while as a warning to any other invaders. Look. We can exist, if you just watch out a bit. Don’t get in my face. Stay away from my food. If I catch you on my counter, you will die.

It’s been kind of funny. Every spring, about the time the ants start stirring, the tenant gives me a text or a call. He always comes up with two or three of those vile smoke bombs that supposedly kill every living insect in the house. He always asks me to leave the basement door unlocked the next day, so he can set up the smoke bombs and get out for the day. You can’t be in the house when you set those things off. The chemicals make your eyes water. Can’t be healthy. I always allowed the tenant to carry out his campaign against the ants. The problem was, those silly little bombs never did much. Oh, the ants got scarce for a few days, but then they swarmed right back in, more numerous than before. I think that poison smoke actually made them breed more.

Which brings us to this year. This spring. This invasion of ants. Small and black and everywhere. They never bit anyone. They just got in the way. The tenant duly unleashed his bombs back in April or May. Didn’t seem to do a lick of good. And the ants came in extra fierce this spring. My first mistake was when I bought a different brand of spray. If it killed any ants, it did so by drowning them, because I covered whole divisions of them with the liquid spray. The ants just looked surprised at the deluge. Near as I could tell, the spray didn’t harm the ants at all. I was distraught.

And that’s how it went. Me and the ants coexisted uneasily. They were trespassing. We both knew that. But what was I going to do about it? That was the issue. I may never have gotten anything done about any of it until the cool fall weather came and the ants would leave on their own. That is, until the cleaning lady got involved.

I like my cleaning lady. I think I’ve seen her twice in about five years. She comes around once a month and cleans my house. That’s often enough for a bachelor, I think. She gets on her hands and knees and scrubs the kitchen floor. She’s quite indispensable. She’s generally quite content and happy, too, as long as I remember to leave the check for payment. Still. Once in a while, she’ll pipe up. Leave a note or send a text. A few years ago she persistently reminded me to get a new kitchen rug, there by the sink. I thought the old rug had a good bit of use in it, yet, and ignored the suggestions for a while. She persisted. She even offered to go and buy a rug for me. I think that’s how we solved it, then. I left her some cash and told her to buy a rug and keep the change. She came back the next month with a nice new rug. I made a fuss about how lovely it was. The cleaning lady beamed. I smiled. Everyone was happy.

And there was another time when the cleaning lady pestered me firmly. Get rid of some of these shoes around here that no one wears. She could tell, from one month to the next, if the shoes had been moved at all. Mostly, they weren’t. And so, here came a stream of nagging notes. Every month, she left another one. These shoes were making her work harder than she’d have to if I just got them out of her way. And so on and on. And one Saturday, I had enough. I ransacked the house. More than two dozen pairs of shoes were dropped at the donation box over by Grocery Outlet. What I’m saying is, when the cleaning lady leaves a note or makes any other kind of noises about anything, I’ve learned to pay attention. Yes, ma’am. Whatever you think. I’ll see to it right away.

And sure enough, early this month, she left a note. I always shudder when I see one of those things on the kitchen table. What’s wrong now? I’m always afraid she’s gonna tell me to get rid of my old 70’s vintage yellow linoleum on the kitchen floor. I’ve been petrified of that for a while. I’m determined to stand firm on that one. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with that linoleum. I quickly scanned the words. You have lots of ants by the kitchen sink, was the message. Get rid of them, was the unwritten message. I sighed. Ah, well. My floor was safe. I had a month to figure something out about the ants. I didn’t know what. I figured the Terro bait would probably be my best bet. That stuff Ellen had used, way back. It’s still out there on the market. Still as insipid and useless as ever, too, I’m sure. I just didn’t see a lot of other viable options.

The next Saturday morning arrived. The ants and I had maintained an uneasy truce during that week. I was out and about that morning, running errands. Dropped some shirts at the dry cleaners. Stopped by some Amish friends for coffee. The goodwife greeted me cheerfully. How was my week? I sighed. I got problems, I told her. Ants. The cleaning lady is grumbling. I have to do something about it. Got any ideas I can go with? I’m about ready to go buy me some Terro. I don’t want to. That stuff is worthless.

Amazingly, she did have an idea. “Of course,” she told me. “I have just the thing for you. It will kill all your ants.” And she got busy mixing two ingredients, half and half. Refined white sugar and Borax. She found a plastic pint container and mixed it in that. And she told me. “Take this home and sprinkle it all around your house, on the outside. Tomorrow morning, there will be no ants.” That was an astounding statement. I looked dubious.

But I smiled, of course. How quaint, that she thought sugar and Borax would kill my ants. Still. Be polite, I told myself. We drank coffee and talked about other things. I took it all home later. It was a bright, sunny day. I sprinkled the white mixture around my house, right close to the foundation. I could see the ground moving with little black ants. Take this, my beauties, I said, as I worked my way around the house.

I ran out of the sugar/Borax mix before I got all the way back to my starting point. Still. Let’s see what that does, I thought. Come, my beautiful ants, come. A great feast is spread for you. Come and eat. And I noticed that afternoon. The ant traffic in the kitchen had diminished greatly. I mean, could they have eaten the Borax that fast? Apparently, yes. The Amish goodwife was totally right. The next morning, there were zero ants on my kitchen counter. None. Nada. Not one. I was astonished. And delighted. Oh, yes, indeed. I was delighted. I still am.

It’s been three weeks, now. In that time, I have seen exactly two ants in my kitchen, on the counter. Both were alone, probably mutant scouts sent out from decimated colonies to explore the terrain. Both were smashed instantly, so neither of them returned to report back. It rained hard the night after I spread the mixture. The goodwife claims that will make no difference. The sugar/Borax will stay and last the rest of the summer. I’m dubious about that. But I went and bought my own supply. Next time I see an ant inside, or any swarm of them, the house will be treated again. I have the answer, now.

And there you have it. My contribution to polite society this summer. Just pretend we’re standing around at a garden party, making small talk. If you got ants in the house, don’t call an exterminator. Don’t buy Terro. Simply mix up refined white sugar and Borax, half and half. Mix thoroughly, as the goodwife told me. It has to be stirred, mixed hard and right. Then sprinkle the stuff lightly all around the outside of your house, right by the base of the foundation. If you live in an apartment complex, just set some of the mixture inside, where the ants are. They will eat the sugar and the Borax. They will carry the sweet feast to their queen. And they will die. All of them will die.

I know. Where has this information been, all my life? You are welcome. Thank the goodwife.

The other day at work I got a call from a good old country boy contractor from down south a bit. He needed a quote on a metal roof. I’ve dealt with the guy for years and consider him a friend. We chatted about this and that as I punched in the materials and gave him a number. And then he thought about what else he wanted to ask me.

“Ahra,” he said. (He calls me Ahra, that’s how he talks.) “Ahra, how’s the book coming along?” This guy was a huge fan of the first book. He even bought signed copies for some of his friends. I had told him when the contract came for the second one. That’s why he even knew anything about it. Well, I said. I’m working on wrapping up the first round of edits. My editor seems to like it OK. It’s coming out next spring. He made appropriate noises and told me he’s sure looking forward to reading the book.

And I thought to myself after we hung up. This is exactly how I’d choose it to be. It’s not primarily the intellectuals who ask about the book. Some do, of course, and that’s fine. I welcome that. Still, I guess I’m just not around them that much. Most often, it’s blue-collar workers like my friend, making a living with their hands, out there, slogging along. They’re the ones keeping an eye on the sequel, nudging me for an update now and then.

And I’m honored. Always. These are my people.

The tenant was out puttering around when I got home one night earlier this week. We chatted a bit. Talked about how the ants have disappeared lately. I told him how I spread that mixture the goodwife gave me. I don’t see any ants downstairs.

And the talk came around, then, to a question the tenant had. Am I having a garage party this summer? I think not, I told him. Next year, the book will be done. Then I’ll throw the biggest garage party you ever saw. It’ll be time to celebrate. He asked a bit about the book. You’re in it, I told him. He looked startled until I explained. The stone angel, I told him. You uncovered it. That’s going to be in the book.

And one day at work this week, an old-time local builder stopped in for a few items. I used to deal with him a lot, but he’s been retired for about the last five years, so I haven’t seen him much. We chatted and caught up. As we were winding down, I told him. I got another book coming out next year. Wanna see the cover? And I showed it to him.

He looked doubtful and a little bit impressed. Then he admitted. He never even got the first book. Hasn’t read it at all. Oh my, I said, closing in for an easy sale. I got those right here. Let me sell you one at a discount. Nothing like a captive audience, I figured.

He wasn’t having any of it. “Nope,” he said, holding out his hand to stop me. “I’m too lazy to read. I’ll wait for the movie.” I had to laugh at that. Well, I said. That’s the first time I heard such a thing. It’s fine. You might be waiting a while, unless the second book stirs some things up. One can always hope, I guess.

Seasons come and seasons go. The tides of life roll on. This has been a time of loss for my extended family. We lost Dad in December, and in March, we lost my oldest brother, Joseph. Next Saturday, August 3rd, will be the wedding of Joseph and Iva’s youngest son, Samuel Wagler. He will marry his lovely fiancé, Keila Grace Slack. She has not a drop of “Plain” blood in her. Which I think is just fantastic. It would have been fantastic either way, of course. Still. New blood is new blood. I cheer that heartily. Welcome to the family, Keila, from one of Samuel’s eccentric old uncles.

Joseph met his future daughter-in-law before he died. She and he got along real well. He approved of the relationship and pronounced his blessing upon it. At the time, there were some shimmers of hope that he might even be around to attend the ceremony. Sadly, that was not to be. And so, we carry on without him. That’s how it is, now.

Samuel has always been the quietest in a long row of strong and silent sons. I’ve never heard him say much in any setting. He’s content to stay quiet, I guess, unless he got something important enough to make some noise. The wedding will be in Kokomo, Indiana. I’m looking forward to renting a car and heading out next Friday. I wish every blessing to my oldest brother’s youngest son and his bride.

Samuel and Keila
Samuel and Keila