Tag Archives: Queen Anne Manor

Confession of an Arsonist

For a few years now I’ve been conducting a writing workshop at Queen Anne Manor, a retirement home in Seattle. What had begun as a six-week teaching practicum requirement for my MFA, shows no signs of ever letting up. “Confession of an Arsonist” by Paul E. Waggoner is an example of the stories we create each week  from the material of our lives.

Paul began at The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in 1951 and worked as director for 36 years until his retirement. He then continued research, often with a colleague from Rockefeller University, and in 2012 they published that global cropland would reach a peak expanse in the 21st century, a sequel of their “How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature.”

Crossing the continent at ninety to live closer to his family, Paul joined our writing workshop. It is with his permission of course, that I publish this piece. 

Confession of an Arsonist 

by Paul E. Waggoner

Once upon a time in Iowa in a town called Centerville, celebrating Independence Day ranked up there with Christmas. Firecrackers ranked with stuffed stockings, candy canes and spicy stuffing.

For the Fourth of July, Centervillans planned for weeks. For weeks, the tall, lanky sheriff of Appanoose County grew a beard like Honest Abe’s. The man who wore the star awed youngsters and persuaded voters to keep him in office. The sheriff wore a top hat, just as Lincoln did when he delivered the Gettysburg address. The personification of law and order was awesome as he strode the courthouse Square.  Waggoner Pic

Although Centerville was still the county seat and celebrated the Fourth in style, it had seen better times. In the 1890s, coal miners opened mines. Immigrants from Central Europe and Italy swelled the population. They dug coal and hauled it behind ponies that never came up the mine shaft to sunshine. But after World War I, hard times struck.

Nevertheless during the mining boom, men had become rich enough to build and then abandon what seemed like mansions to farm boys. Never mind that windows were shattered and plaster falling. The wealthy passed, but their mansions survived into the 1930s.

On the Fourth of July, boys from another neighborhood trespassed on our turf, the territory of the Maple StreetGang. We were prepared.

First, the Gang tried infantry tactics learned on the flickering screen of black-and-white Saturday matinees. Those maneuvers drove the invaders across the boundaries of the Maple Street Gang. Heavy artillery followed.

Other boys might carry lady fingers, sparklers and cones-of-fire. But we had Cherry Bombs, red but larger than a cherry. Our heavy artillery, they were nearly as large as golf balls.

After infantry tactic drove the trespassers back acros our boundaries, they retreated to a decaying mansion. No grand palace, but big enough to shelter small-town boys. In their dilapidated stronghold the fugitives scrabbled up broken plaster and pitched shards out missing windows.

You guessed what happened. Through windows our pursuing force lobbed our heavy artillery of Cherry Bombs. Smoke appeared at windows, closely followed by hotfooting, retreating invaders. The town’sfire siren wailed. We heard the roar of the fire engine approaching. The Maple Street Gang fled to its turf.

Now, safe beyond Iowa jurisdiction and shielded behind the statute of limitation, an apprentice arsonist confesses.

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Benefits of Aging

Here’s how fast it goes: one moment you’re sliding down the banisters in life, and the next moment, it seems, holding onto the rail and being mindful not to wear socks on the stairs….

I think about aging a lot as I run a writing workshop every thursday with a dedicated group of writers at Queen Anne Manor, a retirement home in Seattle. And every week, I learn something about how best to age, and sometimes, why aging actually is best.

Not in every way, of course. No one wants to not remember names, or take half the day to walk to town. But what I have observed is that even as memory and speed decline, one’s life experience can make up for it.

“If what you are doing depends on knowledge, then you are going to do very well as you get older,” says psychology professor Neil Charness, PhD, of Florida State University. Consider the amygdala, the almond-sized and almond-shaped mass of gray matter deep in the temporal lobe of the brain, responsible for processing both memory and emotions. “Researchers have found that as we get older, our amygdala reacts less to negative things. It still responds when there’s a real threat but is less likely to get fired up every time a passerby frowns at you,” writes Barbara Strauch in The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain. “That seems to help us do a better job of maintaining emotional stability. And we all know that those who can calmly assess a situation generally have an advantage.”

As writers, accessing situations is what we do. Each week the participants in my workshop write their way through a specific incident in their lives with surgical precision, an uncanny objectivity, and perhaps more wisdom and understanding than they had ever known. “As we grow older,” finds American Aging Research, “we begin to look at things differently, in a better perspective…. A small bump on the road no longer seems like the end of the world.”

There’s a creative bonus in aging too. “The way our brains age may give us a broader perspective on the world, a capacity to see patterns, connect the dots, even be more creative,” cites Barbara Strauch. “And brain scanners show that the parts of the brain that specialize in daydreaming get more active as we age.”

I have the good fortune to work closely with my group and learn of their lives. And all the while, I am impressed with their calm, their stability and security, their positive outlook in life, open-mindedness and good spirits. Indeed, age seems to enhance the ability to laugh at one’s self, and to enjoy life as it is.

For what’s done is done, and for writers it’s all material.

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