Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Empathy for a New Year

Empathy and New Year
By James Schuyler

--an excerpt

New Year is nearly here
and who, knowing himself, would
endanger his desires
resolving them
Awake at four and heard
a snowplow not rumble—
a huge beast
at its chow and wondered
is it 1968 or 1969?
for a bit. 1968 had
such a familiar sound.
Got coffee and started
reading Darwin: so modest,
so innocent, so pleased at
the surprise that he
should grow up to be him. How
grand to begin a new
year with a new writer
you really love. A snow
shovel scrapes: it's
twelve hours later
and the sun that came
so late is almost gone:
a few pink minutes and
yet the days get
longer. Coming from the
movies last night snow
had fallen in almost
still air and lay
on all, so all twigs
were emboldened to
make big disclosures.
It felt warm, warm
that is for cold
the way it does
when snow falls without
wind. "A snow picture," you
said, under the clung-to
elms, "worth painting." I
said, "The weather operator
said, `Turning tomorrow
to bitter cold.' " "Then
the wind will veer round
to the north and blow
all of it down." Maybe I
thought it will get cold
some other way. You
as usual were right.
It did and has. Night
and snow and the threads of life
for once seen as they are,
in ropes like roots.

--poor James, the naivety of January
1968 proved to be a bad year
But this poem shows great hope

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Year's End

I write on the back of a scrap envelope,
a message from Target that my account may have been compromised.
       Oh, well.

The snowy owl teases us at the beach again,
     flying from the peaked-hut of Daniel's Mexican Food
          to a snow-packed dune, dirty with blown sand.
He/She stands as an emblem,
          elusive nature in a city by the shore.

We have lived here these many years, never migrating
--as opposed to the snowy owl we've come to observe--
     lived in Uptown on snow-packed sidewalks,
              dirty with trash trodden underfoot.
We'll see out the old, say goodbye to all that is gone
     to friends who have moved on
          and to the farm, to the lake, the festival
             the businesses that have folded.

We are on the cusp of something new,
     though it is hard to know, living in this ordinary.
We sometimes forget where we've come from
     or we are overwhelmed by our frailties, our fears.
So that the new stares back at us, like an enemy.

But it is only the snowy owl,
      fleeting, here one minute and gone the next
          landing arbitrarily, beyond us.
This is what we have to look forward to:
        More snow, more owls, more wind-driven sand,
              more notices from Target, more every day ordinary-ness,
                       more of more, out there, on the horizon, eyes wide open


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Let It Snow

Already this winter we’ve had a couple of snows with more predicted for this weekend.

Yup. A White Christmas!!

I was reminded in a recent conversation about a sledding hill I always went to growing up near Kettering, Ohio. It was famously named Suicide Hill. This was a real sled eater. Approaching the climb there were barrel fires fed by broken wooden sleds sacrificed to Suicide Hill.

The hill was deceptive. Trees lined the descent so that any veering brought the sledder into contact with them. As a kid I was always bailing, letting gravity take the sled into it’s gentle good night, the tight fist of death. I cannot count how many sleds my brothers, sister, and I ruined.

The back of Suicide Hill was just as dangerous as the front—though perhaps not as many trees. A ride this direction was longer and not as fast, but full of moguls or bumps that sent me flying. The community golf course where the hill was located was the product of glacial moraines: imagine icy fingers digging into soft ground creating drumlins and ridges. I think the golf course was called Hills & Dales.

Just getting to the top of the hill required digging in the heels of my boots and hanging on to tree branches, a bit like climbing hand-over-hand. Sometimes I wondered if it would be better just to go on my hands and knees. Once at the top you’d have to catch your breath. Standing at the brink looking down—especially as a little kid abandoned by my older brothers and sister—it was steep. Somehow I don’t remember this stopping me though.

I Googled suicide hill kettering and right away something like 6 million results came up—a rush of nostalgia. From a forum (about another structure in the park—a boarded up tower—which I’ll write about later in another blog post):
Aug 13, 2009
9:57 AM
It was there when we used to sled ride on "suicide hill" about 1955, and my father said that it was there when he was in high school and had a car, about 1937.
Mikey, Gatlinburg, TN

And this from 2009: Medics carry four off 'Suicide Hill' - WDTN.com

And this souvenir T-shirt:
And this article from 1996:


January 3, 1996 | Copyright
DAYTON, Ohio -- Four women broke their backs in sledding accidents last month on a golf course slope known as ''Suicide Hill.''
All four women were treated at Miami Valley Hospital's emergency room.
''It was strange, because they were practically carbon copies of each other,'' said Dr. Norman Schneiderman, medical director of the emergency and trauma center.
The women all hit the same bump on the slope at the 12th tee of Community Golf Course in suburban Kettering and went airborne. As they came down again onto their sleds, they suffered compression fractures to the lower back.

There is even a Suicide Hill Facebook page.

So often our memory plays tricks on us. Memories more times than not don’t synch with reality. The biggest, the highest, the whatever is usually brought down to earth when revisited. Here is one instance where the memory is not distorted or exaggerated by time.

Suicide Hill is one badass motha.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Uptown, the book

Bob Rehak was a young man in the 1970s who took the Purple line in from Evanston into the city to his job downtown in advertising. His passion though was photography, and what he saw from his train window as he passed Argyle, Lawrence, and Wilson L train stops intrigued him. There was a variety of life out on the streets below the tracks. Messy, disturbing life. I’ve noticed that many creative people are somehow energized by chaos, and Bob Rehak was somehow curious enough to bat away his fears, get off the train, and walk the dirty, trash-filled sidewalks with his camera and take photographs.
Though I don’t know if he would classify it as “taking” as he describes people in Uptown in the mid-1970s though mostly poor were generous; they gladly gave Bob permission to photograph them.
Uptown was a port of entry for immigrants because of the relative low-cost housing in the neighborhoods. There was a large population of migrants from Appalachia, social activists, the down-and-out, and skid row bums. And kids. The schools were teeming with kids as opposed to today when 2 elementary schools in Uptown closed because of low numbers. This was before working-class families began to be squeezed out of Uptown in favor of the trendy hipster—many single or couples without kids. Before the developers moved in.
This book took me back to when I first came to Uptown in 1982. Believe me it was no picnic. Every night the cops had to be called to break up fights. Fire trucks screamed down the streets—especially in the 4500 bl0ck of Magnolia and Malden—it seemed every night a building burned. Bob Rehak quotes a firefighter saying his was the busiest unit, with as many as 400 fires a year. http://bobrehak.com/wordpress/portfolio-item/firefighters/
I’ve been loaning out my copy left and right and many of my friends are ordering their own. It probably took me 5 nights to go through the coffee-table size book because after about a half hour I would be exhausted remembering. Each photograph takes me back. I remember that submerged stoop leading down to an abandoned basement apartment stuffed with litter. I remember hunchbacked old ladies coming back from the grocery carrying the few items they could carry. I remember the guy on crutches missing a leg asking for money out front of the Wooden Nickel on Wilson Avenue. By the time we moved into the old Chelsea Hotel it was a dive, long neglected by a landlord that let it crumble and pipes freeze and break.
There’s still time to order your copy for Christmas.
With his book Uptown, Bob Rehak shows us who we once were and where we’ve come from. It is a visual archive and a real gem.

And just for fun--here's one I found at Uptown Update, Wilson and Broadway from 1955, a Christmas street scene

Monday, December 9, 2013

Fruitcakes Unite!

Mom’s Fruitcake

Just the word “fruitcake” evokes nostalgia for some and crass jokes from others. It has been the focus of much ridicule by people especially of my generation. Today’s “kids” probably donn’t even know what one is. (Not sure if they’re lucky or not—see I’m still stuck in a fruitcake stereotype.)

I’ll readily admit I’m not a fan of the fruitcake. Maybe it was the rum or the sheer density of the thing. An absolute brick. My mom’s fruitcake probably weighed 11 pounds once wrapped and ready to mail. I remember Dad lugging a couple of these to the post office every year about this time in order for it to arrive before Christmas. I couldn’t help wonder: won’t it be old, stale, inedible by then? I had no idea in my child’s imagination that these things are archival. They literally can last forever. For me now, with both Mom and Dad gone, the fruitcake is a memory touchstone.

Mom would shop for the ingredients because none of it was stuff we had around the house (and believe me, Mom had a Depression Era pantry, meaning she would never run short of anything.) She’d buy candied fruit in little plastic containers—cherries, oranges, lemons—in colors not naturally possible. They looked radioactive. Pulsating. I sneaked one and these alone tasted horrible—and yet they were the fruit, the foundation of the fruitcake. I remember having to crack nuts, pecans and walnuts. I felt like a prisoner consigned to a rock pile. Also I believe the recipe called for rum—and perhaps it was this ingredient that gave it its longevity. Possibly the point was that the fruitcake ferment and take on a life of its own, beyond the 21st century.

BUT, more than this, more than the actual fruitcake itself, comes to me another meaning. Call me sentimental, but it is love. All this flurry of activity cost Mom and Dad time. It meant special shopping and carving out a whole evening for the making and baking. The batter was so thick Mom would ask Dad (Harold come in here a minute) to stir it with a wooden spoon. I’m surprised it didn’t snap the spoon in half. Then the cake had to “sit” to cool. Next it got wrapped and placed in a round tin. Dad had to stand in line at the post office, the weight of 2 of these breaking his arms.

Love because they were never for us. (I think ONCE Mom made one for the family and I remember my brothers making fun of it, feeding it to the dog, etc. If I’d been Mom I would have thrown it at them to shut them up.) She made them for others. I think one went to her Mom as Dad’s mom passed away when I was pretty young. Sometimes Mom would just say it was going to Upper. This was Upper Sandusky for short, her hometown, a place not as much upper as lower on the Sandusky River, but never mind that. Even if Grandma didn’t eat it, others might stop by. It was for the relatives still left in Upper. To let them know they weren’t forgotten and they were special beneficiaries of her fruitcake.

The other recipient was the Wards. Father and Mother Ward were former employers of my parents. They ran a little motor court between Huron and Vermillion in a lakeside community called Mitiwanga. By the time my family spent vacations there in the 70s pollution was chocking the lake and there was dire predictions Lake Erie would become extinct. (And it would have, except for persistent environmentalists and the loss of manufacturing and industry in that part of the country.) Probably for 30 years my mother baked and shipped a fruitcake to the Wards. Even as a kid, I recognized this devotion as love.

So to all fruitcakes everywhere, Merry Christmas! and may you continue to live on, beyond this century, this cynical generation, and find a resurgence in the hearts and bellies of the next!!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Museum Hours--a masterpiece

In 2 days I’ve seen 2 films by directors with the same sounding name. Inside Llewyn Davis was directed by the Coen brothers. We saw a sneak preview at the Block Cinema in Evanston Thursday night for FREE. Crazy.

Then the next night we caught Museum Hours (by the director Jem Cohen) also at the Block. The same student was there taking tickets as the night before. I asked him how he’d liked Inside Llewyn Davis and he answered: bleak. I think I could agree with that assessment.

Museum Hours was a visual masterpiece. Like most memorable art, it was a revelation of the ordinary. Whitmanesque.

Cities of “hurrying, feverish electrical crowds.” “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than the present.” (Democratic Vistas, 1871)

Just as Whitman represented ordinary American life pre-20th C, this film displays the hollowness of the post 20th C. Ugly, urban landscapes beneath winterish bleach skies devoid of a sun. A film or haze settles over the city of Vienna—and over its population. Everything seems less bright. There is trash, hunchbacked elderly people attempting to cross traffic-choked streets. Worse yet the billboards—huge advertisements that stand out or blend in depending upon the scene.

It is a movie about seeing, being, dwelling. It is part Zen and part poetry.

***from IMDb
When a Vienna museum guard befriends an enigmatic visitor, the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum becomes a mysterious crossroads which sparks explorations of their lives, the city, and the ways artworks reflect and shape the world.

The guard learns to view his surroundings with new eyes. He takes her to places tourists don’t go, free places, spots where he has felt an emotional connection. So goes their relationship. Each has their own way of looking and the connection is in how they share their random observations—in the midst of death and decay.

Watching them on screen as they traverse the bleak city is a sublime joy. The small things, the ordinary begins to take on the inner luminosity of an oil painting. The dialogue particularly shines. It is spontaneous with a feeling of authenticity. Just as the Bruegel paintings of medieval peasant life transform before our eyes into everyday reality, we begin to see the bigger picture. Of how this life we live can at once be a poem and a masterpiece—if only we see it with renewed eyes or through the eyes of another.

The movie unlocks a treasury of linked images, connections between art and the art of life, between the real and unreal, the senses and sensual aesthetic. One is truly amazed that unbeknownst to them they are living a timelessness as it were or animated still life.

On another note I urge you as the holiday approaches—yay! as it is already upon some of us—to reach out to outsiders, aliens, and strangers. Welcome the exchange student who needs a place to stay when the campus dorm closes down for winter break. The homeless under the bridge. The veteran of wars and elderly. Seeing the world through other eyes, awakens us, opens our eyes. Much like how Museum Hours did for me.

I’ll next continue this blog—reporting on MORE of the ordinary by a review of a new coffee table-size book of photographs taken in Uptown, Chicago in the late to mid 70s.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mom's Cranberry Relish

This time of year always stirs up a lot of memories. And one memory I had over Thanksgiving--actually people kept reminding me--was my mother's cranberry relish recipe.

about 5 cups whole cranberries
start with 1 cup sugar, but you'll definitely be adding more
and 1 WHOLE orange, the whole thing

I remember when I called Mom to ask for it--she made a point of saying, the whole orange. But I usually cut it up just to check for seeds and make sure that pimply thing on one end has been removed.

Way back when, before what we now call a food processor, Mom had a huge kitchen contraption made out of die-cast metal and weighing about 50 lbs that did almost everything. It was like a wood chipper. A WHOLE orange was nothing for this baby. It could juice a rock. She had attachments she'd put on--like she used to make her own goose liver pâté.The thing actually had more attachments than her ElectroLux vacuum cleaner--another heavy-duty appliance. They were all made out of old tank parts I believe.
She'd dump in the cranberries. Shhrrrr. Then the WHOLE orange. Shhhrrrr. Then more sugar than you might think--to tone down the bitterness of the cranberries and that orange peel.

That's it. No cooking and not a lot of fuss.

Monday, December 2, 2013

I just can't help myself

I just can't help myself--James Schuyler (my boy) seems to be saying in his poem "December"--

Each December! I always seem to think I hate "the over-commercialized event" and then bells ring, or tiny light bulbs wink over the entrance to Bonwit Teller or Katherine going on five wants to look at all the empty sample gift-wrapped boxes up Fifth Avenue in swank shops and how can I help falling in love?

My sentiments exactly. Every year after Thanksgiving I cringe, sometimes actually feeling sick at all the commercials on TV and how the Christmas season seems to be one big Black Friday blow out sale. I can't stand the big news always focusing on how many people got trampled at Wal-Mart or what the retailers are predicting. Where every Christmas seems to be about overdrive and going crazy with retail frenzy.

Then James steps into my heat, mind, soul and says it is so easy to be jaded until we see all the white lights or the colors or the carolers or one nicely lit tree and it all goes out the window, the cynicism, the angry tiredness, and I open up the door just a crack and let the season in.

Here is his simple "Advent"

Open my eyes on the welcome
rosy shock of sunshine.

Open the first little door
of my Advent calendar:

a darling hobby horse
on wheels. Open

the window a crack: and
quickly close it against

a knife-like draught. The day
looks warmer than it is.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Good News Update

I'm in this:
Click HERE for link to buy.

AND, my story "Exit 24" has been nominated for New Stories from the Midwest 2015 anthology. Fingers crossed it makes the final cut. Thanks to Stoneboat Journal for setting this up.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Frances Ha

I watched a very interesting and easy movie a couple of nights ago called Frances Ha. Wasn’t sure what something called Frances Ha was going to be about.

It was about this generation of—what are they called? Millennials? Stupid name. Stupid idea of naming generations. The Baby boomers are big on this.
Anyway, kids my daughter’s age, the ones just graduating from college, just out now trying to find jobs, their way, the meaning of life—or at least a place to live without having to mortgage their future, a future already mortgaged to forever college debt. Anyway, Millennials looking for an identity.

I loved the dialogue. So realistic. I felt like I was listening in to a phone call. Conversations seemingly about nothing, about everything. Reflecting a group that can’t be serious about much because everything is hanging in the balance. Haven’t they been told the world is going to hell in a handbasket? A generation forged by a Recession (just pretend it isn’t a Depression) where there are few decent paying jobs—at least for people with Liberal Arts degrees. Though I think even law grads and finance majors are having a hard time too. I think anyone not already born rich is finding their choices limited right now.

But that’s the thing about Frances Ha—she wasn’t even aware there are choices. She seems to flail from one thing to another, much like her resistance-style dancing comprised of falling and fake falling, twisting and turning. She doesn’t seem to know which way to turn next. After hearing about her best friend moving to Japan (her career and relationships appear to be way more solid than France’s) Frances decided to go to Paris—for a weekend.

Thus, more into debt and more lonely than ever. We cringe at her “mistakes”, the places she ends up, the dehumanizing sex, where no one actually seems in love, more like slipping into a moment, easily left behind like passing time.

Frances is better than this in an awkward, grasping way. We hope the best for her. For all Millennials handed a sucky future—economic and environmentally. A future co-opted by the Baby Boomers.
I’m not going to tell you how it ends. Rent/Download it this weekend—and have a Happy Thanksgiving (Someone is going to get the hatchet, just make sure it isn’t you.) !

Monday, November 25, 2013

This Burns My Heart

I am having the hardest time imaginable getting started this morning (now afternoon), this Monday before Thanksgiving break, this snowy day in the frigid cold, cold that has arrived way too early in the season with temperatures hovering in the low 20s!

I have things to do, but all I really want is to drink tea and stay warm. Even crossing the street to my office (I know I have it easy compared to some people) paralyzes me with numb hands and cheeks, my eyes constantly watering from the wind-driven snow.

Can’t wait to have time off!!

Yesterday I attended and participated in Chicago Book Expo—a fancy name for a pop-up book venue. It was VERY well attended and had top-rate speakers (take it from me; I was one of them!). I’ve already blogged about Aleksandar Hemon. So today I will mention Samuel Park.

His book, This Burns My Heart, he said was based upon life experiences of his mother. In particular a story she often told about getting her hair and nails done the day before her wedding. Park described his mother as a beauty—and she must’ve been because without doing anything special she attracted the attention of a stranger who approached her coming out of the hair salon and asked her for a date. You can tell she was an adventuresome lady because she actually thought about it, but in the end declined saying she was to be married the next day.

And so the two parted. But ever since that fateful day the story and idea that her life could have gone another way stayed with her, through what proved to be a difficult marriage. In her times of doubt, there always arose in her mind the road not taken. What if she’d gone on that date?

So Samuel Park wrote his story. Samuel Park published his story. He went on a book tour to the West Coast, near where he’d gone to school and at one of his bookstore appearances a Korean girl approached and told him—funny—our stories are much the same. My mother tells a similar tale of turning down a wealthy, attractive man hours before her wedding.
 Odd, thought Park. But then the same thing happened at another bookstore event. A Korean came up and said, my mother tells almost this exact same story.

I can almost imagine Samuel Park’s horror. What’s going on?! I’d be afraid of being accused of plagiarism or stealing someone else’s idea. But eventually he came to see that many women like his mother had a narrative they told themselves when times got tough. That out there waiting for them was another life. Possibly a better one. But, nevertheless, they had had a choice and even if the life they chose wasn’t perfect, they’d made their bed and slept in it and probably made it up afterwards.

It’s nice to think that our one life is actually made up of many bends and turns, not a straight line. And that perhaps running parallel to what is now is another course, the road not taken, the relationship left unexplored, the plane ticket not redeemed, the meal left uneaten. Myriads of possibilities. The mirror with facets for all perspectives.

As a person who writes memoir and blogs about memoir, I found all of this fascinating. The book he wrote once upon a time about his mother’s life experiences, about her once-upon-a-time, was nothing but a fairy tale. It is like a hall of mirrors. Non-fiction fiction.

I look forward to reading this book. It doesn’t matter what’s up or down, real or real-ish, memoir, memory, or memoirous.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Media Overkill

Have you heard?

It’s been 50 years since Kennedy’s assassination. JFK.

Sorry I’m not trying to be sarcastic, and I think I touched upon this during the anniversary of King’s speech and the march on Washington. There is just so much media saturation of these commemorative moments that it suddenly turns into something else.

Probably how Lincoln’s birthday has degenerated into a time to sell cars or mattresses or bedroom furniture.

No one remembers what Thanksgiving is about, because it’s been transformed into the day before Black Friday—and today I read that even Black Friday is getting a make-over because now retailers want to promote the weekend BEFORE Thanksgiving as the big retail day.


So back to the grassy knoll and media overkill. I tuned into PBS last week for a Frontline special on Oswald and the assassination. I really respect public television and Frontline documentaries—but was there overkill? Yeah. I probably saw in 50 minutes Kennedy’s head explode eleven times. Each time I flinched and put my hand up.

It reminded me of the frequency of TV rolling the images of the Boston Marathon bombing. Is it ingrained in your imagination now also? So that if even verbally prompted by the words Boston Marathon bombing our brains roll the footage—that one guy falling to the ground as a result of the contusive blast and the look on his face.

I believe that media overkill actually robs this time of remembering of its impact. Right now I bet you anything some twenty-something is thinking—Geez hurry up and get over it ’cause I got another show to watch.

Who knows? But I suspect the momentousness of what happened that day is surely lost on them—reduced to the same level as a mattress blow-out sale.

Maybe like how I felt that days so long ago—shocked that my morning of regular programming has been interrupted by footage of a black hearse and a very sad woman with a veil over her face with two young children. I remember most the two kids, wondering, as any child close to their age might, what was happening?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Chicago Book Expo, Nov. 24, 2013

The Chicago Book Expo is a pop-up bookstore and literary fair open to the public being held on Sunday, November 24, 2013, in the Uptown neighborhood from 11am-5pm at St. Augustine College, 1345 W. Argyle in Chicago.

I'll be presenting at this @ 4 pm.

Pop-Up Memoir, Jane Hertenstein
In this pop-up book venue, Jane Hertenstein, author of numerous flashes, will guide participants through a lively workshop of isolating a memory (your first apartment! the one who got away!) and helping you to shape your own mini-memoir.

Hope to see some familiar faces: like Aleksander Hemon who will also be presenting opposite of me on the schedule--drat. Aleksandar Hemon: The Book of My Lives [Chaplin Hall]

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Month of Birthdays

I just got over my birthday--it sounds like a sickness. Actually it's a plague.

The first week in November brings about 7 birthdays that need to be observed. Not just a Facebook quickie, but card-worthy. If not even out to eat necessary.

So for the third time this week I was fêted--even as I fêted and lauded others.

While at the same time Christmas keeps coming soon. Maybe it is the desperation of retailers who this year have to contend with a "late" Thanksgiving--throwing everything off. But the past two days, days out celebrating, I've heard Christmas music playing in the stores and walked through Macy's where the windows are decorated and the floors displays are all about the "holiday."

A little sad really. That things do no have a time for every season. The seasons all get rushed. No wonder people feel crazy. Global warming and our own internal clocks are throwing the planet off-kilter.

Or maybe I'm getting old. The years keep rushing by. And the only people who seem to notice and long for the days when Halloween was Halloween and Valentine's Day didn't come until February, are people my age.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s latest movie (I loved Away From Her, Julie Christie was transcendent!) is right up the Memoirous alley. One one level it is a young woman’s exploration of her own creation myth while on another level it is about how a talented director chooses to edit—what to leave in and what to take out of the story of her own life. The film is a mirror with many facets. It is also smoke and mirror—as a viewer we’re not sure what is real. Sort of in the same boat as Polley as she proceeded with this endlessly puzzling project.

Once again truth is a mystery and memory is only one part of the whole.

At one point in the film, toward the end, when we think (as a viewer) all of it has been told, there are no more revelations, her brother asks into the camera: What is this movie about? And Polley stumbles for a succinct answer. “It is about memory and how we tell the story of our life.” She goes on to relate that she chose to focus on the discrepancies, where each character in the film, in the play of her story/life/history tells their side, what they know for sure. Which doesn’t always jive with the last witness interviewed. She opines that truth is ephemeral, hard to pin down.


“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion...like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” These words by Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace) comprise the very first lines we hear in Stories We Tell, and they more or less sum up what is to come.

The film centers on Diane, Polley’s mother, an actress herself, who died when Polley was age 11. That’s one story. She was beautiful, vivacious, and full of secrets. Again nothing new—we all have untold stories we wish to be left alone and untouched by the light of revelation.

Then there is Polley’s story, full of doubts and family myth. –You don’t look like the rest of us. Where did you get that blonde hair? The milkman brought you. The milkman is your father.— These aren’t statements from the movie, but actually the stuff I heard about ME growing up. I was the odd one in our family. (Surprise!) I didn’t resemble any of my brothers and sisters. My mother always told me the milkman brought me—which made total sense because I remember as a baby in the crib listening for the milk truck in the milk light of EARLY dawn—I’d lay there and make the motor sound until my lips were numb from the reverberations.

So I “get” how she felt growing up, hearing her older brothers and sisters joke about her and her so-called provenance.

Except that she decided to do some research and look into her birth. She had been a mid-life-change baby, born when her mother was 42. Diane died at age 53, taking her version of the story with her. So Polley set out on her own to reconstruct a time when her mother was in Montreal working on a play for 2 months—about the time she was conceived. Her father had come for a visit and the visit was conjugal, meaning her parents had relations. So there was no need to question the timing—except Polley needed to probe in order to set her mind at ease. That’s when she discovered her mother had had an affair.

In a weird coincidence Polley met up and had coffee with her birth father who spilled the beans, as it were. Much to ALL of OUR surprise. But actually, I thought it was coming. As a storyteller myself this revelation gave the film arc, explained character motivation.

But the loose thread of this revelation caused the whole thing to come unravel. There was so much more about Diana that needed to be told.

Now we come to where even I was fooled. I should have seen it coming or simply put 2 and 2 together, but I was too absorbed: Polley had me eating out of her hand, as it were. The director was directing me. I’d follow her anywhere.

We learn that about 60% of the movie are reconstructed scenes shot with real-life actors. We’re hoodwinked. Yesterday I blogged about War of the Worlds and how the format lent itself to audiences totally believing the faked news reports of Martians invading. In Stories We Tell there are actual home videos that lend an air of authority. What we aren’t told is that some of the footage, the majority of flashbacks, comprised of shaky hand-held recorder sequences, are not the real thing (Rebecca Jenkins plays Polley’s mother).

In fact I didn’t believe it until I re-watched the last 15 minutes to pull off a transcription of an exchange of dialogue and saw Polley in a shot where she was directing the actors playing her siblings and her mother. Why hadn’t I noticed that before!!?

In an interview Polley defends the idea to add fake footage. She wasn’t meaning to manipulate, pull a fast one, yet it is all part of the layers upon layers of storytelling that get interjected and overlap when we try to sort out the past, of WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.

It’s certainly odd, this blatant artificiality, but it’s also a construct that is genius in its self-reflexive design, underlining as it does the film’s argument about the blurring of truth and fiction in memory. Polley is no fly-on-the-wall; not only does the filmmaker include in the film behind-the-scenes footage of herself shooting and prepping the actors, but she does so with the interviewees as well, asking questions, answering questions, giving directions—all in a bid to expose the contrivances and manipulations behind such a  project. In this regard, Stories We Tell is really more of a documentary about documentaries, and one that calls into question the soundness and fidelity of the ‘nonfiction’ format itself.

Truth is a rabbit trail, taking us from Toronto to Montreal, from sibling to sibling, from home movies to family scrapbook and photo albums to—reconstructed images, actors standing in for family members.
“We were making a movie about storytelling and this was a version of that,” said Polley in an interview in Los Angeles prior to the film’s opening. “It was always part of the premise to not pretend that this was some factual thing, that this was as close to the truth as we could possibly get with a million different versions — and one of those versions is this film.”

Interviewer: I remember at the Sundance screening some lady asked “So were those recreations?” and I was like “Oh my god…”

Polley: I remember in a rough cut screening this really brilliant novelist who is a friend of mine, really one of the smartest people I have ever known and has written books about film. I remember at the end of the first screening everybody was talking about Rebecca Jenkins and how great she was and he went “Why is everybody talking about Rebecca Jenkins?” Like, “Oh, because she played my mom.” “What do you mean, she played your mom?”

Stories We Tell is history—what we know and don’t know, told from dozens of points of view. It’s my story too.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

War of the Worlds or War of Words

Happy Halloween!

The world is celebrating 75 years of war. The radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” by the Mercury Theater headlined by Orson Welles (adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel, a confusing bit of wells) is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

I bring this up at my blog Memoirous because of a documentary that was on the other night on public TV (American Experience). A number of people later reported after hearing the radio drama that they actually smelled the sulfur in the air, people reported witnessing bright lights, seeing ash on the wind. Fear took hold of their imaginations and caused them to physically react to what they thought was an invasion from Mars.

This is how memories can get blurred. We can be totally positive of something, that it happened a certain way. Of course, we take into account it is from our perspective, but the event we claim ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

Only to be told later that it wasn’t in that sequence, or that we have conflated it with something else, or that it didn’t happen to us, but to a cousin or our best friend. Even the most significant event can get mixed up—maybe because of its significance (indeed, the more emotionally charged something is, the easier it is to get skewed)—in the stewpot of our memory.

I remember asking my parents if they remembered listening to this broadcast. October 30, 1938 they would have been about 12 or 11 years old. Perfect! Though it doesn’t seem to me that age had anything to do with the listener’s gullibility. In fact, Dad related that his mom had been very scared. He didn’t mention if she’d gotten into a car and was trying to drive frantically away from any perceived danger. I don’t think they even had a car back then. They were pretty poor during the Depression down near Lexington, KY. Pop, my granddad worked for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. at the time.

I’m intrigued by how fear plays into our imaginations. Just like today, the media is shaping our perceptions. Government shutdown, Obamacare, or any other of the current news-cycle overload. Not that these things aren’t real. They are/were, but they affect us at all different levels, or maybe not at all in our daily lives. But because of 24/7 news outlets, the Internet, etc we are fed massive doses of news and sometimes we can get sick of it and because of it. Thus, 75 years hence, how we remember what’s happening today will likely be shaped by how much we let it affect us and our mentality.

Some people are going to remember being afraid and wanting to jump into their car in order to get away.

Another element to the public television documentary about the War of the Worlds 75 years since the Mercury Theater radio play was that they had black and white footage of interviews about the broadcast—from ACTORS. It was staged to look real. Pretty much what Orson Welles had done. He put one over on the public. The documentary was meant to do practically the same thing. Make the documentary seem more “real” by using a Ken Burns-style format.

Were they trying to trick us? Was Orson Welles trying to hoodwink a nation?

Who knows—the end-result is what people take-away. How they feel, how it made them feel.

So much on TV these days is presented as reality when actually it is all scripted. Sorry if I’m bursting anyone’s “Biggest Loser”/ “The Bachelor” bubble. The network will never go back to 1938 and being surprised again.

Thus, Orson Welles production was perhaps not the first use of, but an early example of “reality” entertainment for an audience. And, because of how REAL they staged the drama, the more it resonated.

This is something to keep in mind when writing fiction, even fantasy. Putting your reader there, making it tangible, helping them to smell the sulfur will make for a better read.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Cliff Dwellers

Beautiful fall-ish weather. The last two weekends I’ve been out on my bike—rambling not too far, but to entirely new places.

I especially love riding my bike through piles of crisp leaves—except I can’t ride through them without remembering something my sister said to me once long ago (I think we were both in high school) and I can’t think for the life of me what spurred her to think so bizarrely. We were on bikes riding down our street and it was fall and I said, I love riding my bike through piles of leaves! And she said in return: What if there is a baby in there?

I can’t remember what or how I answered her, because it was so random and illogical. Maybe I said something like, I’d feel pretty bad if I ran over a baby hidden in a pile of dead leaves. What I remember mostly is being very confused. So now, every fall, I ask myself that question, every time I ride through a pile of leaves.

So last weekend I went and toured Chicago Open House. My address, the building I live in is part of the tour in Uptown.

One of the places I stopped was The Cliff Dwellers. Atop the Symphony Center at 200 S. Michigan, the impressive lounge/salon hangs in the clouds—like a peregrine hawk resting on the ledge of a skyscraper—the lounge looks out over Lake Michigan and Buckingham Fountain, and, of course, the Bean.

Cliff Dwellers was founded by Hamlin Garland. I’ve read Hamlin Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads, a short story collection, and 2 books from his Middle Border Series, A Son of the Middle Border and A Daughter of the Middle Border. I was very impressed with Main-Travelled Roads and the author’s focus on stories from the period after the Civil War. We seldom ask ourself: what was life like after a massacre, after a huge upheaval, after a whole country has been rocked by division and war. Farmers came back to farms, husbands came back to wives. This from Wiki: Describing a young man gazing over a valley of hills and wheat in "The Return of the Private", Garland writes, "An observer might have said, "He is looking down upon his own grave". Garland was a prolific writer. Producing almost a book a year between 1891 and 1930, though he wrote until the late 30s.

Garland was friends with many artists of the period. His brother-in-law was Lorado Taft, the great sculptor. He started the private club as a sort of salon for fellow artists and creative thinkers of the day. From their website: Now, as then, it is a private club and functions as a non-profit organization for men and women either professionally engaged in, or who support, the fine arts and the performing arts.

Which led me to wonder: How do those professionally engaged in the arts today afford to join Cliff Dwellers? The Club offers a three-month trial membership for a one-time fee of $150. So for $50 a month one can enjoy conversation and ambiance—the rooftop deck is breathtaking—probably more for the summer.

Anyway, I think I should start a Free Content Club. So many writers and musicians and photographers are busy trying to build clients and followers and begin by offering free-content. It’s a lot like an internship. Where we tell ourself that it is only this one time and then “real life” will kick in.

I’m still trying to kick the free content habit.

So for one hour I got to bask in the Cliff Dweller and ate some peanuts at the bar and snapped photos from the rooftop terrace.

Our Club was named after the novel The Cliff Dwellers by Henry Blake Fuller. Fuller however refused to join the Club and does not appear to have used it after it was established.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

You, Me, all of Us

What we talk about
when we talk about
The Walking Dead.
Are we talking about
life without coffee?
Tea-colored skies, choked
with smoke and ash and residue.
Or are we talking about sleepless nights,
sleepless days, hell
no sleep at all?
Because there are no
days, only nights,
and we’re tired to death.
Tired of government
big, small, not at all.
Tired of media, talk radio,
Obamacare, who cares?
What we talk about
When we talk about
zombies, or the “other,”
the enemy, the devil,
the felon, the ex-con,
homeless, tramp, hobo,
homo, Roma, trans,
the teacher, the cop, the
man at the top, 
the Mexican, migrant
immigrant, ignorant, illegal,
alien, Martian, cosmonaut.
When we talk about
The Walking Dead
we’re usually talking about

Friday, October 18, 2013

Because we'll never know

Because we don’t know the future (think: recent debt ceiling, sequestration, even the 2008 market crash) I’ve always thought that it is better just to go for it now.

Easy enough to write. Time and money are detracting factors. Even still, I’ve tried to take advantage of my good health and high energy level. That’s why this past April a friend and I hopped on Megabus with our bikes, boxed and in the bay beneath, and de-bused in Nashville in order to ride the Natchez Trace. A few weeks earlier sequestration put a pinch on our plans. Bathrooms along the route would not be open or every other would be open. No matter—all systems were go.

I’m so glad. Because we never know the future. There was no way I’d guess then that my riding partner of 10 years would make a sudden move to Minneapolis. (Her husband’s desire to devote himself full-time to getting his Bachelor’s degree necessitated this.)

The last few days of this autumn season have felt raw and rainy. Today, though there is no rain, it is blustery and cold. Of course I knew spring would move into summer, and summer fade into fall, yet on these overcast days it is a wonderful memory to re-visit my 400-mile bike trip.

Of time and money we spent very little. I’m so glad we went for it without letting gov’t shutdown and pressures from our jobs/schedules rob us of the opportunity.

So on these dark mornings, I’ve been reading trip journals from this website: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/

Now I might not agree with some of the commentary, but mostly the philosophy of the contributors is the same as mine: people who have decided life is short and the need to experience what’s left. I’ve been surprised by the number of entries from retirees on cross-country bike trips. (I thought college kids would predominate the list.) At times there are complaints about knees, hills, repairs and breakdowns, but these issues are minor compared to the photographs of wildflowers, a surprise deer walking through a campsite, a nice counter clerk at a convenience store, a road that follows a river, the feel of wind on your face as you fly downhill.

This is a blog about memories. How especially sweet are those memories of one-of-a-kind experiences. Whatever you do—be adventurous! You’ll never forget what happens next . . . because we don’t know the future.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Uptown for All

I appreciated this article by David Byrne of the “Talking Heads” (I put in quotes because does the Talking Heads still play?)= If the 1% stifles New York's creative talent, I'm out of here because I see the same thing happening in Chicago. There are very few affordable cities left in America for artists, both emerging and mid-career. (Though Byrne does acknowledge he is able to live in secure housing without being too worried about the cost.)

He writes about how many cities are thriving because of tourists. People who come and visit and then leave while residents struggle to live within the boundaries. Today many of the creators of a city’s creative energy are getting squeezed. Many are no longer able to afford or are re-thinking how much longer they can afford high rents.


Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.



Gone are the days in NYC when Robert Maplethorp and Andy Warhol (The Factory) could afford a warehouse loft. Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler lived in coldwater flats where there was a shower in the kitchen! You had to pull a curtain around you for privacy and to keep the floor from getting soaked.


O’Hara and his buddies cut corners on housing and food, but always had money in their pocket for the movies, for drinks at the Cedar Tavern. They went so frequently to the symphony and the ballet that they followed certain conductors or the career of certain dancers. (They might have slept with some of these dancers too.)


The hub of energy that is generated by a core group of artists can become historic, a legacy. They eventually get a plaque on the front of the building that is now a multi-million dollar condo.


Byrne asks: Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian?

 Is there room for all? The alderman of the ward I live in here in Chicago is dead set on seeing property rates go up. For the longest time Uptown has been a landing place for all kinds of people, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the whole city. That is changing. Especially with real estate going up and rentals going condo. The few studios and SROs (single-room occupancy) left are being bought up by a group of investors called Flats. They just bought the Lawrence House with the hopes of converting a building that once housed seniors and people with disabilities to hipster studios for people willing to shell out $800 ("starting at") per month. The building will be wired for WiFi! There will be a “bike-sharing” program out front. (I’ve written earlier about Divvy bikes.)

Great! I love hipsters, but this doesn’t always equate into arty. Most artists I know are barely making it. I’m afraid that in ten-year’s time Uptown is going to look like other trendy neighborhoods where the life has been wrung out of it. Replaced by boutiques! Fancy tea shops! Places to buy granite tile and flooring!


In an article by Will Doig at Salon.com the best places these days for artists to move to are Detroit and Cleveland where city services are so stretched that artists are able to burrow in and create enclaves without a lot of bureaucratic oversight. Without “planning.” Without designating a “district.”

Hopefully, the powers that be will let Uptown BE Uptown, in all its colors, economic classes, and unconformity.