Thursday, April 25, 2013

The "New" Marathon

I've blogged here before about the Chicago Marathon (see other posts). It's been getting way too big and corporate through the years. The decision to run it is almost now on the level of mortgaging a house. People nowadays are paying quite a bit in order to be punished for 26.3 miles. But that's the easy part. The event gets sold out n a matter of minutes, okay a day, and that's if the system doesn't get overwhelmed. This year there was a major hiccup and about 15,000 runners had to wait and see if they were actually signed up. Many runners also double-paid by registering twice. A simpler on-line system has to be devised.

Once the marathon is sold out (about 45,000 runners) then the only way to get a number is to attach yourself to one or more charities that have been given a block of numbers for fundraising. How do I know all of this? Because I help promote Team CCO which raises funds for a local shelter. The team has all sorts of incentives for people interested in "Running for Shelter"--especially those too late for or locked out of Chicago Marathon registration.

Go here for more information.

Another event that I've participated in that ran (pun intended) concurrent with the marathon, was the annual marathon gleaning. That is right after the runners have passed the START line me and my friends fan out and begin picking up clothing off the ground. You see while the runners are waiting out in the cold, dark dawn for the race to begin they wear gear they don't care about so that when the "gun" goes off they simply throw them into the air or strip them off and leave them for other runners to trample over.

Sweat pants, pajama bottoms, the ubiquitous scrubs,
socks with the toes cut out so that they can be worn as arm warmers,

plastic garbage bags with holes cut for the head,
 blankets wrapped around shoulders. You name it. It's been tossed onto the ground. Some of the stuff is quality. Patagonia. Nike. REI. Northface. All kinds of technical shirts. One time a friend of mine picked up one of those Nathan belts where the runner had it loaded with Gatorade, vitamin waters, and other "fuel." Not sure why that was on the ground.

My husband and I have been used to in the past running around like raccoons pulling stuff out of the garbage, off fences, stuck in bushes, flung up into trees. Several times I've asked the runner point blank--hey if you're going to throw that nice jacket, just hand it over. And they did.

But the pickers have to be fast because there is intense competition. We're out there with the best of them. People like us with years of marathon experience, who come in and get the job done. Mike and I come prepared with huge backpacks and duffel bags, and then black trash liners for fast picking. You have to learn how to pick by feel, there's no time for a good survey of the article, either pick it up or quickly go on. There's time later on for a final sort.

I mostly went for the synthetics, the technical gear, name brands. My husband was continually getting bogged down with thermals and sweats pants big enough to hold a host of runners. Sometimes I couldn't imagine someone that big actually running a marathon let alone finishing one. Over and over I tried training him, but he insisted that super-thick hoodies was where it was at.

So this was our routine, our marathon day tradition. I believe it is all over.

After this week and the Boston Marathon bombing I cannot imagine having access to the start line; I can't see us being allowed to scramble onto the street with our numerous bags, climb over fences, and pretty much insinuate ourselves into the stands at the finish line usually reserved for Bank of America card holders (geez--what a scam!). Those days are gone.

The marathon is going to end up feeling like a NASA launch, with lock down perimeter barricades and high-tech security.

It's okay. i want the runners to be safe and all those families waiting to greet their loved ones. I'm just bummed because the world cannot go back into the bottle, back to where it was before bombings, planes flying into buildings, and some kind of naivety that was us BEFORE.

This October we'll have to watch it on TV.
Ridiculously Photogenic Guy

Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Lovers

I got the sad news today.

A friend of mine is shutting down his used bookstore. Though to be honest we knew it was coming. Not so much a market decision as much as one dealing with real estate. The owner of the building from which my friend rented had sold the property. Soon the building would be demolished and replaced by a high-end hotel.

Lately my husband and I, avid book collectors, have been uncollecting. Last weekend we unloaded two Rubbermaid bins at a church rummage sale. We tried selling them for a $1 and then settled for fifty cents. We kept to the side a special pile hoping to get $2 a piece. We didn’t sell any at that price and ended up re-boxing them to eventually sell to a dealer—five for $9.

We’re at an age where we worry about the future. Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, (what’s the difference?), money for healthcare we don’t have. We’re paring down stuff we don’t need anymore, trying to lighten the load of possessions that now seem more of a burden than a fringe benefit of a life well-lived.

The books, though, there’s another story. Some are easy to get rid of. “I never read it!” “I thought I needed the complete series, but now  . . . ” We see where we overdid with all the books. But others are not so easily dispensed with. Some mark chapters of our life separately and together as a couple. So much of our early marriage revolved around browsing used bookstores, hitting up estate sales, stopping at the side of a road at garage sales—always in pursuit of the Holy Grail of that One Book. One time my husband carried around New York City a 500-page tome he’d purchased from a sidewalk vendor. By the end of the day his shoulders hurt from a weighed-down backpack. We stopped at the Strand. We bought from guys with random paperbacks outside of Central Park. It was our vacation.

In Paris we visited Shakespeare & Company and visited with the ghosts of James Joyce and Sylvia Beach. We strolled the stalls along the Seine, the sellers of ephemera lining the Left Bank. We were crazy for books. Even in far-flung Albania, in the capitol city of Tirana a gypsy was selling books along a low wall outside a state department building. My husband approached with all the hope of someone desperate to believe, like the cure for cancer or Ponce de Leon in his search for the Fountain of Youth, that what he was looking for was just one book away.

But the reality is books are going away. We download and read on Nooks and Kindles. We scroll down or swipe with the flick of a finger, simulating a page turn, we read from screens in small bursts of words rather than curling up and dwelling with a novel. That 500-page book—given away; we couldn’t even sell it at the rummage sale. Who wants a door-stopper of a book anymore?!

Look at me. I write for the web. I sell short shorts—the latest thing in creative writing—flash. Rarely these days am I able to place a short story of 4,000 to 7,000 words. Ten years ago the average short story was nearly 16,000 words. I feel so old.

I have more room on my shelves for books that are quickly disappearing. What will Mike and I do in the future? What will draw us together?

Perhaps we can sit by the fire and talk about the stories we have read and those $2 books we now miss.

I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults. Letter to an unidentified friend (1489), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Good People Are Out There

I’ve been trying not to think about Boston. I’ve run a few marathons. I remember when the Chicago Marathon felt like a country race. Imagine—friends and family actually finding you at the finish line! Now with over 45,000 running it—well, good luck meeting up. But of course back then there weren’t the chips or ways to track using cell phones.

So I’ve been diverting my attention to other news.

Like this piece about late authors homes—now Starbucks!

Or this article about Flannery O’Connor—as if we needed another reason to love her.

Oddly enough I was just thinking about her story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", this morning while scrambling eggs. Actually I think I finally got the story.

It is the story of convicts on the loose hiding out in the backwoods of Georgia and how a family who had stumbled off the beaten path of their vacation came across the escapees. It doesn’t end well. But leaves us with a lesson—that some of us, no matter our good intentions, will fail. Our only salvation requires dire measures. We will choose rightly if there is a gun pressed to our heads.

Let’s just say I work with some people who fit that description. Nice, well-meaning, mostly. But sometimes they like to skip corners and get by with only doing the minimum. I don’t always handle things very well. I might need some classes in anger management.

Telling them how stupid they are never seems to work.

Thankfully cooler heads prevail and I don’t ever get around to telling them what I think of them. Also I came to realize last night that part of the frustration I’m feeling is tied to what happened in Boston.

Never once in all the years of running or running around on race day at the Chicago Marathon did I think: Watch out for bombs!

Now it’s there and I won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

I’m glad to get this off my chest. A good man is hard to find—unless brokered by fate—they discover within themselves compassion and selflessness otherwise hidden away.

Listen now to Flannery O’Connor read A Good Man is Hard To Find.

Reports of Marathon Runners that crossed finish line and continued to run to Mass General Hospital to give blood to victims #PrayforBoston

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The hare or the tortoise?

Today I trekked up to Winnetka to OCWW (Off-Campus Writers Workshop) in the cold, misty half-snow half-rain. I know, a lot of dreary weather adjectives. It was a multiple weather adjective day.

Christine Sneed was speaking. I’d heard her at a AWP panel in 2012 talk about organizing short story collections. Her talk today was about the short story and so I submitted a manuscript and, surprise, mine was selected for the workshop. It’s something I’ve submitted around, but haven’t had any takers on yet. The class really liked it and there were some key suggestions on improving it!

Lately I’ve been feeling invisible. I’m sure this all ties in with my artistic insecurities, but truthfully writing more and more seems like a young person’s world. Christine touched on this. She said she was somewhat of a late bloomer. Or maybe that she’d blossomed and it took a decade for people to notice. Anyway, for women of a certain age, we’re easily looked over.

Part of it is: I don’t look very arty. I’m basically the frumpy lady with mussed hair furtively scanning the room for people I know. Rarely do I have public persona. I’m used to hiding away in the garret, writing.

This from Christine Sneed’s blog posted at Ploughshares: “We are, unapologetically, a country that worships youth, and the sooner one can manage to be famous and brilliant, the better.  But writing talent, for the majority of writers, is not something that can be honed as quickly as a winning jump shot or the perfect piecrust.”

Christine mentioned she was 39 when her story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry appeared—about a decade after she’d finished her MFA. She’d been anxious to get her writing career off the ground.

I know, I feel the same way. Recently my critique group told me the unhappy news that my book on how to write flash memoir was 2 books and I’d have to spend more time with it, stripping out the passages that might fit better into a sequel on flash fiction. Okay so maybe good news and bad news. I now have 2 books to finsih.

Obviously, I am going to have to spend more time working on it.

More from Christine’s blog at Ploughshares: “So many of us want results as soon as possible, preferably an hour or two after we have finished a new story or poem or essay or philosophical treatise.  We want to be adored, adulated, serenaded to, stared at longingly, canonized, and above all, remembered and paid grandly.  We don’t all, however, want to do the necessary hard work that such emotional tributes usually require.  The harsh truth is, for most of us, it won’t happen overnight.”

She went on: “Alice Munro was in her late thirties when she published her first book, The Dance of the Happy Shades.  She had married, divorced, raised children, and in the interstices, managed to find a few hours to write stories.  Carol Shields was almost sixty when The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer and earned her a much larger readership than she had previously claimed.  Similarly, the marvelous British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald was starting her seventh decade when she published her first novel, The Golden Child, in 1977.”

These are all women of a certain age who probably worked beneath a cloak of invisibility. As we know the race does not always go to the swift, it is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is about putting one foot in front of the other, one word after another, one paragraph at a time. It’s about doing our best.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

New Work!

I'm on page 46! CLICK HERE

The Happy Couple by Gessy Alvarez
Distance by Susan Tepper
Cents of Wonder Rhymes with Orange by David S. Atkinson
Cul-de-Sacs & Blindfolds by Ahimaaz Rajesh
Works by Howie Good
Huge Things Happen by Meg Tuite
The Pissing Man by Tom Barlow
Fly Away by Jane Hoppen
The Chicken Sees by Monique Roussel
Works by Kyle Hemmings
Bubbled Up All Over by Kate LaDew
Dream Maker by Robert Vaughan
Living Alone by Joe Jatcko
Death Car Girl by Brandon French
Sabeen by MaryAnne Kolton
Legacy by JP Reese
A Few Things He Didn’t Mention by Josepha Gutelius
Nelson by Jason DeYoung
Works by Jocelyn Crawley

Monday, April 8, 2013

Far From the Tree

Things that once seemed settled are now thrown into jeopardy. This is how it feels right now to be a woman. Unbelievably I am seeing the dismantling of women’s reproductive rights taking place state-wide across the United States.

Was it last week North Dakota passed an extremely limited abortion bill?

This weekend Kansas did the same. The bill is before the governor and is expected to be signed soon. In addition the bill “spells out in detail what information doctors must provide to patients seeking abortions.” Really? How does that work? At what point did the Republican legislature go to medical school.

I also wrote last year about Wisconsin Republican State Rep. Don “White” Pridemore, who was co-sponsoring a bill with State Sen. Glenn Grothman with language equating single parenting with child abuse, saying that women in even abusive relationships should seek options other than divorce. READ What is in the Cheese these Wisconsin legistators are eating?

I feel we are entering a dark period for women and for women’s voices to be heard. The sound I’m hearing is that of doors slamming shut.

I understand that there are many decisions parents must make these days. It isn’t as easy as it was when I was born or when I was pregnant with my daughter. Moms and Dads today can choose testing to determine birth defects and spot any signs of trouble before the child is born. These tests have been getting better and better at predicting the viability and diagnosing the genetic makeup of a prenatal infant. I cannot imagine how painful it must be to get bad news and how hard the decision must be for these parents.

I’ve read memoirs by parents with special needs children and they are heartbreaking and all-consuming in their love and attention. Emily Rapp, has eloquently written about her young son born with Tay-Sachs disease in The Still Point of the Turning World. Her son Ronan recently passed away. My friend Rebecca Hill blogs about her family, especially how they deal with Jude and his array of health complications. She manages to by angry and funny at the same time.

All this to say: it’s scary.

I started reading a five-hundred page book this weekend. And am halfway through it. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, a psychologist that has studied issues of identity. The book is about caring for children that are nothing like the parents. Straight parents dealing with a gay or transgendered child or happy, expectant parents facing the birth of a disfigured or mentally disabled child. The stories in the book are like a car wreck—I can’t help but keep reading even as I am sad and sorry for this world of woe. Solomon as a psychologist doesn’t try to offer solutions or tips on childrearing. What he’s done is present cases, in many of the examples the parent’s involvement has been heroic, but also where physically and emotionally there is nothing more they can do to “change” the child. He also argues if the person needs to be changed. Does every deaf child need cochlear implants? What happens to deaf culture if all newborns receive intervention? These are ethical questions.

If you could make your child “normal” would you?

Well that begs the question of what’s normal and what’s not. Of course the parents love their son/daughter, but not all the heartache that has come bundled up with them—except some of the parents interviewed admit that they are better people because of their experiences. Most would not change a thing about their loved one.

What if your child is nothing like you?

Throughout the book, without being preachy, Solomon acknowledges that these parents had choices. Some were counseled to abort, or at birth to give away their “mongoloid” or imperfect child, some were judged for continuing to persist with treatment or advocate for rights or funds—all the expense!

And, of course, for many of the parents there wasn’t any pay back. Their son or daughter didn’t get better, crack the autistic code or emerge, or stop biting or hitting or smearing feces. Some told stories of placing the child out, finding a residential home better suited to their child or young adult. All of them accepted the consequences of their decision.

That’s where I’m at halfway through—and it isn’t a cheery read. The parents interviewed for the book, whether wealthy or poor, in the city or from West Virginia, the Jae Davises of Lancaster, PA, they all took what came their way, buckled down, and did what had to be done. They got their kids schools, they got their kids treatment (whenever possible, just finished schizophrenia chapter, and that was pretty depressing), they gave their kids a start.

Far From the Tree though is ultimately about identity. That they are not their kids and their kids many not be them. And, ultimately, the moral is no matter if we see our self in our offspring or can relate to the “other” in him/her/intersex we are still required to help them or find them help. The parents interviewed are not saints. “At one point, the affectionate mother of two autistic teen-agers confesses, ‘My husband will sometimes say, ‘Would you marry me again?’ I say, Yeah, but not with the kids. Had we known what we know now, we wouldn’t have done it.’ ” Or this “we meet Julia, who went into sudden, violent labor with her second child at thirty-eight weeks. The baby, Imogen, was born amid the blood of a hemorrhaging placenta, and survived owing to the hospital’s ministrations. As she grew, though, she screamed in constant torment. Julia’s partner suggested that they suffocate Imogen to spare everyone pain. Julia refused, but had similar thoughts. A brain scan revealed that Imogen had lost her cerebral cortex, where intelligence resides. Finally, the couple surrendered her to the adoption services. ‘I’m not the right mother for this child,’ Julia explained.

Back to where I started this blog: these are hard decisions—and best left to Mom and Dad to make, not the state legislature. God help us.

Friday, April 5, 2013

End of an Era

That’s how it felt yesterday when I learned the news that Roger Ebert had died. I was shocked because just the day before I’d heard on the radio that he had decided to slow down—yeah, but not die. He told his fans and blog followers that with the return of cancer he would not be checking in as frequently, that he was going to spend his time and limited energy on other projects and Ebert Digital.

Now to be fair—I wasn’t a fan of many of his reviews, but I’d always appreciated his writing. And his courage.
 He was able to pick himself up and write on! He lost his jaw, his voice, but never his ability to communicate. At his blog he wrote what has got to be the most loving appreciation of a marriage I’ve ever read—it actually made me jealous as I wonder if anyone would ever think of me as highly as he thought of his wife/partner Chaz. 

"Wednesday, July 18, is the 20th anniversary of our marriage. How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone ....." Roger Loves Chaz READ IN ITS ENTIRETY

The tributes are pouring in and famous people are penning memories. All I have to offer is an anecdote, a humorous incident that involved Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and me! Really.

In 1998 Orphan Girl my memoir of a Chicago bag lady came out. I was busy doing publicity and the publisher had me doing a book signing at the American Booksellers Association trade show which was in Chicago that year. I was scheduled to come on right after Wally Lamb, author of the bestseller She’s Come Undone. It was a heady time waiting around in the green room before heading out to the signing booth. In the green room with me was Roger Ebert.

This was before all his health issues. He was a big man, a presence. I was nervous and stepped out. There was Gene Siskel. Sheesh!

He called me over. “Hey, can you do me a favor?” Me?

“Take this in to Roger will you?”

I’m trying to remember what he handed me. At the time I couldn’t help but think the situation was entirely surreal. Maybe it was a white bag or a note—I do remember when Roger opened it. YOUR PRESCRIPTION OF VIAGRA IS FILLED. Gene was snickering on the other side of the drapery walls.

Roger Ebert didn’t think it was funny.
That’s it. My pathetic Roger story. Gene Siskel would be dead within 6 months. On Wednesday, February 3, 1999, he announced he was taking a leave of absence but that he expected to be back by the fall, writing “I’m in a hurry to get well because I don't want Roger to get more screen time than I.” Siskel died less than 3 weeks later from complications of another surgery.

On April 2 Roger blogged:
So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.

He died 2 days later.

Regarding his death one day, he stated in 2010:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
Roger Ebert was Chicago. He was a journalist, a philosopher, a critic, a lover of film. Of all the comments that popped yesterday at the Chicago Tribune obituary, my favorite was this:

The balcony is closed.

It’s the end of an era.