Monday, December 28, 2015

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Here I am on vacation writing up a blog post on my Kindle which consistently wants to auto-correct Ta-Nehisi Coates, so forgive me if I neglected t to keep writing the name. I have finished reading Between the World and Me.

On the same day  news leaks out about another Chicago police shooting "under investigation". The difficulties of blogging on a Kindle have gone out the window. But, with Coates words in my head and the news headlines before my eyes I cannot help asking some of the same questions raised in this thought-provoking book. Virtually one long essay written to his teenage son. Of how to save himself, and still not be safe. That there is no safety.

I'm questioning so much. Yet, like Coates I feel a great distance between the world out there and the world inside of me, they have never jived. Perhaps this misunderstanding is normal for thoughtful, curious kids. The world of difference is color: I did not have to fear for my life while other writer-type kids such as Coates, Junot Diaz, Jesmyn Ward were in constant danger of being crushed.

So as I sit in middle-class complacency these last days of 2015 there are several families living on the Westside of Chicago making funeral plans for their loved ones. "Unintended victims" of what the police deniers are calling a tragedy.

Between the World and Me provoked a lot of self-examination. One question I kept coming back to and that I'll be unpacking in the upcoming weeks is this: Why during a demonstration for Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter, was I so uncomfortable?  I blogged about this eariler--about how I participated in a die-in where we flung "bodies", stuffed effigies representing people of color, victims of police violence. I felt like was was dying of mortification--especially when we stopped traffic.

I have NEVER been opposed to a good protest. I've been attending demonstrations ever since I was in college. Seriously--when the Iraq "war" started I was down at Daley Plaza holding up my little old sign praying for peace more than a couple of times.

But since that blog post and now, I have come to feel outrage. Not just a smattering of Black Lives Matter, but a soul-felt anger at the trigger-snappy injustice of cops toward those of color. C'mon, really, shoot to kill? Whatever happened to tasering, wounding, hitting them in the knees, letting people at least stand trial??? Giving them their day in court.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates is getting at is that the justice system is broken, policing has broken down. The world is too quick to pass judgment. I know Quintonio Legrier's and Bettie Jones of the 4700 block of West Erie Street in Chicago never had a chance.

Friday, December 18, 2015

What Would Happen, part 2

In a blog post titled What Would Happen I told the story of a man in my building who took a huge risk: He reached out to a refuge.

Now this refugee could have sucked the life out of my friend. I mean, how many times do you get spam emails asking for money to be sent to the bank account of a Nigerian prince. It happens so often we have jokes about Nigerian princes. How many times have our friend's accounts been hacked and we receive a desperate email saying they were robbed in Paris and need just enough money to get home and please send to  . . .

We're all jaded enough that our immediate response is disbelief. Why in the world would we be so foolish to actually help someone. Overseas. In a refugee camp. Poor. Basically unable to ever pay us back.

That's why when my friend Ted decided to write the young man back and begin a dialogue with him that the world seemed to stop on its hinges. The young man was a refugee from the wars in Sudan. A lost boy stuck in a camp in Kenya, and he needed X amount of dollars in order to go to school. $50 a month. Which is a lot when you are deciding to take a risk on someone you've never met.

Lual Pach Pach finished school with Ted's help, then he finished college with Ted's help, and now he works in banking/finance in the new country of South Sudan, and he offered Ted a ticket to come to Kenya for a few weeks. So Ted got on a plane and flew to Nairobi, Kenya.

At the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport he was greeted like a Prince from a most grateful extended family that has seen no end to goodness because of one man's suspension of disbelief. Because Ted took a risk.

Now is the time for all of us to open our heart, not close them, to refugees seeking the basics of human dignity. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Uptown by the Lake


I sleep between
the boats in the
harbor and the
shshsh rattling of
the elevated trains
rocking back and forth
on one side the
eternal hum
of traffic on Lake Shore Drive
and the construction
horn, bleating as if
through thick fog
a new platform
going up at Wilson and Broadway.
To the south, on the
strains of a strong
wind—cheers from
Wrigley Field, and if
evening, the lights
halos of hope, always
To the north the
coast curves and if
possible, if the sky
is clear and the air
washed clean,
the observatory at Northwestern.
And, in between, the pink
Edgewater, successor
to the famous hotel
demolished—who knows
Between landfill that
extended the shore
that lengthened
the Drive,
between train tracks
abandoned, fused, split
and merged,
constantly changing
but ever the same
the sounds and movements
of Uptown, by the

Friday, December 11, 2015

Happy Turkey Day, continued

Danny skidded into the bowling alley just as we were starting the second game. He grabbed the heaviest ball (I’m making this up) and bowled a turkey (I’m not making that up). I high-fived him after each strike and we all had a really great time. Actually a better time than I thought we would have. The lane next to us even asked us to settle down, we were being so loud. As if we could quiet the strikes and accidentally dropping our bowling balls.

Afterwards we all went out into the parking lot to find that it had started to snow. Not a lot, but a little glaze of it covered the windshield. Dad handed me the keys. “Want to practice?”

The parking lot was nearly empty. I took a deep breath that said now or never. I got in and turned on the wipers to clear a see-hole. Mindy waved at me. I put the car into D and felt the power of the accelerator through my gym shoe. I barely touched the pedal and the car lurched forward. All my training had been on class simulators. Dalton gave me a thumb’s up as I inched along. I circled the parking lot a bunch of times each time feeling less and less scared and out of control and a little more a part of the machine. My hands were at 10 and 2. A sweaty 10 and 2, but at least my knuckles were beginning to relax. Danny saluted me after I made another circuit. Dad and James clapped and jumped up and down. I think they were cold.

Then things got a little crazy.

I mean I really did know how to drive; I just needed to settle down. I gave the car a little gas and jerked the steering wheel almost a full turn by slamming on the brakes. The back end of the car swung clear around.

YESSSS, I was doing donuts!

Torrence whooped and did his butt dance. My heart was racing. Everyone piled in and Dad let me drive home. First we dropped of Danny. When I let him off he leaned in through the open window (We’d had to crack a window to get air in the car because the windows were fogging up. Too many people, I guess.) and said, “Thanks for the ride James.” 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Happy Turkey Day, continued

Later that night after a tryptophan nap Torrence and I prank-called Dalton and Mindy, which I guess technically isn’t prank calling since they knew it was us. Still it was fun to hear Torrence ask if their refrigerator was running. I’m sure he had no idea who Prince Albert was. He was like my own little Muppet repeating words into the phone that I whispered to him. He kept screwing up which made me laugh harder. If I wasn’t such a selfish only-child I’d have wished for a little brother.

Right away Dalton drove over after picking up Mindy. I was starting to revive after eating such a heavy meal. Meanwhile we helped clean up the kitchen. By cleaning up I mean we loaded the dishwasher. Mindy loved the crowns Dad made so I let her wear mine. It barely fit over her bandana headband.

We wasted a couple hours talking about what to do until Dad finally put our quibbling to rest by insisting we all go bowling.

Now, there is nothing I hate more than bowling.

Like what the hell is the point? Squeezing your fingers into an oversized marble that weighs probably thirty pounds and heaving it down a narrow track. It is an experiment designed to fail. And, fail I did. With great success! I don’t understand how to score, but thank god there’s an app for that. Except that overhead for the whole world to see was my miserable score. Like how can someone who bowls so badly be allowed into the place?

I sat there like a slug waiting for my turn and every time I rolled it down and the ball broke off into the gutter, Mindy clapped and said, “You get another chance!” Please, I felt like whining, Can’t this all stop?

Dad, of course, had his own shoes and ball in a matching carrying-case. He even had a cloth that he mopped the lane with. He’d strike (no pun intended, okay maybe a little bit) a pose of intense focus, staring straight ahead, his upper lip touching the ball, his other hand under it. Then, like a windmill starting up, he’d flail, his arms and body in a dervish, and by some kind of madness or stroke of luck the ball would be rolling right for the triangle of pins. The crash and falling of the pins amplified, stereophonic, all around me. It felt more like a battle zone than a bowling alley.

Mindy competed with Dad for the most contorted approach and release. She usually ended up on the floor after letting go. Dalton did everything perfectly—except his ball jumped a lane and ended up giving the people next to us a great score. Torrence surprisingly took the whole procedure seriously. Each time he knocked down a pin he’d whoop. He did a lot of whooping. Then he’d do a little dance that involved pushing his butt out and shaking it. He called the pins snowmen. “I got one!”

I thought maybe for Christmas I’d give him one of the many bowling trophies that come in at the Freestore and get his name engraved on it.

In a twisted way bowling was kind of fun. All of us hanging out together again. Like old times. Who am I kidding—old times were so far in the past that it seemed like light-years. I tried to think watching Mindy bowl—remember when we used to be on the same page. Twinsies, finishing each other’s sentences. Had we ever really been that close? Maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part. Mindy whirled, checked herself, then flung the ball halfway down the alley. Ding!

Her phone in front of me on the scoring table made a jingle noise. A text from Danny. I felt like deleting it.

Mindy finished and then checked her phone. She bit her lip and tucked the phone inside the bib pocket of her overalls

“What?” I asked like a neurotic Dalton.


Dad got up to bowl and Mindy took his seat next to me.

“That’s bullshit. I know nothing with you is something.”

Mindy smiled, then confessed. “Danny wants to come bowl with us."

Just great, I thought, the star football player wants to come rub my nose in this stinky bowling business. He’d show me and everyone else in the place up with his innate athletic prowess.

Then I thought—did I really care? About bowling? About anything? All I cared about was Mindy. Suddenly I wanted her to be happy.

“Sure. If you want him to.”

“Sort of. How would you feel?”

“If you want him to come then I’m down with it.”

She smiled hysterically and busily texted him. She looked up and gave me a peck on my cheek. “You’re the best.”

“That’s a goddamn lie.” I was quoting Fame and probably half a dozen other movies we’d watched together.

Dalton scored again—for the other team. They issued a half-assed invitation for him to come join them.

Dad rolled another strike. “That’s a turkey,” he shouted.

He was taking this Thanksgiving thing way too far.

“A turkey is three strikes in a row.”

Torrence came over and draped his arm over my shoulders. “I’m thankful,” he said, “for James.”

I wanted to say again that it was a goddamn lie. Everyone was being so nice and I felt like I didn’t deserve any of it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Happy Turkey Day

This week I am excerpting holiday related sections of a new manuscript I am shopping to editors and agents.
Survivor Guilt

After the high school principal finds his truck on the roof of the school, prankster James Tiller is sentenced to sixty-six hours of community service at a local homeless shelter. Between punking people on Facebook and giving the check-out clerks at Walmart hell, his life is seemingly one big practical joke—until James’ mother is killed when a U-Haul slams into their car.Suddenly things become very serious.

Happy Turkey Day

The director of the homeless shelter where I volunteered dropped Torrence off Thursday morning. Dad had been up since 6 a.m. working on dressing the turkey. I on the other hand was not dressed. I was still in my PJs. Torrence and I sat in front of the TV eating cold cereal and watching the parade. The one with the creepy, globular balloons. The one with Buzz Lightyear the size of a cruise ship. The one with a warehouse size Hello Kitty! The one where Sponge Bob clipped the side of a lamppost and Homer Simpson ate the Empire State building. Just kidding about that last one. Dad had us eat on top of newspapers like he and Mom did when I was a messy little kid, mostly because Torrence is a messy little kid. We had Lucky Charms and Honey Nut Cheerios. I know that was a sacrifice on Dad’s part when he would have rather served us Shredded Wheat bricks.

In the past Mom and I would have gone out for dinner or ordered in. The last couple of years I traded holidays between Mom and Dad. I don’t think Mom ever once fixed a holiday meal, let alone a feast. For some reason Dad was pulling out all the stops. Every pan we owned was in use and every burner on the stove top was occupied. And this was just for three people and one of them was a five year old.

After the parade I went to a closet and got down all my old games. I wasn’t even sure if all the pieces were there or the instructions, but we managed to play Candyland and Operation. Eventually we gave up on rules and kept buzzing the tweezers inside the old geezer and dropping Cheerios into his bodily cavities. The smell from the kitchen was overpowering. Dad asked us if we wanted to pull the wishbone. I felt like I was still playing Operation. What?

“You know. Make a wish and see who gets the bigger half of the wishbone.” I looked at him skeptically. Like it was that easy?

Technically we should have waited for the wishbone to dry out so that it snapped apart. We basically kept bending it back and forth until finally I let Torrence play with it. He hung it from his ear and then balanced it on his nose. Before pronouncing it smelled nasty. No doubt.

I asked him what he wished for and he said for his Dad to come home.

I felt like crying. Instead I told him, “Good job.”

Dad called us to the table where he had arranged a centerpiece of Centerville Booster Club black and gold pygmy pumpkins. He lit some taper candles. I taught Torrence how to whisk his finger through the flame without getting burned until Dad warned us not to spill wax on the runner. Apparently a runner is the skinny tablecloth running the length of the table. Uh, okay.

There were colored paper crowns adorned with craft feathers at our plates. I asked what we were supposed to do with them. Torrence, being a perceptive dude, knew to wear his. I felt about two years old, but put mine on also. Dad had a pilgrim hat perched on top of his head.


And, the food kept coming. I couldn’t believe what Dad had been able to accomplish while we were watching TV and playing games. Torrence announced, “Good job!” I was proud of both of them. Then we got down to making the feast disappear.
notice the broken heart

Monday, December 7, 2015

Roadkill--story running in Fiction on the Web

Fiction on the Web is one of the oldest running on-line story websites--coming to us out of the UK. Since 1996 it has brought out 3 stories per week and Today until Wednesday my story, Roadkill will be up.

Roadkill is a caper based on a true story
Lanie passed a dead deer. It was off to the side of the roadway half hidden by brush. In the span of a second she got an idea.

Click on the link above and continue reading ROADKILL.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Wassailing We will Go

This time of year brings its own particular memories—usually brought on by the five senses. The smell of fresh-fallen snow reminds us of sled runs when we were younger, the velvety taste of hot chocolate reminds me of sipping cocoa from my Santa mug when I was five or six years old, the ugly ornament half broken and losing its shiny luster is the one I am most fond of, the one my mother gave me that used to be hers. The lights, the carols, the yummy smells all work together to bring forth memories—some good, some not so good.

I remember one particular weekend before Christmas when I was a Girl Scout leader for my daughter’s troop. At best it was like herding cats. Trying to get a dozen or so girls to cooperate, for one minute to shut up and listen. We had plans to go downtown to the Museum of Science and Industry for Christmas Around the World. Does the museum still do this? It is where in the Great Hall trees representing Christmas in other lands are decorated. These days Christmas trees are not as important as what’s underneath them. Sheesh, Black Friday. It’s a scary world out there.

Anyway, in my squishy memory I remember having to change vans to accommodate the number of girls. We went from a mini- to a maxi-van. All of this last minute and mind-jarring with little girls voices blaring louder than the voices normally in my head. I probably was thinking I just want to get there, see the trees, and get this over with. Of course traffic was bad.

On top of this, it was the Christmas post-9/11 when new security procedures were coming into place. So when we pulled into the parking garage beneath the museum a guard came out and said she needed to check the van. How was I supposed to know that in the back of the van was a plastic bag with a decapitated deer head?

My husband had secured the van for us from a hunter just back from bagging a ten-pointer. The head was meant to go to a taxidermist’s while the carcass was at the meat rendering shop getting sliced into cutlets and steaks and little venison burgers.

“Uh, what is this?”

I barely heard the security guard over the girls singing Christmas carols. Jingle bells, Santa smells, Robin laid an egg.

“What?” I asked in return.

She wasn’t going to pick it up, but instead said, “This deer head.”

Then it dawned on me: We’re going to jail. I have all these kids in a van with a bloody deer head.

Before I could answer her, she waved me through. “I don’t even want to know.” The kids never knew either. We just sailed into a spot and clambered out, relieved to be at the museum.

Now in my mind’s memory I can still see these innocent little girl scouts singing at the top of their lungs and the freaked out face of the guard staring into the dead motionless eyes of a deer, the plastic bag smeared with blood and bodily debris. Those two images juxtaposed sort of tell the story of the years I spent as a Girl Scout leader.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Love is Paper

I was reminded earlier this week of something my daughter said. Actually it was a domino effect of little memories one after another. First my husband during an oratory he was delivering at church was reminded once of when our daughter was little more than a toddler and she was asked to clean up her toys. She explained as she sat in her chair upside down (this was not an unusual position for her; she often sat in chairs upside down, on her back or head with her feet in the air). She responded that she was being Mary and not a Martha, from the Gospel of John, Mary the one who dwelled with Jesus whilst Martha scurried about preparing food and doing necessary work. In my opinion Martha always got a bad rap.

According to her 3- or 4-year-old theology she was choosing the “better” way. When actually she really just needed to get down off the chair, right-side up and help clean up her toys.

His memory spurred me into one of my own. In this memory Grace is very, very young. In my mind’s eye I am changing her diaper. Albeit, I let her wear diapers probably way too long, putting off potty training until the last minute. Anyway, I was changing her diapers and she looked up at me and said, Love is paper.

Now paper is very important in our family. We love to write on and draw on paper. We would save huge sheets of it and make and tell stories while drawing away. Long trails of narrative and stick figures and horses and fairy castles and girls with long hair and crowns.

Grace was repeating something she had heard at daycare or from children’s church. Love is patient. In her world—what’s better than love is patient except when love is PAPER!

This particular memory has dwelled with me for years (as she is now 26 and living on her own). This week she plans to come over and “borrow” some Christmas ornaments to decorate her own tree in her own little apartment. All those memories we made together will continue to grow and morph and expand into her own set of memories. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Reflex Memory

All this week I have been having flashes. Memory flashes where I am suddenly reminded of something, and, then after another second, the flash is gone.

Like so much in life.

We had a baby, we had a little girl, we had this little tiny family. And then one day we are all on our separate paths. Maybe it is the holiday season that brings all this up.

I am remembering all the hub-bub and chaos of Thanksgiving and Christmas with a young child. You see things through their eyes. Or maybe that is romanticizing things a bit. At the moment all we feel is chaos. The memory filters out the stress and I am left remembering the wonder. The pure joy. Little elemental transcendent sparkles like snowflakes on rosy cheeks—but only for a second, before melting away, and disappearing altogether.

Each ornament, each stocking, each damaged school art project retrieved from the Xmas Decoration Bin pulled out of storage—each has a story to tell, some unintended spontaneous flash memory to give up.

This season take the time to sit down and write. Respond to those flash memories by jotting them down. There will be times, years hence, when you will be glad you took the time. When the babies are grown and the kids miles away, when the candles don’t seem to penetrate the dark night. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cracking Nuts

In my flash memoir workshops I exhort my students to work on their mnemonic impulses, to take paper and pen and jot down that niggling memory that pops into their heads and in the next instance is gone.

I had one the other day. Actually I get 6 or 7 in any given hour of the waking day, but they largely go ignored. But, this one, I actually wrote down.

Cracking nuts.

It begins smallish and then works on you. I asked myself: Who cracks nuts anymore? You see, it’s getting to that nut cracking time of year. And, on my counter I had a small bag of nuts given to me by a Polish man who said they were from his own tree over in the old country. This was around Marathon time when I was hosting. He also gave me 2 heirloom apples from his yard and those were the BEST APPLES EVER. So, I had high hopes for these walnuts.

Except I had to find something to bust them open. All the while remembering. Remembering how my mother used to force us kids to crack nuts like chain-gang prisoners consigned to the rock piles. We’d sit around newspapers spread out on the floor and crack until our fingers bled. Why didn’t she buy them already cracked? I now ponder. Maybe she was saving us money or supplying us with memories that will follow us around for the rest of our life.

Which then led me to feel sorry for kids these days who have no experience cracking nuts and pulling those meaty walnut halves out of the shell and trying to pluck that membrane out of the middle. They have no idea what this is like. So when I sat down one evening before a meeting in my living room to tackle the nuts, people arriving early for the meeting wanted to help. They all wanted to take a turn cracking the nuts. And, eating them. We managed to have the meeting—and make memories too.

Now years hence, maybe the young people in my living room will remember the time they came to my house and ended up cracking and eating these wonderful nuts from the Polish guy.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Latest--Brown Sisters

The latest Brown Sisters photo has gone up!

It is the 41st, Nicholas Nixon started this on-going photo essay project in 1975 (the summer I was 16). Every step of his series I can relate to, the life stages of these wonderful sisters. I've blogged abut them before and continue to be fascinated by the 41 images.

I wish them 41 more years!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Peace for Paris

I was riveted to the refresh button Friday night, trying to catch each news update coming out of Paris. It was unnerving. My husband was just there 2 weeks ago. Not that has anything to do with anything—except that more than ever I felt connected to Paris. I just hosted a family from France—not that they were directly in harm’s way, but to say I felt concerned.

As I do sometimes on this blog I’ll comment on social media. For and against it, like most of us.

Did anyone else notice that they received a safety check from friends in Paris? I’m not sure how I feel about this feature. I understand the utility of it, but am disheartened by the necessity. On one hand when there is a disaster such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, friends and relatives bombard emergency services in hopes of locating and assessing the safety of loved ones. The “helpers” as Fred Rogers called them are overwhelmed and if there is an easy fix such as that loved one pinging or checking in on Facebook to relieve the concern of others, then yes thank you for this tool.

Yet, I shake my head, what a messed up world we live in. That an auto-generated message informed me that Bastien Pourtout, a gifted photographer, was “marked safe during the Paris Terror Attacks.”

I also don’t know how I feel about those capital letters—for Terror Attacks. Like the news crawlers and logos that splash across the screens I turn to for information in times of Panic. It feels like a commodification of some terrible event that is happening right now, this moment. And I’m not ready for that.
Such as the icon tweeted out by Jean Jullien, Peace for Paris. 162.2k shares later: “. . . The world embraced it almost immediately. And now, not quite 24 hours later, people are printing it on T-shirts, on posters, and on flags. . .” To be fair he had no overarching purpose with the design. From Wired,

Did you sit down with this image in mind?
No, to be honest. I didn’t do any sketches. It was a reaction.
I understand being almost ashamed of the traction this has gotten and the reach that it’s had. But at the same time, is it not the role of artists to give us symbols of strength and solidarity in times like this?
I agree. I just …

This is a difficult tension to balance. But in the midst of the chaos that evening, it brought many people together.

For a second. Before everyone started using the blue, white and red colors of the French flag as an overlay on their Facebook cover photo and critics turned up the heat—what about Kenya! What about Beirut?

Here is how a good and wise friend of mine responded:
Tiana Elaine Coleman
I think our hearts are big enough to grieve for many people, many countries, and many sad situations that we encounter daily.
I don't want to dissect anyone's grief ("why them and not them? ", "why that flag? " ...).
I don't want my grief dissected.
I want to grieve for a fallen and broken world that keeps choosing hate over love.
And after grieving I want to search for hope and healing, and be a part of bringing them to a world in desperate need of both.

And, yes, she had the French flag colors over her pic.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Blurred Autobiography

Because I volunteer for the Chicago Humanities Festival I am allowed a few free tickets. This time I chose to go hear Pamela Smith Hill who is the editor of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography and Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life

Hidden away since the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder s never-before-published autobiography reveals the true stories of her pioneering life. Some of her experiences will be familiar; some will be a surprise.

Hill clues us in. Laura worked outside the home beginning at around age 9.Her and her sister Mary (before her illness and eventual blindness) washed dishes at a hotel her mother and father, Ma and Pa, ran. There were times when Laura was not safe. Pioneer Girl includes dark material, details of domestic abuse, love triangles, alcoholism, and a near-sexual assault. This was LIW first attempt at memoir writing and had an adult audience in mind.

It was only later, with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane already a popular journalist herself, acting as her editor, proposed that her mother write for a younger audience, gear her writing for children and principally make changes that would give the books more of an arc. This would mean conflating some events and other changes to make it more readable. So in the end they would be novels. Not memoir.

Some of these changes are minor. Such as a scene from the railroad camp. Laura did not actually go with Pa; her observations were second-hand, as a railroad camp was not a suitable situation for a young girl--as there was rough language and rough men working there. But to make the story more interesting she wrote it through Laura's eyes. Other changes might be shifting her age around to make it more plausible that she might actually have vivid memories of a certain time period. Pretty much after On The Shores of Silver Lake the ages of the girls line up and also LIW self-editing of material not suitable for younger children was minimal, meaning she included more from the original ms Pioneer Girl.

One of my favorites of the series has always been The Long Winter, perhaps because of the struggle. It wasn't all Ma making do and making pies out of green tomatoes. There is a certain darkness to that story, where Pa stands up and shakes his fist at the blizzard winds and utters a curse and Ma has to hush him. 

In fact we learn from Pioneer Girl that Pa was a bit of a scoundrel, leaving town without paying rent in one instance. 

The real Laura did not live a sheltered life, but was hired out to other farm families to work and as revealed in her memoir Ma and Pa had an offer from a neighbor woman to take Laura off their hands. These were dark, lean times and perhaps they might have entertained that offer as there would be one less mouth to feed. But Laura also represented an income; she brought money into the family. In Little Town on the Prairie she is sent off to to teach in DeSmet County, she was not yet 16 and Almanzo was ten years her senior when he was allowed to drive out and pick her up. For today's helicopter parents this probably sounds CRAZY!

Anyway the Little House books are an example of blurred memoir, done successfully. The franchise has earned millions for the estate holders (a whole other story). Why not then you? Try setting down memories the Laura Ingalls Wilder way--give yourself freedom to finesse the memory and make it work as a story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doer

This was such a beautiful book. Every word, every word was just so. But then I read a beautiful review of this book by my friend BethFinke that I asked if I could link/direct my readers to her blog. Yes!!

Beth comes to her review from a very unique perspective and has also found Anthony’s writing superb because—well, I’ll let her explain.

"I usually avoid reading novels and short stories with characters who are blind. Too many fiction writers portray blind characters one-dimensionally — we’re either heroic or tragic, bumbling or, particularly lately, blessed with super-powers.

But Anthony Doerr isn’t like other authors . . . ."

CLICK HERE for the rest.

“When I lost my sight, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

Friday, November 6, 2015

Lost and Found, part 3

This week I’ve been writing about flash, particularly memoir. Saturday, Nov. 14, 1 – 3 pm I will be giving a workshop at Chicago Publisher Resource Center, 858 N. Ashland Avenue,

Memoir today is being written as fiction and much of fiction is comprised of memoir. Flash is about writing small and using bits of your life story. This workshop will teach you how to take bite-size memories and weave them into narrative. Participants will be given examples of flash, writing prompts, and also a list of places to submit their own flash.

When I wrote the above blurb I was thinking primarily of a new book out by Lily Tuck which I haven’t read, but have been intrigued by since I read a review about it in The Washington Post.

The Double Life of Liliane is essentially an autobiographical novel. Okay, there’s a muddle. Which is it? Fiction or non-fiction.

Life is all about compartmentalizing. Except not everything fits. There are times when fact and fiction are indistinguishable from each other. This is a writer who is very familiar with historical fiction; she is the National Book Award winner of The News From Paraguay.

From the review:
Tuck includes often segue into relevant historical information — about street names, for example, ocean liners, news stories of the day — lending an aura of even greater veracity. All of this is further backed up and given added authority by the inclusion of old photographs.

At times there is a point by point match between her life events and the narrative, then come deviations. But, then, isn’t this history. We’re always rewriting the past. Seeing things through new eyes, another angle. Or to our benefit.

I know many of the things I write about in the first-person could be my story, but I’ve actually borrowed from someone else’s life. Or I might re-cast my own history adopting a persona. We do this all the time. We’re writers.

Right now—write a flash memoir in less than a 1,000 words where you blend fact and fiction. Tell us what you think happened.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Lost and Found, part 2

My last post was about a random bag of clothes close to 40 years old. Stuff no one wanted—except when they were returned to the former owner Patti Smith, she burst into tears. At the very thought, the memories the clothes brought back.

Consider other infamous lost items. There is a history of art stolen through the ages, later recovered. The current controversy concerns art taken and stored in Nazi warehouses eventually winding its way back to the original owners. Or whoever. Museums are full of objects “taken.”

I did some research and came up with stories of lost and found. Peter Frampton had an incident similar to Patti’s while on tour. His plane crashed—and his equipment in the cargo bay, or so he thought.

Another mystery of a missing musical instrument solved:

There’s a group that does nothing but scour old battlefields for lost bones in the hopes of, through DNA testing, returning the remains of missing soldiers to their loved ones.

Even a few days ago I thought I’d lost a file I’d been working on. I must have mislabeled it and it ended up in a folder called temp on my desktop. I’m not even sure how I recovered it, but I lost no time in renaming it and putting it somewhere better for the next time I needed it.

Poor Hemingway, he didn’t have the cloud. Or any other backup services. Really poor poor Hadley. You see she lost a valise containing every last piece of written work by her beloved husband.

It was 1922 and Hemingway was on the verge of a breakthrough. He’d been slaving away at his writing for months and months. He felt he was about to get a bite. Meanwhile he took a job filing a report for the Toronto Star as a foreign correspondent which took him away from Paris. And Hadley. After about a month he wrote to her to join him in Geneva. All on her own she decided to empty Earnest’s writing cabinet, even the carbon copies, and bring them with her on the train. It was her thought that Earnest could work on them during their holiday break. She stuffed them into a valise and left for the busy railstation.

We know this story does not end well. I cannot imagine what I would have done if I were Hadley—or Earnest Hemingway.

From: A Moveable Feast:
“I had never seen anyone hurt by a thing other than death or unbearable suffering except Hadley when she told me about the things being gone. She had cried and cried and could not tell me. I told her that no matter what the dreadful thing was that had happened nothing could be that bad, and whatever it was, it was all right and not to worry.  We could work it out. Then, finally, she told me. I was sure she could not have brought the carbons too and I hired someone to cover for me on my newspaper job. I was making good money then at journalism, and took the train for Paris. It was true alright and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.”

Gone. All of it. All his Michigan Indian Camp stories. Every last shred.

BUT, and here is where I am giving you, both my readers, a prompt. What if that valise hadn’t been stolen? What if somehow today someone showed up on “Antiques Roadshow” with the aforesaid valise? Re-write history.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lost and Found

Lost and Found

That’s right—someone gave Patti Smith her clothes back after 36 years.

This blog is about memories. How many memories are stitched into the clothes we wear . . . or used to wear? The dress you wore to your son’s wedding, your favorite sweatshirt that always gets rotated to the front of the drawer, the mini-skirt that got you through your darkest days after the breakup, that sheer blouse that always makes you feel ravishing, that hopelessly out-of-date tie that you somehow cannot bring yourself to forsake.

Who is it that said we are the clothes we wear?

But, styles change. Yesterday’s punk is today’s conservative. Remember your goth phase when everything you wore was black. I wouldn’t be caught dead in an 80s dress with poof sleeves. The free bins are full of fuchsia jackets with padded shoulders.

Nevertheless, it isn’t the style or even the fact that we once were skinny enough or bold enough to wear a certain item. It’s about what it represents—that young renegade, that girl who never said no, but always YES!!!

Once I wore a thrift-store find, a beautiful paisley sari, over black leggings. I felt so beautiful and confident . . . until my husband and I had an argument. I never could bring myself to wear that sari again. I eventually sent it back to the thrift store with a sack of other things I no longer had a use for.

When Patti Smith was handed on stage a bag containing clothes stolen from her tour van in 1979, when she peek inside the bag, she was brought to tears.

Forget the numerous questions or the possible recrimination: she was flooded with memories of that 1979 kick-ass Patti. This Patti:

From the Guardian:

A clearly emotional Smith identified the top as the one she wore on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in July 1978, and the cloth as belonging to her brother and road manager, Todd Smith, who died in 1994.
“Before long, half the audience was crying with her … [Some] were asking where, how, why, but Patti just put her hands out and said she doesn’t care how, she’s just so grateful to have these priceless items back,” a witness described in an online forum. “The rest of the program, after she piled everything on the podium, she couldn’t stop touching them, eventually slowly slipping the bandana into her pocket . . and proceeded to do a ripping version of Because the Night with her son on acoustic guitar.”

Today—write a flash love letter to your favorite item of clothing.
Prompts, flash, memoir, Patti Smith

Monday, November 2, 2015

When Is It Safe To Text or Tweet

Just like many of you this past week I was sickened—yes, that’s the word I would use—by a video that went viral. Viral like a disease that’s infecting way too many in our communities. A good portion of our population.

I think it’s called racial prejudice.

The same disease that drives some of us to download apps like GroupMe meant to spot potential shoplifters, but which turned into racial profiling. The same hair-trigger reaction that caused a shopkeeper to fear a really large black man approaching his store (he wasn’t even in the store because they saw him coming and locked the door) who turned out to be an NBA player.

The young woman’s crime: She was texting. Obviously other kids had their phones out because there are SEVERAL videos of this incident on-line. People text in their cars and they don’t get pulled over and thrown to the pavement. (I wish.) We are a society used to live-blogging, simultaneously walking, eating, and tweeting. Congress does it when the President is delivering the State of the Union address. So what is the deal here? How is texting disrupting a roomfull of students—anymore disruptive than say an officer throwing a fellow student onto the ground and straddling her?

Which leads me to analyze and question:
Times Not to Text, Times Not to Tweet
1)      when you’re black
2)      when you’re a woman/girl or variations of
3)      when you’re young—especially too young to vote
4)      when you are dispossessed (see all of the above)
5)      just shut up
6)      lastly, not in a classroom

Times to Text, Times to Tweet
1)      when you are white
2)      then you can be any gender!
3)      when you are privileged (how is it possible to be anything else?)
4)      when you’re young (because the old tend to be invisible)
5)      especially when using emoticons
6)      lastly, anywhere!!!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Flashcard Contest at Sycamore Review

2015 Flashcard Flash Fiction Contest

Judged in-house.
First Prize: $100, publication online, and publication on a Flashcard that will be distributed with Sycamore Review at AWP


Submission Deadline: February 1, 2015 (Contest opens January 1, 2015)
1. For each submission, send a piece of flash fiction of no more than 500 words.
2. A reading fee of $5 (submitted online) must accompany each submission.
3. Additional flash pieces may be submitted for an additional reading fee of $5 for per piece. Please submit each piece individually.
4. Manuscript pages should be numbered and should include the title of the piece.
5. All entries will be read blind. Information that identifies the author should NOT appear on the manuscript itself.
6. All pieces of flash fiction must be previously unpublished.
7. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable only if Sycamore Review is notified immediately upon acceptance elsewhere.
8. Each flash piece will be read by two Sycamore Editors, with the winner selected by editorial vote.
9. All contest submissions will be considered for regular inclusion in Sycamore Review.
10. When submitting, be sure to select the Flashcard Prize option in our Submissions Manager.
Once your work has been submitted, you will be redirected to our secure payment website. Submissions will not be considered without an accompanying payment.
If you are not redirected for payment, chances are you accidentally submitted through the regular submission channel. If this is the case, withdraw your submission and resubmit, being careful to select the Flashcard Prize option.  In the event the automatic redirect doesn’t work, or you have any problems getting to the payment area, try this direct link.
Questions may be directed to

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Feathers Will Fly

Rarely have I walked into a room where I felt an emotional coldness, a sense of dread, abandon all hope. Except perhaps a haunted house.

Through the ages there have been rooms. The grand duke Franz Ferdinand had a room devoted to his game hunting skills. Approximately 100,000 trophies were on exhibit at his Bohemian castle.

Wealthy industrialists have sought to have rooms reconstructed after the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Henry Clay Frick who made his money from coke (coal) had installed in his Fifth Avenue mansion panels painted by Fragonard, “The Cycle of Love”, with a drawing room designed around them in 1915/16. The boiseries, or painted wall panels, were designed and executed in Paris by Auguste Decour in the Louis XVI style.
There have been rooms inspired by Japanese aesthetics or by nature. Frank Lloyd Wright designed his house/studio around a willow tree that would eventually “grow” in the front entryway.

Indeed one can easily identify a Wright room or one designed by William Morris of the Arts & Crafts movement with its lush wallpapers and floral window treatments.
Or rooms arranged around a specific time period.Such as "modern."

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) decorated his congressional office Downton Abbey style—and immediately resigned for “unknown” reasons but largely due to spending controversies.

So there is a history of rooms—both infamous/famous. One such room is the Peacock Room designed by James McNeill Whistler for his patron at the time, Frederick R. Leyland, a wealthy shipping magnate from Liverpool.
During the early 1870s Whistler was a regular fixture at Speke Hall the Leyland country residence where he did pen and ink drawings of Mrs. Leyland and her three daughters. Whistler described himself as a “never-ending guest.” Not only was Leyland a patron, but a friend and Whistler was a favorite of the whole family.

Sometime later about 1876 Leyland “commissioned” Whistler to design/paint the dining room at his Kensington, London townhouse. Whistler threw himself into the work. Over the fireplace was hung Whistler’s painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, to serve as the focal point of the room. The room was actually under the direction of Thomas Jeckyll who was instructed to create a space to display Leyland’s porcelain collection. Jeckyll fell ill and Whistler took over, going above and beyond with his flourishes and expenditures. All while Leyland was away.

Whistler covered the leather wallpaper with a blue/green color and coated the ceiling with imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks.  He wrote to Leyland that the dining room was “alive with beauty.” This was the Gilded Age famous for its excesses. So who would be surprised???

When Leyland returned . . . he was shocked. At first Leyland refused to pay, then wrote a check for half of the amount. Whistler just couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had to get back at Leyland. Somehow he got back into the house and continued painting on the opposite The Princess. The birds on a background of Prussian blue faced each other as if about to fight, on ground strewn with silver shillings. Whistler aptly titled the mural Art and Money.

Whistler never returned to Speke Hall or to the Kensington home. From this point on Leyland and Whistler were bitter enemies. Money had indeed, corrupted both men.

Upon Leyland’s death in 1892 his widow Frances boxed the room up and auctioned it off. It was purchased by Charles Lang Freer, who took the room apart and reinstalled it in his house in Detroit. Later, upon his death in 1919 the room was again boxed up and sent to the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

Jump ahead now to the 21st century, to a Peacock Room re-Mix. Contemporary artist Darren Waterson explored the idea of creating a room, a physical installation the public could walk through. He turned to research what other rooms had been done in the past and was drawn immediately to the fracas of the Peacock Room. And to the broken relationship between the two men. Both of them never completely recovered. Leyland and his wife eventually separated and Whistler spiraled into financial ruin, mostly because of a drawn out court case against John Ruskin for libel.

Waterson set out to de-construct the room based upon his research. Not since Ivan Albright’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” have I felt the impact of humanities choices, the wretched state we are in.
Upon entering the room I felt the cracks and fissures wrought by enemies. There were shards of broken vases littering the floor. The once gilded room was ravaged by an intense rivalry. The beloved painting above the mantel, its colors ran, the face blotted out. The gilded spindles of walnut wood looked like melted wax. Time seemed to have taken its toll. I felt the loss of friends, family, reputation. Every surface told a story of disappointment, betrayal. Add to this atmosphere a haunting soundtrack by BETTY.

The peacocks on the back wall appear to be not only fighting but eviscerating one another, pulling out the guts with their long, probing beaks. There is gold paint spilt, bleeding across the floor. The dim, red-tinted lighting in the room contributes to the eeriness, uneasiness.

Welcome to Filthy Lucre, Waterson’s re-mix, now installed in the Sackler Gallery adjoining the Freer where the original Peacock Room resides. Money and art are a bad combination, evident in this new show that runs through January 2, 2016.