Monday, October 29, 2018

This Morning, One Moment

A maple tree flames, catches fire
Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, cloud, grass, outdoor and nature
As the sun slowly slips over the horizon
The cross-country runners lap the track
The world continues to glow
Shooting golden rays over the frosted blades
I am reminded of the movie, Dead Poet’s Society
Autumn leaves trigger scenes of prep school boys
Crossing manicured lawns, school books under their arms
Captain, Oh Captain, Robin Williams, the blue twinkle in your eyes
Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, Pitts and Dalton
Puck, Ariel, The Tempest, Midsummer’s Night Dream
Make your lives extraordinary
There will come a time when you must choose
Which way will you go, who will you follow?
Plotted on the horizontal and the vertical
—or to some other drummer
Will you disappoint the status quo,
Lead a revolt, stand against power
Run you own race?
Pay tribute to the ethereal gods of nature
Of poetry and dance—
Oh, Captain, my Captain!
Follow your heart!

In this one second of standing still the tree
Flickers and burns, and I—
I walk on, full of resolve and—
so many memories.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

How Do I Get Started?

I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they want to write. Great! The world needs your story.

Years later they are still talking about writing. You see, it's easier said than done.

Every day we have to wake up and face hard tasks. Ones that in our imagination seem easy, but once faced with them, we are overwhelmed. How does one get started with a great idea?

I recall one such dilemma I encountered. When I was in high school I wanted to start a club for kids in a housing project down the road. These children didn’t have access to the swimming pool or after-school softball or soccer teams where you have to pay for membership. They had very few opportunities for fun and organized recreation. My idea was to present games, crafts, treats, and mentoring.

This was before the Internet, before social media. How in the world would I be able to get something like this going? It’s not like you can just go into an open field on the property and gather up loose kids.

But that’s what I did. With a giant Earth ball.

I went to a place—maybe it was the YMCA—and told them my idea. They rented me a big, big ball. I’m not sure how I got it in my VW “Bug” and to the housing project. I wedged the ball out of my car and stood in the open field. My heart beat hard in my chest. My head kept telling me if this isn’t one of the most stupid things you’ve ever done, than I don’t know what. No one is going to come. My mouth was dry—I couldn’t even whistle.

A little girl ran outside, curious about what I was doing. I mean little. She was height challenged. So probably older than she looked. I told her to go get her brothers and sisters. She ran away. Well that’s that, I thought. After awhile (she had very short legs) she ran back with them. I told them to go get their friends. A few minutes passed. Well, that was a mistake; I should’ve just been happy with a few kids. But then, they ran back with a whole bunch of kids.

Now what? I hadn’t thought about what we were going to do with the Earth ball. So I made something up. We played tug-of-war, a kind of fatalistic rugby where we pushed it back and forth trying to roll it over the opposing side. I think we called it “Killer Ball.” Then we had Kool-Aid and I handed out little slips of paper inviting them and their friends back next week. Eventually I was able to use a community room at the housing project and do indoor crafts when the weather turned.

How do you get started on a great idea—you just do it. You step off into darkness, into the unknown . This isn’t quite like the Romanovs walking into a windowless room, more like crossing a tall bridge where there might be trolls—if they existed. How do you know?

Unless you try.

Image result for kids pushing a giant Earth ball

Monday, October 22, 2018

Failing Forward

Fear—we’re all afraid of something. None of us want to fail.

When I do my bike trips people are constantly saying: You’re so brave. Not really. I’d wake up every day while on my trips wondering if I’d make it to my destination. You see, I don’t always ride with maps. But, even with maps, I often get lost.

This past summer I rode my bike by myself from Amsterdam to Sandnes, Norway. I had to deal daily with different languages, currency, kilometers, road closures, my smartphone dying. Yet always by the end of the day I got somewhere. I’d put up my little tent, fire up my tin-can stove, and prepare a bit of supper. Always there was a tomorrow where I would once again wake up and question my abilities—and as usual ride closer to my destination.

In Norway on my last day, I made the decision to ride a plateau rode that is known for its difficulty. I climbed and climbed up past the tree line, up above alpine lakes—then when it came time to descend into the fjord below there were 32 hairpin turns on a single one-lane road plus one dark tunnel. I was scared.

But needs demanded I keep going. It was too late to change my mind. I rode down, carefully. When done I celebrated with an ice cream. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t always pretty—yet I was so glad to have accomplished what I’d set out to do.

“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

One Day This Will All Go Away

The other day in the car I passed a shuttered piano store. Like so many retail outlets, brick and mortar stores are closing up. Sears. Treasure Island. My favorite tea shop. People order things on-line. The tea I used to buy I have to order from Amazon. Virtually every place—in Chicago a metro area of over 3 million people—doesn’t offer the brand I like.

But how do you order a piano. Drones can’t deliver it. Those people on bikes can’t run it up the steps. My UPS guy already has a bad back. Certain things can’t be plucked off the conveyor belt, packed, and shipped at an Amazon warehouse.

Will pianos become extinct?

In a way they are already a rarity, and the people who play them. And the neighborhood ladies who advertise lessons. All of this will become a thing of the past. We’re too busy with our devices and pressing buy.
Image result for abandoned piano

Monday, October 15, 2018

Ann Marie--a memory

When my daughter was little we were always losing her shoes. Not sure why I say “we.” Maybe because if I wanted her out of the house and to school on time, I had to become involved.

Basically, I’d just look out the window.

We live on the 4th floor of our building and I can see down into the play yard below. That way I might spy her shoes mixed in with the wood chips under the monkey bars or by the splash pool area or on one of the benches. And, always, there would be Ann Marie sleeping on a bench.

Image result for cartoon, sleeping on a park bench
In my building the top three floors are reserved for low-income seniors. Many are only on Social Security. Ann Marie was queen of the house coat—a cross between a robe and an all-over apron. It can be worn over clothes or as it. Women of a certain age sport just a house coat. I’m almost there myself.

She was also afraid to sleep in her own bed. She was convinced someone was out to get her. There was a rumor that her late husband had been part of the Chicago Mafia. I believe she was merely paranoid. Either way, we’d find her asleep in the lobby, senior’s lounge, or outside when the weather was good, laid out on one of the benches.

Grace would run downstairs and outside and pluck her shoes up from under a sleeping Ann Marie without waking her. Eventually Ann Marie would arise and begin vacuuming or wiping things down—tucking used Kleenex into the pocket of her house coat.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book News: Cloud of Wintesses

--from a reader: When my mom lived in Ohio she made it to the State Final as a Quiz kid. All I could think of when I read your book.

At my book launch I had a diverse crowd. From my contacts in the neighborhood there were a few folks who used to sleep under the bridge in the park, and are now, thankfully, housed. A few days after the launch ----- approached me and said, “I read your book.” I told her it means a lot to me that she bought one (on her limited budget!), and that she’d read it already. “Oh, that’s nothing—I’m half way through reading it a second time.” I really did want to cry. I appreciate so much her reading it once let alone a second time. “You know who I identify with? Hassan, the kid they made fun of, an outsider.”

You see my friend grew up outside of American society. As a Native American she has struggled all her life with identity; how does she fit in this land, this country?

Thank you friend for your kind words and thoughtful reading.

Thank you everyone who came to the Book Launch Party and are connecting with Cloud of Witnesses. I look forward to hearing your story/stories.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Nostalgic for Muzak

The other day driving home listening to the Kavanaugh hearing on the car radio I became nostalgic for Muzak. You remember, that inane background music you might hear in an elevator or dentist office. Maybe the pain of the hearing reminded me of the dentist’s office.

Actually what I was yearning for were better times. Days where we weren’t confronted with anything more challenging than “A Summer Place” by Percy Faith and his Orchestra.

As a kid I would have rather been taken out and shot than admit I liked Muzak. I mean the euphemism was “Elevator Music.” The kind of characterless, benign stuff my parents listened to. Yet, there in the car I wished to travel back fifty years. I wanted to be left alone. To not have to listen to a woman telling her story and a roomful of men dismissing her.

Now to be honest fifty years ago Christine Blasey Ford would not have been called to testify. She would have been given “Mother’s Little Helpers” (a tranquilizer) and told to go home and get dinner started. If it were fifty years ago I would be driving a station wagon instead of a minivan. Nevertheless, I imagined a sweeter time, where no one had to be made uncomfortable, where we could nod along with each other, and sleepwalk through our days—listening to Muzak.

I crossed from Evanston into Chicago and immediately woke up in this century. I kept the radio tuned to the hearing, while ranting out loud to no one.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Illinois Reading Council

Join me in Peoria at the 
Illinois Reading Council Conference on Friday, October 5

The theme is Read the World, Oct. 4-6, 2018
at the Peoria Civic Center

My presentation is The Rural Child in Juvenile Literature

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Lifters

Image result for the lifters
The Lifters
Dave Eggers, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018

Is magic enough to fix the morass of Middle America? Are Earth balls enough to stop the collapse of a small town? How can two middle schoolers stop the madness of grownups tearing their community apart?

These are questions divergently addressed in The Lifters by Dave Eggers. A young Gran moves to Carousel, which despite its “fun” name, is a place of desperation, depression, and insurmountable sadness. Carousel is in the midst of an economic downturn as is Gran’s family. Both had seen better times. Thus, the town is suspicious of new comers—hear any political echoes here?

Gran and his newfound friend Catalina attempt to prop up the town. This means taking risks, free-falling down deep, dark holes.

There are parts of the book where I seriously had to ask myself—why are these kids working so hard and there isn’t a lot of chemistry between the protagonists. Do they even like each other? But it’s cool to think teenagers are holding up the world, that when things fall apart—turn to a Lifter.

The problem of one small town, who has lost its manufacturing base and has literally collapsed (City Hall has fallen into a sink hole), is addressed as a global fight. The kids try to inject a maker spirit, as well as joy and peace into a chaotic town torn apart by fears and something called The Hollows (still not sure what it is, a big wind?). The town’s population has forgotten who they were, and the teens have to work to excavate the town’s identity/history.

 Overall, the book is about hope in hard times, how to rebuild unity and resilience. Something I think we can all identify with.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Early Reviews

Weaving fiction and historical events together, this book made me laugh and cry. The characters jump off the page. A great read for all middle school students. — Marilee Amodt, M.S.Ed., long-time Middle School Curriculum Resource Teacher

Cloud of Witnesses hooks the reader with well-developed, interesting characters and snappy dialogue. The story features issues faced by many middle schoolers—coming of age, friendship, loyalties to family and classmates--but is set in the backwoods of Appalachia. This is an important fish-out-of-water story about empathy and the dangers of painting everyone in similar circumstances with the same brush.
— Marlene Targ Brill, author of Dolores Huerta Stands Strong: The Women Who Demanded Justice

In this present era of unusual cruelty and persecution of others in America, Cloud of Witnesses provides a gentle reminder of what it is to wonder, to love, to experience suffering and loss, and how letting go is also a bridge to joy. Cloud of Witnesses reminds us of the simple and quirky yearning each of us has not to be alone. Such yearnings, young Roland Tanner suggests, offer both blessing and pain.
--a reader